Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows - Isabel Vincent (2010)
Epilogue. “We Know Everything and We Know Nothing”
RIO DE JANEIRO’S most prestigious Jewish cemetery is located off Avenida Brasil, a potholed stretch of highway that passes through myriad shantytowns and decaying suburban warehouses. It’s a large, sunbaked plot of concrete where the graves are arranged in orderly rows. The tropical heat and torrential afternoon downpours in summer have dislodged the concrete in many places, and tough weeds—some of them dotted with colorful flowers—shoot through the cracks.
Except for Edmond Safra, who is buried in Geneva, many of the most important people in Lily Safra’s life are buried here at the cemetery everyone calls Caju, after the cashew trees that used to grow in the outlying district where the cemetery is located.
There is Wolf White Watkins, Lily’s father, whose remains occupy plot number 40. Wolf died in Montevideo in 1962, but he is buried in the Rio suburbs—an appropriate choice, perhaps, because it was in those same suburbs that he finally made at least part of the fortune he had dreamed about as a young man in London. What he didn’t know was that the fame and fortune he so craved in his own life would be the legacy taken up by his youngest child—the beloved daughter he had named after his favorite opera star and pushed to marry a rich man. Lily married two rich men, and in the end she amassed a fortune beyond her father’s wildest dreams.
Lily’s mother, Annita Watkins, managed to get a glimpse of what her very able daughter was capable of doing. She died in 1971 in Rio de Janeiro, two years after Lily inherited Alfredo Monteverde’s fabulous fortune and moved to London to protect her interests. Annita is buried nearby, in plot number 424. There are several stones on her grave—no doubt remembrances from “her children, son-in-law, daughters-in-law, cousins and nieces and nephews,” who are mentioned in the inscription carved into the stone.
A short way away lie the remains of Wolf and Annita’s second son, Daniel. He died of a heart attack in March 2002, unable to enjoy the new apartment he had just bought with his wife, Malvina, across the street from the imperial palace—the summer home of the Brazilian royal family—in Petropolis, a picturesque town nestled in the mountains outside Rio. Malvina lives alone in the apartment overlooking the palace. She refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this book.
Daniel, who was born in 1921, had always been close to Lily even though he was thirteen years older. It was Daniel who was designated as Lily’s caretaker. He signed her school reports at the Colegio Anglo-Americano in Rio de Janeiro and pledged that the family would take care of the school’s tuition fees. Later, when Lily was an adult, Daniel was charged with all those unpleasant tasks that Lily was perhaps too sensitive to handle on her own. He identified Alfredo Monteverde’s body at the Rio morgue and signed the death certificate. It was Daniel who was an important witness when Alfredo made his last will and testament in 1966, and it was Daniel who was named trustee and guardian of Carlinhos in the event of the deaths of both Alfredo and Lily.
Artigas Watkins is also buried at Caju. Artigas, who was six years older than Lily, died in Teresopolis, a mountain town outside Rio where he had a condo, on November 14, 2006. Everyone knew he was close to Alfredo—especially Alfredo’s accountants, who were regularly asked to set aside envelopes stuffed with cash for him. To be sure, he was a bona fide employee of Ponto Frio, working as a security guard at one of the company’s warehouses in the industrial outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. But Artigas may have made far more than any other security guard in the city. He was constantly at the Ponto Frio offices in downtown Rio or at the house on Rua Icatu. Like his younger sister, Artigas had an appetite for money that seemed insatiable, and he stuck close to Alfredo, who never denied him cash. Lily’s imminent divorce from his benefactor no doubt gave him pause. Was he worried about his own future when he heard that Alfredo was planning to divorce his sister? What would happen to him and the rest of the Watkins family without the regular cash infusions from Ponto Frio?
“Artigas practically lived at the office asking Fred for money,” said Vera Chvidchenko, Alfredo’s secretary from 1960 to 1969. “He was very able when he needed money.”
Was it by accident or design that Artigas was at his brother-in-law’s home on August 25, 1969, the day he died? According to one of the servants, nobody quite knows what he was doing there that day. Perhaps he needed cash. In any case, he seems to have slipped out before someone fired the two gunshots that killed Alfredo and shattered the stillness of that August afternoon.
Near the entrance of the cemetery, Lily’s eldest son, Claudio Cohen, is buried with little Raphael Cohen, her grandson, who died in the car crash on the highway to Angra dos Reis. There are a handful of rocks on the white headstone, perhaps indicating the regular visits of mourners.
Nearby is the grave of Claudio’s wife, Evelyne Sigelmann Cohen, whose young son Gabriel effectively became Lily’s charge after his mother’s death. Evelyne, who worked so diligently to ensure the best for her little boy before her own death, would surely be proud of the young man who is now enrolled in a good East Coast university. Perhaps she would even have found it in her heart to forgive Lily for taking him away from Antonio Negreiros, the man who had become the most important person in her life following Claudio and Raphael’s deaths in 1989.
IN THE END, Lily managed to obtain a measure of revenge for the tragedy that befell her eldest son and his family when she fired Simon Alouan from Ponto Frio. Alouan, who is today one of the most successful businessmen in São Paulo, refused to sell his shares in Ponto Frio, and for many years after he left the company, he remained an important fixture in the appliance empire that Alfredo created—a thorn in Lily’s side when she tried to sell the company with Carlos in 1998.
At the time, Lily approached Carlos, who was recovering from his terrible accident in Italy, to convince him to join her in the sale. Carlos had endured a difficult relationship with Lily after the death of Alfredo. In an interview at his five-story townhouse in South Kensington, he recently admitted for the first time that he blamed himself for Alfredo’s death. It was nine-year-old Carlos who first discovered the body on the afternoon of August 25, 1969, and the event clearly left him traumatized.
“I thought his [Alfredo’s] death was my fault, and I thought I was being punished by being sent to boarding school,” said Carlos. “I spent my adolescence with psychologists.”
He was also extremely upset by Edmond’s death, thirty years later. “Since I was thirteen years old, he was my second father,” said Carlos, whose relationship with Edmond effectively ended after he married a Muslim in the late 1980s.
Despite Carlos’s rather dangerous hobby of collecting and racing vintage Ferraris, the Monteverdes lead a fairly quiet life with their two daughters in London. Isis, a former model, lives the life of a moneyed socialite. She takes art and exercise classes and attends fabulous parties. Every New Year’s Eve, the family heads to Mauritius to celebrate with their society friends Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, famed interior designer Nicky Haswell, and the Picassos.
According to Isis, Lily, whom she refers to formally as Madame Safra, has been a very good grandmother to her two girls. “I respect her,” said Isis about her mother-in-law. “But my family is me, Carlos, the girls and that’s it.”
But there’s nothing like a business opportunity to bring families back together. Since Alouan sold his minority shares in Ponto Frio two years ago, Lily has been eager to sell her part in the company. In March 2009, she again teamed up with her stepson to sell their combined interests in the company. Despite a worldwide recession, Lily and Carlos managed to sell Ponto Frio in June 2009 to Brazilian supermarket magnate Abilio dos Santos Diniz for just over $400 million.
Perhaps it wasn’t the best deal they could have made for Alfredo’s old company, but they must have felt a sense of relief to see it go. For years, Carlos admitted he had only a passing interest in his father’s old company. “Sometimes I call to find out about the business, but my big preoccupation is to strengthen the foundation, extending the primary education component,” he said in an interview. “It’s my way of contributing to my country.”
Maria Consuelo Ayres, the first employee Alfredo hired when he started Globex in 1946, managed that foundation until her death in February 2009. The nonagenarian secretary was in charge of the Alfredo João Monteverde Foundation, the philanthropic organization he set up for the company’s workers, providing them with health care, educational opportunities, and recreation for their families. Today, the foundation helps more than nine thousand of the company’s employees spread out over 370 stores throughout Brazil.
Maria Consuelo was extremely loyal to Alfredo, but she was a corporate survivor, and after his death, when she saw that Lily was firmly in charge of the company, Maria Consuelo toed the line. She helped organize Alfredo’s funeral, looking the other way when Geraldo Mattos was forced to make certain financial “contributions” to avoid undue scrutiny and publicity. Still, Maria Consuelo was clearly conflicted in her old age. She never believed that Alfredo really would have killed himself, but she could not contemplate any other scenario.
So she continued to show her devotion to Alfredo by working diligently at the foundation. She also sought to protect Carlos’s interests in Brazil. She held his power of attorney in the country and represented him at Ponto Frio board meetings that he was too busy to attend. For years, she tried to track down information about Carlos’s birth family in Rio.
“Maybe if you find them, I can help them in some way,” Carlos had told her. But the task was simply too complicated even for the very able Maria Consuelo. By the end of the custody trials in Brazil and England in the early 1970s, Maria Consuelo had tracked down several birth certificates for Carlos.
To show their respect for her loyal services, Ponto Frio executives provided Maria Consuelo with a company car and driver, who would pick her up every day from her apartment in northern Rio and take her to Ponto Frio’s suburban offices. Maria Consuelo, a heavyset woman whose girth caused her to take pained, deliberate steps, worked at the company until her death at ninety-two. She needed the job, she said, because she was the sole support of her younger sister, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Today, Maria Consuelo lies in the Catholic cemetery adjacent to the old Jewish burial ground at Caju. Her remains lie in a vault in a high-rise tower, an ingenious effort on the part of cemetery directors to accommodate as many people as possible.
Despite all her hard work for Ponto Frio, few of the company’s top executives attended her funeral or memorial mass in Rio de Janeiro. Only the old Ponto Frio accountant, Ademar Trotte, now an elderly man who manages his own firm on gritty Avenida Venezuela across from the federal police building in downtown Rio, attended the funeral along with Conrado Gruenbaum, Alfredo’s old attorney.
With Maria Consuelo’s passing, Conrado is the last of the old guard at Ponto Frio. Alfredo brought him into the company in 1957. Now well into his seventies, Conrado is a thin, wiry, and elegant man, who is bronzed from all the time he spends walking on the beach near his home in Rio. He is the director of the Rio Association of Store Owners, a powerful local business group located a few blocks from Ponto Frio’s first store on Rua Uruguaiana, which today occupies nearly a whole city block next to the teeming old Arab market.
When I interviewed him in 2008, Conrado refused to answer any questions about Alfredo or Ponto Frio, where he still worked a few days a week. When I asked him about Alfredo’s death and the version of events that he related to police on August 25, 1969, Conrado smiled and answered every question the same way: “It’s off the record,” he repeated. “I can’t say.”
By contrast, Vera Chvidchenko, Alfredo’s secretary in the 1960s, had a great deal to say. For the first time in more than four decades, she spoke about her visit to the coroner’s office the day after Alfredo died. “I never believed that Fred committed suicide,” said Vera in an interview at her office in Rio. Neither, it seems, did the coroner, who did not find gunpowder residue on his hands, and who told Vera that if Alfredo did commit suicide, the shots that entered his thorax could only have been fired with his left hand. But somewhere along the way to the police station or the coroner’s office or both, money changed hands, Vera said.
Shortly after Alfredo died, Vera left Ponto Frio to study law. She said she soured on the company after its director Geraldo Mattos forced her to sign over a building that she had purchased on Alfredo’s behalf in downtown Rio. Alfredo, who put up the cash, asked her to put the deed in her name for tax reasons. “Of course, I could have demanded a great deal of money to surrender the building after he died, but I didn’t ask for anything,” said Vera, who still works as a senior partner in a downtown law firm. “I was just completely disgusted with everything they did with the company after Fred died. I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.”
But Vera holds no grudge against Lily and is grateful for the bottles of perfume that Lily gives her every time she comes to Brazil on a visit, which is not often anymore.
In the end, even Geraldo Mattos didn’t have the stomach for the new Ponto Frio. Geraldo, who was summoned to meetings in Geneva with Edmond after Alfredo died, didn’t like what he was seeing. The meetings were held in a boardroom of Edmond Safra’s Trade Development Bank. Edmond sat next to a shredder and regularly destroyed his memos to the Brazilian company in Geraldo’s presence.
Although he once promised Alfredo that he would stay with the company until Carlos turned twenty-one, Geraldo tendered his resignation to Lily and Edmond in Geneva in March 1974, less than five years after Alfredo died. “This is the last trip that I make to Geneva,” he wrote on an airline menu, which his daughter Sonia found amongst his old papers when he died. “This is a decisive moment in my life. I believe that what I should have done, I did. I want to continue to be successful and to create something for my children.”
Lily called Geraldo her “thief-director” because he had held onto several million dollars worth of shares that were signed over to him by Alfredo when he was in a state of euphoria. Geraldo’s family denied that this was the case, but did acknowledge that part of his job after Alfredo died was to send profits from the company offshore to an account that his widow controlled.
“My father was in charge of Ponto Frio after Fred died, but the new owners treated him badly,” said Geraldo’s daughter Sonia.
With the $5 million in a settlement that he was able to obtain from the company after his resignation, Geraldo, a balding, heavyset executive with a perfectly trimmed mustache, opened his own small chain of appliance stores in Rio. Although he was successful for a few years, he sold the firm to a businessman who, unbeknownst to him, was tied to Edmond Safra. The businessman refused to pay, and Geraldo spent the rest of his life in costly litigation. He never told his family that he had lost everything; they found out after his death when they had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in remaining litigation fees.
Laurinda Soares Navarro also feels that she lost everything after the death of her beloved boss. Although Lily had asked Alfredo’s old housekeeper to accompany her to London, Laurinda politely declined. She needed to look after her two sons, Adilson and Ademir. But a few years after Alfredo died, Laurinda lost Ademir to an assassin’s bullet—a victim of the drug violence that now regularly rips through Rio de Janeiro’s teeming favelas. Today Laurinda, who recently retired from her cleaning job at Rio’s Catholic University, lives alone in a small apartment on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, attended by her son Adilson, a taxi driver, who still lives in the old favela with his own family. When I interviewed her for this book, Laurinda, seventy-seven, had tears in her eyes when she spoke about Seu Alfredo, and kissed one of the black-and-white photographs from the autopsy that I showed her.
“We know everything and we know nothing,” was how she summed up August 25, 1969, the day Alfredo died and the day her life changed forever.
TODAY, THE HOUSE on Rua Icatu that was the scene of so much tragedy in 1969 is full of life again. Marcelo and Klara Steinfeld, who bought the house from Lily, raised their children there, and after Klara’s death, Marcelo married a younger, lively Argentine woman who spends a great deal of her time tending the garden and grooming the couple’s dogs. The Steinfelds are not fazed by the events that took place in their master bedroom four decades earlier, although they concede that Lily’s life has been marked by “too much tragedy” since Alfredo’s death.
The street itself has probably changed little from Alfredo’s day. It is still a quiet neighborhood of lush mango trees, dotted by colorful orchids and hibiscus, where tamarind monkeys stop in bemused attention to stare at passersby as they climb up the mountain. Some of the houses are bigger, though, and they are set back behind large mechanized wrought-iron gates, monitored by doormen carrying walkie-talkies—a sign of the violence that has gripped the city in the years since Alfredo’s death.
SEVERAL YEARS AFTER Edmond’s death Lily sold the Monaco penthouse that she had so painstakingly decorated with mirrored walls covered in peach-colored treillage at the entrance and faux Fragonard murals and swans hand-painted on the elevator doors. Although she now identifies herself as a citizen of Monaco (Brazil has been conveniently forgotten) and still uses the principality as her home base, nobody could blame her for selling off the penthouse, with its terrible memories of the fire and Edmond’s death.
But despite her attempts to liquidate the recent past, it haunts her still, mostly in the unanswered questions that remain after Ted Maher’s trial in 2002. “It was never explained satisfactorily why she [Lily] had taken the keys to the apartment away from all the employees shortly before the tragedy,” wrote Dominick Dunne. “The greatest unexplained question will always be why there was no guard on duty that night since the Safras maintained a private cadre of 11 guards trained by the Mossad.”
A decade later, it is impossible to corroborate anything Maher has said. Were there intruders in the apartment? It’s impossible to say since the surveillance tapes were mysteriously erased. Did Ted act alone or was he a pawn of a much bigger conspiracy?
Over the years, Ted’s statements about December 3, 1999, became so confused that it’s impossible to say with any certainty what exactly took place on that winter morning in one of the world’s most privileged and security-obsessed enclaves.
For their part, Edmond’s brothers and sisters want nothing to do with Monaco. Edmond’s death still weighs heavily on them a decade after his passing. “It was a really stupid death,” said one family member who did not want to be identified. “What can I say? Nobody investigated. Nobody found anything. To this day, we are still disgusted with everything that happened. No one in the family has returned to Monaco since the trial, and we will never return there.”
And what of relations with their billionaire sister-in-law, Lily Safra? Hard to say, since the Safras have never spoken about her publicly. The cryptic press release they issued after Edmond’s death was the first and last word on the woman they are still linked to in name.
But only in name.
“Every family has issues, but everything is settled now,” said the Safra family member, matter-of-factly. “There was no court; everything was settled out of court.”
For Samuel Bendahan, Lily’s third husband, little was ever settled—in a court or outside of one. Bendahan, now seventy-four, has spent a lifetime trying to figure out why his fairy-tale marriage came apart at the seams. His answer? Edmond Safra, the man he says ruined his entire life. Bendahan claims that the stress he suffered when he was jailed in New York and the protracted legal actions that followed were directly responsible for the onset of his stomach cancer.
Strangely, he feels no ill will towards his former wife, who he believes was simply forced to do Edmond’s bidding because of the large sum of money she had inherited from Alfredo and which Edmond controlled. After the end of the lawsuits against him, Bendahan retreated to his property in southern Spain. He never married. His goal in speaking so openly about his former wife is his own public redemption. He was not the “gigolo” third husband of Lily Safra, but a businessman from a distinguished Jewish family who fell in love with a young widow who was once also passionate about him.
“Even I am [now] surprised about how little I knew about Lily’s past,” wrote Bendahan in an e-mail. “In computer parlance, what I saw is what I got, and what I saw was most pleasing and fulfilling. Our time together was far too good to have to rely on ‘What was your favorite subject at school? What was he like in bed?’”
Following the settlement of all the other lawsuits against Lily after Edmond’s death, Lily turned to other matters. For years there were rumors that she had received offers to sell her villa in the south of France. In one of the earliest rumors, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was said to be interested in the property. Then the Russian oligarchs got involved. Press reports recounted how she had sold the property to Roman Abramovich, Russian billionaire and owner of the Chelsea Football Club. But the rumors proved to be false.
However, the home was provisionally sold to another Russian billionaire before the worldwide recession put a dent in Lily’s plans. In 2008, Lily reached a deal with Mikhail Prokhorov, who offered her $500 million for the estate—a staggering sum of money that would have made La Leopolda the world’s most expensive residential property. Prokhorov, the former owner of Norilsk Nickel, put down a 10 percent deposit in the summer of 2008 but backed out of the deal in February 2009. He demanded his deposit back after he lost money in the severe economic downturn, but Lily refused. For her part, she had not wanted to sell the house at any price but reached an agreement after repeated requests on Prokhorov’s behalf. At first, Prokhorov said no deal was made, but the Financial Times found a deposit from a subsidiary of a company called Atenaco, which Prokhorov controlled.
Prokhorov, a self-made billionaire, was no stranger to controversy. In January 2007, he was detained by French police in the ski resort of Courchevel in a case of suspected high-class prostitution although no charges were brought against him.
Lily, who had already moved out the furniture and had agreed to a penalty if she reneged on the deal, refused to be moved by the economic crisis and the Russian billionaire’s economic woes. In a press release, she noted that she would not return Prokhorov’s deposit. She said that she would distribute the $55 million to numerous charities, including the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in New York (€2 million) and the Claude Pompidou Institute for Alzheimer’s Disease in Nice (€8 million). Her biggest contribution of €10 million was destined for Harvard University, for the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.
“By transforming the purchase deposit into an act of giving, I would like to encourage all who can do so to support medical research, patient care, education and other important humanitarian causes during these times of economic uncertainty,” she said in a press release.
Dividing her time between her apartment in New York City and homes in London and Monaco, Lily continues to give generously to her pet causes and is a regular fixture at society events in Europe and New York. Through the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, which she has chaired since Edmond’s death, she is an important supporter of medical research into cancer, AIDS, and humanitarian relief and education around the world. She endowed the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard and has given away more than 16,000 scholarships to needy students in Israel for university education since the 1977 founding of the International Sephardic Education Foundation, the charity she created with Edmond and Nina Weiner.
Lily was a lead supporter of the American Red Cross’s relief effort in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane. Her support allowed Dillard University in New Orleans to offer temporary classes in the aftermath of the hurricane and helped the school rebuild the campus for the fall 2006 semester. She is a member of the board of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and she financed the construction of the Safra Family Lodge at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2005. The Safra Family Lodge, an English arts and crafts manor surrounded by a beautiful garden, provides a retreat for the families of patients who are receiving care at the clinical center. The garden is named after Claudio and Evelyne Cohen, and includes a fountain dedicated to the memory of Raphael Cohen, Lily’s grandson.
Lily’s generosity has been honored all over the world. In 2004, the French government gave her the rank of Commandeur in the Ordre des arts et des lettres and a year later she was named a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur by then president Jacques Chirac. She is an honorary fellow of King’s College London and the Courtauld Institute of Art, whose programs she has generously supported. She also holds honorary doctorates from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Brandeis University, where she established the Lily Safra Internship Program at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, which allows six undergraduates and two graduate students to conduct research in Jewish and women’s studies every summer.
In the United States, she supports a myriad of community organizations and is a member of the Chairman’s Council of the Museum of Modern Art, the Kennedy Center’s International Committee on the Arts, and a trustee of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. In Washington, she established the Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professorship at the National Gallery of Art.
She is a regal presence at philanthropic galas, where she inevitably shows up in gorgeous couture, her short hair beautifully styled. With no man in her life these days (at least no one she is ever seen with publicly), the grand dame now appears at many events accompanied by her granddaughter, who is beautiful and blonde and whose name also is Lily. At other events, she has been photographed with her daughter, Adriana, and her other grandchildren. Her son Eduardo, who owns an antiques business in the more fashionable part of Buenos Aires, is absent from any recent photos, although he appeared at Ponto Frio’s sixtieth-anniversary celebrations in Rio de Janeiro in 2006. He was pictured in the Rio society columns, among the city’s glitterati, wearing a Ponto Frio T-shirt at the company party that drew hundreds of people.
In spite of the money and glamour, the parties and charities, and her public profile, the life of Lily Watkins Cohen Monteverde Bendahan Safra has had more than its share of tragedy. The woman herself remains inscrutable.
“DO YOU KNOW Dona Lily?”
The question was directed to no one in particular. Marcos, the tall, sunburned administrator of the Caju cemetery, put a hand up to his forehead to shield his eyes from the blistering afternoon sunshine.
Marcos hails from Lebanon and claims to have gone to school with Edmond Safra. He says he has repeatedly tried to get in touch with Lily Safra over the years through her son-in-law, Michel Elia, who used to oversee Ponto Frio. Yes, he knows that these are very busy and important people, but they owe a sacred duty to the dead, he says. The headstones of the Watkins, Cohens, and Monteverdes all need upkeep. It costs little more than $50 to clean a headstone, $15 to re-carve each of the fading letters, he said.
“They haven’t paid anything in years, and look at the headstones now,” said Marcos, who wore a yarmulke and short-sleeved, button-down shirt as he took a visitor through the Caju cemetery. “The stones are dirty and falling apart. Some of the letters need to be redone. They all need to be cleaned. What am I supposed to do?”
Marcos stopped at the grave of Alfredo Monteverde, which is situated a short distance from the graves of the Watkins family towards the back of the cemetery. The headstone of Lily’s second husband, whose death became the seminal event in her life, is dirty and the letters are fading.
Alfredo’s remains lie close to those of his mother, Regina Rebecca Monteverde, who died in 1976, the same year that Lily finally married Edmond Safra in a low-key ceremony in Geneva. After the death of her beloved son, Regina was a broken woman. She tried everything to investigate what she always believed to be his murder, and tried to prevent her former daughter-in-law from taking over Globex, which Regina always considered a family company because it was built from the gold that the Monteverdes brought to Brazil from Romania.
“Even though she could be really nasty to Fred, he was really her whole life,” said Alfredo’s old secretary Vera, who remained close to Regina until her death. “He was the most important thing in her world.”
He was also the most important man in Lily’s life—even more significant than her father and Edmond Safra. Although they were married for just over four years, Lily inherited a vast family fortune that enabled her to live the fairy tale she had dreamed of when she was a teenager in a lilac organza dress, hoping to catch the eye of a young man with money at the CIB socials. It was only after Alfredo’s sudden death that Lily was quickly able to launch herself into the rarefied world of couture gowns and sumptuous parties on two continents.
Despite his immense importance in the course of Lily’s life and his dominance of Rio business circles in the 1960s, Alfredo Monteverde has been largely forgotten. There were only two stones on his tombstone when I visited recently, which probably means that he has had few visitors at the cemetery.
But in 2007, Alfredo enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. Across town from the gritty cemetery, in a well-appointed Copacabana apartment, an elderly woman with a continental accent gathered up a bundle of T-shirts, all of them with a silk-screened impression of Alfredo Monteverde. The photo of the founder of Ponto Frio was taken when he was a young man, on the ski slopes in Switzerland or France. He is suntanned and handsome, his gaze full of hope and possibility.
The elderly woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, has poured thousands of dollars into keeping Alfredo’s memory alive. When Ponto Frio celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2006, few of the current executives thought to honor the founder. So she rented airplanes to fly giant banners that featured two penguins, the Ponto Frio mascot, proclaiming, “They’ve forgotten our founder.” The planes flew over Rio’s beaches on the weekends, when they would be crowded with sunbathers. The woman also took out full-page ads in the country’s biggest newspapers with the same message.
“All of this is costing me so much that I had to sell one of my Picassos to put all of it together,” said the woman with a wink as she examined the hundreds of white T-shirts that she planned personally to distribute through Rio de Janeiro’s poorest communities.
In a country of nearly 200 million people, it might have appeared a feeble gesture to raise awareness of a man, long dead, who had built a massive fortune but never forgot the poor. But to those who knew him and loved him, Alfredo Monteverde was no ordinary man. And his death, which has never been investigated to their satisfaction, still weighs on them, even more than forty years after the fact.
When the first full-page ad of the Alfredo remembrance campaign was published in O Globo, Victor Sztern, who was a young man of seventeen when Alfredo died, bought a copy and headed to the cemetery at Caju. Victor, a heavyset businessman who is in his late fifties and owns his own coffee export business in Rio, has never forgotten the man who took him under his wing when his own parents died. Victor placed a copy of the newspaper on top of Alfredo’s grave and said a prayer.
The newspaper was not allowed to remain on Alfredo’s tombstone for long. Marcos’s assistants at Caju cleaned it up before it joined the refuse that makes its way into the cemetery from passing cars and mourners.
“We would clean up the rest of these graves, if we could get a hold of Dona Lily or Michel Elia,” said Marcos, who was growing increasingly annoyed as he finished his tour of the graves.
But for now, at least, the graves of the people who were so important in the plot of the great novel that has been the billionaire widow’s life so far remain unkempt, neglected, and forgotten.
According to Marcos’s calculations, Lily Safra owes the cemetery just over $3,000, and he’s not about to continue the upkeep of the graves until the lady pays up.