Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows - Isabel Vincent (2010)
Chapter 7. “When I Give Lily a Dollar, Lily Spends Two Dollars”
THE EFFORT INVOLVED in drafting a last will and testament in Rio de Janeiro can be a daunting exercise in bureaucracy at the best of times. When you’re struck with a terminal illness and in a hurry, as Evelyne Sigelmann Cohen was in the fall of 1992, then it becomes a Herculean effort.
The “public testament,” as it is known in Portuguese, is carefully typed by a clerk onto letterhead bearing the emblem of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the pages duly numbered and signed by five witnesses, each of whom must swear that they know the testator and affirm that what they are witnessing is the truth. All of this, including the typing, is conducted in the presence of a notary public, who then places the document—adorned with a seal and myriad stamps—in an official leather-bound folio.
A month before she died, Evelyne, pale, weak and easily fatigued, quite literally dragged herself to a notary’s office in downtown Rio, accompanied by five witnesses, to draft her will. It was the last wish of a dying woman, and nobody dared deny her. It wasn’t that Evelyne was concerned about what would happen to the Gavea house or the money she had inherited from Claudio, although she did make provisions for all these assets in her will. What ultimately drove Evelyne to a dingy, airless office in downtown Rio, where she took a number and prepared to dictate her postmortem instructions, was her mother-in-law, Lily.
In the year since she had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Evelyne had worried about Lily. It was the anxiety and not the cancer that interrupted her sleep, tore up her insides, she told her friends. Specifically, she worried about what would happen to her five-year-old son, Gabriel, after she died. She had no doubt that Lily loved the little boy as she did her other grandchildren. Perhaps she even had a special fondness for Gabriel because he was the son of her beloved Claudio. But Evelyne fretted about Gabriel’s future. She was concerned about Lily’s imperious nature, about her need to control everyone around her. She knew that Lily had her own ideas for his upbringing that didn’t include allowing the child to stay in Brazil, close to familiar surroundings and the friends and family he had grown to love. Would she send him to an English boarding school as she had done with Alfredo’s boy, Carlos, in 1969? And how would Gabriel, an orphan after her death, react to being sent away?
Evelyne couldn’t bear what she perceived as Lily’s control. Hadn’t Lily interfered with Claudio’s first marriage to Mimi?
Evelyne had once joked to a friend that she assumed her every move was watched by Monaco.
“It was common knowledge that the house was watched by headquarters in Monaco,” said a friend of Evelyne’s who did not want to be identified. “When it was clear that Evelyne would die, Lily began to take control of the situation.”
There was no doubt she was dying. Less than a year after Claudio’s death, Evelyne was diagnosed with pericardial mesothelioma, an extremely rare form of cancer that attacks the membrane around the heart. In the early days of the disease, she had gone to New York for surgery, staying three months to recuperate, and telling herself that the worst was over. But the cancer returned, and by September 1992, she knew she didn’t have long to live. And so she set out the terms for Gabriel’s upbringing in her last will and testament. Perhaps she knew that the legal document was a feeble gesture, a flimsy weapon in the fight against Lily. But for a young woman who had lost nearly everything in the space of a few short years—a younger sister, a husband, and a son—it was a final accounting, an attempt to order the chaos, a powerful affirmation of her wishes.
With feverish intensity, Evelyne dictated her instructions to the clerk: Parenting duties would be shared between her sister-in-law Adriana and Antonio Negreiros, an often unemployed actor and choreographer who had become her closest companion after Claudio’s death. She referred to Antonio, who had once worked as her personal trainer, as Gabriel’s “father.” Shortly after Claudio’s death, Antonio moved into the house in Gavea with Evelyne, and helped her raise her son.
Gabriel would spend his school holidays with Antonio, and at sixteen would be allowed to choose where and with whom he wanted to live. If he was taken away to another country, his maternal grandparents and Antonio would need to be informed. “A separation between Gabriel and Antonio should be gradual,” wrote Evelyne. “Always tell Gabriel the truth, never half-truths. When Gabriel feels lonely, act with clarity and compassion, without trying to avoid the topic. After all, he has already had many separations.”
The ultimate separation—from his mother—occurred on October 17, 1992, the day Evelyne died. For all her effort and concern, the plans and terms that she had so painstakingly set out for the future of her son effectively died with her.
“Evelyne died on a Friday, and I told Gabriel about the death of his mother on the Saturday morning,” recalled Antonio. Gabriel went to sit in Antonio’s lap and wrapped his legs tightly around his surrogate father.
Antonio was determined to carry out Evelyne’s last wishes. But in hindsight, he says he was naive, and should have predicted what was coming. Lily was not about to allow some minor actor/personal trainer in Rio de Janeiro to have anything to do with her grandson, especially now that Gabriel was sole heir to his father’s share of the family fortune.
As Lily began to emerge from a year of deep mourning for her son, she and Edmond continued to travel between homes in New York, the south of France, and Switzerland. Although they busied themselves with their philanthropy, throwing lavish parties for good causes on two continents, they also took great pleasure in their grandchildren, inviting them for summer vacations at La Leopolda. After Claudio’s death, Lily redoubled her efforts with Gabriel and Evelyne, encouraging her to visit often with the little boy.
ON THE AFTERNOON of Evelyne’s death, Antonio went to help the Bloch and Sigelmann families with the preparations for the funeral. He left Gabriel at the house in Gavea with his nanny, promising him that he would return shortly. When he returned a few hours later, the house was empty.
Later Antonio learned that Mario, the chauffeur, picked up the child and the nanny and drove them to his “Uncle Watkins” home. In this case, Uncle Watkins was Lily’s brother Daniel, who always seemed to be charged with the family’s most difficult tasks. It’s not clear whether Lily ever bothered to read Evelyne’s will. No doubt she was convinced that she was looking out for Gabriel’s best interests, which clearly did not include the boy being brought up by a perennially unemployed actor. Never mind that these were Evelyne’s last wishes. For Lily, Evelyne could not possibly have been of sound mind when she wrote her will, for why would she entrust her only son to this stranger?
After Gabriel went to live with his relatives, Antonio tried every means possible to see the little boy. But his efforts were met with icy indifference. Every day for weeks, Antonio waited for Gabriel to emerge from Rio’s tony American School in the Gavea neighborhood where he had been enrolled. But the boy had already disappeared from his life. Months after Evelyne’s death, Antonio arranged to travel to Florida where Gabriel was going to be vacationing with his cousins at Disney World. Antonio tried to convince Adriana, now Gabriel’s legal guardian, that it would be good for Gabriel to meet him again on neutral ground. Like her mother, Adriana had several homes around the world, including a grand apartment in Rio de Janeiro. With some of the money that Evelyne left him in her will, Antonio bought a ticket to Miami and arranged to rent a car for the drive to Orlando. But at the last minute, the trip was canceled by Adriana with no explanation.
It’s not clear what excuses were given to Gabriel about Antonio’s sudden absence from his life, but it appears that the effort to prevent him from seeing Antonio also had the cooperation of his maternal grandparents in Rio de Janeiro.
Always tell Gabriel the truth, never half-truths.
Antonio wondered about the “half-truths” that the little boy was hearing. Had he been told that his surrogate father had abandoned him? That he had also gone to heaven, like his parents and his older brother Raphael?
Antonio never got the opportunity to ask him. The last time he saw the boy was the day after Evelyne died, which was also the day that Antonio claims Gabriel finally called him daddy.
But despite Antonio and Evelyne’s concerns, Gabriel flourished under the care of his aunt and his paternal grandmother. He lived surrounded by a loving family in grand homes on three continents. Despite his mother’s fears, he never forgot his Brazilian roots and had a good relationship with his maternal grandparents in Rio. Perhaps Lily and Adriana refused to allow Gabriel to maintain a relationship with Antonio because they never trusted his motives. Perhaps they feared that he would try to somehow claim the little boy’s inheritance.
Although Antonio claimed he was never after money, the Safras were not so sure. Everyone was after money, and they simply couldn’t risk opening themselves up to a potential problem, especially when it involved a vulnerable little boy.
THE 1980S AND early 1990s were surely among the most difficult in the lives of Edmond and Lily. In addition to the deaths of Claudio, Raphael, and Evelyne, Edmond wrestled to recoup his financial losses and, perhaps most important for him, his reputation, which had taken a beating after the American Express smear campaign. Following his legal victories over the company, Edmond would no doubt have gladly retreated to his homes around the world and returned to work at his banks where he put in long hours, often dining on a simple meal of cottage cheese and fruit prepared by his personal chef. He would have gladly stayed away from the international party circuit. “I try to remain unknown as much as possible,” he had happily told a journalist. But Lily was having none of it. Now that she was part of the social firmament on two continents, she wasn’t going to slow down. In many ways, it was in the 1990s that the Safras were the most active socially and philanthropically.
Months before Evelyne died, in April 1992, Edmond had been honored along with Turgut Ozal, the president of Turkey, at a gala dinner at New York’s Plaza hotel—a lavish event hosted by Edmond and Lily’s friends Ahmet and Mica Ertegun.
The evening honored the arrival of Sephardic Jews in Turkey and the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims in that country, with benefits going to the Quincentennial Foundation USA, a Turkish-American group that fosters understanding between Jews and Muslims. “It is very important that the world know that there have been 500 years of peaceful coexistence in Turkey between the Jews and Muslims,” said Ahmet Ertegun, who was a Muslim. “Over the last 500 years, the Sephardic Jewish community has contributed to art, culture and society.”
Special guest Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, presented Edmond with a special humanitarian award for his “outstanding leadership in the international Jewish community.” Years later, he would find himself honoring Edmond in another way—as one of the speakers at his funeral.
The gala dinner for more than five hundred invited guests included everyone from Henry and Nancy Kissinger to former UN secretary general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and his wife, Marcela. Even Edmond’s brothers Joseph and Moise made the trip from São Paulo to see their brother honored for his philanthropy.
But while Edmond was fêted, it was Lily who was the star of the evening—“the beauty of the night, ravishing in a white top and striped silk skirt by Givenchy, with her blond hair in a halo of tiny braids.” The photograph later appeared in Women’s Wear Daily, signaling that Lily had finally solidified her credentials in New York society.
She was one of the Ladies Who Lunch, and the society press loved her and her exquisite taste in clothes, art, and interiors. A few months after the Turkish gala, at the summer society wedding in Cap Ferrat of Pamela Lawrence, the daughter of advertising legend Mary Wells Lawrence and airline executive Harding Lawrence, it was Lily who seemed to upstage the bride. She made a “big hit” at the wedding, according to columnist Aileen Mehle, who also attended. She wore “pinky red chiffon by Valentino and her silky blonde hair in a long braid woven with ribbons. What a way to go!”
Not to be outdone by anyone, Lily now planned functions on a grand scale. In 1993, she organized a reception for Edmond at the Knesset, the Israeli legislature in Jerusalem. “Joseph Safra had just thrown a huge party for his son’s bar mitzvah in São Paulo, and Lily was determined to upstage him,” said one of Edmond’s business associates who did not want to be identified. “What better way to do this than to have a huge party at the Knesset?”
The party was to honor the International Sephardic Education Foundation (ISEF), which Edmond and Lily had founded with Walter Weiner’s wife, Nina, in 1977. The organization gives out university scholarships to needy students in Israel. The planning for the reception was so complex that it required a vote on the floor of the Knesset before it could go forward. But despite her best efforts to impress, Lily was unable to pull it off. Just before the party was to take place, Edmond’s eldest brother, Elie, died in Switzerland, and the whole affair was immediately canceled as the Safra clan mobilized for the funeral.
With her pretensions to grandeur, it must have bothered Lily that no matter how extravagant her parties or how elegant her clothes, she would always be considered an arriviste by the old money elite in Europe, and especially in New York. In his memoir, Chic Savages, John Fairchild, former publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, called the Safras the epitome of the Nouvelle Society, “part of the social history of the greedy eighties.”
According to Fairchild, Nouvelles, a category in which he included the Safras, the Trumps, the Gettys, the Kravises, and the Taubmans, among others, were fond of “elaborate decorations and period furniture in gargantuan apartments, regal entertaining with flowers flown in from England, travel by private jet or on the Concorde, and couture clothes at prices high enough to build a small summer cottage.”
As Edmond himself noted in an exchange with Fairchild, “When I give Lily a dollar, Lily spends two dollars,” he said. “That’s our one big problem in the world today. We are all spending money we don’t really have.” In Chic Savages, Fairchild describes dining in Rome with the Safras at an elegant dinner hosted by the designer Valentino in his extravagantly decorated palazzo on the Appian Way—itself a prime example of the decadent 1980s with its pool “grand enough for an Esther Williams production number” and its garden “straight out of Ben Hur.” Lily had just finished buying her wardrobe for the season from Valentino, and told Fairchild that she was heading back to New York—“my favorite place,” she confided. “It is the capital of the world.” Or, as Fairchild puts it, “the capital of Nouvelle Society.”
Fairchild recalled other Safra soirees in their many homes. “When Nouvelles eat, it’s a formal affair,” he recalled. “Petrus, one of the most expensive of the French Bordeaux, flows like water, and the caviar is heaped up. Banker Edmond Safra and his wife, Lily, served so much caviar at one of their dinners that a guest—who shall remain nameless—dispensed with the toast points altogether and called for a spoon, to go after double helpings of the ‘Iranian gold.’ At leave-taking, each guest was presented with an exquisite ivory picture frame.”
At another party, Lily, ever generous with her friends, gave each of the women a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes, which typically retail for more than $500 a pair.
Others recalled absurd conversations between Edmond and Lily.
“Darling, I bought you an airplane today,” said Edmond, in a conversation overheard by one of their good friends in Rio. According to the friend, Lily then went on to question whether Edmond had made the right choice in his airplane purchase, enumerating the attributes of the latest model Gulfstream that had just come on the market.
According to Fairchild, the old money families “disparage the Nouvelles behind their backs but never turn down one of their invitations”—especially when the party favors are so luxurious.
But at times the experience of dining with the Safras could be unnerving, especially after Edmond decided that the family needed a small army of bodyguards to protect them. “The number of bodyguards probably outnumbers the guests,” quipped one Riviera resident when describing a flurry of “intimate” dinners—no more than forty guests at a time—that the couple hosted shortly after buying and renovating La Leopolda.
It’s not clear when Edmond made the decision that he and Lily needed a security detail. As early as 1978, when he was consulting with his architect Eli Attia on the plans for the expansion of the Republic National Bank of New York, Edmond insisted on a state-of-the-art security system. Attia put Edmond in touch with an Israeli firm in Geneva that ended up handling his security around the world. At the bank, Safra’s twenty-ninth floor residence was inaccessible to visitors. Guests had to get off at the twenty-eighth floor and be escorted one floor up by an armed security guard.
Edmond must have redoubled his security efforts after the kidnapping of his nephew Ezequiel Edmond Nasser in São Paulo in 1994. Ezequiel, the son of Edmond’s sister Evelyne, cut his teeth in banking working for his uncles Edmond in New York and Joseph in São Paulo. He was the prosperous owner of Banco Excel in São Paulo at the time of the kidnapping. Nasser spent seventy-five days in the hands of his captors, who kept him confined to a tiny basement room where they blasted loud music and kept the lights on twenty-four hours a day. He was finally released when his family paid an undisclosed ransom. But the experience damaged him. For the next three years, he became a virtual recluse, refusing to leave his home.
The kidnapping spooked the entire Safra clan. In São Paulo, Moise and Joseph increased their security staff and brought in former Mossad agents to train their Brazilian team. They also refused to battle São Paulo traffic, where they would be sitting ducks for well-trained kidnappers. In Brazil, many kidnap victims—most of them well-to-do executives and the children of the rich and famous—have been snatched driving to work. The Safra brothers’ solution was to buy helicopters and build helipads at their sprawling homes in the exclusive Morumbi neighborhood of São Paulo. This way they could fly to work every day and avoid the mad rush-hour frenzy on the streets of São Paulo, a city of more than 20 million people.
Although Edmond had long been obsessed with his personal security, he must have felt a heightened sense of paranoia shortly after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid–1990s. In addition to crippling rigidity and uncontrollable shaking, other symptoms associated with Parkinson’s include anxiety and a reduction in cognitive function. In other words, Edmond may not have been able to think very clearly, to perceive real dangers as opposed to Parkinson’s-fueled paranoia.
In 1996, before he and Lily moved into their new apartment in Monaco—“so glorious and impeccable in every detail that that may well be what heaven looks like”—Safra created a mini-fortress. After he consulted his specialists in Geneva, steel windows and doors were ordered for the 10,000-square-foot apartment where they would be spending most of their winters. As in New York, his residence was on the top floor of the building, which housed the Monaco branch of his Republic National Bank on the avenue d’Ostende.
Samuel Cohen, Edmond’s security chief in France and Monaco, helped set up the security system at the Monte Carlo penthouse. “The system of security was based on several things,” he said. “The windows were bulletproof, and there were cameras, burglar alarms, and fire alarms. All the systems were connected to Monaco Sécurité. If one system didn’t work, there was a backup of a second one. If one system wasn’t registering, there was another one that took over.” There were fifteen surveillance cameras at the penthouse, ten of them outside, with alarms attached.
The only problem with the elaborate security system was that it could do nothing if a potential attacker was already inside the apartment. The reinforced doors and windows also made it difficult for the apartment’s inhabitants to leave in an emergency. As Cohen himself noted: “There is no security system if someone from inside decides to do harm. There is nothing you can do. If someone gains the confidence of the people and you are on the inside, there is no limit to the damage you can do.”
Edmond’s bedroom was the safest part of the twenty-room duplex apartment. The bedroom, fitted with panic buttons and steel doors and shutters, was described by security experts as “a survival cell” that was impregnable.
Cohen trained with the Mossad in Israel. He was “in perfect physical condition, a tough, no-nonsense guy trained in the art of protection,” noted Vanity Fair journalist Dominick Dunne. Cohen commanded eleven other bodyguards, all of them highly trained former elite members of the Israeli army, and all of them billeted at La Leopolda, a twenty-minute drive from the Monaco penthouse. Cohen, affectionately known to staff as Schmulik, was himself paid $1,000 a day to supervise Edmond’s security.
With the onset of Parkinson’s, Edmond retreated to the safety of his bunker-like homes around the world. By the time he started to shuffle to get across a room, slur his speech, and drool uncontrollably, Edmond had limited his public appearances and often conducted his business affairs from his bedroom. After Edmond went public with his illness in July 1998, several nurses were added to his staff to provide him with care around the clock. In a statement released to the press at the time, Edmond acknowledged that he suffered from the disease, but reassured his business associates and investors that he would continue to work closely with his brothers Moise and Joseph to oversee his banking empire. At the same time, he also committed $50 million to the launch of a foundation to support research into the disease.
Despite his illness, Edmond’s philanthropic good works continued apace, precisely because he was gravely ill and determined to leave a lasting legacy. Like his father, Jacob, who had contributed to many Jewish and non-Jewish causes in Lebanon and Syria, Edmond also focused a great deal on philanthropy. Throughout the world, there are medical research centers, and religious and educational trusts that bear the family name. At Harvard University alone, the Safra name is particularly prominent. There is the Jacob E. Safra Professor of Jewish History and Sephardic Civilization and the Jacob Safra Courtyard at the Harvard Hillel that Edmond funded to honor his father. In 1986, Edmond and the Republic of New York Corporation also established the Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor in Latin American Studies at the college, allowing academics, business people, and artists from Latin America to teach at Harvard for one semester.
At one point, Edmond also decided that he needed his own synagogue and asked Eli Attia, the architect who had worked on the Republic tower, to draw up the plans for a house of worship around the corner from one of his apartments on Fifth Avenue and East Sixty-third Street. The synagogue was also conceived for a group of fellow Upper East Side Sephardim who prayed in a dingy basement on Sixty-second Street. Although the grand Temple Emanu-El is located just three blocks away on East Sixty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, it is mainly an Ashkenazi and Reform temple. Edmond and his small group of Sephardic congregants—all of them Orthodox Jews—could never feel welcome in the Temple Emanu-El community.
Edmond probably felt that a synagogue named in memory of his father would round out his philanthropy in New York. Attia found an old townhouse 100 yards from Edmond’s Fifth Avenue home and began drafting plans and seeking city building permits for a 25,000-square-foot synagogue, comprising five stories and two basements, with space for nearly four hundred congregants. “As was the case with a number of Attia’s projects for Safra, the agreement was consummated with a handshake.”
But Edmond’s synagogue, which was named Beit Yaakov, in memory of Jacob Safra, proved problematic from the start. Attia, who had worked with Edmond and his brothers since 1978, became exasperated “because Edmond and Lily kept changing their minds about what they wanted.”
Work on the project, which had begun in earnest in 1991, dragged on until 1993. But the coup de grâce came when Edmond and Lily refused to pay Attia’s bill for work he had done on the synagogue and the renovation of burial plots for two Sephardic rabbis in Israel. The Safras claimed that Attia had completed only a small percentage of the total work, but was charging as if the job was already completed. Attia’s bill was estimated at more than $600,000. As a result of the financial shortfall, he was unable to pay his employees. He filed a lawsuit against Edmond in a U.S. district court in New York City after Edmond fired him in 1993. Attia had lost so much money in the stalled synagogue project that midway through court proceedings he could no longer pay his attorneys.
“He [Edmond] told me that the bill was the responsibility of the Beit Yaakov congregation,” said Attia in an interview with the New York Post. “But he and Lily hired me and to all intents and purposes they are the congregation.”
In the early days, the Beit Yaakov congregation comprised Edmond’s family and employees. One of the trustees was Jacqui Safra, Edmond’s nephew, the son of his eldest brother, Elie, and a film producer who worked on several films with Woody Allen. Republic president Dov Schlein and Nathan Hasson, vice chair of Republic, were also among the trustees of the synagogue. Walter Weiner, one of Edmond’s most trusted advisers and the chairman of the board and chief operating officer of Republic of New York Corporation, was on the synagogue’s executive committee.
But in court papers, Edmond tried to argue that he had no signed contract with Attia and that Attia had done only 10 percent of the job and was demanding more than 70 percent of the payment—an allegation that Attia dismissed outright. Attia alleged that Edmond was putting pressure on him for other reasons. In addition to the synagogue, Attia was involved in a project in Israel at the time. The Shalom Center was the largest real-estate development in the country’s history. David Azrieli, the Canadian architect and developer who had hired Attia for the project, wanted to share the design credit with him, and was allegedly withholding Attia’s fees until he agreed. Attia initiated arbitration proceedings in Israel to obtain the $1.5 million that he was owed. But what Attia didn’t know at the time was that Edmond’s bank in Israel, the First International Bank of Israel Ltd. (FIBI), had been competing to finance the Shalom Center. According to legal papers, “In the course of the five month arbitration hearing it became clear that Safra’s decision in January 1993 to force Attia to resign from the synagogue project had been an attempt to pressure Attia into dropping his fight with Azrieli, which was impeding the chances for Azrieli (and FIBI) to develop the highly lucrative Shalom Center Project.”
Edmond denied the allegations. A furious and disappointed Attia sued Edmond personally. “I have always given you all that I can give—my talent and my time,” wrote Attia in a handwritten resignation letter dated January 15, 1993, that was introduced as evidence in court. “The telephone conversation we had last night caused me to realize that you, unfortunately, see our relationship in a different light.” For all of his “devotion and sacrifice,” Attia says he was left with “financial strangulation, insult and more than anything else, mistrust.”
The court dismissed Edmond’s petition to have the case thrown out, and the suit was eventually settled out of court in October 1996. But the fissures between the Safras and the Sephardic community had already begun. In many ways, they had always been just under the surface after Edmond married Lily. Not only did Edmond’s siblings disapprove of Lily, but many in the Sephardic community who were close to Edmond had little tolerance for his ostentatious wife. For years, Edmond and his brothers supported Sephardic causes and synagogues all over the world. But after his marriage to Lily, she began to divert their giving to other charities. Perhaps Sephardic community leaders were aware of Lily’s lack of interest in their causes and so treated her with frosty indifference. Or perhaps she simply was never accepted because she was of Ashkenazi origins.
“We were having dinner with Lily and Edmond at the Pierre hotel in New York when Lily asked me about the Jewish community,” recalled Albert Nasser. “She asked me why the Syrian Jews who live in Brooklyn hated her so much. I told her it was because every father in Brooklyn had hoped to marry his daughter to Edmond Safra, and she beat them all to it. Lily laughed hysterically.”
Whatever the reason for their dislike of her, Lily didn’t pay too much attention, and almost as soon as she married Edmond she began, at first quietly, to redirect their charitable contributions to the arts and education. Gifts to the Sephardic community in Brooklyn just didn’t create the high-level buzz that Lily loved. They didn’t make the society pages of the New York Times Style section, and they had no place in Women’s Wear Daily.
In September 1996, the Safras threw a magnificent party to honor a generous gift that Edmond and Lily had made to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Edmond donated a seventy-two-page manuscript written by Albert Einstein in 1912 in which the scientist laid out his theory of relativity for the first time. The manuscript had been purchased at a Sotheby’s auction for an undisclosed price, although the presale estimate was $4 million.
“The…party was a celebration of a magnificent million dollar gift from the super rich and super generous international banker Edmond Safra of Albert Einstein’s manuscript in which, for the first time, he outlines his theory of relativity and its famous E=MC2 formula,” noted a columnist for W. “Edmond and his beautiful wife Lily flew in with a planeload of friends and foie gras and gave one of their opulent dinners in a flower-bedecked tent under the desert sky. Heaven.” It was the last time that the entire Safra clan, including brothers Joseph and Moise, would be together with Edmond.
Lily took a break from the couple’s philanthropy in the fall of 1998 when she decided that she wanted to simplify her life and get rid of her controlling interest in Ponto Frio in Brazil. But just as she prepared to sell, tragedy struck. Her stepson, Carlos, suffered a horrific crash on the Imola racetrack in Italy. Carlos, a serious collector and racer of antique sports cars, lost control of the vintage Ferrari he was driving on the same racetrack curve that had killed Formula One champion Ayrton Senna in 1994. For Lily, the accident was a blow. Following the accident, Lily, who had had little contact with Carlos after he married Isis in the late 1980s, now frantically called the family to make sure he was all right. Carlos spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries and thousands of dollars on plastic surgery to repair his mangled body. The accident left his face partly paralyzed, making it impossible for him to chew his food properly.
Lily was distraught after the accident, said one observer who was close to her at the time. She may have also been concerned about how the accident would affect the sale of the company, but clearly it was her stepson who took priority. In the end, it wasn’t Carlos’s accident that scuttled the deal. The sale did not go through because they simply could not obtain a good price for their shares.
When the Ponto Frio sale failed, Lily refocused her energies on taking the Safra philanthropy in a new direction. In 1999, the year he died, Edmond was honored for his contribution to the arts in the United States. Trustees of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., presented Edmond and Lily, among others, with the Medal for Distinguished Service. For this occasion, Edmond’s banks had financed an exhibit of Italian baroque painter Annibale Carracci’s drawings at the museum.
In addition to the arts, the direction of their giving now had a decidedly royal bent. Lily’s critics say the new thrust in the couple’s philanthropy—mostly charities run by the British royals—was simply an ill-disguised effort to promote her own social advancement. Others simply praised her generosity. Clearly, Lily loved the attention and the opportunity to gain access to Britain’s royals.
The royal giving had begun sporadically at first. In May 1985, the couple threw a fund-raising party at their home in Geneva for the World Wildlife Fund, with Prince Philip, a royal patron of the charity, as their guest of honor. But in 1999, Lily attended a flurry of royal events in New York and London. In a burgundy velvet jacket and silk skirt by Yves Saint Laurent, she attended a benefit concert by Zubin Mehta at Buckingham Palace in March along with a reception for the Prince’s Trust. In April, she was among a select group that included billionaire Michael Bloomberg and cosmetics executive and philanthropist Evelyn Lauder at a luncheon at the Carlyle hotel in Manhattan for the Foundation Claude Monet Giverny. Princess Michael of Kent was the keynote speaker.
Lily and Edmond were also considered near and dear friends of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. They were among a select group of guests at Buckingham Palace in June 1999—the first time that the royal couple hosted a joint event at the official residence of Elizabeth II. The occasion was a reception for the American members of the Prince’s Foundation. The next day, the select group was invited to lunch at the Prince of Wales’ official residence at Highgrove, and then back to London for a drinks party chez Viscount Linley, the Queen’s furniture-designer nephew. Later, they gathered for Pimms at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
The royal weekend in the summer of 1999 marked the last time that Edmond would appear at a high-society function.
In the months before he died, Edmond was preparing to make a different kind of news. Once again, he was rocking the world’s financial markets with the sale of one of his beloved “children.”
IN THE WEEKS before Edmond sold his Republic holdings to HSBC in what would be the biggest business deal of his career, the photographs started to disappear. They were the intimate family snapshots—happier moments of the Safra clan at a bar mitzvah or wedding of a favorite nephew in São Paulo. The images of the Safra sisters on the beach in Punta del Este also disappeared, as did the pictures of Moise and Joseph and the faded black-and-white photos of the family patriarch, Jacob.
It’s not clear that Edmond, in his heavily medicated state, noticed that the pictures were gone from the Monaco apartment or La Leopolda, the villa that he no longer had the will or the energy to enjoy. In the months since he had appeared in Washington to receive his award from the National Gallery of Art and had attended the royal parties in London, Edmond had retreated to the beaux-arts apartment in Monaco attended by his small team of nurses, who administered his medications and helped him to eat his food and go to the bathroom.
By most accounts, his health continued to deteriorate and he became increasingly isolated from his family in Brazil. In better days, Edmond used to speak to Joseph or Moise or both on a daily basis. But in the spring of 1999, the intercontinental telephone calls ceased. Sem Almaleh, a bank manager who worked with Edmond for four decades, said that Edmond “called his brothers several times a day, but there was a problem and they had had a rift” just before Edmond died. During the last months of his life in Monaco, Edmond spoke only to a few trusted employees, his nurses, and, of course, Lily, who now wielded tremendous control over every aspect of his life.
Family friend Albert Nasser attributes Edmond’s split with his brothers to a family spat over undisclosed financial matters. Perhaps the Safra brothers could not understand why Edmond had decided to sell his Republic holdings to HSBC, especially after the press announcement of the previous year which clearly stated that Edmond, despite his illness, would be working closely with his younger brothers to oversee his banks.
“It was my understanding that Edmond wouldn’t speak to his brothers for a year before he died,” recalled Nasser.
Joseph seemed to confirm this years later when he told a Monaco court that he had not seen Edmond for a year before his death, and that indeed there had been “a few problems,” although he was confident that they would see each other again. A month before Edmond died, he had even spoken to him on the phone, recalled Joseph.
“He was a brother—a real brother—and also a father,” said Joseph. “He was the head of the family. I adored him, and I still adore him.”
Still, it seemed strange to Nasser and other friends that such a deep split had occurred between Edmond and his brothers. He also couldn’t understand why Lily abruptly changed Edmond’s most trusted physician. Edmund H. Sonnenblick, a pioneering New York cardiologist, had been one of Edmond’s physicians for thirty years, said Nasser, who was also a patient of Sonnenblick until the cardiologist’s death in 2007. The Sonnenblicks were so close to the Safra clan that Annie Sonnenblick, the cardiologist’s daughter, had worked as an assistant treasurer at Republic National Bank in New York before her death from septicemia in 1984.
“Lily cut him off after thirty years and started parachuting other doctors into Monte Carlo to take care of Edmond,” said Nasser. “The doctor [Sonnenblick] was the same person who took care of the Safra brothers in São Paulo. Joseph had him flown to São Paulo when he was not well.”
According to those closest to Edmond at the time, Lily was so concerned about Edmond that she kept consulting new doctors. In the spring of 1999 he was so overmedicated with the drugs that each new physician recommended to control his Parkinson’s that he started to be seized by violent hallucinations. Edmond was hospitalized in New York for the condition, but when his team of lawyers and accountants informed him that the hospitalization was going to cause tax problems because he would be overstaying his six-month residency limit in the United States, Lily made the decision to go across the border to Canada for medical treatment. The Safras moved with their entourage of aides into Toronto’s Four Seasons hotel for a few weeks while Edmond recuperated from the violent seizures and his deep depression.
Whether his depression was brought on by the medications he was taking—a daily drug chart shows he took drugs to control his cholesterol and Parkinson’s—or the estrangement from his brothers and the imminent sale of his bank, or all of these, is difficult to say. But by the time he returned to his apartment in Monaco in the fall, Edmond was taking a potent cocktail of antidepressants that included daily dosages of Xanax, Samyr, Clozaril, and Depakote. While most of these drugs are administered to Parkinson’s patients to keep the anxiety associated with the disease at bay, physicians who regularly treat Parkinson’s disease were puzzled as to why Edmond was taking Depakote. The drug, which is used to treat bipolar disorder, has been known to cause tremors, and could have canceled out the effects of the other drugs that Edmond was taking. It could have also led to severe depression.
Similarly, before he died in 1969, Alfredo Monteverde was also taking a potent mix of antipsychotic medications that included lithium carbonate, which was used to treat schizophrenia, and Tryptizol and Nardil, both powerful antidepressants that interfered with his cognitive function.
It was during their time in Toronto that the Safras met Bruce Sutton, a local psychiatrist who helped Edmond through his crisis. Sutton would become such an important figure in the Safra universe that Lily would fly him and his family for a vacation at La Leopolda, where he helped Edmond deal with his depression.
The Brazilian branch of the Safra family has provided few details about the rift since Edmond’s death. It is also unclear if Edmond ordered the removal of the family photographs from his home, or if they were removed without his knowledge. Did he make the conscious decision to stop speaking to his brothers, or was that decision simply made for him when they called and were told he was indisposed? Was his judgment so clouded by the medications he was taking that he had become paranoid about his family in São Paulo? What was their real intention in helping him to oversee his banks? Were they being honest with him? Perhaps these were now questions that were going through Edmond’s own mind. Yet it’s hard to believe that the Safra brothers had anything but Edmond’s best interests at heart. This was their beloved elder brother who had been instrumental in building the Safra banking empire on three continents. Their relationship had always been one of complete trust.
Whatever the reason for the family split, it became irreversible when Edmond, frail and in ill health, began to negotiate the biggest deal of his financial career—to sell Republic New York Corporation to HSBC, a venture valued at over $10.3 billion when it was first announced in May 1999.
“The acquisitions we have announced today will bring together two complementary private banking franchises,” said Sir John Bond, HSBC chairman. “At the stroke of a pen, it doubles the size of our consumer-banking operations in the United States, and it doubles the size of our private-banking business around the world.”
But while the sale would prove a huge boon to HSBC, it effectively ended Edmond’s banking career. As the New York Times noted in a front page article, the deal would “mark the end of independence for a banking business founded more than three decades ago by Edmond Safra, a Lebanese-born Jewish businessman who is regarded as an enduring figure in the banking world.”
If Joseph and Moise saw traces of Edmond’s ill-fated gamble with American Express in the HSBC deal, they were unable to make their protests heard. They had lost the battle when they couldn’t even reach him by phone or visit him at his home. The negotiations for the sale of Republic took place without the wise counsel of his brothers. Bond and Republic executive Jeffrey Keil, who had first encouraged Edmond to make his ill-fated deal with American Express years before, conducted the negotiations. Keil was very close to Lily, and in the absence of Edmond’s brothers, Keil effectively became one of the ailing banker’s closest confidants.
Still, weeks before it was to be signed, the deal hit a snag as accountants from the HSBC Group conducted a financial review of Republic. Ultimately, Martin Armstrong, a major client of Republic’s futures brokerage and chairman of Prince ton Economics International, a hedge fund, was indicted on charges of defrauding Japanese investors of nearly $1 billion. Armstrong, who has vigorously denied the charges, allegedly sold assets known as Princeton notes, promising his investors that the notes were backed by Republic. At first, Republic was not named in the investigation into Armstrong’s alleged fraud scheme. However, Republic did launch its own inquiry into the scandal, which delayed shareholder voting on the HSBC deal.
Later, New York authorities revealed the collusion between some Republic employees and Armstrong, who began by opening thirty-six brokerage accounts and depositing $350 million in the bank in 1995. By the time HSBC began to analyze the bank in the fall of 1999, Armstrong had deposited more than $3 billion in 450 accounts. According to court papers, Armstrong’s investors received assurances that he had invested their money in U.S. government securities. But in fact, Armstrong used the investments to speculate in commodities markets, losing millions of dollars in the process. The Ponzi scheme developed as he began losing money in the speculation and allegedly used proceeds from the sale of new Prince ton investment notes to pay off old Prince ton investors as their accounts came due. When two Republic executives discovered the scheme, they agreed to help Armstrong by issuing fake account statements.
The incident nearly scuttled the HSBC deal until Edmond agreed to take a personal loss of $450 million and cut the price for the sale of Republic from $10.3 billion to $9.85 billion. “I am taking this action because I believe that a swift completion of the transaction will be to the benefit of Republic’s clients, shareholders and employees to whom my life’s work has been devoted,” said Edmond in a statement in November.
Even before the deal was sealed, Edmond unwittingly began the grim preparations for death.
Edmond, who deeply loved his wife of twenty-three years, and had become estranged from his extended family in São Paulo during his final days, signed the bulk of his fortune over to her.
In São Paulo, Edmond’s brothers and sisters were unprepared for such a slap in the face. They were even less prepared for his untimely death.