Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows - Isabel Vincent (2010)
Chapter 6. “The Billionaires’ Club”
THE HEAD OFFICE of a media conglomerate in Rio de Janeiro’s historic but down-at-the-heels Gloria neighborhood may not have been the most elegant venue for an important society wedding. But by the time Lily Safra got her hands on the guest list and the preparations for the 1983 marriage of her son Claudio Carlos Cohen to Evelyne Bloch Sigelmann, the nuptials would go down in the city’s history as the most luxurious and stunning society soiree of all time.
When Claudio announced that he was determined to marry Evelyne, Lily threw herself into the wedding planning with great gusto—much to the annoyance of her son and future daughter-in-law, who would have preferred that she not interfere. But it wasn’t to be. Lily was determined to create a magnificent party.
Clearly, Lily wanted to make up for her own understated wedding to Edmond by turning her eldest son’s nuptials into a day no one in Rio high society would soon forget. As most of those who were close to Lily knew, she simply adored Claudio—the tall and handsome boy she had once referred to as “Jesus Christ, Esquire.” Claudio was her first-born, beloved son. “As a mother she was totally besotted with her eldest son, Claudio,” said Samuel Bendahan.
Perhaps Lily threw herself so diligently into the planning and execution of the wedding because she also had something to prove to her old friends in the city where tout le fashionable monde still whispered about the Monteverde family tragedy. Not that Mrs. Edmond Safra cared what anyone said in Rio, which in the spring of 1983 must have appeared to her a quaint provincial backwater compared to the places that she now called home. Now that she was an international socialite and beginning to become a well-regarded philanthropist with her important banker husband she had little time for old friends in Rio, many of whom were too afraid to approach her after she and Edmond became part of what one old friend respectfully called “the billionaires’ club.”
Indeed, Lily now moved in more rarefied circles. The Safras lived between homes in London, New York, and Geneva, and they threw fabulous parties for their friends, who included the wealthiest Wall Street financiers as well as designers like Hubert de Givenchy, Valentino, and Karl Lagerfeld. They also made a splash with their philanthropy. A year after their marriage, Edmond, Lily, and their friend Nina Weiner, who was married to Edmond’s lawyer and Republic Bank chief Walter Weiner, founded the International Sephardic Education Foundation, which provided scholarships for needy Sephardic students to study at universities in Israel.
Despite his annoyance with high-profile social affairs, Edmond must also have been in a celebratory frame of mind when he arrived in Rio for his beloved stepson’s wedding. Three months earlier, in January 1983, he had made a huge splash in international finance when he sold the Trade Development Bank to American Express. The deal, which saw him sell TDB for $520 million to the American company, still had a few snags in it. For one thing, tax issues prevented him from moving to the United States for a year to take up his new position as chairman and chief executive of the company’s International Banking Corporation. So until the following year, at least, Edmond would be able to remain happily anonymous, cooling his heels in Geneva, far away from the hordes of journalists who had announced the American Express purchase on the front pages of the world’s newspapers—a state of affairs that must have made the very private financier cringe with annoyance.
But Lily paid little attention to American Express in 1983. All her efforts were focused on Claudio’s wedding. But if she thought she would dominate the event, she would meet her match in Adolfo Bloch, the Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who was the great-uncle of her future daughter-in-law. Bloch, who had turned a small graphic design business into a mighty media empire, insisted on holding the ceremony and the reception at his magnificent twelve-story company headquarters in Rio with its panoramic views of Sugarloaf Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, the building that housed Bloch Editores on the seafront Rua do Russel near the historic center of Rio was an architectural showpiece designed by modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1968. Bloch, who had founded Manchete magazine in 1952 as a glossy, large-format, celebrity-studded weekly that took its inspiration from Paris Match, had been a faithful friend to a host of Brazilian leaders. He made sure that they received favorable attention in his magazines, and even provided a sumptuous office for Juscelino Kubitschek, the Brazilian president who presided over the building of the country’s futuristic capital Brasília when he was president from 1956 to 1961. When Kubitschek died in an automobile accident in 1976, Bloch insisted that the public viewing of the corpse be held at his cherished building.
On the occasion of his niece’s wedding into the mighty Safra clan, Bloch was determined not to be outdone. Besides, he had another great cause to celebrate. He had just brokered a deal to add five television stations to his empire, and no doubt wanted to use his niece’s wedding to show the world what a scrappy immigrant could do. On top of that, he adored Edmond and Lily, which was one reason why he insisted upon paying for the wedding reception himself.
In 1922, Bloch had arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the age of fourteen with his destitute parents who were escaping anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine. Now, six decades later, he was dining with important politicians, European royalty, and celebrities. “For years, every ambassador who made his way to Brazil presented his credentials to the Brazilian president and to Adolfo Bloch,” said his widow, Ana Bentes Bloch, who had gone to school in Rio with Lily.
On the penthouse floor of Bloch Editores with its stunning views of the ocean, Bloch had also entertained U.S. actor Jack Nicholson, feminist Betty Friedan, and Michael Jackson, who had recently visited Rio de Janeiro to promote his wildly successful “Beat It,” which had just topped the Billboard music charts. Moreover, few successful businessmen in status-obsessed social circles could boast that they had shared a cafezinho with the American astronaut Neil Armstrong shortly after his historic landing on the moon in 1969.
There was no arguing with Bloch about the venue for his niece’s wedding. There was also no denying that the Bloch Editores building was a spectacular work of modernism. Bloch had spared no expense. The foyer leading to the auditorium where the wedding would take place was decorated with sculptures by Frans Krajcberg and paintings by such important Brazilian artists as Emiliano di Cavalcanti and Candido Portinari. The chairs in the twelfth-floor restaurant with its breathtaking views of Guanabara Bay were cut from rare jacaranda wood and designed by the country’s best furniture maker, Silvio Rodrigues; the round tabletops were made of the finest Carrara marble.
In the battle to win control over who could organize the most memorable party, Lily set about to complete her own redecorating efforts. Upon inspection of Le Méridien, a five-star, thirty-seven-story seafront hotel next to Copacabana Beach that would accommodate her guests, Lily decided that some of the fixtures were shabby, some of the rooms too small. She happily agreed to pay for the upgrades needed on the hotel floors that the Safras rented for their out-of-town guests. Months before the wedding, a construction crew set about reconfiguring rooms at the Méridien for Lily’s wedding guests, most of whom would not stay beyond a few days. The night before the wedding, Lily hosted a lavish supper for her guests at Le Saint Honoré, Rio’s finest French restaurant, on the top floor of the Meridien, where the floor-to-ceiling windows offered tremendous views of the Atlantic Ocean and the twinkling lights of Copacabana below.
Although she was eager to show off her grandiose efforts, she knew that Edmond would not appreciate too much publicity. Which is why she told Claudio to make “absolutely certain” that no one in the Brazilian press commented on her jewelry, particularly a rather large diamond ring that had been a present from Edmond. Claudio was extremely well connected in Brazilian media circles, largely because Edmond had installed him as the director of marketing for Ponto Frio, the company founded by Alfredo, his late stepfather. Although he duly informed one of his associates of his mother’s wishes, he was, as usual, annoyed by yet another one of her ludicrous requests.
“I told her that if she didn’t want anyone to gossip about the ring, then she should just leave it at home!” said Claudio to his friend Guilherme Castello Branco, who worked in advertising in Rio.
“I called every gossip columnist in the city and told them that under no circumstances were they to mention Lily Safra’s ring,” recalled Castello Branco, adding that he did not have to pay any of the journalists he contacted to do Claudio’s bidding because just about every media outlet received advertising from Ponto Frio. To go against the wishes of the son of Lily Safra would have been to sacrifice millions in advertising revenues.
“Claudio was my friend, and he was a great guy, but he couldn’t stand his mother meddling in his life,” Castello Branco said. “He was really nervous when his mother came to visit because she wanted to control everything.”
In fact, before his marriage to Evelyne, Lily did control everything. Claudio had been married to an Argentine dancer named Mimi. The marriage was short-lived because Lily was furious with his choice. “Lily didn’t think she was a good match for her son, and it was Lily, not Claudio, who ended the marriage,” Castello Branco said.
Although Claudio divorced Mimi at his mother’s behest, he continued to support her financially for years, said Guilherme, who was charged with sending regular wire transfers of cash to Mimi, who went to live in Chile after the divorce.
“Claudio was very solitary and very timid,” recalled Castello Branco. “It was difficult for him to find women because he always distrusted them. He never knew if they wanted him or his money.”
According to other friends in Rio, Claudio was so awkward with women that when it came to sending flowers to Evelyne—the first time he had sent flowers to a woman in his life—he needed to consult an associate at Ponto Frio because he didn’t know how to go about it.
Evelyne was neither beautiful nor royal, and her parents did not belong to the rarefied “billionaires’ club.” Before her marriage, she was a lanky brunette fond of parties and exercise classes. Like many well-to-do women in Rio, she had a personal trainer to help her with her daily exercise routine—a priority for many women in a city where their bodies are regularly exposed on the city’s beaches. Evelyne grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Rio de Janeiro with important family connections through her uncle. Still, “there was a distinct separation between Lily and the bride’s family,” recalled one observer. “Evelyne’s parents were not extravagant people, and at first they just didn’t know how to handle Lily. They were a quite normal Jewish family from Rio.”
Lily had once been part of a similarly “normal” Jewish family from Rio, but that was years ago now, before she became an international jet-setter and shunned her past and stopped communicating with her old friends from the city. It’s not clear how Lily felt about her future daughter-in-law, but she whole-heartedly dove into the preparations for the wedding.
Lily’s efforts paid off, and the event was considered a success. At the Bloch Editores building, the auditorium was filled to beyond capacity, with some guests standing in the aisles. The chuppah, or traditional Jewish wedding tent, was set up on stage, and the marriage took place under the auditorium’s spotlights. “An event like Rio has never seen and will never see again,” read the headline in O Globo, which devoted two entire broadsheet pages to the ceremony and the sumptuous reception where nine hundred guests dined haute kosher on imported smoked salmon, Norwegian salted cod, and Chilean sea bass. The Veuve Clicquot “was poured like water from a faucet” while the waiters and ushers were all flown in from the Plaza Athenée in Paris to take care of the guests, who included everyone from European and Pakistani royalty to politicians and Wall Street financiers.
The guest list featured the usual Brazilian luminaries—socialites like Carmen Mayrink Veiga and Regina Marcondes Ferraz, the former caught wearing the same black-and-white Givenchy gown that she had worn to a previous society dinner in Rio. Roberto Marinho, the owner of the Globo media empire and one of Brazil’s richest men, was photographed wearing a white skullcap and tuxedo. The media baron and Brazilian kingmaker to generations of Brazilian politicians arrived late, and was forced to stand for much of the nearly two-hour ceremony conducted in Aramaic by three rabbis, including the chief rabbi of Paris and Rio’s Sephardic rabbi Abraham Anidjar, “the most Orthodox of rabbis,” noted one of the society columnists for Rio’s newspaper O Globo. In addition to the São Paulo branch of the Safra clan, who all attended the wedding, Roberto de Oliveira Campos, a leading Brazilian economist and one of Edmond’s best friends, was also one of the high profile guests, along with the Israeli consul general in Rio, a parade of federal ministers from the military government of the day, and the presidents of all the big Brazilian banks.
But the far more impressive lineup was the group of guests with jet-set pedigrees—friends of Lily’s from haute society circles in New York and the French Riviera. Not to be outdone by Bloch, who insisted upon hosting the event, Lily chartered a jet to make sure that her own friends showed up. The Turkish-American record producer Ahmet Ertegun arrived from New York with his wife Mica, the interior designer, who wore the family rubies. New York society hostess Susan Gutfreund, a glamorous former Pan-Am stewardess, was photographed chatting with Italian-Brazilian businessman Ermelino Matarazzo. The wife of John Gutfreund, who was then CEO of Salomon Brothers Inc. and the most powerful man on Wall Street, must have been miffed that the Rio society columnist covering the event clearly had no idea who she was. In the caption underneath the photograph that shows her in a lacy-sleeved gown, her blonde hair in a discreet chignon, she is referred to as “Suzan Goodfriend,” which covered the pronunciation but not the spelling of her last name.
The Gutfreunds were probably on a par with Lily when it came to unbridled extravagance. They thought nothing of renting an industrial crane to lift an enormous Christmas tree into their duplex apartment along the East River in the days shortly after their 1981 marriage, and before they moved to their massive sixteen-room apartment on Fifth Avenue. Years later, when they wanted to impress the Safras, they rented Blenheim Castle, the Churchill family’s ancestral home in Oxford, to throw a party for them and several hundred other invited guests.
The statuesque Begum Aga Khan, the elderly widow of Aga Khan III and for decades a high-society fixture in the south of France, towered over Edmond in a photograph that appeared in O Globo’s society section a week after the wedding. Edmond, who was a few months away from celebrating his fifty-first birthday, is almost completely bald, and appears stiff and ill at ease posing for an unseen photographer in his tuxedo. Maybe the ostentation of the event proved a little bit too much for Edmond. He would probably have much preferred a smaller gathering of close friends and family.
Lily would have none of it. The budding socialite, who was nearly forty-nine, looked resplendent, although extremely thin, in a cream-colored gown with a sheer back. Her blonde hair was discreetly pulled back into a conservative but very tasteful bun. Friends say she positively glowed when the cameras were pointed in her direction.
“There were moments of great emotion, and such great luxury,” noted Perla Sigaud, one of O Globo’s society columnists, who attended the wedding.
Even those used to the excesses of the Brazilian upper classes were impressed. “The wedding was truly spectacular,” recalled Ricardo Stambowsky, a leading wedding planner for Rio’s high society. “The entire theater in the Manchete building was turned into a huge synagogue. A bridge was built over the pool. People talked about that wedding for years afterwards.” And to make sure nobody forgot about the event, Bloch ordered his editors to devote eight pages of photographs to the ceremony and the reception in the next issue of Manchete.
On stage, Claudio, who was just shy of his thirtieth birthday, stood stock still and somewhat ill at ease in front of so many important guests. In a newspaper photograph of the ceremony, Claudio is shown clasping his bride’s hand. The caption says he is surrounded by family, but curiously Edmond is the only family member who is visible in the photograph. Lily, who is standing at attention next to her husband, is obscured in the photograph by a white piece of paper from which the rabbi is reading.
Switching from Aramaic to Portuguese towards the end of the ceremony, the rabbis blessed the bride and groom. “A couple with such good roots will quickly bear good fruit,” said the rabbi from Rio. Later, Claudio awkwardly moved to kiss the bride after removing her veil.
The auditorium echoed with applause as the bejeweled and black-tied guests began to form themselves into a long line to wish the happy couple well. On the penthouse level of the Bloch Editores building, waiters polished crystal goblets, popped champagne corks, and readied hors d’oeuvres for the throngs of designer-clad luminaries who began to make their way up to the top floor. Dinner would be served later, in the restaurant, which was several floors below. In the wee hours of the morning, as the partygoers began to file into their chauffeur-driven black cars, they congratulated Adolfo Bloch and Lily Safra for putting on a great party.
None of the revelers could have imagined that they would all meet again, hours later, to attend a funeral.
THE WINDING ROAD that circles the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro’s upscale Gavea neighborhood on a lush mountain overlooking the city is difficult to negotiate at the best of times—on a sunny day with almost no traffic. There are large yellow warning signs proclaiming “Dangerous Curve” in Portuguese, and most experienced drivers know to proceed with caution.
Claudia Bloch Sigelmann, Evelyne’s twenty-two-year-old sister, must have rounded that curve in her tiny Fiat dozens of times as she made her way from Claudio’s sprawling house, where she frequently escaped with her boyfriend when no one was around to use the pool and smoke pot. On the night of Evelyne’s wedding, Claudia left the party at her uncle Oscar’s building in Gloria and drove with her boyfriend to Claudio’s house on the Gavea mountainside. Claudia’s boyfriend was so drunk that the bartenders at the wedding reception refused to serve him. At one point, the chef, Severino Dias, asked him to leave at once. Determined to have a few more drinks before heading to the Gavea house, Claudia and her boyfriend headed to the Hippopotamus bar. But they were eventually kicked out when the boyfriend became unruly.
Once they arrived at Claudio’s home, they went for a moonlight dip and smoked a few joints. The drugs mixed with the alcohol that was already in her system from the party must have clouded Claudia’s judgment. The next thing she did was to get in the passenger seat of the Fiat with a man in the driver’s seat who was not only drunk, but now stoned. They were heading to an all-night club in Baixo Gavea, a bohemian neighborhood at the bottom of Gavea mountain that was a frequent haunt of university students and artists.
In the pitch dark, Claudia’s boyfriend drove recklessly down the cobblestone streets that wound their way past the dense tropical vegetation with its bursts of colorful hibiscus flowers that hid the gated mansions and exclusive private schools nestled in the elite hillside neighborhood. By the time the driver could make out the myriad lights of the city down below, he was driving much too fast to negotiate the infamous curve that circled the university, which locals refer to by its acronym, PUC. Claudia may have tried to take the steering wheel when he lost control of the car. But it was too late. The Fiat crashed into a wall. Claudia was pronounced dead when the paramedics arrived. The boyfriend miraculously survived, with only a sprained ankle and a few scratches.
It was dawn when Guilherme Castello Branco got the call. He had just drifted off to sleep after spending most of the night at Claudio’s wedding when the telephone jerked him awake.
“It was Magna, Claudio’s secretary, on the other end, and her voice sounded terrible,” recalled Castello Branco. “She told me to call all the newspapers, radios, television stations, and anyone else I could think of to block the story. Claudio did not want the story in the press.”
But the bleary-eyed Castello Branco had no idea what she was talking about. “What story?” he asked. After being told of the tragedy, he hung up the telephone and, for the second time in a week, called every media outlet in Rio to keep a story from reaching the press. Again, he claims he paid no money to censor the news. A simple phone call was enough to halt any bad publicity.
The censorship seemed to have worked because while just about every media outlet in the city gushed about the wedding, there were only fleeting references to the terrible accident and the funeral, and they only appeared a week after the events.
According to an editor who was close to both the Bloch and Safra families, they went out of their way to make sure that the story did not end up in the press, partly because Claudia “was either drunk or on drugs or both.”
“The whole thing was simply too embarrassing for the families, and really too tragic,” said the editor, who did not want to be identified. “Can you imagine? On Saturday night you have the wedding, and then on Sunday morning the funeral?”
The families clearly did not want bad publicity to upstage what had been a very glamorous and important “happening” in Rio high society. On top of that, in a Catholic country under a military dictatorship, it would simply not do to reveal that the niece of one of Brazil’s most important tycoons had died because she had been under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Edmond and Lily heard the news as they made their way to their luxurious suite at the Méridien in the early hours of Sunday morning. Edmond, still in black tie from the wedding, immediately called his chauffeur and drove to the morgue to offer his support to the Bloch-Sigelmann families. He also took it upon himself to make the funeral arrangements. After the body was released from the morgue, the funeral was immediately scheduled for that morning. Many of the guests who had attended the wedding now found themselves at a wind-swept Jewish cemetery on the industrial outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, presiding at the burial of a young woman whose sister had just celebrated what should have been one of the happiest days of her life.
Inês Sigelmann, the mother of the bride, her tear-stained face hidden behind large sunglasses, had worn a flowing gown the color of pink hydrangeas for her eldest daughter’s wedding but was now dressed in a sober suit to bury her younger daughter. Most of the mourners were dumbstruck: They shook their heads in disbelief; they had no explanation for such a senseless tragedy.
“Life sometimes sends us difficult times, and I know that none of the well-wishers at the wedding had the words to express their sadness for what happened right after,” wrote Perla Sigaud in her society column on the Cohen-Bloch wedding, which appeared the following week. “I was hesitating over whether in the face of so much pain I should write about the happiness that occurred on the eve of so much tragedy. It was climax and anticlimax; euphoria and extreme sorrow. Life sometimes forces us to deal with the most dramatic contrasts. And we must learn to take from every difficult experience an important lesson in humility.”
But Sigaud’s rather poetic musings seem to have fallen on deaf ears, at least when it came to exercising humility. Here were two extremely wealthy families whose single-minded pursuit of wealth and status had been, and continued to be, ruthless and overreaching. At least that proved to be the case with Bloch. The media baron would famously overextend his reach after making his bold move into television on the eve of the wedding in 1983, and see his whole empire collapse a little more than a decade later. His beloved sparkling glass office building in Gloria where he had pulled out all the stops for the wedding of a lifetime, and where he had entertained some of the most important figures in recent history, would fall into disrepair. In due course, it became the property of the Brazilian courts and was auctioned off to pay the tens of millions in salaries that the company owed to its former employees.
“Everyone said that the death of Evelyne’s sister on the heels of the wedding was a terrible omen,” said one of the wedding guests, who also attended the funeral the following day.
It was a curse, others said—a warning of some unimaginable tragedy that would surely befall those families in the future.
For the Safra family at least, that was exactly what it turned out to be.
MONTHS BEFORE THE wedding and the funeral, Joseph Safra warned his brother not to sell the bank. He had even flown from São Paulo to Montreal, in the midst of a January deep freeze, to tell his brother in person that he was making a huge mistake by selling the Trade Development Bank to American Express. The final negotiations were underway at the Four Seasons Hotel in the frigid Canadian city, and Joseph needed to try to convince Edmond that what he was doing was sheer madness.
“You don’t even know these people,” pleaded his younger brother, who must have found it hard to believe that Edmond was breaking with family tradition by entrusting one of his beloved “children” to strangers who did not understand the Safra way of doing business.
But Edmond could be stubborn. Despite their heated discussions about the suitability of Lily as a wife seven years before, Edmond had gone ahead and married her anyway, even after the public shame of l’affaireBendahan. Joseph had also pleaded with him not to marry Lily. But in the end, Edmond refused, and for years after their 1976 wedding, the Brazilian Safras had frosty relations at best with Lily, whom they considered an opportunist and an arriviste.
But in many ways, the imminent sale of the bank was far more important than any woman. It must have bothered Joseph and the rest of the Safra clan that for the first time since the death of their father in 1963 Edmond had not consulted them over one of the most important business decisions of his life.
John Gutfreund, chair of Salomon Brothers investment firm, agreed that Edmond was making a terrible move. Gutfreund also took an intercontinental flight—from New York to São Paulo where Edmond was attending a bar mitzvah—shortly before the negotiations with American Express were scheduled to begin. Gutfreund tried to convince his friend to reconsider. A hard-nosed veteran of Wall Street, he knew that Edmond’s aristocratic banking methods would be mocked in a huge American company like American Express. American executives at the company simply wouldn’t take him seriously; they would find a way to subvert his power. The experience, Gutfreund warned, would be disastrous.
But Edmond had made up his mind, partly because he had developed the niche market in European private banking so well that he felt there was no longer any space to expand. “It was an economic decision to join American Express because he felt that the private banking market in Europe was going into a downturn,” said one observer familiar with the negotiations. “And here was American Express under Jim Robinson III wanting to develop the private banking market and turn itself into a financial services supermarket. At the time, it seemed like a good fit.”
Edmond also worried about the worsening Latin American debt crisis and the exposure that his Swiss bank faced as country after country in the region showed signs of defaulting on their loans to international creditors and commercial banks. Between 1975 and 1982, Latin American debt to commercial banks skyrocketed, and the region saw its external debt grow from $75 billion in 1975 to more than $315 billion in 1982—a figure that then represented 50 percent of the region’s gross domestic product. If Argentina and Brazil—two of the largest economies in the region—began to default as Mexico had done in August 1982, what would become of his own bank, which had made large loans to Brazil and other Latin American economies?
Edmond also offered up the usual excuses for wanting to get rid of the bank—he was tired of the pace, he wanted to spend more time with Lily and the grandchildren. These would all have been quite normal reasons for wanting to lighten his business load, but Edmond was not a normal businessman. From the age of eight, when he followed his father into the souks of Beirut, banking had been his life. Besides, what would his clients say? Many of these people banked with him because they trusted his family. Now he was selling the crucial Swiss arm of his business and his loyal clientele to a huge American company that did not understand the old ways, that would not provide the same kind of personal attention to their needs that Edmond had done over the years. Of course, Edmond did try to reassure them, reminding his best clients that he would still be their point of reference as chief of American Express’s international banking division. No, everything would work out fine, he had said. There was nothing to worry about.
In the end, it was Jeffrey Keil, the keen young treasurer at the Republic National Bank of New York, who helped persuade Edmond to sign on with American Express. Keil, along with former Republic executive Peter Cohen, now himself part of the American Express group, felt that incorporating Trade Development Bank within the massive American Express structure would boost the declining fortunes of the company’s own bank—the American Express Bank—and offer the TDB a safe haven.
After weeks of discussions with Keil and Cohen, Edmond seemed convinced by their arguments and signed the deal. He waited until the stroke of midnight on January 18, 1983, because 18—the numerological value of the chai, the Hebrew symbol for life—was considered good luck among some Jews. The TDB sale hit the front pages of business papers around the world with American Express executives gushing in print that they had added one of the most brilliant banking minds to their team.
Although they listed his accomplishments and his banking lineage, many of the reporters covering the story also noted that Edmond would not be taking up his new appointment as chief of American Express’s International Banking Corporation for at least a year, citing unspecified “complications,” a reference to his delicate tax situation. Although none of his aides voiced this openly at the time, there was some concern that an absent new chief executive might not get the respect he deserved.
A year later, when his U.S. tax issues were resolved, the New York Times formally announced Edmond’s appointment, noting that he would be taking over his new duties in New York on March 1, 1984. Jim Robinson III, the chairman and CEO of American Express, was quick to point out that Edmond had not been idle since the deal was signed in January 1983. He had been doing a lot of work, integrating TDB into the larger company’s framework.
“Over the course of last year, since we completed the combination of American Express International Banking Corporation and Trade Development Bank, Edmond Safra has worked very closely with senior management of the bank and the entire American Express Company,” he said. “Clearly we are fortunate to have a business leader with his banking experience and stature.”
But Robinson’s statements to the press couldn’t have been further from the truth. In the year that Edmond was forced to stay in Europe, relations between American Express and the TDB deteriorated rapidly. As Gutfreund and others predicted, American executives did not appreciate Edmond’s Old World banking style, which clashed with the massive American Express bureaucracy. Even before Edmond formally took over the post, American Express executives assigned to review the day-to-day operations of Trade Development Bank shook their heads in disbelief—they simply could not figure out how it functioned.
“TDB ran like nothing we’d ever seen,” said one American Express official. “It ran like an extended family. The management style was just Edmond, who knew everyone. It was very loose, there was no documentation, and only Edmond knew the structure. If someone wanted to talk to him, they simply picked up a phone and called him. It was about as different from a McKinsey model as you could find. Our attitude was, well, we’ll show these guys how to run a company.”
Another executive who was close to the company noted, “Safra’s a brilliant guy, but he needs to do everything himself. He’s not used to a bureaucracy. He insisted on approving every loan. It began to grate on both sides.”
But while American Express executives shook their heads in frustration at having spent so much money on a bank whose methods seemed a throwback to the nineteenth century, Edmond was growing increasingly frustrated with the way he was being treated by the company hierarchy. Used to being in firm control at his banks, he was finding out about American Express business ventures and losses after the fact. After the sale of TDB to the company, Edmond was its biggest shareholder, and he considered it a huge slap in the face every time he found out about the company’s dealings in the press. Shouldn’t Robinson and his associates be consulting him about what was going on in the company? For instance, Edmond learned from a Dow Jones wire story about American Express’s plans to pay $1 billion for a Minneapolis-based financial services company. He was also stunned when he learned from news reports just before Christmas 1983 that the Fireman’s Fund, the company’s California-based insurance company, would post a pretax loss of $242 million, dragging down American Express’s total earnings for the year.
Edmond was livid. To make matters worse, American Express was now reaching out to its newly acquired private banking customers in Europe—the TDB clients—and they were sent all sorts of promotions for other services that the company offered in the mail. For this select group of deposit holders to suddenly be receiving a barrage of mail and promotional material was too much for Edmond. These were people who had banked with him out of a need for utter discretion; now they were on the American Express mailing list!
He worried; he lost sleep; he couldn’t relax. How could they treat him and his customers like this? In retaliation, Edmond decided to dump almost all of his American Express stock—a slap in the face to his new bosses that ended up costing him more than $100 million in losses. Now, Edmond openly threatened to resign; he even offered to buy back the Trade Development Bank. American Express refused, saying his offering price was too low.
But Edmond simply couldn’t continue to feel like a hostage of the global conglomerate, and in October 1984 American Express formally announced that Edmond would be resigning as the head of international banking, although he would be made a director on the company’s board. The deal allowed him to buy back several foreign banking operations that he had sold to American Express the previous year. As an article in the Wall Street Journalnoted, “Mr. Safra, a private sometimes eccentric 52-year-old billionaire whose holdings include Republic National Bank in New York, apparently didn’t fit well into American Express’s more bureaucratic style of management.” But a year later, the break became final when Edmond simply could no longer abide the American way of doing business at the company.
After he decided to rid himself of the American Express albatross, Edmond felt like a different man. He threw a party for Lily’s fiftieth birthday at Annabel’s in London, inviting the Gutfreunds, the Erteguns, and many of the others who had attended Claudio’s wedding. Edmond arranged for the restaurant to be decorated in “pillars of white and pink tuberoses,” and the menu featured eggs with caviar and Becheyelle ’70 at intimate tables of eight and ten. The party earned Lily one of her first mentions in Women’s Wear Daily, which described Edmond, Lily, and their guests as “the international camera-shy money-doesn’t-talk set.” Later, on a whim, Edmond and Lily flew from New York to Rio de Janeiro for a much-needed vacation. “For the first time in my life I left New York without telling my secretary where I will be,” said Edmond to his friend Albert Nasser as the two men settled into a backgammon game at Nasser’s luxurious beachfront Ipanema apartment. “I feel as free as a bird and I am very happy to be this way.”
As soon as he had broken ties with American Express, Edmond set about building another bank—a Swiss extension of his Republic National Bank of New York. But as per his original and very complex contract with American Express, Edmond was forbidden from luring away his former employees, and had to agree that he would not start a competing bank for three years—until March 1, 1988—after his final departure from the company in 1985. However, Edmond was anxious to save face and recoup his losses, and demanded that his lawyers find a loophole in his original contract with American Express to allow him to get away with it. The loophole came in the form of a small clause that stated that his relationship with the company would not affect his dealings with Republic National Bank of New York, his other “child.”
“Nothing in this agreement shall impose any restriction on the conduct of the business and affairs of Republic or any of [its] subsidiaries,” noted the contract, which Edmond’s lawyers quickly interpreted as carte blanche to hire back their top TDB people for the new Republic Bank that they were planning to open in Geneva.
It was a bit of a legal ruse, to be sure, and it disingenuously assumed that American Express’s senior executives simply wouldn’t notice when all of Edmond’s top people started leaving TDB in droves. American Express executives saw their chance to get even with Edmond when they suspected one of his old TDB employees of stealing irreplaceable internal bank information system information, known as IBIS files, which contain a bank’s entire administrative system. American Express rapidly launched a criminal probe of Edmond in Geneva. The March 1987 complaint, which was kept secret as per Swiss law, also accused Edmond of unfair competition and raiding American Express employees.
Edmond was a wreck when he found out about the Swiss investigation, which one of his aides discovered quite by chance. To make matters even worse, American Express then tried to block Republic’s application for a Swiss banking license that would allow the new entity to accept deposits in Switzerland. American Express asked the Swiss federal banking authority to turn down Edmond’s request and demanded a full inquiry.
Soon there would be no way to avoid media scrutiny. Edmond and his aides knew that American Express had a huge publicity machine, and they braced themselves for the terrible months ahead.
The American Express smear campaign against Edmond Safra began quietly enough with small articles appearing in relatively unknown newspapers in Europe and Latin America, beginning in the late summer of 1988. Sporadic articles about Edmond and his banking empire began to appear in the right-wing Parisian newspaper Minute, the Peruvian paper Hoy, the Mexican Uno Más Uno, and Toulouse’s Dépêche de Midi. The tone of all the articles was the same: They tried to portray Edmond as a shadowy financier who had links to organized crime, the Medellín cocaine cartel, and the Iran-Contra scandal. The articles were also anti-Semitic in tone, noting at every opportunity that Edmond was “a Lebanese Jew” who wielded formidable power.
For Edmond and his brothers in Brazil, the articles could prove devastating for business. What if the wealthy Halabim and other clients started to ask about the articles? What if they started to get nervous about the prospects of looming investigations of their banks? Edmond knew he had to act, but in the early days he and his aides didn’t quite know how to go about it.
In August 1988, Minute published an article linking Edmond with Willard Zucker, the Geneva-based American lawyer whose specialty was setting up shell companies in tax havens such as Panama and the Cayman Islands. In April 1987, a U.S. congressional committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair had named Zucker as the financier who had helped set up some of the shell companies involved in the Reagan administration’s secret transfers of funds from the clandestine sale of arms to Iran. The proceeds were geared towards encouraging the release of U.S. hostages in the Middle East and the financing of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels who were trying to overthrow the democratically elected Marxist government of Daniel Ortega. Zucker had set up shell companies for his client Albert Hakim, an Iranian-born middleman who was, in turn, working with a retired U.S. Air Force major general named Richard Secord and Lt. Colonel Oliver North—both of them major figures at the center of the scandal. Hakim, who had important contacts in the Iranian military, sold weapons at inflated prices to Iran and funneled the profits into secret government deals. Zucker was his man in Switzerland—“a discreet, efficient and rapid channel for moving money.” Later, when he was named in the investigation, Zucker agreed to cooperate with American prosecutors in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
In the past, of course, both Edmond and Lily had sought out Zucker’s valuable expertise in setting up offshore companies to protect their own assets. Zucker, who in the 1970s headed up the Compagnie de Services Fiduciaires S.A. on the rue Charles-Bonnet in Geneva, had set up the shell company through which Lily bought her home in Vallauris with Samuel Bendahan in 1972. A year earlier, Zucker worked with Jayme Bastian Pinto, Lily’s Brazilian lawyer, to help sort out the various legal and tax issues that dogged her after Alfredo’s death. In a letter dated December 13, 1971, Zucker wrote to Lily’s British attorney seeking advice on “Mrs. L. Monteverde’s potential liability for income tax in certain jurisdictions.” In the letter, Zucker suggested that Lily avoid declaring income in Britain and “carefully segregate her accounts abroad.” This way, if she were served in conjunction with the Monteverde lawsuit or questioned in a British court she could truthfully say that she was not a resident of the United Kingdom. With a fortune valued at nearly $300 million it was of paramount importance to Lily that she avoid paying high taxes in the UK. At the same time, she didn’t want to jeopardize her long-term ability to gain residency in the UK. The country is a tax haven for UK residents of “foreign domicile” who pay a nominal levy on their non-UK income.
Edmond had also used Zucker’s services in the past to set up Republic Air Transport Services, the offshore company that incorporated a small jet that Edmond had purchased in 1988.
Edmond was furious that the newspaper accounts seemed to suggest that his business connections to Zucker also linked him by default to the Iran-Contra scandal, and to all sorts of other unsavory activities such as money laundering for various mafiosi. Some of the stories even dredged up his stake in the Kings Lafayette Bank, which was linked to organized crime in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. Edmond did buy up the bank in the early 1970s although his methods generated a great deal of unwanted publicity in New York.
In 1971, the publicity-shy banker and his aides decided to take advantage of an obscure securities loophole that allowed him to accumulate shares in the Kings Lafayette Bank as an individual rather than as a corporation. But when these secret maneuvers led to protracted negotiations with state banking authorities in New York, the negotiations just happened to take place at the same time as the arrest by federal authorities of eight members of New York-based crime families who had sought loans under false pretenses from Kings Lafayette in the past. One of those arrested was mobster Joe Gallo, a major suspect in the shooting of rival mob leader Joseph Colombo, who was attacked at an Italian Day rally in 1971. Colombo, who died after spending seven years in a coma, had forged strong alliances with the Jewish Defense League, and for years the Colombo family supplied arms to the organization that in turn armed Jewish militant groups in Israel and the U.S., according to press reports.
It’s unclear whether Edmond was aware of any of the mob connections when he bought the bank, which expanded the Republic’s reach throughout Brooklyn and Queens.
Still, the mob connections would come back to haunt him seventeen years later, as his purchase of a bank that had been caught loaning money to New York crime bosses formed the basis of innuendo-laden articles in newspapers in Latin America and Europe. In an effort to try to stop the negative publicity, Edmond launched a series of lawsuits in France against Minute, which proved victorious and helped to restore his reputation.
But despite these small legal victories, the larger smear campaign continued unabated. The question of just who was behind the spread of these unsubstantiated rumors dogged Edmond’s advisers for months. Of course, they immediately suspected American Express’s mighty publicity machine, but they needed to prove that the global conglomerate was behind the attacks. Edmond and his aides soon began their own counteroffensive, hiring a crack team of private investigators and publicity experts to fight back.
“Safra…exhorted his aides to rehash everything they knew, everything they could do, to root out the source of the articles and prove once and for all that American Express was behind them,” writes investigative journalist Bryan Burrough, whose 1992 book Vendetta provides an exhaustive retelling of the massive smear campaign engineered by a handful of American Express executives against Edmond. “For Safra it was time to strike back at American Express for what it had done to him.”
With his team of private investigators working around the world, Edmond was able to link the complex and highly developed media disinformation campaign back to American Express. While he prepared his own legal attack on the conglomerate, the Swiss authorities finally granted him a banking license, and on March 1, 1988—three years following his resignation from American Express—he opened the Republic National Bank of New York (Suisse) in Geneva.
Although the battle with American Express wasn’t quite over, Lily had had enough of the stress and trauma. She was tired of the pressure, of the sleepless nights and Edmond’s mood swings. So when the official permission came through for the bank, and the case against the nasty American executives seemed almost over, she decided to do what she did best: She would throw the most lavish and extravagant party that European and New York society had ever seen. Lily convinced her husband that it was finally time to throw open the doors of their recently acquired estate in the south of France and attract a different kind of media coverage—the boldface mentions in the most fashionable society columns.
Women’s Wear Daily, the haute-society bible for the international jet set, couldn’t resist giving Lily’s soiree advance notice in one of its June 1988 society columns. “The biggest—and most anticipated—ball of the summer season in Europe is actually two balls,” wrote the reporter for the magazine, noting that “Lily and Edmond Safra’s doubleheader” was scheduled for the following August sixth and eighth at their palatial new home in the south of France. The article explained that the couple simply could not accommodate all of their friends and business associates at one party.
It wasn’t that their new villa on verdant, terraced hills overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean in Villefranche-sur-Mer was small. The villa was a sprawling, majestic home set among tall cypress trees and orange and lemon groves that had been first owned by King Leopold II of Belgium.
Like the new owners of the villa, King Leopold II was known for his extravagance. But it was his rapacious greed in the African Free State of Congo that became his real legacy. King Leopold II ran the Belgian Congo as a private fiefdom, and he was condemned for the brutal colonization and gross human-rights abuses that were committed by his forces against the native population, who were forced into slavery in the extraction of rubber and precious metals for the Belgian crown. An estimated ten to fifteen million people died as the result of mutilation and illness spread by Belgian colonial masters. Children regularly had their hands amputated if they didn’t meet the labor demands of the Belgians. Atrocities practiced by the Belgian colonists in the Congo were so horrible that they became the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.
Still, with part of the proceeds from his business ventures in the Congo, Leopold II was determined to live well. On a visit to the Riviera, he bought a tract of land overlooking the Mediterranean and ordered construction crews to begin work on Domaine La Leopolda, as it was then called. The villa was a gift to his mistress, Blanche Zelia Josephine Delacroix, a Romanian-born prostitute who bore him two sons out of wedlock. Blanche, who was also known as Caroline Lacroix, married the ailing king on his deathbed, in December 1909, five days before he died. But the Belgian courts refused to recognize the marriage, nor did they recognize the legitimacy of Blanche and her sons, who had been given royal titles before Leopold’s death. Blanche and the children were cast out of the royal court and La Leopolda was taken over by Leopold’s nephew and successor, King Albert I, who donated the land to a hospital for Belgian soldiers wounded during the First World War.
Twenty years after Leopold’s death the land was purchased by Ogden Codman Jr., an American architect and interior designer who had designed some of the greatest homes on the American east coast. He redecorated the novelist Edith Wharton’s home in Newport, Rhode Island, and went on to design homes for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and John D. Rockefeller Jr. before leaving for France in 1920.
Codman envisioned La Leopolda as a grand château, with formal, manicured gardens, inspired by the Château Borelli in Marseilles and the Villa Belgiojoso in Milan. Although he painstakingly designed the villa for himself, by the time the construction was completed the place was so grand that he could no longer afford to keep it.
Later, Gianni Agnelli, the powerful industrialist and head of the Italian car company Fiat, bought La Leopolda as his summer home. Alfred Hitchcock used the property as a set in his 1955 film To Catch a Thief, which starred Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
Nearly a century after Leopold bought the land for the villa, it was Lily and Edmond who would do the Belgian king proud. The Safras commissioned Renzo Mongiardino, the éminence grise of interior design, who had also designed theater sets for director Franco Zeffirelli and opera singer Maria Callas. Mongiardino had done work for La Leopolda’s previous owner, and he set about blending the Safras’ eighteenth-century European furniture into a grand, formal setting that would have definitely pleased the Belgian king. The second-floor bedrooms were decorated by the Safras’ friend Mica Ertegun. Lily spent $2 million in decorator fees just on her own bedroom, although the bill did not include the eighteenth-century furniture (which she later sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2005).
“La Leopolda was surely never this grand when Belgium’s King Leopold II summered there,” noted Women’s Wear Daily, making an erroneous reference to the Belgian king, who died before he could begin construction on the property. “Nor was it nearly as royal when Gianni Agnelli kept it as his Riviera retreat. But for Lily and Edmond J. Safra, the current owners of this immense mansion overlooking the Mediterranean, near excess is not enough.” In addition to the interiors, the Safras expanded the swimming pool and nearly doubled its size.
The first ball, on August 6, featured three hundred of Lily’s closest friends—the A-list crowd, according to Women’s Wear Daily—to fete Edmond’s fifty-sixth birthday. Lily, who had honed her hostess skills preparing children’s parties and feeding the hungry businessmen who participated in Alfredo’s all-night poker games, and had outdone herself at his funeral luncheon in Rio—like the “undersecretary of state” as her former sister-in-law had noted at the time—was now showing the world what a meticulous and generous hostess she could be. No expense was spared. Flowers were flown in from Holland, and Sergio Mendes and his entire orchestra were flown in from California. A rumor that Liza Minnelli might show up at the party with Frank Sinatra proved false, but the party was a huge success without them. The menu—soupe de poisson, feuilleté aux asperges, and saumon aux truffes—was prepared by star chef Roger Vergé of the Moulin de Mougins, one of the finest restaurants on the Riviera. The dinner was served outdoors under huge white hurricane-proof tents and “decorated Pompeii style.” For those who did not get enough of the magnificent feast, the Safra chefs laid out a spaghetti dinner at 4:00 a.m. for the remaining guests. As a parting gift, the hostess presented each of the women guests with an enamel box featuring a picture of La Leopolda.
Security was tight. A French SWAT team was hired for the event, and there was “half a man per guest—to protect the glorious three hundred who were arriving.” Princess Caroline and her father, Prince Rainier, insisted that all the guests be in place before they made their grand entrance. In addition to the Grimaldis, other security-conscious royal guests included Princess Firyal of Jordan and the Amyn Aga Khan. As a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily noted, “the grounds were guarded as heavily as the White House, and security almost outnumbered the guests. Even the day before the fete, passersby who strayed off the Moyenne Corniche [the picturesque highway from nearby Nice] to steal a glimpse of the imposing place would be chased by hulks on motorcycles.”
Valentino, the designer of choice for “at least two dozen” of the women at the first party and a Safra banking client, arrived on his new 152-foot yacht, the TM Blue One, with his business partner Giancarlo Giammetti and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Niarchos clan also arrived in their giant yacht, the Atlantis II, which was equipped with a helicopter. The Countess Isabelle d’Ornano, one of Europe’s most elegant women, was resplendent in a taffeta gown designed by Jean-Louis Scherrer to match the villa’s ocher and green tones.
John and Susan Gutfreund, who had flown to Rio for Claudio and Evelyne’s wedding, also attended the grand opening of the Safra estate. Like her friend Lily, Susan was also a fan of excess, but on this occasion she wore an understated white Chanel mousseline dress. “With the opening of a place like this, the home and the hostess should be the stars,” she said. “I wanted to dress to disappear like a rat in the woodwork.”
Lily wore a pink mousseline gown designed by Valentino with exquisite butterfly earrings designed by the world’s most exclusive artist-jeweler, JAR, the acronym for Joel Arthur Rosenthal, the New York-born Parisian jeweler whose shop on the place Vendôme has no display window and no regular hours. JAR only designs one-of-a-kind creations for an elite clientele.
Lily’s friend Lynn Wyatt, the wife of Texas billionaire Oscar Wyatt, wore a striking black, white, and pink satin gown, also by Valentino. The Wyatts, who owned a spectacular home near La Leopolda on the Riviera, would almost always be mentioned in society columns alongside the Safras, whom they considered among their best friends.
The second party, which included many of Edmond’s business associates, did not warrant much mention in the society press, largely because it was a more private affair. At both parties, Edmond and Lily also invited their children and their beloved grandchildren, whom Edmond referred to as mes amours. In addition to Claudio’s two boys, Adriana now had three children of her own.
The grand vernissage of the Safra mansion would cost the Safras more than $2 million, but it was a huge success. It was a small price to pay for their grand entry into high society. For with the La Leopolda parties, Lily became the consummate society hostess on an international scale. As Women’s Wear Daily publisher John Fairchild himself noted, “The Safra event itself…marked the culmination of the Safras’ meteoric rise to social power; they have taken over the Riviera, Southampton, New York, the Metropolitan Opera, Geneva—all in the space of five years. What’s next?”
As the air-kisses flew on that muggy night in August and the Safras greeted everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Barbara Walters and Betsy Bloomingdale, Lily was living her dream as the grand society hostess of the world’s glitterati and movers and shakers. Here was Felix Rohatyn, an investment banker who had restructured New York City’s debt in the 1970s and resolved a huge fiscal crisis, arriving with his wife Elizabeth and stepdaughter, the New York socialite Nina Griscom. Across the lawn stood the brooding Christina Onassis, heiress to one of the most fabled fortunes in Europe. Like Lily, Christina had married four times, and had recently broken up with her fourth husband, Thierry Roussel, the father of her only daughter, Athina. As it turned out, Lily’s fabulous party was one of the last social events she would attend, for three months later Christina would be found dead of an apparent drug overdose at a country club in Buenos Aires.
If they believed in omens—and Edmond certainly did—maybe the Onassis death might have given the Safras a few moments of pause. Were they not tempting the evil eye with such a grandiose celebration—so monumental, so costly, and so public!
But 1988 had dawned with such hope. After years of sleepless nights and the agony over his ill-fated decision to sell TDB to American Express, they were back on the society track, attending openings, galas, and fundraisers around the world. Edmond was rebuilding what would turn into a stronger, more lucrative empire on the ashes of a costly mistake; he was reclaiming his most valued employees from TDB and he had started a new bank. He was also building a good case against his former employer—a case he knew he would eventually win. So after the parties, and after a few business meetings with old Halabim clients he had invited to La Leopolda, Edmond looked forward to a few days off in his palatial new home with Lily’s six grandchildren.
But their newfound happiness and relief were extremely short-lived.
THE ARGUMENT THAT escalated into a screaming match between Claudio and Evelyne on the morning of Friday, February 17, 1989, had actually begun at their house on the Gavea mountain in Rio de Janeiro the night before. As usual, Claudio had had a particularly grueling day at work. Simon Alouan, a former professor of mathematics from Beirut who had been appointed by Edmond to head up Alfredo’s old company in 1973, was not known for his manners. He could be rough and obnoxious at times, and he was generally feared by everyone in upper management at the appliance chain. Everybody knew that Alouan hated Claudio—hated him with a passion. After all, Claudio was everything he was not—a well-educated, well-mannered member of the Brazilian elite, and certainly a mama’s boy, who had been parachuted into his job as head of marketing because of his mother’s influence at the company. Although Lily, as majority shareholder, was technically Alouan’s boss, Alouan openly despised her as well. When it came to discussing business matters and the future of the company, he spoke only to Edmond, a fellow Halabim and his most important benefactor. It was Edmond who had brought Alouan to São Paulo to help run one of the Safra family’s investment houses in the early days. Alouan, who hailed from an impoverished Halabim family, was eternally grateful to Edmond, who had financed his education in Lebanon.
“Edmond brought Alouan to Brazil and gave him something like 20 percent of the Ponto Frio business,” recalled Albert Nasser. “He always reported to Edmond and refused to take Lily seriously. Every time that she said she was coming to Rio, Alouan would make sure he was on a plane to Europe. With Claudio, he used to put him down all the time and let everyone at the company know that he was good for nothing.”
Claudio’s friend Guilherme Castello Branco also recalled the disputes between Claudio and Alouan at the company. “Alouan was very rough, and it was clear that he really despised Claudio,” he said.
Usually by the end of a workday at Ponto Frio Claudio was a nervous wreck. He yelled at Evelyne over the slightest problem and lost his temper with his two young sons—four-year-old Raphael and fifteen-month-old Gabriel. He was looking forward to taking a few days off on this summer long weekend and was glad that they had decided to go with their friends Rubem and Ana Maria Andreazza to their summerhouse in Angra dos Reis.
On that muggy Friday morning, as the nanny and the housekeeper readied the children for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Angra, a beach town southwest of Rio where the coastline is dotted with hundreds of small islands, Claudio and Evelyne picked up their argument of the night before.
“Evelyne was truly an annoying person,” said one of the couple’s friends. “Claudio, who was a wonderful person, was a henpecked husband. After Claudio married her, a lot of his friends stopped going to the house in Gavea. They were always at each other’s throats.”
The fight got so ugly that Claudio suggested they drive to Angra in separate cars. He stormed out of the house with Raphael, who had begged Claudio to take him in the car with him. Claudio and Raphael piled into his jeep, a Brazilian-made Chevrolet, to pick up his friend Rubem. Raphael, who loved Rubem, wanted to sit in the front with his father and his friend. Claudio reached in the back to pick up his son and placed him gently between the two adult passengers. Evelyne, Ana Maria, and little Gabriel would drive ahead in a Ford Galaxy Ltd Landau, with Mario, the couple’s chauffeur. They would all meet in Angra in a few hours.
Claudio drove fast, past the mansions and grand apartment blocks of the chic beachfront neighborhoods of Leblon and Ipanema, past the crowded favelas, or shantytowns, that cling to the mountainsides, and onto the potholed highway that was the only road to Angra dos Reis. Deep in conversation with Rubem, Claudio probably didn’t even notice the policia militar truck as it barreled into his lane on kilometer 17 of the Rio-Santos Highway near Itaguai, an impoverished municipality of half-finished brick and plywood houses that marks the halfway point from Rio de Janeiro to Angra dos Reis.
Like Claudio, the driver of the police truck was going far too fast after negotiating a particularly difficult curve. Witnesses said the truck literally passed over the jeep, leaving it a mangled mess of metal.
All three passengers in Claudio’s car were killed almost instantly; the impact crushed the Chevrolet, which erupted in flames, and ripped human limbs from their sockets. Claudio’s body was unrecognizable when a fire crew pulled him from the wreck. Body parts were strewn on the highway along with pieces of smoldering, twisted metal.
Barely an hour after Evelyne and Ana Maria pulled into the summerhouse they started to worry about the jeep. Later, when a carload of their friends arrived, shaking their heads at the terrible accident they had just passed on the road, Evelyne feared the worst. Trembling, she demanded a description of the mangled vehicle that police and firefighters were trying to tow to the side of the road to relieve the snarling traffic of weekend travelers that the accident had caused. When her friends described the car, Evelyne drove back along the Rio-Santos Highway. Before she even saw the mangled vehicle, she saw the body parts strewn along the asphalt. When she recognized her little boy’s T-shirt, Evelyne started to scream. She never forgave herself for allowing little Raphael to travel with his father. Before the accident, he had always driven with her.
The news of the accident was the lead item on TV Globo’s Jornal Nacional nightly news program that evening, largely because Claudio’s friend Rubem Andreazza was the son of the former minister of the interior in Brazil’s last military government, which had ended four years earlier. In Sunday’s O Globo, the paid obituaries took up nearly two broadsheet pages. Ponto Frio communicated their “profound sadness at the sudden death of our dear director Claudio Cohen and his son Raphael.” The Bloch, Sigelmann, Cohen, and Safra families noted their “great sorrow.” But the saddest announcement came from the grieving mother and widow, Evelyne. It was addressed to Fayale and Cloclo, the names that fifteen-month-old Gabriel used for his older brother and father, respectively: “We will love you always.”
The funeral was on Sunday because Jews cannot be buried on the Sabbath. The extra day also allowed Edmond and Lily enough time to make the trip to Rio from Geneva, where Edmond was plotting his strategy against American Express. Edmond wept openly when he received the phone call from Rio informing him of the accident; Lily was inconsolable.
The burials of Claudio and Raphael occurred just before noon in Rio’s high summer, and the air at the Jewish cemetery in Caju, on a bleak stretch of Avenida Brasil in the city’s gritty suburbs, was thick and muggy. The mourners sweated in their suits and watched helplessly as Evelyne threw herself sobbing onto the coffin of Raphael, who was four years and four months old when he died. The impact had fractured his skull. The cause of death, according to the autopsy, was an internal hemorrhage. Claudio, who was thirty-five years old at the time of death, died of a similar injury—the sudden impact dislocated and fractured his cranium. He also suffered massive internal bleeding.
Among the group of dark-suited mourners was Claudio’s boss, Simon Alouan. But he only made it to the gates of the cemetery to pay his respects to the family before he was ordered to leave by Claudio’s sister, Adriana.
“I want to know why you are here!” she screamed hysterically. “You killed him. You’re the cause of this. Please, just leave right now.”
Adriana echoed what Lily was also feeling. If Alouan hadn’t been such a tough taskmaster, if he hadn’t berated Claudio the way he had, perhaps Claudio would not have been under so much stress, perhaps he wouldn’t have argued with his wife before getting into his jeep, Lily reasoned. Desperate to lay blame for the death of her beloved son and grandson, Lily also struck out at Alouan. But if she raged against him, she did so quietly. Perhaps she even suggested to Edmond that Alouan could be replaced. The problem with Alouan was that he was doing a good job. Not since Alfredo’s day had the company seen such good returns. No, Alouan would stay, ordered Edmond. Lily would have to wait for the best time to strike. It would take fourteen years, but in the end Lily would get her revenge against the man she accused of killing her son.
Although the Cohen and Safra families were devastated by Claudio’s death, it was Alfredo’s son, Carlos, who went into a deep mourning after the death of his stepbrother. Since their years together at the Millfield School, where Carlos was sent at nine years old immediately following the death of Alfredo, Claudio had embraced the younger Carlos as his little brother. “I was so comfortable with him,” said Carlos. “He was an extraordinary person.”