Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows - Isabel Vincent (2010)
Chapter 9. “Years of Sorrow and Days of Despair”
JAY SALPETER IS a no-nonsense, tough-talking former New York City homicide detective who took early retirement from the force and launched a career as a private detective in 1990. In twenty years on the force, he specialized in investigations into the mob, narcotics, homicide, and white-collar criminals. As a private investigator, he earned a reputation for finding new evidence in old homicide cases. Nobody could hide from Salpeter, not even the elusive billionaire widow Lily Safra. In April 2001, when attorneys for Heidi Maher needed to find and serve Lily with legal papers but had no idea how to find her, they turned to Salpeter.
It is no easy task finding Lily, who jets frequently between her homes in Paris, the Riviera, London, and New York, and retains several public relations experts and lawyers to protect her privacy. In the 1970s, she confounded process servers in London who tried for months to find her at her Hyde Park Gardens flat in order to serve her with the notice that she was being sued, along with Edmond’s Trade Development Bank, by her former in-laws.
Several years after his brief brush with Lily on an Upper East Side street corner in the early spring of 2001, Salpeter was hard-pressed to recall how he found out that Lily would be dining at Swifty’s or that she would even be in New York at all. Salpeter made a reservation for himself and a colleague at the posh Upper East Side restaurant after he learned that Lily would be honored at an intimate dinner party hosted by Robert Higdon, the representative of Prince Charles’s charities in Washington. It was an informal welcome back to New York featuring her new best friends Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister of Canada, his wife Mila, and entertainer Joan Rivers. Old friends—“some of my closest and dearest friends,” gushed Lily—Marcela Pérez de Cuéllar (whose husband had been appointed president of the council of ministers of his native Peru), Blaine and Robert Trump, and Evelyn and Leonard Lauder would also be on hand to toast “the lovely Lily Safra, the charmer who also happens to be one of the richest women in the world…”
Salpeter didn’t care about rich or charming, and he surely wasn’t in the habit of reading the society columns in Women’s Wear Daily. He wasn’t intimidated by the rarefied atmosphere of Swifty’s or the condescending tones of the wait staff, who seemed eager to rush him out of the restaurant in order to prepare for the private party. Salpeter had a single goal, and he had committed Lily’s face to memory.
“You have to imagine the scene here,” said a lawyer familiar with the stakeout at Swifty’s. “You have Salpeter and his associate, this big black former cop, dining at this bastion of Upper East Side snobbery. Nobody knew what they were doing there, and the wait staff was totally shocked.”
On that chilly April evening, Salpeter, a heavyset brick of a man, his brown hair speckled with gray, paid the bill and went to stand outside the restaurant, clutching Heidi Maher’s legal papers. He was soon joined by a photographer from the New York Post, who had been tipped off, probably by Salpeter himself. The first guest to arrive was Mrs. William McCormick Blair of Washington, D.C. (known to her socialite friends as Deeda).
“Are you Lily?” asked the former cop. The impeccably dressed, reed-thin, aging socialite with a shoulder-length graying bob could, from a distance, be mistaken for her friend Lily Safra. Deeda managed to ignore Salpeter completely and quickly made her way into the restaurant.
Lily, also impeccably dressed and reed-thin, was the second to arrive, stepping out of a black limousine, accompanied by a security guard.
“Are you Lily?”
It was the unspoken acknowledgment, the fleeting yet at the same time careful look she gave him that told the former cop that he had found his target. He thrust the legal documents into her hand, just as the Postphotographer snapped multiple frames. Lily touched them, but then decided she would allow them to drop to the ground in front of the restaurant. The papers were retrieved by her security guard. Salpeter had successfully served the richest widow in the world. His job was finished. “It was like taking candy from a baby,” he would recall years later. The following day’s headline in the Post read “Summons Served Between Courses” and featured a photo of an elegant Lily entering the restaurant.
The ambushes by court bailiffs and process servers would prove semiregular events in Lily’s life in the months and years after Edmond’s death. The lawsuits started shortly after Edmond’s funeral in Geneva and a later memorial service in New York. The first came from stunned Safra family members. Still reeling in disbelief from Edmond’s mysterious death, they quickly realized that many had their inheritance reduced. In São Paulo, the Safra sisters filed suit against Lily on behalf of themselves and Edmond’s nieces and nephews. Lily, her daughter, and lawyer Marc Bonnant were also sued by Ninaca S.A., a Panamanian corporation established as an art trust by Edmond and his brothers in 1995. In February 1999 Edmond had designated Lily’s friend Anita Smaga, her daughter Adriana, and Bonnant as additional trustees, which tipped the board in Lily’s favor. The suit demanded $17 million in damages.
Heidi Maher’s legal action came next. Seventeen months after her ill-fated trip to Monaco in 1999, Heidi filed a motion against Lily and various Safra employees in the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Dutchess County. The motion was for a pretrial discovery so that her attorneys could establish the facts of just what had happened to her during her ordeal in Monaco in December 1999.
“I suffered shocking and humiliating treatment during the trip which was avoidable and due entirely to the fault of others,” said Heidi in her affidavit. “I entrusted my safety and the entire itinerary to the Safra organization. Instead…I was diverted without my consent by Safra-related staff to the Monaco police station where I was interrogated for three dreadful days in connection with what I later learned was a criminal investigation of my husband. I was never allowed the promised visit with Ted.”
In a letter to the American consul general in Marseilles, one of the members of Ted’s defense team protested the treatment of Heidi and her brother by Monaco authorities: “The rights of these American citizens were violated under United States law, International law, and no doubt Monaco law,” wrote Michael Griffith, one of Ted’s attorneys, in March 2001. “Behavior of this type cannot be tolerated in a civilized world, particularly when United States Government property [passports] were stolen and taken for the purpose of securing an illegal confession under the most despicable circumstances.”
In court filings, Heidi demanded to examine and depose everyone from Lily Safra to all of the directors of Spotless & Brite, Inc., the Delaware corporation run out of the Republic Bank on Fifth Avenue that had employed her husband and arranged for her travel to Monaco. According to Heidi’s court filings, “We still do not know who orchestrated these events and why. For example, who actually paid for and later canceled the Delta return flight tickets; who is responsible for the sudden change in our limousine’s itinerary; who arranged to deceive me into the coercive police interrogation room; and who converted my trip into a Monaco police investigation without my prior informed consent or knowledge. The requested depositions and documents will lead us to the truth and to those truly responsible.”
But if she felt she was going to get at the truth with the mighty Safra organization and put Lily Safra on a witness stand in Dutchess County, Heidi was clearly naive.
Stanley Arkin, the very able Manhattan lawyer who had helped Edmond take on American Express, easily disputed Heidi’s claims and accused her of wasting the court’s time. “Mrs. Maher brought this motion, instead of a lawsuit, because she cannot state an actionable claim against any of the Respondents,” said Arkin in his court filings. “Mrs. Maher asks this court to permit her to engage in a far-reaching fishing expedition in the vain hope that she may find a claim for which she can be compensated.”
Arkin did a good job of dismissing Heidi’s claims, adding that “Mrs. Maher’s application is replete with irresponsible unsubstantiated accusations and innuendo.”
Later, the parties agreed to an undisclosed out-of-court settlement. Heidi, who had tirelessly campaigned to raise awareness of Ted’s plight by writing elected officials, starting a Web site, and denouncing the Safra family to anyone who would listen, seems to have had a sudden and complete about-face. In the months after Edmond’s death, when Ted’s pay stopped being wired to her, Heidi lost the family home because she could no longer afford the mortgage payments. She and her children were forced to move into her mother’s house in Stormville. With her settlement from the lawsuit, she quietly purchased a new house in Stormville and determined that she and her children would have nothing more to do with Ted, whose actions had had such devastating consequences for all their lives. The coup de grâce for Ted came nearly three years later, on the last day of his trial in Monaco. Shortly after the guilty verdict, Heidi decided to end their marriage.
“When [in] Ted’s final speech he apologized for what he did to the Safra and the Torrente families I felt like standing up and saying what about me and our children?” said Heidi in an e-mail to writer Dominick Dunne shortly after the end of Ted’s trial.
Ted’s trial ended almost three years to the day after Edmond’s death. While many journalists referred to it as the principality’s “trial of the century,” Sandrine Setton, one of Ted’s four defense lawyers, renamed it the “trial of the imbecility of the century” in her closing arguments. Setton was referring to both Ted’s ridiculous plot to make himself the great hero by starting the fire, and the incompetence of the Monaco authorities in their efforts to save Edmond. Georges Blot, another Maher lawyer, even quoted Shakespeare, characterizing Ted as being “full of sound and fury.”
As with Edmond’s funeral, Ted’s trial drew members of the Safra clan from around the world. If Lily had hoped that the family would present a unified front for the world’s television cameras and sit together in the courtroom, she was clearly disappointed. As the proceedings began in late November 2002, Lily, through her attorneys, invited Joseph and Moise Safra to sit in her row. They declined.
“One day Joseph Safra went as far as to sit in a row in front of the defense lawyers,” noted Dominick Dunne, who covered the trial for Vanity Fair. “His beautiful wife Vicki always sat at the back of the courtroom, wonderfully dressed and greatly admired. She and Lily never once looked at each other.” Another day, Joseph sat one row behind Lily, but he never acknowledged her.
On the fifth day of the trial, the proceedings turned into an impromptu memorial for Edmond when Joseph Sitruk, the elderly, white-bearded chief rabbi of France, took the stand as a witness for the prosecution. Lily’s staff had chartered a private plane to fly the rabbi from Paris to Nice, where one of her drivers met him at the airport for the twenty-minute drive to Monte Carlo.
Following the rabbi’s testimony regarding Edmond’s charitable work for the Jewish community, the judge asked Ted if he had any questions for the rabbi. Ted asked him “to say a prayer in Jewish for Edmond Safra.” The odd request was duly translated into French, and the rabbi was quick to oblige. The elderly rabbi handed his wide-brimmed black hat to an attendant, who placed a black yarmulke on his head. He prayed in Hebrew on the witness stand in front of a six-foot crucifix, which was affixed to the wall, as the Jewish men in the courtroom scrambled to cover their heads with their hands as substitutes for yarmulkes.
It was the first time that Lily lost her composure in public. She wept openly during the prayer, and then followed Sitruk out of the courtroom to thank him for his appearance. Downstairs in the courthouse lobby, Joseph and Moise waited to greet the rabbi, and Joseph offered his private plane for the return trip to Paris.
Although the conclusion of Ted’s trial surely afforded Lily some relief, it must have been short-lived. Not long after the trial ended, bailiffs acting for the Manhattan lawyer Pompeyo Roa Realuyo, who was representing Vivian Torrente’s adult children, served papers on Lily as she prepared to leave the five-star Hotel de Paris in Monaco to board her private jet in Nice. Lily and her entourage of lawyers, secretaries, and security guards had occupied much of the fourth floor of the hotel. Although she had so easily dispensed with security for her husband in December 1999, she made a point of employing several guards to patrol the fourth-floor hallways of the hotel while she was there. For this reason, serving her with legal papers would be nearly impossible. Which is why the process server decided to call Lily from a house phone in the lobby.
Lily’s lawyer Marc Bonnant, who has long, slicked-back silver hair and smokes cigarettes in a long holder, arrived in the lobby to accept service on Lily’s behalf.
But Bonnant did not take it quietly. Fresh from his brilliant closing arguments in the courtroom—“a court performance worthy of Laurence Olivier”—Bonnant started screaming and yelling at the process server. The suit, which sought $100 million in damages, was filed against Lily, the Safra estate, and various insurance companies connected to the Safras.
The Torrente children—Genevieve, twenty-three, and Jason, thirty—said they were “victims of a civil conspiracy and fraud perpetrated by the defendants designed to withhold from them critical information relating to the circumstances of their mother’s death.” Their most important claim was that the autopsy seemed to show that a struggle ensued between Edmond and Vivian in the locked bathroom. The Torrente children argued that Edmond “imprisoned” Vivian in the bathroom, and that “the combat-like” mark found on Vivian’s neck, the bruises on her knees, and Edmond’s DNA, which was found under her fingernails, were confirmation “that Mr. Safra’s efforts to restrain her were the direct and proximate cause of death.”
Although the autopsy report was concluded on December 5, 1999—two days after the fire at the penthouse—the results were not made public until Ted’s trial some three years later. In the year following their mother’s death, the Torrente children claimed that they were “fraudulently deceived and misled into signing a so-called settlement agreement with the named defendants wherein critical information, including the autopsy report was intentionally withheld from them.”
Like the Heidi Maher and Safra family lawsuits, the Torrente suit was quietly settled out of court. For while Edmond might have come to blows with his nurse in order to prevent her from leaving the bathroom, the autopsy makes clear that both died of smoke inhalation.
“The reason they died was because they waited too long,” said Michael Baden, an expert witness for the defense at the trial. “There were certain marks on her neck, but there wasn’t enough evidence to reach the conclusion that she had died because of Edmond.”
But if at the end of the trial Lily thought she could finally breathe a sigh of relief, she was deeply mistaken. Following the end of the trial, there was the matter of Alfredo’s company, Ponto Frio, which Lily now had to oversee without Edmond’s expert guidance. It was no secret that she hated Simon Alouan, Ponto Frio’s chief executive and Edmond’s protégé. Now that she was effectively in charge of the company again as its majority shareholder along with Alfredo’s son, Carlos, Alouan knew his days were numbered. She would seek her revenge. Without Edmond there to act as a buffer between Alouan and Lily, the relationship was simply not going to work, and so it was no surprise to him when Lily informed him of her decision to fire him at a board meeting. Lily promptly replaced the hot-headed Lebanese businessman she had despised for so many years with someone over whom she could have complete control—her son-in-law, Michel Elia, who had limited experience running a company of Ponto Frio’s size and complexity.
Then, just as the flurry of fittings, lunches, and society functions began again in earnest for Lily, Ted Maher stunned the world with a daring escape from his cell in an old fortress that doubles as Monaco’s prison, overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean.
On a frigid night in January 2003 and less than a month after his trial, Ted and his Italian cellmate, Luigi Ciardelli, sawed through the metal bars on their window and somehow lowered themselves down the thirty-three-foot drop of the old fortress wall using a rope they had fashioned from forty-six garbage bags. Ciardelli headed to San Remo, Italy. Ted went to the Hotel Artemis near Nice, hoping that he could convince the American consulate there to grant him some sort of safe haven. He called his estranged wife, asking for her credit card number as he attempted to check into the hotel. He also called one of his Monaco lawyers, Donald Manasse. “I’ve escaped!” he told Manasse. “You can drop the appeal now.”
Manasse called the prison to report the escape, and Heidi immediately contacted CBS, which was making a 48 Hours special on the Safra case, and CBS called the segment producer, who happened to be in Monte Carlo staying at the Hotel de Paris. The Monaco authorities didn’t know about the escape until an Anglican priest who had become close to Ted called them to tell them Ted was gone. Ted was rounded up a few hours later. Authorities eventually sentenced him to an extra year in jail, and suspended the director of the prison. No one is quite sure why he tried to escape to Nice, where he spent so many of his free weekends prior to Edmond’s death. Did he have some mysterious underworld contact in the French resort city? Were these the dreaded Russian mobsters Edmond had feared so much after he gave evidence to the FBI shortly before his death? Why did Ted return to Nice? Like so much of the story of Ted’s involvement in l’affaire Safra, the facts remain murky.
A FEW MONTHS after Ted’s escape and eventual return to prison, Preston Bailey, the noted New York event designer, was assigned the task of stage-managing Lily’s triumphant return to Manhattan society. Just as with the double-header parties at La Leopolda to celebrate the end of Edmond’s troubles with American Express, Lily was determined to throw herself an unforgettable return to high society in Manhattan.
It’s not that she had ever really left. Even during the drama of Edmond’s death, the lawsuits, and Ted’s trial and escape, Lily still managed a regular presence at parties on both sides of the Atlantic. With her new super wealth, she bought herself a lavish home in London—“one of the most staggeringly beautiful houses in London,” gushed Women’s Wear Daily, and continued to maintain homes in New York, Paris and the south of France.
In May 2000, five months after Edmond’s death, she flew to New York to attend a special United Nations gala in honor of Edmond’s work for Israel. In August, she donated a fountain and garden in Edmond’s name for Somerset House in London. The spectacular Edmond J. Safra Court, which was the first major public fountain to be commissioned in London since the ones in Trafalgar Square in 1845, has fifty-five jets of water that rise out of the granite-covered ground. The number five was Edmond’s favorite number; he believed that it warded off evil spirits.
A month later, Lily was spotted in “the chicest of black dresses” at a benefit for the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. That summer, she was back in London attending a gala at Buckingham Palace, where she was seated to the right of the Prince of Wales, the host of the evening. She also attended her friend Lynn Wyatt’s tropical paradise-themed birthday party in the south of France. There were also the flurry of dinner parties she threw for friends in London and New York and at La Leopolda during the summer season on the Riviera.
A month before Ted’s trial began in Monaco, Lily was among 115 guests at a fortieth-birthday party for Elton John’s partner, David Furnish. It was a black-tie affair, with champagne and white truffle risotto, in both London and Venice (Elton chartered a plane for the London-to-Venice trip). The guests were decidedly more rock-and-roll royalty than the kind Lily was now used to. It’s rather difficult to imagine the gilded Lily on the dance floor alongside guests like Donatella Versace, Elizabeth Hurley, Sting, and Isabella Blow. Lily’s friend Lynn Wyatt appears to have been right at home, though—“dirty-dancing” with video artist David LaChapelle, “in dangerous deshabillé as his shirt hung open, his suspenders dangled at his knees and his trousers slipped down his hips.”
After the conclusion of Ted Maher’s trial in Monaco in December 2002, Lily’s public relations consultants appeared to work overtime to reestablish her important role in society. Triumphant after Ted’s conviction, Lily flew to New York to dedicate the synagogue on the Upper East Side that Eli Attia had begun in the 1980s. Following the nasty legal battle with Attia, the beaux-arts-style synagogue, with massive doors of carved brass, was completed by the French architect Thierry Despont. Attia’s early work on the house of worship on East Sixty-third Street, off Fifth Avenue, was conveniently forgotten. The Sephardic community for whom it was built was also conveniently forgotten at the dedication even as Lily organized a dinner for three hundred people at the University Club of New York on Fifth Avenue.
Instead of inviting the important members of the New York Sephardic community that her husband had generously supported over a lifetime, the sacred occasion seemed to become just another New York society event. At a later party for the synagogue, it was Lily’s golden dress and her “17th century heavy gold necklace recovered from a Spanish ship” that took precedence over the dedication of the Edmond J. Safra synagogue. After the University Club fête, Lily’s friends threw other parties to commemorate the grand occasion. One party was held at Swifty’s and was hosted by the Iraqi-born financier Ezra Zilkha and his wife, Cecile. Later, Lily was the guest of honor at another lavish party hosted by Joan Rivers at her palatial apartment, which was exquisitely decorated with white lilies, snapdragons and roses for the occasion. “There were Buccellati’s silver sparrows at each place setting and silver vases filled with bunches of tiny white roses.” Lily arrived wearing “an iridescent claret-colored taffeta coat over claret brocade pants with little satin slippers to match,” by Oscar de la Renta.
“Lily is a lovely, courageous woman, who in the last several years has gone through hell since the mysterious death of her husband in a fire in their Monte Carlo apartment and later at the trial during which she handled herself impeccably and emerged in triumph like the lady she is,” said her friend Aileen Mehle in her Women’s Wear Daily column a few weeks after the conclusion of Ted’s trial in Monaco.
The “lovely, courageous” Lily also celebrated her legal triumph with the purchase of a new Paris apartment on the exclusive avenue Gabriel, a duplex with marvelous views of the Eiffel Tower from every room—the same apartment that Blaine Trump’s family lived in when Blaine was a student in Paris. Again, her friends at Women’s Wear Daily felt compelled to defend her honor: “These days and nights, she is a happy woman, out lunching and dining with her friends, wearing marvelous clothes, and emerging from the three-year nightmare and the ugly, false and unfounded speculation that followed her in print after the death of her husband, Edmond, in their Monte Carlo apartment, a victim of a fire set by one of his nurses, the now-imprisoned Ted Maher.”
Indeed, after years of tension following the bizarre death of her husband, Lily was ready to reassume her place as a leading hostess in New York. Because she believed in doing nothing by half measures, Lily hired Preston Bailey, the most sought-after event planner in Manhattan, to create an evening that would impress even the high-society luminaries who had seen it all.
Bailey is a striking figure on the New York social scene, with his muscular physique and his shaved head—smooth and polished like a billiard ball. He is a former model from Panama who embarked on his career as haute society’s foremost event planner when he designed the 1998 wedding of Joan Rivers’s daughter Melissa at the Plaza hotel. Bailey turned one of the ballrooms of the hotel into a Czarist winter garden from Doctor Zhivago, featuring 30,000 white flowers and 100 trees painted white.
For Lily, he would transform one of her empty Fifth Avenue apartments overlooking Central Park (she owned two) into a French country garden. “We agreed that a lush garden setting would be the perfect antidote to the endless weeks of rain we’d been having, so I set about conjuring an atmosphere that would recall the French countryside,” wrote Bailey in an article for Elle Décor that devoted one of its glossy pages to the decoration of Lily’s party room. “Still, nothing short of a magical evening would wow the guests.”
Two weeks before the party, Bailey set about transforming the foyer and forty-seven-foot-long living room in the apartment into a French garden. In the dining room, he attached a grid covered in lemon leaves to the ceiling and hung rose petals sewn together to look like garlands of wisteria in white and lavender. He lined sections of the walls with screens imprinted with photographs of vast landscapes. “I then wove thousands of blossoms into the screens to further blur the boundaries of the area—used weathered green trellis lit from behind to convey dappled sunlight.” The effect was similar to dining under a huge wisteria tree.
For the centerpieces, Bailey used white peonies flown in from Holland, cymbidium orchids, lavender, sweet pea, blue hyacinths, and Australian dendrobium orchids. “At each window there were trellis arbors draped with celadon and pink Fatima orchid ‘curtains’ outlining the park views.”
The sixty guests, who included former British prime minister Lady Margaret Thatcher, Brian and Mila Mulroney, Michael Bloomberg, Diane Sawyer, Nancy Kissinger, the Erteguns, Joan Rivers, Princess Firyal of Jordan, Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera, Robert Higdon, and Lynn and Oscar Wyatt (who flew in from their home in Texas), assembled for drinks at Lily’s other apartment on a higher floor. For dinner, they took the elevator to the other apartment. “When the elevator opened 60 jaws dropped at the sight of a fabulous ‘conservatory’ fragrant with the smell of all those flowers,” gushed Mehle.
“It was a scene of great beauty and those 60 who have been everywhere and done everything could hardly believe their eyes.” As Bailey himself noted, “I waited in the foyer—it was a harbinger of the lavish things to come, with elephant’s ear branches, trellis, and light patterns bathing the walls and floors—for everyone to arrive. I was handsomely rewarded with audible gasps, most definitely a few dropped jaws and I’m not exaggerating, a few soft shrieks of delight.”
After dinner, the guests “lounged on wrought iron garden furniture under 10-foot topiary trees built of birch branches and hanging with pears, lemons and limes.”
A month later, Lily was off to England for Elton John’s annual White Tie and Tiara party, an upscale AIDS benefit “that draws every celebrity, moneybags and social figure for leagues around and then some”—at his country home in Surrey. In “a chiffon dress the color of moonlight,” Lily hired a motorcoach to bring her friends from London to the party. As usual, Blaine and Robert Trump, Joan Rivers, and Robert Higdon were among her guests.
That fall, Lily wowed them again with the opening of the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Elton John performed and Diane Sawyer and Michael J. Fox also presided at the dinner, where Lily greeted her guests in “a black Valentino.” In addition to the usual suspects—the Trumps, the Erteguns, the Zilkhas, and the Herreras—legendary New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau, the museum’s chairman, also attended.
In the years after Edmond’s death, Lily was surely living her dream. She had transformed herself into an elegant hostess, creating memorable parties, wearing beautiful clothes, dining with royalty, and donating huge sums of money to good causes. Which is why she must have received such a devastating shock when, in the summer of 2005, the royal biographer Lady Colin Campbell published a novel about a social-climbing billionairess who murders her second and fourth husbands.
With her imperious manner and drawling upper-class Jamaican accent, Lady Colin is a towering and rather intimidating society blonde who is afraid of no one. Born with a genital disfigurement to a wealthy Jamaican family in 1949, Lady Colin was christened George William Ziadie and raised a boy. When she was twenty-one, she had corrective surgery. She married Lord Colin Campbell, a brother of the Duke of Argyll, in 1974 and divorced him a year later, but held on to the title.
Empress Bianca, Lady Colin’s first novel, was not supposed to garner any of the worldwide publicity that it received when it was quietly released in Britain in June 2005, but that was before Lily’s society friends read the book and were convinced that it was a thinly disguised roman à clef about her life. Lady Colin is best known for her best-selling tell-all biographies of Diana, Princess of Wales. Known as Georgie to her friends, she argued that Empress Bianca was based on one of her cousins and had little or nothing to do with Lily. But the argument may have seemed unconvincing to Lily, especially as Lady Colin’s book was dedicated to the memory of Rosy’s daughter Christina Fanto, Lily’s niece during her marriage to Alfredo Monteverde.
In Empress Bianca, the central character, Bianca Barnett, is “a veritable monster of vanity and pretension” and “the most ambitious and mercenary person.” She hails from South America, has three children by her first husband, and loses her beloved first son in a tragic car crash. Her second husband, Ferdy Piedraplata, is shot by a hitman who makes the death look like a suicide. The hit is organized by Bianca’s lover, a Middle Eastern banker named Philippe Mahfoud, who eventually becomes her fourth husband.
“In life, circumstances sometimes force people to do things they normally wouldn’t do,” says Philippe to Bianca as he outlines the plan to kill Ferdy soon after Ferdy threatens to divorce her. Philippe enlists a member of the Gambino crime family to carry out the murder in the victim’s home in a luxe suburb of the Venezuelan capital Caracas.
The murder further unites Bianca and Philippe, who eventually marry after Bianca divorces her third husband—an interior designer—whom she marries to make Philippe jealous. But years after the murder, relations sour between Philippe and Bianca. Philippe and one of his nurses die in a mysterious blaze in his apartment in Andorra, a tax haven nestled in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. “When police finally managed to cut through, they found Philippe and Agatha sitting on the floor…Both were dead. Asphyxiated.”
In the novel, police and investigators are paid off by Bianca’s highly organized team of lawyers and financiers. Frustrated at the complete absence of justice for her crimes, Bianca’s enemies decide to fight her where they know it will hurt the most—in the court of high society. “Wherever she goes and whatever she does, she will know that a healthy proportion of the people around her will either despise her or laugh at her,” writes Lady Colin. “All her money, all the influence she has so avidly courted, the people she has just as avidly cultivated and all the manipulations to which she will resort in the future are powerless to bring this punishment to an end. As long as she exists, Bianca now clearly understands, so will it. And the thought of it starts tearing slowly away at her insides.”
On July 3, 2005, the Sunday Telegraph published an account of Empress Bianca. A day later, Lily hired high-powered London lawyer Anthony Julius of the prestigious London firm Mischon de Reya. Julius, who had previously represented Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles, demanded a retraction and apology from the editors of the Sunday Telegraph.
The apology was swift, appearing soon after the article. “It was never our intention to suggest that the actions attributed to the fictional character had been carried out by Mrs. Safra in reality,” read the newspaper’s groveling apology. “We understand that our linking of Mrs. Safra’s name with that of the novel’s central character has greatly upset her. We very much regret this and apologize unreservedly to Mrs. Safra for any embarrassment caused.”
Had Lily read the book?
“I believe that Mrs. Safra read part of the book,” said Mark Bolland, Lily’s public relations consultant, in a sworn statement. “I understand that she was unable to read any further because she was so distressed by the contents. I believe her advisers also read part of the book.”
Bolland, a former public relations adviser to the Prince of Wales, noted that it was his job to promote Lily’s charities, protect her privacy, and “keep her out of the papers.” Presumably, Bolland meant only the newspapers that refused to kowtow to Lily, and not the society press where she loved to appear.
But not content to focus on the newspapers, Lily turned against the book’s London publisher. On July 12, 2005, Lady Colin Campbell’s publisher Bliss Books, a subsidiary of Arcadia Books, received a stern letter from Julius. The letter said that “Mrs. Safra regarded the book as defamatory” and wanted it removed from distribution and pulped. It spelled out seventeen direct parallels between the lives of the character Bianca Barnett and herself. Julius gave Arcadia Books five days to respond.
Gary Pulsifer, the publisher of Arcadia Books, moved quickly to withdraw all unsold copies of the book and destroy them. “Our investors want us to settle now, which we’ll do,” said Pulsifer. “If Georgie takes it further—sounds like she will—it will be interesting to see who steps into what witness box.” Lily settled with Arcadia on July 25, 2005, after the publisher agreed to destroy all copies of the book.
Lady Colin turned the tables on Lily, suing her on the grounds that she was depriving the author of her income and foreign sales of the book, which she defended as a work of fiction based on a distant relative of her own.
“Lily tried to misuse the laws and then I used them against her,” said Lady Colin. “I’m an experienced litigant, so I sued her when Arcadia shut down.”
In the early days of the controversy, when the book was released in London, Lily’s friends and foes snapped it up before the ban. A Brazilian woman close to the story ordered eighty copies of the book and had them anonymously distributed to Lily’s highly placed society friends, including Nancy Reagan. A handful of copies that survived the pulping were available on eBay for nearly $1,000 a copy.
The lawsuit against Lily turned into a Mexican standoff, but Lady Colin did win back the right to rerelease her book in the U.S., provided that she make the seventeen changes demanded by Lily. These proved to be relatively minor.
“She objected to the fact that Bianca’s fourth husband was Lebanese, so I have made him Iraqi,” said Lady Colin. “In fact, the character was partly based on my own father, who was Lebanese. On the advice of my lawyer, I changed everything that Mrs. Safra objected to.”
In late summer 2008, Lady Colin, impeccably coiffed and elegantly dressed, hosted a group of friends and fans who sipped white wine and munched on hors d’oeuvres at her Manhattan book launch, which took place at a tony Upper East Side bookshop.
One of Lady Colin’s biggest fans turned out to be Ted Maher himself, who read a copy of her book during his last year in prison. He also maintained a correspondence with the grande dame, who publicly stated that she felt he was made a scapegoat by the Monaco authorities, that he was wrongly convicted, and that the real story behind the events of December 3, 1999, has never been properly investigated.
Her claims were unexpectedly bolstered by one of the investigating judges in the Maher case. Jean Christophe Hullin told the French newspaper Le Figaro in June 2007 that before Ted’s trial in Monaco he had attended a meeting with other high-ranking Monaco officials to discuss Ted. Hullin told a journalist that he had met with Monaco’s chief prosecutor and that they had allegedly agreed that Maher would get ten years in jail. His comments have led to an investigation in Monaco, but there is no word on when and if any report will ever be released.
In a rare outburst, Lily lashed out at the allegations that the trial had been fixed. For her, the whole ordeal had come to an end when Ted was convicted and sent to jail. Why did everything need to be rehashed now, some five years later? No doubt this was just more nonsense from “journalists who have nothing better to do,” as she had noted in her testimony at Ted’s trial when she was confronted by the results of the autopsy report that seemed to suggest Edmond might have caused Vivian’s death.
“To say the trial of the one who murdered her husband was fixed, it’s totally unbearable to her,” said Marc Bonnant, in an interview with the New York Post. “Monaco is not a barbarian country. You can’t fix trials in Europe.”
According to Bonnant, Lily had suffered “years of sorrow and days of despair” since Edmond’s death. “Her life is not only made of roses. When you love somebody, the money doesn’t make up for their loss. Nothing will heal her wounds. Nothing will take away her pain.”
The pain must have returned with a vengeance when Ted Maher was released from jail in the summer of 2007, returning to the United States in the fall. He had spent more than eight years in jail (he was incarcerated shortly after Edmond’s funeral) for a crime that he claims he did not commit, and he was angry. Once he stepped onto American soil, Ted told reporters that he had been nothing more than a scapegoat—he had been convicted in order to keep up Monaco’s appearance as a safe playground for the rich and famous. He still insisted that two intruders broke into the apartment the night that Edmond died, but there were new elements to his story. Now he spoke about being accosted in Nice a week before the penthouse fire. He now claimed that two gun-toting thugs abducted him off a street in Nice and showed him photographs of his wife in Stormville and his children leaving school.
“He was threatened, and pictures were shown to him by these people of his children coming out of school, and his wife coming out of work,” said Michael Griffith, the American lawyer for Ted, who had originally been appointed to the case through Amnesty International. Griffith, a fast-talking Southhampton-based attorney, rose to fame in the 1970s when he represented Billy Hayes, an American student convicted of smuggling hashish out of Turkey in 1970 and the subject of the Hollywood film Midnight Express. Since then, he has specialized in helping Americans who find themselves in legal difficulties abroad through his firm, International Legal Defense Counsel.
On December 3, 1999, those same thugs penetrated the Safra penthouse through an open window, said Ted. He tried to fight them, whacking one of the assailants in the head with a barbell that he used for workouts with Edmond. The second one sliced Ted in the left calf and in the stomach.
As the intruders fled through the open window, Ted frantically warned Edmond and Vivian, who told him to set off the alarm. Ted didn’t know how, and so he lit a fire with one of Harry Slatkin’s scented candles in the Lucite wastebasket in the nurses’ station to set off the fire alarm.
“The only alarm that I knew of was a smoke alarm,” said Ted.
Although Ted had four lawyers defending him in Monaco, there seemed little coordination or perceptible strategy in his legal defense, especially as Griffith was denied access to his client two weeks before the trial began in late November 2002. Ted’s defense was also hampered by profound disagreements among his legal team. One of his attorneys, Donald Manasse, didn’t want Michael Baden, the U.S. forensics expert, to testify at the trial because he thought his testimony would not benefit Ted. “Accusing the victim of having murdered someone would not play favorably on the defense,” said Manasse, citing the autopsy report that showed Vivian Torrente had bruises on her body. Manasse also said that Griffith did not appreciate the complexities of the Monaco legal system.
Although Griffith concedes that there are “problems” with Ted’s multiple versions of events on December 3, 1999, he still maintains that Ted did not stab himself and that he was indeed the victim of armed intruders.
Griffith, who is used to being at the center of gripping international cases involving socialites, murder, and intrigue, confided that Monaco was a difficult place to be a lawyer. His phones, he says, were constantly tapped, and the legal system is overly complex and Byzantine. He sees Ted’s predicament as a violation of human rights, and was planning to take his case to the International Court of Justice.
But the press was no longer interested in the story of Ted Maher’s innocence or guilt, even as NBC’s Inside Edition devoted an hour of prime time in the spring of 2008 to Ted’s latest version of events, which now involved high-stakes intrigue with mobsters who wanted Edmond Safra dead.
Following his ordeal in Monaco, Maher’s return to the U.S. was a lot less glamorous, a lot less remarkable, even though there were moments of some excitement. Ted spoke of his ordeal to his American legal team, literary agents, and, surprisingly, a representative from the Monaco tourist authority, who all gathered at an upscale Midtown Chinese eatery off Park Avenue to welcome Ted back to the United States in the spring of 2008. Ted was hoping to write a book about his adventures in Monaco, and had even floated the idea to a well-placed literary agent in New York. But in the end, no one was interested in his story, which strained belief and had already been exhaustively told by much of the world’s media.
Despite his experience as a nurse, Ted was finding it difficult to find a job. “I went to interviews where they said I had more experience than ten nurses, but then I would get a letter saying I needed more experience, which is why I stopped telling people what happened to me in Monaco.”
But even a decade after the fact, it’s difficult to hide your identity if you were at the center of the mysterious death of one of the world’s wealthiest bankers. A simple Google search of Ted’s name provides instant information about his involvement with Edmond Safra.
Ted says he is determined to bury the past and to try to get on with his life. “Why should I stick a knife in my heart by telling the truth about what happened to me?” he said. “I’ve already been stabbed enough.”
When he was interviewed for this book, Ted Maher was living in a trailer and having trouble holding onto his job at the Fountainview Care Center, a nursing home in Waterford, Connecticut, after staff members got wind that he was the American nurse at the center of the Safra scandal. After a few days of working at the Waterford facility, where he was managing seventy-five people, his bosses saw his story on NBC. Ted’s protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears in an emergency meeting with upper management at the nursing home. How could they have a convicted arsonist on the staff of a long-term care facility for the elderly? A few days after the meeting at the Fountainview, Ted was fired, despite Griffith’s entreaties with the managers of the facility. Although he was a convicted felon in Monaco, Ted’s record was relatively clean in the United States.
“America has turned out to be another prison,” said Ted, his deep blue eyes flashing in anger. During his first few months in the United States, Ted was convinced that he was being followed by shadowy figures.
Following his return, Ted was prevented by court order from seeing his children in Stormville, whose names had been changed after the divorce from Heidi was finalized in 2006 while he was still in jail. He was arrested by Poughkeepsie police in August 2007 when he ignored a restraining order and tried to see his children. “I came by the area that I knew to be my life,” he said. “I was pulled over and put in jail for twenty-four hours because of the restraining order against me.” The bail was set at $5,000, which was paid for by Ted’s sister Tammy, who remains close to him.
Still, despite the difficulties, he seemed optimistic, quoting his hero Teddy Roosevelt—“You do what you can with what you have where you are”—and working on completing his pilot’s license.
“Things aren’t so bad in my life,” said Ted. “I’m not working at Burger King. I’m not fearful of anything in my life after what I’ve been through. I can do anything that I put my mind to.”
Still, he lives for the day when he can clear his name and get revenge against authorities in Monaco, who “robbed me of 2,886 days of my life.”
But the more Ted spoke, the more his stories sounded like fantasy. Which was a good thing for both Lily Safra and the authorities in her new country of citizenship, Monaco.