Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows - Isabel Vincent (2010)
Chapter 2. “Everything in Its Place”
BY MOST ACCOUNTS, it was initially a happy marriage. Alfredo, a striking European émigré with wavy brown hair and an easygoing manner, was head over heels in love with Lily—at least in the early part of the courtship and the marriage, while the conquest was still fresh.
For most of his adult life, Alfredo was known as a serial womanizer; he had been married twice before. But Lily was different, he told his family. Here was a beautiful woman and a wonderful mother whom he adored. The marriage to Lily had been a good decision, Alfredo assured his friends and family.
Alfredo João Monteverde, born Alfred Iancu Grunberg in Galati, Romania, on June 12, 1924, was the younger child of Iancu Grunberg, a prominent Jewish banker to the Romanian royal court, and his wife, Regina Rebecca Leff Grunberg. Alfred and his older sister, Rosy, lived a privileged life in Romania. Black-and-white family snapshots show the Grunberg children posing with their French and Austrian governesses and attending children’s parties in a palatial family residence. In one photograph, Alfred, who appears to be six or seven, is dressed up as Mickey Mouse, after the popular Walt Disney comic strip that was first released in 1930. Although the Grunbergs were Jewish, the family was so assimilated that photographs show them posing in front of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree in their living room. Their aunt Josephine, on their mother’s side, ended up joining the Catholic Church and becoming a nun.
From an early age, Alfred was extremely close to his sister Rosy. The two siblings shared a made-up language to confound their nannies, and were pretty much inseparable even as they were both sent off to the Millfield School, which was the first elite boarding school in England to become coeducational in the 1930s.
Tragedy struck the Grunbergs on November 21, 1937, when Iancu, forty-three, committed suicide while undergoing treatment for his severe depression at a hospital in Vienna. Following the death of her husband, Regina Grunberg, thirty-nine, decided to join her children in England. With a war looming in Europe, Regina packed up the house in Romania and traveled to London with the family’s gold reserves. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939, the Grunbergs applied for permanent residency in England. Told that they would have to surrender their large fortune in order to stay, Regina and her teenaged children began to cast around for another country that would take them in without such a huge financial penalty. They applied for visas to the United States but were told that the wait would be long, and that there was no guarantee the American government would issue travel documents to Jews fleeing from war-torn Europe, no matter how wealthy they were. Then, as France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and England came under fierce attack by the Germans, the Grunbergs knew they were running out of time and needed to act quickly. When they managed to obtain visas to Brazil, they didn’t hesitate for a moment even as the British government froze their assets after the outbreak of hostilities. In December 1940, as German bombs rained down on London during the Blitz, Regina, Rosy, and Alfred sailed from the port of Liverpool aboard the Andalucia Star to Rio de Janeiro.
It was a dangerous voyage and proved to be the ship’s final Atlantic crossing before it was sunk by German U-boats in 1942. The Grunbergs spent much of their time at sea practicing lifeboat drills with their fellow passengers, dozens of Mormons sailing third class. Like many other moneyed refugees escaping the horrors of the war in Europe, the Grunbergs felt that the Brazilian capital was to be a temporary destination—a safe stopover, far from the battlefields and concentration camps and bombings—where they could wait in relative comfort until the U.S. visas they had applied for were issued.
But the U.S. visas never materialized and the family decided to settle permanently in Rio, which was rapidly becoming a glittering cosmopolitan city, the temporary home to a glamorous international crowd of spies, exiled royalty, and artists. They included the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, at the time one of the world’s best-selling authors, who settled in Petropolis, a mountain town outside Rio, before committing suicide in February 1942.
After the strict confines of a British boarding school, Alfred and his sister entered an exciting new world. Alfred was sixteen, and Rosy had just turned eighteen two months before they sailed to Rio. They’d left behind the bitter damp and early darkness of an English winter, and arrived in the land of seemingly permanent summer—a tropical paradise, full of sultry women and artists and intellectuals from around the world.
While war was raging a continent away, Alfred and his sister practiced their Portuguese by volunteering at the Radio Nacional, the country’s most important radio station. They helped translate the news from Europe, and later Alfred worked as a producer on other shows. They also became habitués at the Vogue nightclub—a popular spot in Copacabana founded by an Austrian refugee named Max von Stuckart. Known in Rio as the Baron, Stuckart had founded the Tour Paris nightclub in Paris, which became a regular haunt of artists, such as Pablo Picasso, and French politicians and intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s. Like the Grunbergs, the Baron fled to Rio during the war. With the help of one of the city’s wealthiest families, who were habitués of his Paris club, he founded the legendary Copacabana nightclub, whose slogan was “open from seven to seven.” The Vogue rapidly became a de rigueur watering hole for the city’s politicians, business leaders, and intellectuals. Many émigrés used its address—an art deco apartment block on Avenida Princesa Isabel in Copacabana—as a makeshift post office box for their correspondence from Europe. The nightclub featured some of the best black jazz artists (considered risqué in the 1940s) from the United States as well as Sacha Rubin, a Turkish pianist who played the piano with a glass of whisky next to the keyboard and a lit cigarette permanently dangling from one side of his mouth.
In the early 1950s, the club’s most popular entertainer was a French singer whose stage name was Patachou. While crooning French songs, the sultry chanteuse would flirt with the male patrons, sitting on their laps and coquettishly cutting off their neckties with a pair of scissors. One night, a grandson of one of Brazil’s former presidents exposed his penis in a drunken stupor and offered it up to Patachou’s scissors. She politely declined, going for his tie instead.
After the club burned down on August 14, 1955, in a fire that left five people dead, Rubin opened his own bar in Copacabana, known simply as Sacha’s. But although popular, the club never had quite the same mystique as the Vogue, especially as many of the politicians and intellectuals who frequented the famous nightclub began to head to Brasília, the country’s new capital, in 1960.
But in the 1940s and 1950s, Rio de Janeiro must have seemed like a magical place, especially for young Romanian refugees transplanted from wartime England. Errol Flynn and Carmen Miranda regularly descended to the pool of the Copacabana Palace hotel, and Orson Welles held court at the Vogue when he arrived during the war years to work on a series of wartime propaganda films for the U.S. government.
After living in Rio for a few years, the Grunbergs could count themselves among the city’s elite, many of whom lived like European royalty, attended by white-gloved butlers in their spectacular apartments overlooking Guanabara Bay. The Grunbergs were close to the Seabra family, one of Rio’s prominent families at the time. The Seabras were so enamored of the Dakota apartment building on Manhattan’s Central Park West that they ordered an architect to make an exact replica of it, complete with a private elevator to their ballroom, in Rio’s elegant Flamengo neighborhood. The socialite Nelson Seabra, whose penthouse, with its stunning views of Sugarloaf Mountain, took up an entire floor of the family building and was filled with his collections of antique furniture and objets d’art from around the world, was also a keen collector of thoroughbred horses. He installed air-conditioned stables—a rarity in the 1940s—at the family’s sprawling country home. On weekends, the Seabras flew their friends, including Rosy Grunberg, in their private airplane to their country estate for riding and elaborate parties. Later, Nelson Seabra divided his time between homes in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. A Hollywood producer, he counted Kirk Douglas, Greta Garbo, and Grace Kelly among his closest friends. In 1980, his Red Ball birthday party in Paris attracted everyone from the Rothschilds to Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger.
Rosy and Alfred found themselves in this rarefied world of extravagance and rather loose morals. Rio’s leading socialites, for example, never did their shopping in the city, but headed to Paris once a year to buy couture at Dior or Chanel. The clothes typically took three weeks to a month to be completed, and while they waited, they attended the wild soirees chez Prince Aly Khan, the Pakistani race horse owner and playboy, who married Hollywood star Rita Hayworth in 1949. During the day, these extremely well-brought-up daughters of the rich and powerful spent their time at the Café de la Paix, “doing the trottoir,” or moonlighting as prostitutes, to amuse themselves in between fittings. “If the men were really good looking, they charged only a little bit,” said one woman who was familiar with the pastime. “If they were ugly, they charged a lot.”
Although he had a reputation as a bon vivant, Alfred was also determined to become a business success in his adopted country. In May 1944, four years after arriving in Rio, Alfred graduated from the Faculdade Nacional de Filosofia da Universidade do Brasil with a degree in chemical engineering. He worked as a producer at the Radio Nacional before taking a job as a technician at the Shell Mexican Oil Co. in 1945. He quickly recognized other opportunities in Brazil, a huge country with a largely untapped market for imported consumer goods. Using the Romanian gold that the Grunbergs managed to ship from England after the war, Alfred incorporated Globex Import and Export in 1946, with his mother and sister as partners. In the early days of Globex, the twenty-two-year-old entrepreneur headed out along the highway from Rio de Janeiro to Belo Horizonte hawking Firestone tires to truck drivers. Later, working from a dingy, one-room office on Winston Churchill Street in downtown Rio, he imported sewing machines and kitchen appliances.
But it was the Coldspot refrigerators imported from the United States that became his best-selling items and eventually gave rise to a chain of stores that bore their name. He began selling Coldspot, which translates as ponto frio in Portuguese, outside a popular movie theater before he opened his first store on Rua Uruguaiana, in the heart of the Saara, or the old Arab market, in downtown Rio. His mascot was an Antarctic penguin that had accidentally washed up on a Rio beach. Although the penguin died of heat exhaustion after a few days, Alfred had it stuffed and mounted so that he could display it in his office. Later, an artist’s rendition of that unfortunate penguin would grace the company’s newspaper ads and become part of the corporate logo for Ponto Frio—a symbol of the extreme cold generated by one of the company’s refrigerators.
At the same time that he was laying the groundwork for what would become one of Brazil’s most successful companies, Alfred decided that he needed to transform himself from a wartime Romanian refugee into a successful Latin American businessman. In 1946, Alfred and his mother embarked on the long, bureaucratic process of acquiring Brazilian citizenship, which they finally achieved in April 1948. Rosy would take a different route, applying for citizenship after marrying a Hungarian-born cameraman who had landed in Rio in 1941 to work on Orson Welles’s project, It’s All True.
A year after the Grunbergs obtained their Brazilian citizenship, mother and son applied to change their name to Monteverde, a literal Portuguese translation of Grunberg, which means “green mountain.” By November 1950, the Romanian refugee Alfred Iancu Grunberg had successfully transformed himself into the Brazilian entrepreneur Alfredo João Monteverde.
“Fred was an incredible businessman with an incredible vision,” said Victor Sztern, whose father was one of Alfredo’s early business partners. Victor, who was in his teens when he met Alfredo, was co-opted into helping him set up a set of traffic lights in his office. A red light meant that Alfredo was thinking and his staff was prohibited from entering.
“Fred was brilliant,” said Gastão Veiga. “He was the only person I knew who made money selling to the poor at discounted prices. He was also the only person I knew who could do percentages in his head.”
Friends recalled that even at his summer home at Aguas Lindas, a stretch of pristine, white sand beach on Itacuruça Island, he was fond of mathematical brainteasers and absently worked on problems even while entertaining his guests.
“We’d be on his boat, and he’d be steering, and doing these incredible figures in his head, like that game Sudoku,” said his friend Vera Contrucci Pinto Dias, who met Fred at Aguas Lindas when he was still in his early twenties. “There was no one like him.”
A Rio newspaper referred to Alfredo as “one of the most important figures in commerce and industry.” The editorial also noted that he was “an exceptional human being, a dynamic spirit,” possessed of “a keen sense of accomplishment.” Even decades after his death, his business associates and friends still marveled at his abilities, remembering his “violent intelligence,” his constantly “buzzing” mind, and his legendary whimsy.
Alfredo’s whimsy and irreverence—his “dynamic spirit”—were also legendary in Rio de Janeiro. For instance, to avoid rush-hour traffic, he bought himself an ambulance. With sirens blaring, one of Alfredo’s chauffeurs would speed through stalled traffic as he reclined in the back, reading a newspaper or dictating notes to one of his secretaries. One day when the speeding ambulance was stopped by traffic police, Alfredo suggested they call his friend the governor. They did, and Alfredo was promptly released.
Once he asked a friend if he could borrow his Volkswagen camper van to transport a painting that he had bought in London. The painting, which would be arriving at the international airport in Rio, wouldn’t fit in his own car. It was only when they arrived at the customs counter of the Rio airport that the friend realized that he would be driving back to the city with a priceless Van Gogh in the back of his clunky Volkswagen.
Despite his whimsy, Alfredo was a self-confessed workaholic who typically began his workday at seven in the morning and ended at eight in the evening. “I do not get tired, as I work with great pleasure—the pleasure of creation and because I love Globex as I would love my son,” he wrote in a letter to his sister a few years after he founded Globex.
“Do not think if I work twelve hours a day it is to make more money,” he continued in the letter. “I do this because I get so much satisfaction out of my work.”
Alfredo had no qualms about rolling up his shirtsleeves and changing places with one of his sales staff on the Ponto Frio sales floor at the Rua Uruguaiana store. This way he could anticipate any problems experienced on the sales floor and deal directly with his customers. “Let’s change for the day,” he was fond of telling his bemused staff. “You pretend you’re me in the corporate offices, and I’ll pretend to be you and deal with customers.”
Most of his friends and business associates described Alfredo as a visionary. “He was talking about computers when no one talked about computers,” said Sztern, who looked upon Alfredo as a substitute father after his own parents died while he was still in his teens. “He wanted to do things like recycle paper, and he wanted to create a popular bank for the poor because he sensed that Brazil was missing a popular instrument of credit.”
While many of Alfredo’s early clients were prosperous consumers like himself, it was among the ranks of the impoverished masses that his company was to have its greatest success. Alfredo made huge sums of money creating a system of credit for Brazil’s working classes, who could not afford to buy appliances or other big-money items outright. The scheme led to a consumer revolution across the country in the days before credit cards were commonplace. It was a risk, to be sure. How could he be sure that the country’s poor would ever pay off a refrigerator, which for many was as monumental as the purchase of a house or a car? It was a risk he was willing to take, for he fervently believed that the poor, so grateful to obtain credit on favorable terms, would rarely default on a payment. The poor, he was fond of saying, are better at managing credit than most people with money. Credit at Ponto Frio was easier to arrange than at banks, which charged enormous interest rates. When buyers fell behind on a payment at Ponto Frio, Alfredo simply lowered their monthly payments to an amount they could afford.
“Sometimes we had people who would come into the office and say they couldn’t pay the monthly installment,” said Maria Consuelo Ayres, Alfredo’s first and most trusted employee, who began working for him in 1946. “He would lower the rate, and before you knew it the buyer would bring in a friend who also wanted to buy something on credit.”
The installment system Alfredo pioneered in the 1950s is now commonplace in a country where the minimum wage hovers at just under $200 per month. In Brazil, prices are displayed in shop windows in multiples of the actual price, and the consumer can buy everything from clothing to appliances and cars in installments, the payment terms of which can range from five months to two years.
Laurinda Soares Navarro, Alfredo’s housekeeper, was an early beneficiary of this new system of credit. Laurinda lived with her two young sons in the Parque da Cidade favela—a jumble of half-finished brick and stucco houses connected by a warren of steep stairs and concrete alleyways in the hills above Rio where hundreds of slaves had worked the coffee plantations of the Marquis de São Vicente in the nineteenth century. Like most of her impoverished neighbors—all of them squatters who had built ramshackle houses on the marquis’s former estate—Laurinda had no refrigerator. Alfredo arranged for Ponto Frio to deliver a gleaming new Coldspot refrigerator to her home, and discounted the monthly payments from her salary until it was completely paid off.
Alfredo’s success in business came with a well-honed sense of social responsibility. If the poor were his best customers, then Alfredo was determined to be their best friend, and give back to the community in a country with one of the world’s biggest disparities between rich and poor, and an abysmal lack of government-financed social services. Shortly after founding Ponto Frio, Alfredo teamed up in Rio with a local priest who did charitable work among the city’s poor, and paid to restore the Rosario Church next to his offices in downtown Rio. In one of his more memorable moments, Alfredo managed to block one of the city’s main thoroughfares after he bought all the produce and livestock from a local farmers’ market, and started to give it all away to the poor.
“People came from the favelas, blocking traffic and turning the day into a festive occasion,” said one observer, who also recalled that law enforcement officials were not amused by the gesture. “Fred decided that the government wasn’t giving the people enough holiday time, so he created his own national holiday. That was Fred.”
He was also a hero to many. He was the first to step forward in August 1954 when the assassination attempt against journalist and opposition politician Carlos Lacerda resulted in the death of his bodyguard, the air force major Rubens Florentino Vaz. Although he was generally apolitical, Alfredo had a great deal of admiration for Lacerda, who was the most outspoken critic of the government of Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas. Alfredo insisted upon paying for the education of the young daughter Vaz had left behind.
The assassination attempt against Lacerda, on a residential street in Copacabana, had deep political ramifications for the Vargas government. A few weeks later, an independent commission of inquiry implicated Vargas’s chief bodyguard in the death of Vaz, which eventually signaled the end of the dictator’s twenty-four-year reign and drove Vargas himself to commit suicide. In his blue and white striped pajamas, the country’s president shot himself in the chest in his bedroom at the presidential palace on August 24, 1954. Alfredo promptly stepped in again, this time to buy the dictator’s Rolls-Royce.
There were other grand gestures. In 1961, Alfredo set up a fund to help the families whose loved ones had been killed when an arsonist set fire to a circus, resulting in more than four hundred deaths. Three years later, he bailed out Garrincha (Manuel Francisco dos Santos), one of Brazil’s greatest soccer heroes, who helped lead Brazil to two World Cup victories in 1958 and 1962. Garrincha, who was in serious debt, was in danger of losing his home on Governador Island, on the outskirts of Rio. Alfredo paid off his debts, in recognition, he said, of Garrincha’s contribution to Brazilian soccer.
He also created a private foundation to assist his workers, who grew from a handful of employees in the late 1940s to several hundred twenty years later.
At the Millfield School, his posh alma mater, in Somerset, England, Alfredo’s generosity even made the local papers when, on a visit to the school, he bought £2,500 worth of tickets for a student production of the Sammy Davis Jr. musical Golden Boy. Funds from the sale of tickets were earmarked for the school’s building fund. “Up rushed…Alfredo Monteverde, the Brazilian millionaire, who said he proposed to distribute the tickets among ‘French students, Kenyan emigrants, nurses and the doorman at the Dorchester,’” said one report. “But really you didn’t know whether to take the man seriously or not. Asked where he lived, he said ‘The Moon.’”
Alfredo could be excused for his lunar preoccupations, especially after he was diagnosed with manic depression as a young adult. From the time he was in his twenties, his periods of whimsy and sheer euphoria alternated with periods of deep, dark depression. During one euphoric state, Alfredo tried to convince his accountant to allow Globex to buy forty homes for Ponto Frio workers. Maria Consuelo, his savvy secretary who was by then used to her boss’s sudden acts of extravagance with company money, did not allow the deal to go through. However, other more costly ones did.
“I spent a lot of time undoing Fred’s whims,” said Ademar Trotte, the Ponto Frio accountant Alfredo hired in 1946 when he started the company. “When he went on a shopping spree, we had to convince people to give us his money back, or we had to re-sell the things Fred bought.”
Alfredo went on mad shopping sprees for things like mills, warehouses, and large plots of land when he was in his euphoric states, and then would sink into a soul-crushing depression when he realized what he had done. On many occasions, when the deals became too complicated for his secretary or accountant to fix, Geraldo Mattos, the director of Ponto Frio, would be called in to try to clean up the mess. At one point, in an act of extreme folly, Alfredo handed over all of his own shares in his company to Geraldo.
“Geraldo had a difficult time trying to fix things up when Fred went shopping,” recalled Lourdes Mattos, Geraldo’s widow. “I think Geraldo spent an awful lot of time just repairing the damage from those flights of euphoria.”
But as bad as his depressions became, observers say they never seriously affected his ability to do business. “There was no one like him in business,” said Marcelo Steinfeld. “Nobody could have ever put together the fortune he did so fast, even with all his psychological problems.” Indeed, in just over twenty years, Alfredo built a sizable empire, with property and assets spread around the world.
By the late 1960s, Alfredo Monteverde had a staggering net worth of nearly $300 million. Although he had a long list of business interests in Rio, his most successful enterprise remained Ponto Frio.
But when his depressions became overwhelming, Alfredo was indeed forced to retreat temporarily from the daily responsibilities of running his businesses. Friends say that during one of those early bouts of depression, he tried to commit suicide. Regina knew that her son suffered from the same malady that had plagued his father, and she often told Alfredo that she feared he would end up killing himself if he didn’t get the proper treatment.
During his worst crises, Alfredo checked himself into a luxurious suite at the beachfront Excelsior hotel or the nearby Copacabana Palace where a steady stream of specialists were admitted by his majordomo Caruso, who was dispatched to the local pharmacy with a small stack of prescriptions for antidepressants, vitamins, and sleeping pills, hastily scrawled on hotel stationery. In the early days, Rosy would fly into Rio from wherever she happened to be in the world, to help her beloved brother through his darkest hours. But later, when she was preoccupied with her own business and demands on her time, Alfredo was left pretty much to the mercy of his various psychiatrists and closest business associates when a depression struck. On occasion, a nurse would visit to give him regular injections of vitamins B12 and C, which were considered an early form of therapy for manic-depressives.
For despite his phenomenal success in business, there was always something missing in Alfredo’s life—something money could never buy. In a letter to his sister written in the summer of 1956, Alfredo tried to come to grips with his depression when he wrote, “we really make little progress in finding our happiness. When I came back from [a trip to] the States I did everything to fill my life—worked hard, played hard, but of no use for I was unhappy inside of myself. I thought that it was my old spring disease that came again.”
Perhaps it was the “spring disease”—a deep dissatisfaction with himself and those around him—that was to blame for the string of wives and girlfriends he seemed to collect over the years, like the mills and factories and plots of land he recklessly snapped up for Globex. The patterns rarely changed—the manic womanizing seeming to coincide with his periods of utter euphoria. He would fall madly in love with a beautiful woman, live with her for anywhere from a few months to a few years, and then send her packing.
“The women arrived at Fred’s house with a suitcase, but they always left with an apartment, a car, whatever they needed,” recalled his sister. “He always took care of them.”
While still in his twenties, he became involved with Sylvia Bastos Tigre, a woman from one of Rio’s most important legal families, who was nearly double his own age. Typically, he was enamored with her during the first several months of their courtship. Unlike the two others, who would come later, Alfredo did not marry Sylvia.
“Sylvia is wonderful,” he noted in an undated letter to Rosy. “She does all to please me and help me. What she possesses, and nowadays is a rare jewel, is goodness [sic].”
Sylvia, who was extremely well connected in Rio society, encouraged him to behave like the important Brazilian entrepreneur he was on his way to becoming. She convinced him to buy a yacht and a vacation home at Aguas Lindas and join the important clubs in the city.
But the relationship didn’t withstand the “spring disease,” and Alfredo impetuously ended everything in a moment of depression. “We never understood Fred’s attraction to Sylvia,” said his friend and former employee Maria Luisa Goldschmid. “We thought it was some kind of strange mother complex because Sylvia was old enough to be his mother.”
Aviva Pe’er, who had been crowned Miss Israel in June 1954, seemed more like the type of woman for Alfredo. At least she seemed to be willing to put up with Alfredo’s zanier moments. On New Year’s Eve, he invited Aviva and his friend Maria Luisa to a hotel bar in downtown Rio following the annual Ponto Frio party. It was three in the morning, and instead of leaving his car outside, he decided to drive it through the wide open doors of the hotel lobby. Alfredo parked the car, calmly gave the keys to the startled concierge, and headed in the direction of the bar with his shocked entourage.
“Fred drove right through reception,” recalled Maria Luisa, adding that his actions were not the result of an overindulgence in alcohol. “It was just Fred. This was the kind of thing he loved to do. Of course, it caused all sorts of confusion. The police were called, and Fred had to pay a huge fine. But we all had a great time.”
In 1955, following his dalliance with Miss Israel, he married a woman named Zani Roxo in New York, only to divorce her less than a year later in Florida.
Marie Paule Flore Delebois, a pretty Frenchwoman whose mother Charlotte had worked for the French Resistance during the war, was next. Alfredo fell in love with Scarlett, as she was known in Rio because of her flaming red hair, and flew her to New York where he married her in a civil ceremony in July 1959. A year later, the couple adopted an infant girl and boy, both of whom had been abandoned at a local orphanage on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. A case of adulthood mumps had made Alfredo sterile. But the marriage didn’t last. “Fred fell in love with an image, and the image didn’t quite correspond to reality,” said his sister Rosy, referring to his breakup with Scarlett.
In February 1962, the marriage to Scarlett was annulled. At the time of the breakup Scarlett agreed to custody of the little girl, Alexandra. Mother and daughter left Brazil for good, and took up their new lives in France. Alfredo, a newly single father, was left with the son, Carlos.
Single again, Alfredo headed back into his familiar nightly routine. He frequented Sacha’s in Copacabana and hosted all-night poker games at his beachfront penthouse, which was considered the largest apartment in Rio at the time with over 10,000 square feet of space and stunning views of the ocean on the city’s fabled Avenida Atlantica, next to the elegant Copacabana Palace hotel.
“We’d be playing poker at his penthouse on Avenida Atlantica when a little after midnight Caruso would put out this magnificent buffet feast that was simply fantastic,” said Alfredo’s friend Al Abitbol, a French émigré, who began to build his clothing empire in Rio at the same time that Alfredo started Ponto Frio.
“He was a crazy genius,” said his friend Marcelo Steinfeld, who recalled how Alfredo once lost $200,000 at a poker game. “In those days, that was a staggering amount of money. Alfredo got up and calmly informed his opponents that he would indeed pay out what he owed, but he insisted upon doing it at the local police station. Of course, after that, everyone just begged off and told him not to worry, that it was just a game, after all.”
After his failed marriage to Scarlett, the handsome thirty-eight-year-old businessman once again became Rio de Janeiro’s most eligible playboy.
“Every woman in Rio turned her head when Seu Alfredo walked by,” recalled Alvaro Pães, a flower vendor who managed the large flower market below Alfredo’s office on the Rua do Rosario—Ponto Frio’s new headquarters in the 1960s. “He was rich and he was good looking, and he had what every woman wanted. He knew how to make them crazy.”
Although he could have any woman he desired in Rio, true happiness eluded him. “He talked in riddles about his life,” said Alvaro. “It was as if he was searching for something he couldn’t find.”
Alvaro didn’t get involved in Alfredo’s personal problems although he always knew when he was in the grips of a new romance. For Alvaro, it always coincided with the times that Alfredo ordered copious amounts of flowers. He ordered yellow roses for his third wife—the blonde divorcée Alvaro knew only from a distance as the elegant Dona Lily.
“He was in love, but then he was always in love,” said Alvaro. It’s true that Alfredo often wore his heart on his sleeve.
In his euphoric states, Alfredo would drive up to the flower market, throw the keys of his car to Alvaro, and tell him he could take the car wherever he wanted, provided it was back by the time he needed to drive home at the end of the day. Some days, he would invite Alvaro up to his office for coffee and chocolate. The two would talk about politics and listen to music.
Ironically, just as he sensed his life spinning out of control, Alfredo would take up his favorite samba. “Everything is in its place / Thank God, thank God,” he used to sing out loud to Alvaro. “When I come home from work / I say to God, many thanks / I sing samba the whole night / And on Sundays and holidays.”
The harmony celebrated in the samba he loved so much would elude Alfredo for the rest of his life. It was not available to him at any price.
YET HE SEEMED so happy in February 1965 when he walked out of the Office of the City Clerk in lower Manhattan with his beautiful new bride on his arm. In fact, friends recalled that he was deliriously happy after the marriage to Lily Watkins Cohen. Alfredo celebrated their wedding by taking Lily to the French jeweler Boucheron and buying one of the biggest diamond rings in the store.
In the early days of their marriage, they acted like a happy, upper-class family. The four children—Alfredo’s adopted son, Carlos, and Lily’s two sons and daughter—were enrolled in good schools in Rio, and Lily hosted wonderful dinner parties for family and friends. Most weekends, the Monteverde clan headed to Alfredo’s summer retreat at Aguas Lindas, where they went sailing and snorkeling.
In a family portrait taken of Lily and the children soon after their marriage, Lily is the very picture of the well-to-do matron—slim and smiling, with perfectly coiffed hair, a fashionable silk foulard tied loosely around her neck—surrounded by four beautiful children.
For her part, Lily was relieved to be back in Rio, which was decidedly more cosmopolitan than Montevideo, a quiet backwater where it was nearly impossible to find a Parisian-trained hairdresser and a good bottle of champagne, among other luxuries she could now simply never do without.
Alfredo appeared to be a dream come true. Not only was he handsome and a good father to her children, he was one of the richest men in Brazil. With Alfredo, Lily was living the fairy tale she had dreamed of as a teenager at the Colegio Anglo-Americano. Now they not only vacationed in South America, but Alfredo took her on expensive tours of Switzerland, Italy, and France. She could now shop in Paris and New York, and lounge on the French Riviera. When Lily complained to him that she had little to do during the long, hot afternoons in Rio, he helped her launch a boutique in the most elegant part of Copacabana, next to the Metro Theater and a few blocks from the Copacabana Palace hotel where Lily now frequented the hotel’s lavish hair salon several times a week.
“We set up the store as part of Fred’s larger company,” said Trotte, the accountant. “It was a diversion for Lily.”
The store was named Galati, after the city in Romania where Alfredo was born. It sold only the finest Baccarat crystal from France, imported jewelry, and other objets d’art.
“She had the best of everything in her store,” said her friend Vera Contrucci Dias. “But it wasn’t really a serious business. It was just something Alfredo had opened for her so that she had something to do during the afternoons.”
Although the store became a favorite haunt of Rio’s young socialites, Lily and Alfredo were never part of the elite crowd in the city. “They were never among the first team,” said Danuza Leão, who has chronicled Rio society for years. “Of course, everyone knew who Alfredo Monteverde was, but he didn’t frequent any of the high-society events. Lily and Fred weren’t exactly boldface names in those days.”
With four young children to raise and a rich man’s house to run, perhaps the pretty debutante in the white organdy dress at the CIB balls in the 1950s was now simply too busy to worry about high society. Moreover, Alfredo was not the kind of man who cared about appearing in the social columns, even though many of his friends in Rio belonged to the city’s richest and most prominent families.
Indeed, Lily seems to have been too wrapped up with more mundane things, like shopping, to work on her entrance into high society. That would come much later.
Like Mario, her first husband, Alfredo quickly learned about his new wife’s extravagance. Alfredo could never understand why Lily insisted upon ordering bottles of champagne from Le Bec Fin, then Rio’s finest French restaurant, rather than just buy them directly from the liquor store, which charged significantly less. Or why she would order the restaurant’s elaborate French meals and try to pass them off as her own creation. In a society where servants were plentiful, and wealthy women like Lily were rarely judged by their husbands on their cooking or housekeeping abilities, Alfredo could never figure out why Lily tried so hard to make herself into the perfect housewife.
“She had this geisha complex,” said one of her acquaintances from the 1960s. “She went out of her way to please men.”
In Rio, they had busy social lives that revolved around their children and friends, even if they were far removed from the grand soirees and balls that Lily would have loved to attend. Alfredo’s weekly poker games continued, complete with the midnight feasts, this time orchestrated by Lily, with a little help from the French chefs at Le Bec Fin, who also helped her organize sumptuous dinner parties at the Monteverde residence.
It was to one of those dinners that Alfredo invited his friends, the Safra banking brothers—Joseph and Moise. Together with their older brother, Edmond, they had set up their banking business in São Paulo. Edmond now spent most of his time in Geneva, running his Trade Development Bank.
Edmond Safra was well-known to Alfredo, and Brazil’s other wealthy Jews. He was the banker they sought out when they wanted to hide money offshore, far from the reach of Brazil’s military dictatorship. According to his business associates, Alfredo was among the biggest depositors at Edmond’s bank in Switzerland and also did business with the Safra Bank in São Paulo.
In addition to the soirees she organized for Alfredo’s business associates and the couple’s friends in Rio, Lily was also much admired for her children’s parties, complete with magicians, clowns, and crowds of happy children. “She threw these great parties for the kids,” said Maria Luisa, who later moved to the United States after her marriage to a fellow Ponto Frio employee in Rio. “It was Lily who gave my daughter her first Barbie.”
In addition to her hostess skills, Lily also tried to be supportive of Alfredo, especially when he was in the grips of a terrible depression. At one point, in an effort to show solidarity with her husband, Lily checked herself into the exclusive São Vicente Clinic in Rio’s upscale Gavea neighborhood for a sleeping cure, which was a popular form of therapy for mild depression in the 1960s. Alfredo, who was deeply concerned that his new wife was suffering from depression, decided to surprise her when she arrived at the clinic. He loaded his car with a hammer, some nails, and the couple’s Van Gogh that he had asked a friend to transport from the international airport in a Volkswagen camper van. He took seventeen-year-old Victor Sztern with him to help him hang the painting in her room.
“He could move heaven and earth for the people he loved,” said Sztern, who recalled looking over his shoulder to keep hospital personnel out of the room while Alfredo hammered the nail into the wall of the hospital room and put up the Van Gogh. “He just wanted to surprise Lily, to make sure that even for the short time she was going to be in the hospital she would be happy.”
Although she eagerly encouraged her new husband’s indulgences, especially when they involved gifts of exquisite jewelry, Lily was guarded about her own extravagances and never told her second husband what she regularly spent, especially on clothing—her passion. Perhaps she worried that Alfredo would react in much the same way Mario had reacted when she spent thousands on lingerie.
“Money was just paper to her,” recalled Abitbol, who owns an upscale chain of boutiques called Elle et Lui in Rio. “Lily was my best customer. She would go into my stores and buy ten or fifteen dresses, at about $200 each.”
Although he was thrilled with his best customer’s shopping habits, Abitbol also felt extremely uncomfortable about the terms. “‘Don’t tell Fred.’ That’s what she always said to me,” recalled Abitbol. “It was always our little secret how much of Fred’s money she spent.”
After one of Lily’s afternoon shopping sprees at one of his boutiques, Abitbol found himself dining with Alfredo and Lily the same evening. He was surprised to see that Lily was not wearing any of her latest purchases from his store.
“Didn’t you like any of the dresses you bought?” asked Abitbol, in a whisper, while Alfredo was out of earshot.
Lily replied that she was going to give all the dresses she had bought to her friends. Lily’s generosity and her good breeding were well known in the couple’s social circle. In the late 1960s Alfredo asked his architect to sell a piece of beachfront property that he owned in the Ipanema neighborhood. The architect, Fernando Pinto Dias, managed to sell the property for well above the asking price. It was Lily who insisted that Alfredo pay Fernando a commission on the sale of the property.
“Fernando didn’t even think of charging them a commission, but it was Lily who insisted that Alfredo treat him fairly,” said Vera, Fernando’s wife, and a good friend of the Monteverdes at the time. “Lily was extremely well brought up, and she was always thinking of others.”
Even Alfredo’s mother, the domineering matriarch Regina, was extremely fond of her new daughter-in-law at first. “Regina always said that Fred needed a good woman, and that Lily seemed to care about him and could help him when he was sick,” recalled Masha Monterosa, Regina’s friend and bridge partner in Rio.
Many of the couple’s friends at the time agreed. “We finally thought that Fred had found the best woman for him when he married Lily,” said Maria Luisa. “She was very sweet. She had her feet firmly planted on the ground, and she had Fred’s total trust.”
But she didn’t have it for long. Barely three years into their marriage, Alfredo started to have serious doubts about Lily, according to friends and business associates. Maybe it was those elaborate French dinners, prepared by someone else.
Despite what appeared to be a happy married life, there were tensions. Lily could never quite understand the close relationship that Alfredo enjoyed with his sister, even though Rosy spent most of her time abroad in New York and Italy after she divorced her first husband.
Whenever brother and sister were together, Lily felt like a complete outsider, recalled Rosy. Sometimes they used the secret language they had invented as children in Romania, confounding whoever happened to be in their presence.
Their preferred mode of entry into the Ritz hotel in Paris or the Dorchester in London was by pretending to lean on a flower. Alfredo and his sister would drive up to the entrance in a Rolls-Royce, wait for a doorman to open the car door and, feigning great fatigue, they would lean on a lily or a rose and enter the building, laughing later at the incredulous expressions on the faces of the hotel staff.
During one such surreal exchange between Rosy and Alfredo in Paris, Lily had been so exasperated by their antics and role-playing that Alfredo took pity on her and ducked into Boucheron to buy her an exquisite diamond ring to make amends.
But while he indulged Lily with expensive surprises, he also loved to indulge his sister. He once wrapped a square-cut blue white diamond ring in crumpled toilet paper and tossed it carelessly on Rosy’s coffee table at her apartment in New York.
Throughout Alfredo’s life, Rosy remained his most important confidante. “Rosy dear, as usual I am filling a whole letter about me,” Alfredo wrote to his sister in one of the frequent letters he sent to her in New York and Italy, alternating between English, Portuguese, and sometimes Romanian. “Forgive my selfishness but somehow I feel like telling you how I feel.”
The relationship between brother and sister was troublesome to Lily, said one family friend, who did not want to be identified. “Lily was clearly jealous of Rosy,” she said. “She tried to outdo Rosy when it came to everything. If Rosy had redecorated her apartment in New York, then Lily would come up with the same color scheme to redecorate the family home in Rio.”
It’s not clear whether Lily took her cue from her sister-in-law when she insisted that she needed to hire an architect and interior designer to redo their new home in Rio de Janeiro. Shortly after marrying Lily, Alfredo gave up his stunning penthouse in Copacabana and bought a sprawling modern house on a leafy residential street, with a garden in the back for the children and their dogs. The Monteverdes moved into the house at 96 Rua Icatu, in an exclusive hilltop neighborhood in Rio, in 1968, after the home had undergone extensive renovations overseen by Lily and their architect Fernando. The house was deceptively small at its rather demure front entrance, which was partially hidden by tropical foliage. A visitor had to drive farther up Rua Icatu, a winding road that snaked up a mountain, to appreciate the home’s full size. The bottom floor featured floor-to-ceiling windows in the sunken living room and a tremendous view onto the tropical garden in the back. Guests enjoying an afternoon glass of champagne in the living room had a view of lush foliage, lilac and white orchids, and flaming pink hyacinth. The tranquillity and quiet were so complete that guests might be forgiven for thinking that they were lounging at a country retreat far from the urban chaos of Rio de Janeiro. On the second floor, where the bedrooms were located, Alfredo helped design a large office that led into the master bedroom suite, where a large picture window overlooked the garden.
After the final renovations were complete, Alfredo did not want to stop. He set out to create an annex to the property so that he could house his household staff. Unlike most of his peers, Alfredo was extremely dedicated to his staff. Shortly after moving in, he confessed to his housekeeper Laurinda that he had bought a vacant plot of land near the Icatu house. He wanted to expand the house, he said, and construct separate quarters to accommodate more live-in servants.
“I want to be able to walk a short distance when I need to talk to you,” he told Laurinda, with a wink, ducking into the kitchen, as he did on most days, to sample the meals the servants cooked for themselves.
“Seu Alfredo ate filet mignon, but he loved the poor people’s food,” said Laurinda, recalling how Alfredo would savor the smell of a steaming pot of bean stew in the kitchen.
On weekends, Alfredo took the children, along with Laurinda’s two boys, Adilson and Ademir, to the Rio Yacht Club or the exclusive Caiçaras Club in the city’s upscale Lagoa neighborhood.
“Seu Alfredo treated everyone like part of the family,” recalled Laurinda. “Everyone loved him.”
But as it turned out, not everyone was enamored of Alfredo Monteverde.
For one thing, the rich man who was so kind to his household servants could also act with swift brutality when confronted with their disloyalty. About a year after moving into the Icatu house, Alfredo fired one of his longtime servants. Anita was a single mother from the impoverished northeastern state of Bahia. While Alfredo and Lily were away on vacation in Europe in June 1969 Anita had been put in charge of the house. She was to allow Laurinda and the other servants in to maintain the property. But Anita, who was not well-liked by the others who worked in the house, refused. When the Monteverdes returned and the house was dirty, Anita blamed it on the others, saying that they had not appeared while the family was away on vacation.
Laurinda had nothing but contempt for Anita, who often lit candles and made strange offerings to the Afro-Brazilian gods (known as orixas) in the black-magic (known as macumba) ceremonies that she had brought from her home in Bahia. “I told her, Anita stop smoking up the house with your spells, but she just kept on doing it,” said Laurinda.
Anita’s lies to her employers about the other servants were the last straw for Laurinda, who also accused Anita of trying to turn the children against her. Feeling cornered, Laurinda left the house on Icatu without a word to her employer, who was at his offices downtown. When Alfredo heard of the resignation of his favorite housekeeper, he drove to the Parque da Cidade favela to find out what had happened. Laurinda was livid. When he tried to convince her to return to work, Laurinda told him that she refused to work alongside Anita. She related the black magic and the duplicity, but Alfredo wasn’t listening. He opened the door of his convertible and sped to his house to get rid of Anita, whom he fired on the spot. He gave her five months’ wages, and five minutes to collect her things and leave the house.
Anita, who moved slowly at the best of times, took her time, and before she left the house, she may have taken her revenge on her boss. After Anita left, the servants discovered Alfredo’s favorite shirt—white with pink stripes—which had been hanging to dry in the small outside area near the servants’ quarters. The shirt was tied over and over again with twine and hidden under the wash basin.
“If I’m not staying, no one else is going to stay in this house,” said Anita in a menacing tone to the other servants as she walked through the kitchen and climbed the garden stairs to the servants’ entrance through the garage.
Coincidentally, Anita’s ouster occurred simultaneously with Alfredo’s decision to get rid of Lily.
“Tell me,” he said to Maria Consuelo Ayres, his closest confidante at Ponto Frio. “How do you go about separating from your wife or husband?”
Maria Consuelo was used to such hypothetical, third-person questions from her unpredictable boss whenever he was having difficulties in his personal life, and knew it signaled the end of a romantic relationship. However, she does recall being a little bit surprised that Alfredo, whose ability to marry and divorce seemed to come so easily, was seeking marital advice from her. She knew right away that he was having trouble at home. Calmly, she told him that if one is indeed having marital problems, one must discuss them calmly with one’s spouse. Maria Consuelo put the conversation out of her mind and assumed that all was well when Alfredo, Lily, and Alfredo’s mother, Regina, took off on their European holiday in the summer of 1969. But when he returned, Alfredo matter-of-factly informed Maria Consuelo that her advice had not worked.
“By the way, what you said about calm, rational discussion,” said Alfredo during the course of a business day. “It didn’t work.”
The crisis in his personal life became so overwhelming that he mentioned it to several friends, family members, and business associates. “Fred commented to my husband that he wanted to separate from Lily,” said Lourdes Mattos, referring to a conversation that Alfredo had had with her husband, Geraldo, Ponto Frio’s chief director.
For his part, Geraldo was also used to such pronouncements from his boss, and when he heard nothing further, he assumed that Alfredo and Lily had ironed out whatever differences they had, said Lourdes. Besides, at the time, Alfredo was on so much medication to treat his depression that Geraldo assumed that he wasn’t thinking straight.
Alfredo also must have confided his marital difficulties to his mother, who told her bridge partner that all was not well with Lily. “Shortly before Fred died Regina told me that she was completely wrong about Lily,” said Masha. “She said, ‘That’s not a marriage for Fred.’”
Alfredo had also spoken to his accountant about an imminent divorce. “I didn’t really deal with Fred’s personal tax matters,” said Trotte. “But as the divorce would involve issues directly affecting Ponto Frio, he told me that he and Lily would need to make some financial arrangements, pending their divorce.”
But other than his family and closest business associates, few others knew anything about their imminent divorce. They didn’t fight or raise their voices, at least not in front of the servants.
Perhaps Lily was hoping that Alfredo would change his mind. After all, most of her family now depended upon Ponto Frio for their income. Her brother Artigas Watkins worked as a security guard at a Ponto Frio warehouse when the Watkins family’s business fell apart after Wolf’s death in 1962. Her mother, Annita, and the other Watkins siblings also had their expenses paid for by Ponto Frio, said Trotte, who included the Watkins family’s expenses in Ponto Frio’s accounts. “It was a bit of creative accounting when it came to the Watkins family’s expenses,” said Trotte. “We received their bills, and we charged them to the company as expenses.”
But below stairs, the hired help only found out that things were not well with their boss when they found Alfredo’s cursed shirt. It was Nelly, the maid who worked with Laurinda at Icatu, who found the striped dress shirt.
When Nelly showed Laurinda the shirt, she knew immediately that some kind of macumba curse had been put on her boss. Laurinda doused the shirt in hot water and cut the twine.
“But it was the wrong thing to do,” recalled Laurinda with great regret many years later. “Hot water only makes the curse stronger. I should have put cold water and salt on it to kill whatever macumba curse had been put on Seu Alfredo. But I did the wrong thing. I made the curse stronger.”