Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows - Isabel Vincent (2010)
Chapter 1. “The Most Elegant Girl”
GASTÃO VEIGA, WHO knew Lily as a teenager before her first marriage, said he wasn’t surprised that she had landed one of the richest men in Brazil before her thirtieth birthday. It was clear to him that the only daughter of Wolf White Watkins had been trained from an early age to marry up in the world. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter how many times she needed to walk down the aisle.
“Lily was a social climber, it’s true,” said Veiga. “The Watkins family lived around the prospects of Lily marrying a wealthy man.”
The Watkinses were well off by most standards, but they had fallen short of the wealth dreamed of by Wolf White Watkins, who had left his native London in his early twenties to seek his fortune in the wilds of South America. Wolf, an engineer by profession, settled first in Uruguay, where he met his future wife, Annita Noudelman de Castro. Annita, an Uruguayan of Russian-Jewish descent, was still a teenager when she married Wolf and became pregnant with the couple’s first child.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, many Jews escaping hardship and persecution in Europe had moved to the southern reaches of South America, most of them aided by the Jewish Colonization Association. The organization was founded by the Baron Maurice de Hirsch in 1891 to help Jews who were in danger of being targeted in anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe. The baron’s organization gave the mostly Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland a plot of land and helped each settler buy livestock and a horse in agricultural colonies in South America where they could practice their religion without fear of persecution.
It’s not clear if the Noudelman family arrived in Uruguay under the Baron de Hirsch scheme, but for many Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, Uruguay was not a destination but merely a stopover on the way to more prosperous communities in Brazil or Argentina. Although there are records of Jewish settlement in the country dating back to the 1770s, the Jewish presence in Uruguay in the early twentieth century was negligible. There were fewer than two hundred Jews in the capital Montevideo in the early 1900s and the first synagogue in the country was only established there in 1917. Still, the government of the day seems to have been extremely tolerant of Jews. At the San Remo Conference in April 1920, a post–World War I meeting of the Allied Supreme Council to divide up the former Ottoman-controlled lands of the Middle East, Uruguay boldly supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
Most of the Jews who decided to stay in Uruguay eventually gravitated to Montevideo, where they opened small businesses. The Noudelmans appear to have gone against the grain, settling in Rivera, a small frontier town in the northern part of the country, near the Brazilian border, where the small Jewish community worked as traders, gauchos, or farmers.
It’s not clear how Wolf White Watkins ended up in Rivera, but it certainly wasn’t religion that drove him there. The twenty-three-year-old dreamer headed to the New World after the First World War because he wanted to strike it rich.
“Watkins was a controversial figure,” said Veiga, a business associate in the 1940s and 1950s, who, in later years, imported luxury vehicles, such as Rolls Royce and MG, to Brazil. “He was mixed up with everything and he was determined to earn money. Whether it was clean or dirty, he didn’t care. The line in business that he followed was never straight.”
Despite his fierce-sounding name, Wolf White Watkins was a slight, balding, and bespectacled man. The photo on his Brazilian identity card shows a rather mousy middle-aged man in a smart business suit who looks more like a mild-mannered accountant or school-teacher than a tough, enterprising businessman who traveled across the world to seek his fortune.
In February 1919, Wolf and Annita, who were living in Rivera close to Annita’s family, decided to move to Sant’Ana do Livramento in Brazil. It’s not clear that they actually crossed a border since both Rivera and Sant’Ana do Livramento are twin cities with an undefined crossing. One could easily get lost in the outskirts of Rivera, only to find that he had unwittingly crossed the border into Brazil. In the early twentieth century, the region, marked by rolling hills, lush vineyards, and fruit trees, was a haven for smugglers, who could easily move contraband goods, such as petrol, tobacco, machinery, salted beef, leather, and precious metals, into Brazil and Argentina, where tariff barriers on imported goods were extremely high. Although Wolf’s expertise lay in the construction of railway carriages, like most enterprising frontier residents, he also tried his hand at smuggling, says Veiga.
At some point, Wolf and his wife must have made the conscious decision to move to Brazil to start their family. Compared to rural Uruguay, which was at the time a sleepy agricultural backwoods, Brazil was turning into an economic powerhouse where the booming coffee trade was fueling rapid industrialization and attracting a steady stream of European immigrants who came in search of economic opportunities.
Less than a year after the couple established themselves on the Brazilian side of the border in Sant’Ana, nineteen-year-old Annita gave birth to the first of the couple’s four children. Rodolpho Watkins was born in Sant’Ana do Livramento on January 1, 1920. His brother Daniel was born a year later.
The Watkins family’s next move, in 1922, was to Porto Alegre, a relatively prosperous city of German and Italian immigrants where most afternoons gauchos in capes and faded cowboy hats gathered around the central plaza to share a gourd of maté, the strong herbal tea which is a staple in the Southern Cone. Porto Alegre, which was 250 miles away from Sant’Ana, was also becoming an important center of Jewish settlement, and by the time Annita and Wolf moved to the city, Ashkenazi Jews were beginning to settle in the Bom Fim neighborhood, a middle-class enclave dotted by kosher slaughterhouses and other Jewish businesses. In 1928, their third son, Artigas, was born in Porto Alegre. He may have been named in honor of General Jose Gervasio Artigas, the nineteenth-century hero of Uruguay’s independence movement. Wolf must have felt a special bond with the long-deceased general because both of them began their professional lives as smugglers on the Brazilian border.
Six years after the birth of Artigas, Wolf and Annita’s only daughter was born in Porto Alegre, on December 20, 1934. An opera buff, Wolf insisted upon naming the baby girl Lily in honor of the petite French soprano Lily Pons, who was at the height of her fame just as her Brazilian namesake was born.
By the time Lily was born, residents of Porto Alegre were keenly following events in the country’s capital, Rio de Janeiro, where one of their own native sons, President Getúlio Vargas, a lawyer and former populist governor of Rio Grande do Sul, was turning Brazil into a fascist state. Vargas, a gaucho who had seized power in a coup d’état in 1930, began to consolidate his powers in the 1934 constitution, which cracked down on left-wing opposition, centralized the economy, and set up economic incentives to spur industrial development.
Wolf watched events in the capital with keen interest and wondered how this new Vargas “revolution,” as it was hailed throughout Brazil, could make him rich. Watkins knew that in order to prosper even further he needed to leave Rio Grande do Sul, where promises of cheap land had drawn thousands of migrants from Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Most of the Jews who were settling in Bom Fim brought their professional experience from the Old Country and were happy to be able to open up a small shoe store or tailor’s shop. But Wolf wasn’t interested in owning land or running a small business. His specialty was the railway, and he followed its development in Brazil, hoping to get rich.
Just before his forty-fifth birthday, in 1940, Wolf decided to uproot his family yet again, still in pursuit of the fabulous wealth he had dreamed about as a young man in England. This time, the Watkins clan headed to Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil’s capital. At first they settled on the city’s outskirts in the down-at-heels municipality of Mesquita, moving three times in their first year until Watkins established the Society of National Reconstruction, a company that specialized in building and fixing railway carriages, known by its Portuguese acronym SONAREC. Mesquita, the site of a large sugar plantation that had fallen on hard times after Brazil’s Princess Isabel abolished slavery in 1888, was named for the plantation’s owner Baron Jeronimo José de Mesquita. Although the rolling hills and lush landscape must have reminded the Watkins clan of Uruguay, Mesquita was no pastoral retreat populated by well-mannered European immigrants. The town was located in the mosquito-infested Baixada Fluminense, the lowlands north of the city of Rio. It was hot and sticky in the summers and endured punishing torrential rains in the winters. Most of the town’s nine thousand residents were impoverished farmers, factory workers, and aging former slaves who had never left the ruins of the former plantation. There were few diversions in Mesquita, and the good schools were nearly an hour away by rail in Rio de Janeiro. It was hardly the place for an upwardly mobile businessman like Wolf and his young family.
By the time the Watkinses arrived in Mesquita in the 1940s, local businessmen had largely failed in their efforts to turn part of the baron’s old plantation into orange groves for the production of orange juice. Still, Wolf saw opportunity. With its proximity to Brazil’s capital, Wolf felt that it was only a matter of time before Mesquita would turn into a booming industrial center, especially as it was strategically located on Brazil’s great Estrada de Ferro—literally “the highway of iron,” or the railroad. Yet, in the early days of their life in Mesquita, the Watkins family must have faced some difficult times.
But it was there that Watkins began to make his important connections among Brazilian politicians and railway barons that would ensure his success for years to come.
Although Watkins did end up making a lot of money, the bulk of his earnings weren’t exactly from the repair of railway carriages. From his base in Mesquita during the war years, when gas was severely rationed in Brazil, Watkins entered into a lucrative if not quite legal partnership with a powerful politician and military man named Napoleão Alencastro Guimarães. A former minister of transportation, the tall, dapper politician was also the director of the Central do Brasil train station in Rio de Janeiro, one of the country’s largest transport facilities at the time. Alencastro Guimarães, an anglophile who was fond of bespoke suits and an habitué of the most elegant supper clubs in Rio, took an instant liking to the plucky Englishman. And so when he sent railway carriages to SONAREC for repair, they would arrive loaded with cans of petrol. Watkins, who had developed a healthy network of black-market contacts from his years spent in the towns strung along the border of Brazil and Uruguay, easily sold the petrol on the black market. He then returned the railway carriages empty to the Central do Brasil and divided the spoils with his friend Alencastro Guimarães.
“He made a tidy fortune,” said Marcelo Steinfeld, who first heard the stories of Wolf White Watkins from Lily when she was living in Rio in the late 1960s. “But even though he was rich, Watkins was too much of a spendthrift to ever be successful.”
Wolf’s partnership with Alencastro Guimarães proved so profitable that he was able to move his family to a stately apartment in Rio at the end of the Second World War. Wolf managed to install his family in a large, ground-floor apartment on Joaquim Nabuco, a leafy residential street of some prestige in Copacabana, a block and a half from the beach. It was a good address, but far from the opulence of Flamengo and Laranjeiras, home to diplomats, high-ranking government officials, and the country’s president—the seat of old money in Rio de Janeiro. Still, one of his neighbors on Rua Joaquim Nabuco recalled that Watkins’s home was “nicely furnished and very comfortable.”
In Rio, Wolf loved nothing more than showing off his wealth by tipping extravagantly and dressing in the custom-made linen suits he ordered from his tailor on the fashionable Rua do Ouvidor in downtown Rio, where the city’s wealthiest businessmen and politicians all ordered their made-to-measure suits. Wolf thought nothing of tipping extravagantly, and friends recalled that he once gave an attendant the equivalent of $100 to park his car. When he invited business associates to lunch, it was always a lavish affair, and he wasn’t content unless he invited six or seven people at a time.
Wolf also loved spoiling his daughter. At first, he bought her toys and Belgian and Swiss chocolates that he ordered from the Portuguese import houses in downtown Rio. But when she became a teenager, Wolf was determined to give his little girl—the apple of his eye—the most exquisite clothes that money could buy.
But Wolf’s extravagances often landed him in debt. According to some of his business associates he moved from place to place in order to escape paying those debts—a rather dangerous proposition in twentieth-century Brazil, when many disputes over money and women were settled with a bullet.
Wolf was, however, nothing if not street-smart and wily, and he had become an expert at extricating himself from particularly difficult situations. For instance, when he wanted to hang onto the lucrative contract to repair railway carriages for Rio de Janeiro’s Central do Brasil Station, he knew his debts to a wealthy coronel, or local strongman, threatened to sink his prospects. But Wolf was undaunted. He ignored the repeated requests for repayment and stalled, knowing that top-level officials at the Central do Brasil desperately needed his company’s services after the Second World War. His strategy eventually proved successful. Eurico de Souza Gomes, who was in charge of the administration of the Central do Brasil between 1951 and 1953, and was a leading coronel in Rio, finally reached out to Watkins, through an intermediary, to collect part of the debt. Souza Gomes asked his friend Gastão Veiga to collect the money that Watkins owed him. If Watkins paid even part of the debt, the managers of the Central do Brasil would continue to do business with SONAREC.
Veiga had never met Wolf before, but soon realized that the distinguished businessman who mixed the King’s English with guttural Uruguayan Spanish was his neighbor in Copacabana. Following Veiga’s intervention, Wolf appears to have at least partially settled the debt he had with Souza Gomes. After his difficulties with the Central do Brasil, Wolf’s company continued to repair an average of 360 wagons a year for the railway.
Wolf was so grateful to Veiga for his intervention that he grandly presented him with a gold Audemars Piguet watch, which was then an extremely expensive Swiss timepiece that was difficult to obtain in Brazil, especially as the fascist Vargas government had set up even more tariff walls on foreign products to protect local industry. But for Wolf the watch was a good investment: the way he saw it, Veiga had just helped break the impasse with his most important client, so he was worth more than his weight in gold.
The intervention also helped in other ways, for when Wolf required a letter of reference from the principals of the Central do Brasil in order to apply for Brazilian citizenship in 1950, they did not hesitate to write the nicest things about the transplanted Englishman. “For ten years we have worked with Mr. Watkins, who has always faithfully fulfilled the requirements of the railroad,” wrote Hilmar Tavares da Silva in a letter to Brazilian authorities attesting to Wolf’s good conduct in business. “He is a person of absolute moral and material integrity.”
It is not clear why Wolf saw the need to become a Brazilian citizen after living quite successfully in the country for nearly thirty-one years as a foreigner. Perhaps he wanted to consolidate his business and make sure that it survived after his death. In October 1950, Wolf and Annita began to collect the letters of reference and undergo the medical examinations that would enable them to apply for Brazilian citizenship. In the black-and-white photo pasted to his Brazilian identity card, Wolf wears wire-rimmed spectacles and has a receding hairline. Annita, fifty at the time, is a heavyset woman with a double chin and a short, tightly curled coiffure. Her severely plucked eyebrows lend her a hard, defiant air.
Part of the citizenship application involved describing their children’s activities in Brazil. To this end, both Wolf and Annita focused on Lily, who was their only minor child at the time.
While the Watkinses sought their Brazilian citizenship, Lily was well on her way to making a splash in Rio society—at least as it was defined within the city’s upper-middle-class Jewish and English-speaking communities. Lily was enrolled at the Colegio Anglo-Americano, a traditional British-American private school, housed in a handsome colonial building that had once belonged to a Portuguese duke. The school was next door to the Sears department store in the Botafogo neighborhood, where the country’s best schools were clustered. Known as the British American School when it was founded in 1919, the school was re-christened with a Portuguese name after President Vargas declared—in a fit of nationalistic fervor during World War II—that all educational and religious institutions in the country had to have Portuguese names.
Margareth Coney, the no-nonsense British matron who founded the school, duly changed the school’s name but continued to direct its strict programming until just before her death in 1968. Coney had arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the turn of the last century to work as a governess for one of Brazil’s wealthiest families. By the time her contract with the family was over, Coney had begun to look for other opportunities. She bemoaned the lack of proper educational facilities for the growing colony of English-speaking immigrants in Rio de Janeiro and decided that the city needed a proper British school. The British American School soon became a tough training ground for the sons and daughters of British and American expatriates in the city, and offered Brazilian students the opportunity to become fluent in English, which was the working language of the school. Lily herself speaks a refined international English as well as Portuguese, Spanish, and French. Her multilingual skills would later prove excellent assets in elite society.
By the beginning of the Second World War, Coney had developed an impressive educational institution in Brazil that drew upper-middle-class students, although it never attained the social prestige of the elite Catholic schools, such as Notre Dame de Sion, Santo Inacio, and Dom Pedro, where the old money coffee and sugar barons sent their children.
The Colegio Anglo-Americano was particularly popular among well-to-do Jewish families in Rio who didn’t want to send their children to schools with Christian affiliations, although Jewish children were welcome in the Jesuit-run institutions throughout the city. In many cases, Jewish parents who worried about their social standing in the city sent their children to the Catholic institutions, but insisted that they not participate in any of the religious classes. The Colegio Anglo-Americano was one of the few elite schools in Rio de Janeiro that had no discernible religious affiliation.
According to her parents’ application for Brazilian citizenship, Lily attended the school from 1945, when she was eleven years old, until she graduated in 1951 at sixteen. In school, she was known as Lilly de Castro Watkins, using, as per Brazilian tradition, part of her mother’s maiden name and signing her first name with a double l. Her older brother Daniel signed her report cards and the tuition receipts on behalf of Wolf, who still worked in Mesquita, an hour outside Rio, and was probably too busy to attend to the bureaucratic requirements at his daughter’s school. Sometimes Annita Watkins’s shaky signature appears on her report cards.
According to her school records, Lily’s best subjects were English and the Portuguese language; she scored nine out of ten on both during a final exam in 1951. But she received failing grades in physics, mathematics, and chemistry, even though she appears to have been a diligent student. In one exam she copied a descriptive paragraph three times in her neatest handwriting before including a polished final version in her examination booklet. In “Description of the Engraving,” Lily wrote about an etching that showed three people—two children and a woman. Interestingly, Lily, who was eleven years old at the time, didn’t focus on the personalities of the people in her paragraph, but homed in on the interior design of the room and their clothing: “The little girl wears a little blue dress and white socks. Her shoes are brown. On the other hand, the boy’s clothing is quite different. He wears brown trousers and a white shirt and vest. The woman wears a red dress with a white apron.” The floors of the storeroom where they are posing were made of ceramic tile; there was a table and two stools, she wrote.
“She was a beautiful girl, with green eyes and light hair,” said Ana Bentes Bloch, who hailed from a prominent Jewish family in the city and also attended the Colegio Anglo-Americano in the 1940s and 1950s.
But the black-and-white school photograph attached to Lily’s registration shows a plump little girl with a shoulder-length bob and a very large nose.
“Children used to tease her at school because of her nose,” recalled one of her acquaintances who did not want to be identified. “Everyone used to call her ‘Lily nariz.’” The direct translation from the Portuguese is “Lily nose.”
But despite her nose, others remember her as an extremely poised and elegant teenager. Perhaps Lily was so beguiling in her speech, gestures, and carriage that she managed to convey the impression of beauty. Although Bentes Bloch was a few grades behind Lily, she remembers her as a striking presence in high school. “She had beautiful clothes, and was easily the most elegant girl at the school,” said Bentes Bloch. “Lily was really a pleasure to be around.”
As a result, she was also the most sought-after girl at school socials and Saturday night dances at the Clube Israelita Brasileiro, known by its acronym CIB. The Jewish community center is located in Copacabana, down the street from the elegant Galeria Menescal shopping arcade and several blocks away from the grand Copacabana Palace hotel, where many of the girls at the Colegio Anglo-Americano attended the sumptuous balls during Carnaval in February. Inspired by the Hotel Negresco in Nice and the Carlton in Cannes, the Copacabana Palace was designed by the French architect Joseph Gire to be the grandest hotel in Rio de Janeiro, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on Copacabana Beach. In the 1940s and 1950s, when Lily was growing up in Rio, the hotel was the focal point of upper-middle-class society in the city.
On the weekends, wealthy families gathered at the Copacabana Palace hotel for dinner at the Bife de Ouro, or Golden Beef, the city’s most fashionable restaurant.
When a government edict shut Rio’s casinos in April 1946, the hotel’s Golden Room drew some of the world’s biggest entertainers. The hotel became an important destination for fashionable society, even though its most popular feature was a nightly floor show featuring young women, known as the emancipadas, or “emancipated ones,” because most of the showgirls were under eighteen, which meant that hotel officials had to seek special permission from the local government to allow them to perform in public. The resulting permissions, when they were granted, allowed the girls to be “emancipated” from the strict laws forbidding minors from performing in a bar. “At that time in Rio, there were very few places where you could gather to see a show,” recalled Hélio Fernandes, a former owner of the Tribuna de Imprensa, one of the city’s leading newspapers at the time. “The beauty of the dancing girls at the Golden Room became the stuff of local legend, and anyone with any means was flocking to the shows in the evenings.”
Like many upwardly mobile Jews in Rio, Lily’s family frequented the Copacabana Palace’s Golden Room, although they likely never took in the rather risqué floor shows. The center of their social life was the CIB on Raul Pompeia Street. The club organized balls and other cultural events that were attended by most Jewish families of means in Rio de Janeiro. It was not uncommon for young Jewish women to meet their future husbands at the CIB socials.
In the late 1940s, CIB officials began the club’s tradition of debutante balls for the daughters of their members. The balls were organized by Lygia Hazan Gomlevsky, the elegant wife of the club’s then president José Gomlevsky. With her shoulder-length chestnut hair, porcelain skin, and smoky eyes, Lygia looked like a glamorous Hollywood movie star. And she was determined to inject a little bit of that glamor into the debutante balls, which were modeled after the sumptuous coming-out parties for high-society girls at the Copacabana Palace hotel. The annual debutante balls in the Golden Room of the Copacabana Palace, which began soon after construction was completed on the hotel in the mid-1920s, were considered the highlight of the Rio social season.
Lygia, herself a local socialite who attended all the best parties in the city, often showed up as a boldface name in the social columns, alongside her friends the Klabins, one of the wealthiest Jewish families in Rio de Janeiro. In black-and-white photographs of the balls, Lygia is shown ushering a group of young girls into the CIB ballroom. The girls are all beautifully dressed in puffy white taffeta or organza dresses. Every year, Lygia hired an orchestra for the annual debut and she personally chose twenty of the most beautiful girls from among the member families. One of those girls was a perfectly poised and elegant teenager named Lily Watkins.
“I can easily say that Lily was the most beautiful and the most elegant debutante we ever had at the club,” recalled Gomlevsky. “She wore a magnificent white organdy dress embroidered with tiny white flowers on the sleeves. She was the chicest girl at the debut.”
Although cosmetic surgery wasn’t as commonplace in Brazil as it is today, perhaps Lily did manage to get a little “help” when it came to her features. Gomlevsky, for one, doesn’t remember that Lily had a prominent nose by the time she was ready for her debut.
Although her family otherwise kept a low profile at club events, where they would sit together en famille at dinners, the Watkins girl turned heads wherever she went.
“Lily used to wear the most exquisite dresses at the CIB dances,” said Bentes Bloch. “She had an absolutely wonderful lilac organza dress that was the envy of all of the girls. It was absolutely stunning.”
José Behar seemed to agree. Lily met José, or Zeca as he was known to his friends and family, at a CIB dance. Zeca, a handsome Sephardic Jew, was slightly older than the teenaged Lily, and was already out of high school, working for his uncle’s currency trading business on Avenida Rio Branco in the city center.
But any union with Zeca was severely frowned upon by Lily’s upwardly mobile parents. Zeca might have been a nice young man with a good job, but he would never attain the fabulous wealth that the Watkinses dreamed of for their daughter.
“Lily and Zeca had a real romance,” said a family friend who frequented CIB events in the 1940s and 1950s. “He loved her, but it was hopeless. Lily had been trained to marry money. She was educated to marry a rich man.”
In fact, when Lily found herself falling desperately in love with another middle-class boy, her parents were quick to put a stop to the budding relationship.
Her new obsession was Izidor, a classmate at the Colegio Anglo-Americano. Izidor was tall, slim, and green-eyed. He also had a way with the girls.
“He would tease them relentlessly,” said Bentes Bloch. “He knew he was popular and so he would string along all these girls who all had a mad crush on him. Then he would dump them.”
Lily ended up being one of his many victims, but she still dreamed about Izidor as her own Prince Charming, and she pursued him relentlessly, recalled Bentes Bloch.
For his part, Gastão Veiga recalled that whenever Lily wanted to see Izidor, she would tell her parents that she was going to Veiga’s home around the corner from the Watkins family’s residence in Copacabana. During those fleeting meetings, hidden from outside view in Veiga’s courtyard, Izidor might hold Lily’s hand or touch her on the shoulder. If they felt particularly daring, she would allow him to kiss her on the cheek. In Rio’s middle-class Jewish society, the most risqué events for teenagers involved boys from the lower classes invading one of the orderly school or CIB dances and drinking beer.
“We were all quite chaste back then,” said Bentes Bloch, whose father, one of the country’s first Jewish generals, had arrived in the Amazon as a thirteen-year-old immigrant from North Africa at the turn of the last century. “Dating didn’t have the same connotations that it has now.”
Lily was so much in love with Izidor that she fell ill. She desperately wanted to marry him, but her parents seemed to have other plans for her. Like Zeca, Izidor did not come from great wealth—not the kind of family that was suitable for their daughter. And so her parents decided that they had had enough of Rio de Janeiro and its loose morals for a while, and became determined to find a more suitable young man for their daughter among the members of their old Jewish community in Uruguay.
“Her parents were very strict, and it was important to them that Lily marry well,” recalled Veiga.
But Bentes Bloch remembers things differently. She said that Lily was so heartbroken over Izidor’s antics and how he toyed with her affections that her parents feared that she might do something rash. According to Bentes Bloch, Lily was determined to marry Izidor.
“Her parents must have been beside themselves,” said Bentes Bloch. “What do you want for such a beautiful girl? You want to give her the most you can—the maximum.”
When they realized that the relationship with Izidor was becoming too intense, the Watkinses decided to go on a long vacation, and get their daughter out of Rio de Janeiro, and far away from Izidor. During summer vacation in her last year of high school, the Watkins clan headed back to Uruguay to visit Annita’s family. In order to dissuade their daughter from an improper match, they found her someone much more to their liking. Lily eventually did get over Izidor, and following the trip to Uruguay she returned to Rio de Janeiro already engaged to a handsome and older Italian-born Jew named Mario Cohen.
“Lily went on vacation for a long time with her parents, and when she returned we all heard that she was going to be married,” said Bentes Bloch. “That’s how we all heard about her first marriage.”
Lily married Mario Cohen in Montevideo, Uruguay, on September 19, 1952, two months before her eighteenth birthday. Mario, who was nearly nine years older, came from a respectable family that had made a small fortune manufacturing hosiery in Argentina, where their company was based. Less than a year following the wedding, Lily gave birth to her first son, Claudio, on July 16, 1953. She had two other children—Adriana and Eduardo—in rapid succession.
After her pampered adolescence in Rio de Janeiro, life as a mother of three young children in Montevideo, far from friends and family, must have come as a bit of a shock. Although the Cohens lived amongst upper-middle-class Jews in Montevideo, the city and the country were growing increasingly unstable as the world market for agricultural products began to decline in the 1950s. In Montevideo there was massive unemployment and inflation coupled with increasing student militancy and unrest. The civil unrest led to the birth of an urban guerrilla movement known as the Tupamaros, who first made their mark robbing banks and distributing food to the poor. By the 1960s, the guerrilla group began to play a part in high-level political kidnappings in Montevideo.
If Uruguay was emerging as an increasingly unstable country, Lily Cohen took little notice. In the early days at least, she was the wife of a successful hosiery magnate who occupied her time organizing the servants, fixing her hair, and vacationing in Punta del Este, an upscale resort and casino town on the southern tip of Uruguay where upper-middle-class Jewish families flocked between December and February at the height of the austral summer.
But Lily, who seems to have inherited Wolf’s passion for spending money, also indulged in what was to become her favorite pastime—shopping. During one memorable spree in downtown Montevideo, Lily managed to spend thousands on lingerie—an astonomical sum of money in the late 1950s. When he received the bill, Mario was so furious he ripped up all her new purchases, said a family friend.
“Mario wasn’t like Lily’s father when it came to money,” said Marcelo Steinfeld. “I think he had very little patience when it came to Lily’s excesses.”
IN FACT, WHEN it came to money, Mario was the polar opposite of Wolf, which might explain why Wolf seemed to have little tolerance for his new son-in-law, who, he believed, failed to treat his daughter in the manner to which she had become accustomed in Rio. In Uruguay, where the young couple lived to escape the severe economic policies and other repressive measures directed at Jews during the presidency of Argentine leader Juan Peron, Mario bought his new wife a car. It was a Morris Minor, a British import designed for the working classes. Furious at his new son-in-law’s miserly gesture, which he viewed as a slap in the face to the entire Watkins clan, Wolf ordered a Cadillac through his friend Gastão Veiga and had it shipped to Lily.
THROUGHOUT THE DECADE she spent in Montevideo, Lily yearned to return to the cosmopolitan city of her youth. She missed the family dinners at the Bife de Ouro in the Copacabana Palace hotel and high tea at the Confeiteria Colombo in her old neighborhood. She missed the family vacations at the hot springs at Poços de Caldas and Caxambu, where many well-heeled Jewish families escaped the month-long frenzy of Carnaval in Rio. By the time she was pregnant with her third child, she had already grown tired of Mario.
When her beloved father died of a liver ailment while on a visit to Montevideo in March 1962, Lily was already plotting how she would tell Mario that their marriage was over. She’d had enough of their sleepy existence in Montevideo. She wanted to return to Rio, to recapture at least part of what now seemed such a glamorous life as a promising debutante in her white organdy dress. In her late twenties, her youth was slipping away, and life with Mario was not the fairy tale she had envisioned it to be. Although he appeared to be a good father, he was distant with the children, overwhelmed by his own concerns with the Cohen family company. Often when Lily and the children prepared for family vacations in Punta del Este, Mario was absent for weeks at a time, tending to business in Montevideo and Argentina.
Although she yearned to return to her old life in Rio, Lily wanted to do so in style. In the early 1960s, it simply wouldn’t do for a respectable mother of three young children to leave her husband and set off for another country, even if she could move quite easily into her parents’ sprawling apartment in Copacabana. No, Lily would have to wait for another way out of her marriage to Mario Cohen.
Lily’s escape route may have been made patently clear to her when she met Alfredo Monteverde, the handsome owner of Ponto Frio, Brazil’s most successful chain of appliance stores. Alfredo was tall and worldly with a devastating sense of humor. He was also extremely wealthy. Friends say that it was on one of those long family vacations in Punta del Este that the married woman and mother of three began to flirt with the Rio millionaire after the two had been introduced by their mutual friend Samy Cohn.
After his second failed marriage, to a former Air France stewardess named Scarlett, Alfredo was ready for another relationship. He fell in love easily with Lily. She was beautiful and refined, and she would have none of Scarlett’s difficulties of adaptation to life in Rio de Janeiro. Lily must have seemed to him practically a native.
“She was even more charming as a young mother,” recalled Veiga, who saw Lily again at Alfredo’s office for the first time since she was a fifteen-year-old sneaking into his courtyard to kiss Izidor.
Veiga, Wolf’s former neighbor and valuable intermediary, also did business with Alfredo, who was planning to add car imports to his burgeoning appliance business. Veiga recalls finding out about the relationship between Alfredo and Lily during a business meeting at the Ponto Frio corporate offices in 1964. “I was completely stunned,” recalled Veiga. “I saw Lily followed by three small children at Fred’s office, and it was very clear to me that she and Fred were very much a couple. I knew from the way they were behaving with each other that they must be married or on their way to being married.”
Alfredo married Lily in a civil ceremony at the Office of the City Clerk in lower Manhattan on February 26, 1965. According to friends and family, Mario was not happy about the divorce, and desperately tried to hold onto his young wife. Alfredo was forty and Lily had just celebrated her thirtieth birthday the previous December.
The following year, on October 16, 1966, they married again at a registry office in downtown Rio de Janeiro, attended by Lily’s brother Daniel and her best friend in Rio at the time, Carmen Sirotsky. Carmen’s husband Sani, an advertising executive in Rio, had worked on many of Ponto Frio’s advertising campaigns and knew Alfredo well.
The Monteverde-Watkins marriage (on registry documents, she didn’t acknowledge that she had once been Mrs. Cohen) was also registered in Brazil’s new capital, Brasília, on April 5, 1967.
It is not clear why they felt the need to register their marriage in so many different places. As with his previous marriages, Alfredo made a point of registering the union in New York. Perhaps he felt that legal unions carried more weight when they were registered outside of Brazil, which was well known for its bureaucratic red tape and corruption.
Lily would have gladly married Alfredo twenty times over. She appeared desperately in love with her second husband, and tried to do everything to please him. And for a while at least, it seemed she did.