Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows - Isabel Vincent (2010)
Chapter 4. “Edmond Said He Would Fix Everything”
EDMOND WAS, OF course, well known to Alfredo. Like other wealthy Jews who had fled to Brazil during the war years, Alfredo had entrusted a large part of his assets to the Safra bank in São Paulo, which Edmond founded shortly after immigrating to Brazil in 1954. Later, when Edmond’s Trade Development Bank in Geneva officially began to accept deposits, Alfredo was among the largest account holders. Fearing endemic corruption and political instability in Brazil, Alfredo had also scattered his assets in other Swiss banks and invested in property abroad.
“Every Jew had money outside the country because we were a generation of refugees, and you never knew when we would need to leave in a hurry,” said Marcelo Steinfeld, whose father had the distinction of being one of Edmond’s early depositors after he started building the Swiss arm of his banking operations in 1956.
“For years, Fred was Edmond Safra’s biggest account, and I know that they worked together for many years while Edmond was in São Paulo,” said Maria Luisa Goldschmid, who worked as Alfredo’s assistant between 1954 and 1957.
In the early days, at least, Alfredo seems to have put a great deal of confidence in the Safra bank. Joseph Safra was a close friend and frequent visitor to the Ponto Frio offices in Rio de Janeiro, recalled many of Alfredo’s business associates. And Edmond’s new enterprise in Switzerland, the cradle of private banking, was the perfect place for Alfredo to safeguard a big chunk of the family fortune.
But Alfredo probably never imagined that Edmond would take care of him in other ways. For years the Monteverde family has wondered just what role Edmond played in the series of events that led to some of Alfredo’s ill-conceived business decisions just before his death.
It’s not clear how Lily met Edmond. Some claim that the two met at his brother Joseph Safra’s wedding in São Paulo in the late 1960s. Others insist that they met immediately after Alfredo’s death, when the distraught widow needed financial advice on how to run Ponto Frio. Still, others insist that Edmond and his brothers were frequent visitors at the Monteverde home on Rua Icatu. Alfredo’s business associates recall that the Monteverdes had invited the Safra brothers for dinner on several occasions. On one of those occasions, Edmond was visiting from Switzerland and might have tagged along with his brothers.
“We all encouraged Edmond to visit Lily and give her his sympathies after Alfredo died,” recalled a Safra family member in São Paulo who did not want to be identified. “That’s when they met for the first time.”
But wherever that first meeting took place, Edmond Safra fell hard for Lily Monteverde.
Their friend Albert Nasser swears that his friend the Lebanese banker locked eyes on Lily at Joseph’s São Paulo wedding, where Alfredo had been asked to be the best man. Lily, in a green satin dress, her hair in a chignon studded with diamonds, looked absolutely beautiful, he recalled. When Joseph introduced Lily to Edmond, “they looked at each other as if the world did not exist around them,” recalled Albert, who was also a guest at the wedding. “Edmond fell in love with her instantly,” he said.
Nasser says that he is certain the love affair only started months after Alfredo’s death in 1969. The way Nasser remembers it, a mutual friend in Rio, businessman Samy Cohn, who had also introduced Alfredo to Lily years earlier, had suggested that Lily call Edmond in New York to help her with some of the financial issues after Alfredo’s death. Nasser says that within a few weeks after the funeral, she flew to New York for a meeting with Edmond, telling him that she had no one to help her with the business she had just inherited. It was only then that the two became lovers, Nasser insisted.
“Edmond said he would fix everything,” said Nasser.
But Nasser’s version of events does not coincide with accounts of those who were much closer to Lily and Alfredo at the time. According to family friends, Alfredo’s business associates, and servants at the house on Rua Icatu in Rio, Lily traveled almost immediately to London, not to New York, after Alfredo’s death. “We all thought that when Fred died, Lily would marry Safra,” said a Rio socialite who knew the couple.
The careful planning that saw Lily take almost instant control of Alfredo’s entire fortune may have been executed by Edmond himself. After all, he was one of Alfredo’s bankers. Many marveled at how rapidly a grieving widow with little experience in the ways of international finance was able to so quickly secure her late husband’s assets.
“My son died on August 25, 1969,” said Regina Monteverde in court papers filed against Lily and Edmond in England in 1971. “On the 26th of August, my power of attorney on a joint bank account was canceled. I returned to Rio on September 1, and only then did I realize how miserable my life had become.”
According to some business associates of Alfredo and his family, it was Edmond who took immediate control of Lily’s business affairs—surely an arrangement that could only have been possible if a relationship of deep trust had already existed. It was Edmond and a team of his most trusted lawyers and international financial advisers who instructed Lily to move to London where she could take advantage of favorable tax loopholes for foreigners. They also guided her through the important process of adopting Alfredo’s son, Carlos. Under Brazilian law, children are automatically heir to half of the deceased’s estate. As a result of Carlos’s adoption, Lily could control the entire Monteverde fortune.
Lily rented temporary quarters at 6 Hyde Park Gardens, a “good address” in high-society parlance, across the street from Hyde Park and in the neighborhood of Kensington Palace. The flat itself was expensively furnished but by no means opulent, not in the grand style for which Lily would later become famous. There was an apartment below for the three boys, which also seemed to be expensively furnished, “but in the manner that a railway baron would buy leather-bound books by the yard,” recalled one visitor. Lily immediately enrolled Carlos and Claudio at Millfield, Alfredo’s old boarding school in Somerset. Eduardo chose to live in Buenos Aires with his father. Adriana lived with her mother in the upstairs flat and attended a day school in London.
Of course, these were only temporary rented quarters, hastily arranged in the frantic days after Alfredo’s death in Brazil. Lily tried to make the best of slight inconveniences. Her bedroom, for example, was too small, and did not have enough space to accommodate her extensive wardrobe. The solution was to keep her clothes in an adjoining bedroom. An opening between the two rooms had been constructed to make it appear en suite. But it was awkward. The opening was only five feet high, forcing her to duck whenever she moved from one room to the other.
Still, she pampered herself now that she was a wealthy widow. She leased a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes convertible, and hired a driver to take her on frequent shopping forays in Knightsbridge. She also bought herself exquisite new clothes, and began to jet to Paris to order her wardrobe for each season from the finest couture houses.
Lily lived quietly in London, although she frequently threw dinner parties for visiting friends from South America, and dined often at such elite restaurants as Annabel’s, especially when Edmond was in town. Lily also traveled frequently to Geneva to see Edmond and take care of her financial affairs, recalled Ponto Frio executives who were summoned to Edmond’s offices in the Swiss city for regular business meetings. Lily was careful not to declare herself a resident of London so that she wouldn’t be taxed on the inheritance until all of it was squirreled away in Switzerland. Instead, in the fall of 1969 she maintained her Brazilian citizenship and established residency in Switzerland, using Edmond’s address on the rue Moillebeau in Geneva as her own.
The intricacies of such artful tax maneuvers would have been lost on a Brazilian socialite with limited experience of the world of high finance, but Lily clearly had the best legal and tax advice money could buy.
“She wasn’t exactly an intellectual, but it’s fantastic how quickly she learned,” said Rosy. “You really have to admire the unemotional part of Lily. She’s coolheaded. The day after the death of her husband, she immediately canceled all his bank accounts.”
While she was in London, Edmond gave Lily a generous weekly allowance in cash and forbade her from buying property or applying for a credit card until her residency was formalized. In many ways, Lily’s legal and financial issues became his own, for Alfredo’s fortune must have represented one of the most important assets in his own growing banking empire.
In a series of expensive legal actions that played out for years in British courts, Alfredo’s surviving family tried to establish a strong professional and personal link that they believed existed between Lily and Edmond.
For Lily, Edmond Safra was not only a future marriage prospect, he was the ultimate repairman, fixing all the tangled legal and financial details that emerged soon after Alfredo’s death and threatened her newly acquired fortune.
Edmond said he would fix everything.
And, in many ways, he did.
EDMOND SAFRA WAS born into a tight-knit clan of renowned Sephardic bankers and currency traders in Beirut on August 6, 1932. But his origins can be traced to Aleppo, the Middle East’s most important ancient trading center, where the Safras, a prominent clan of Syrian Jews, first carved out their banking empire nearly a century before.
Located midway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates—the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East—Aleppo was a thriving business capital where for hundreds of years merchants conducted a bustling trade in the world’s finest spices, textiles, and precious metals deep inside the city’s fabled souks. Commerce was traditionally dominated by the Halabim, as the Syrian Jews from Aleppo were known, who were skillful traders and financiers.
Safra Frères et Cie. was a respected firm well-known throughout the Ottoman Empire and as far away as the Persian Gulf. In the days before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the bank financed the camel caravans to Iraq and Egypt. The bank, overseen by Edmond’s great-uncle Ezra, also had branches in Istanbul and Alexandria, each of them run by a trusted member of the Safra clan.
Born in Aleppo in 1891, Jacob Safra, Edmond’s father, cut his teeth at the family banking house after his own father, a local sir-eh-feen, or “money changer,” died when Jacob was a boy. Jacob was taken in by his uncle Ezra, and by the time he was a teenager, was working at Safra Frères in Aleppo. But as the city fell on hard economic times with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and Jews began to be conscripted for military service, Jacob was dispatched by his cousins to Beirut to open a new branch office of the family bank in 1914. As conditions grew worse in Aleppo, hundreds of Halabim also made the trek to Beirut. Although Jacob tried to resettle in Aleppo at the end of the First World War, he found the city much changed. The Jewish population had dwindled and after the victorious Allies divided up the Ottoman Empire, Aleppo lost its importance as a major trading route. The Safras scaled back their banking operations in Aleppo, and the cousins focused most of their efforts on the branches they had set up in Istanbul, Alexandria, and Beirut.
The Syrian Jews who made their way to Beirut after the First World War became Jacob Safra’s most important clients, although he also took in deposits from Arabs and Druse clients when he opened his new bank in 1920. But while the Jacob Safra Bank took in deposits, it did not make very many loans, which was in keeping with the conservative philosophy of banking that has infused generations of Safra bankers. Trading was the main activity of the bank, and Jacob traded commodities, foreign currencies, and especially gold. The gold business soon proved so lucrative that Jacob became one of the wealthiest Jews in Beirut. In 1918, Jacob married his cousin Teira Safra. The couple would go on to have eight children, beginning with the birth of their first child, Elie, in 1922.
Edmond, Jacob and Teira’s second son, was born ten years after Elie, and from an early age seemed the natural heir to the family business. A banking prodigy by the time he was eight, he began accompanying his father to the souks of Beirut to check on the Safra bank’s depositors. Jacob taught Edmond to look people in the eye, as a person’s character was often more important than a financial statement. Would he repay a loan? How well was he doing in business? How much did he give to charity?
Jacob’s manifesto for success became legend among the Safra family, and to this day is quoted on the Web site of Grupo Safra, the Brazilian branch of the Safra empire. “You need to build a bank like a ship, solid to weather storms,” goes the Safra motto. “You also need to maintain a high level of liquidity because sometimes Jews have to flee in a hurry, and never be the biggest because lightning always hits the highest trees.”
In rare interviews given when he was an established banker in Switzerland and the U.S., Safra called banking “a simple and stupid business.” He told one reporter that his father had always said, “May God send you intuition in life.” Jacob also warned him “that you should never take a loan that you cannot afford to have in default.”
“You need honesty and hard work and you don’t need intelligence,” Edmond said in an interview with the Jornal do Brasil in Rio in 1978. “The more intelligent the man, the more dangerous he turns out to be.”
In another interview, he noted, “My father taught me that if you loan a man too much money, you turn a good man into a bad man.”
These seemingly simple rules of running a bank were drilled into Edmond by his father, who also warned his son that he must always maintain a low profile—never call attention to his family’s wealth or business success. Among the Halabim, modesty was considered a necessity. They believed that it was of paramount importance not to tempt the ayin harah, or the “evil eye,” which would bring bad luck and hardship. For years, Edmond did what generations of men in his family had done—he carried around shiny blue stones in his pocket to ward off the evil eye. He also avoided becoming too exposed, too prosperous in the banking world. As he noted in a 1994 interview, he had the opportunity in 1990 to buy up Chase Manhattan stock and earn a controlling interest in the largest bank in America, but, the ultimate outsider, he held back. Jews should not own the biggest bank in a non-Jewish country, he told the reporter. “That is what my father taught me. I told that to my brothers in Brazil, too. Never become the largest bank.”
Jacob’s decision to take Edmond under his wing at the bank was a huge blow to his elder brother, Elie. In Sephardic tradition, the eldest son typically inherits the family business. But while the decision to promote Edmond was painful for Elie, the Safras broke with tradition because Edmond seemed such a born financier.
His friends noticed the same kind of emerging business acumen. In the summer of 1942, while he was vacationing at the resort town of Aley in the mountains outside Beirut, he convinced his father’s chauffeur to take his friends up the steep mountains for a fee that he and the chauffeur split between them. When the boys’ families began to complain to Jacob that Edmond was exploiting the children, the Safra patriarch laughed and said he was very glad that his son knew how to make money, and gave him his blessing to continue ferrying passengers up the mountains for cash.
But while Edmond may have been destined to become one of the world’s great businessmen, he was by all accounts a terrible student. Friends recall that he was one of the worst pupils at the Alliance Israélite in Beirut. One of his teachers, Madame Tarrab, used to chide him for being the class clown, and once told him, “Edmond, you are going to grow up to be a shoeshine boy because you know nothing, and you will never know anything!” Years later, Madame Tarrab swallowed her own words when she traveled to New York to ask Edmond for a loan to save the Jewish school where she worked in Montreal. Without an appointment, she entered the Republic National Bank of New York, took the elevator to the top floor and told the receptionist that she wanted to see Edmond, who was in a meeting.
“Tell him that Madame Tarrab is here to see him,” said the elderly teacher, who took a seat in the waiting room.
Minutes later, she was ushered into Edmond’s opulent office. “Madame Tarrab, I have thought a lot about you over the years, please tell me what I can do to help you,” said Edmond, hugging his old teacher.
He didn’t flinch when he wrote her a check for $100,000 that helped save the school. He also gave her a small package that he told her to open when she was back in Montreal. But curiosity got the better of her and she opened the package on the flight from New York. She was shocked when a perfectly cut diamond ring tumbled out onto her tray table.
Edmond’s lack of academic success seems not to have troubled his parents as higher education among the Halabim was not especially welcome. As one expert on Sephardic culture has noted, “Sephardic assimilation was slowed…by the tendency of many, especially those of Syrian background, to stay within the business community and not to send their children to universities, eliminating a major force that encourages the abandonment of traditional ways.” Edmond left high school to go into the family business when he was fourteen.
The Safras lived a life of luxury in Beirut, a cosmopolitan, French-speaking seaside center often referred to as the Paris of the Middle East. Under the French Mandate, and even during the Second World War, a tight-knit community of some five thousand Jews lived relatively comfortable lives, buffered from the rabid anti-Semitism that was raging through Europe. As a teenager, Edmond had his own valet. His father was considered an important patron in the city, called upon to resolve disputes between Jews and to contribute to synagogues and Jewish schools. He even paid for the construction of a mosque for Beirut’s Muslim population, across the street from his bank.
But the prosperous peace was shattered after the end of the Second World War as Jewish refugees began making their way to Palestine and clamoring for the establishment of a Jewish state. Across the Middle East, angry mobs of Arab nationalists turned on the Jews. In 1947, marauding Arab nationalists burned Jewish businesses, including the old Safra Frères offices and the synagogues in Aleppo. A year later, Jews in Syria became victims of fierce anti-Jewish laws that prevented them from selling their property and froze their assets. The violence and anti-Semitism soon took hold in Beirut as angry Arabs began to picket Jacob Safra and his bank. Still, the Lebanese government was tolerant of Jews; it did not punish them for the “sins” of the Zionists and, after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, continued to grant citizenship to new immigrants.
But following the anti-Semitic picketing in front of his bank in Beirut, Jacob felt it was time to leave. He split up the family, sending his two youngest sons, Joseph and Moise, to boarding school in England. Edmond was entrusted with the important task of finding a secure haven somewhere else in the world where the clan could become citizens and do business in peace. At sixteen, Edmond boarded a plane for the first time in his young life. He headed for Italy accompanied by his valet and Jacques Tawil, one of his father’s most trusted bankers. After settling in the Italian financial capital Milan, Safra and Tawil set up a small trading company that dealt in commodities and gold across the Middle East and Europe. The business was a success, but the young Edmond clearly felt like a second-class citizen in a country where he was forced to check in with immigration authorities every three months to renew his visa. Feeling particularly nervous before his first such meeting, Edmond consulted a friend who told him the best way to handle any situation was to give out as little information as possible—a philosophy that would serve him well the rest of his life, as he shunned publicity to protect himself and his clients.
“If they ask you how you came into the country—was it through the window?—your answer is ‘No,’” the friend said. “Just no. Not, ‘I came in through the door.’”
Edmond searched for a stable country where he could easily come in through the door and establish a family business that would grow and prosper for centuries. “I’m in no hurry to make money,” he told BusinessWeek in 1994. “I want to build a bank that will last 1,000 years.”
After visiting a client’s paper mill in Brazil, Edmond wrote his father a long letter urging him to settle in the resource-rich, then stable, and prosperous country in the Southern Hemisphere. The Safras moved to Rio de Janeiro, arriving just after the annual Carnaval celebrations, on March 3, 1954. While the seaside cosmopolitan city must have reminded them of their home in Beirut, Jacob, the sixty-three-year-old patriarch, was not impressed. He quickly determined that Rio de Janeiro was not a serious capital of international finance. He uprooted the family and moved to São Paulo, where they joined a large wave of Sephardic Jews escaping violence and anti-Semitism in the Middle East.
The Sephardic clans kept to themselves in São Paulo and had little to do with the more established Ashkenazi Jews, from Russia and Poland, who had arrived earlier and established the synagogues and religious schools in the region. As they had done for centuries, the Sephardim created their own religious communities, which continue to function independently of the Ashkenazi Jews. For centuries, the two groups have regarded each other with some mistrust. Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, some of whom consider themselves to be the more enlightened and educated of the two groups, often view their Sephardic counterparts as poorly educated, extremely clannish, conservative, and prone to superstition. The Sephardic label was first applied to Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal after 1492, but later came to include Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa. Within the Sephardic community, the Halabim, like the Safras, set themselves even further apart. In São Paulo, the Syrian Jewish immigrants founded their own closely knit synagogues and schools, and generally married within their own tight circle. By the mid-1980s, there were 50,000 Sephardic Jews in Brazil, the second largest community outside France.
In 1957, three years after arriving in Rio de Janeiro, Edmond, just shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, became a Brazilian citizen. But his ambitions lay elsewhere, for even as he was petitioning for citizenship, he was flying off to Geneva to establish a new bank. Borrowing money from family and a group of Brazilian investors, Edmond had laid the groundwork in 1956 for what would become the Trade Development Bank—a financial institution that did what generations of Safra banks had done in the past: protect Sephardic and Arab investments. When it officially began to accept deposits, the bank attracted hundreds of wealthy Halabim and other Sephardic Jews who had fled the Middle East and Africa to re-establish themselves in Milan, Rio, São Paulo, Paris, Buenos Aires, and New York. The bank also welcomed Arab depositors. Those who needed a safe place for their funds knew that they could trust the Safra name, especially now that it was behind a bank in the primary haven for flight capital from around the world.
For the Halabim, Safra’s new business venture in Switzerland, with its strict laws ensuring secrecy, was simply irresistible. In an early advertisement in a Brazilian newspaper for the Banque Pour le Developpement Commercial, as the bank was known in French, Safra offered “accounts in any currency; investments; and buying and selling of shares in all international markets.” For clients in Brazil and Argentina, countries that forbade offshore investments, the TDB offered numbered accounts to protect their assets. There were also so-called hold-mail accounts that forbade any correspondence between the bank and the account holder. Discussions were carried out with the depositor in person or by telephone. “The rules on hold-mail accounts were considered sacrosanct, since a single errant letter could well get a depositor thrown into prison.” According to the ad, the representative in Brazil for the TDB was Joseph Safra in São Paulo.
But Edmond needn’t have bothered with any advertising. As with his father and uncle before him, clients were brought in to the Safra universe by the current account holders. The bank’s reputation for utter discretion and secrecy spread largely by word of mouth. Correspondence was sent to account holders in unmarked envelopes and new depositors had to be vetted beforehand. The standing joke among bankers in Switzerland was that the switchboard operator at the TDB would answer the phone with a cautious “hello” rather than reveal the name of the bank. No one simply walked into the bank, located on the rue Chantepoulet before moving to more permanent headquarters at the elegant place du Lac. Clients had to make an appointment and show proper identification when they arrived. Most clients in far-flung places around the world preferred to speak by phone, but account officers, known at the bank as garants, were only allowed to speak to the depositor at the other end if they knew their voice. Often, phone calls were conducted in code, with depositors only speaking in numbers. Later, Edmond opened branches of the TDB in Nassau, London, and Chiasso, on the Italian-Swiss border.
Discreet and extremely low-key, the Trade Development Bank, which Edmond started with a loan of $1 million, would explode into an enterprise worth $5 billion by 1983, the year of its sale to American Express. By 1962, as the TDB began to take in increasing numbers of Halabim depositors fleeing Arab discontent in the Middle East, Edmond had decided to concentrate full time on his Swiss venture. He sold his Brazilian holdings to Moise and Joseph. A year later, Jacob died, and Edmond’s younger brothers took over control of the family business in Brazil.
Grief-stricken at his father’s death, Edmond took stock of his position in the world. He was thirty and already one of Europe’s most successful bankers. But he was clearly dissatisfied. True success, he felt, still eluded him. He left Geneva and decided to use the money from the sale of his Brazilian holdings to finance his boldest venture—a bank in New York City, the world’s financial capital.
It’s not clear why Edmond chose the Knox Hat Company townhouse in midtown Manhattan to house the Republic National Bank of New York. The ten-story beaux-arts building on Fifth Avenue, across from the New York Public Library, was far from the banking hub of Wall Street and surrounded by retail stores. But there was something about the building that appealed to him. “He went there to buy a hat, liked the building and bought it,” recalled one of his aides.
But perhaps Edmond was familiar with the history of the Knox Hat Company, which, like the Safra empire, had started out as a nineteenth-century family business.
Charles Knox initially established the hat company on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan in 1838, but the company fell on hard times following damage from a nearby fire and protracted litigation over a dispute over trademarks. Following the Civil War, the business was taken over by his son Edward, a war hero who was wounded at the battle of Gettysburg. After a long rest cure in Geneva, Edward returned to New York “with the intention of making his name known wherever a hat was sold.” With this in mind, he purchased the land on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Fortieth Street, across from the site of the recently vacated reservoir where the New York Public Library was under construction. He hired John Duncan, one of the city’s finest architects, and commissioned him to design the building, which was built between 1901 and 1902 and soon became the show-place for New York’s finest hats.
It’s hard to believe that a man as superstitious as Safra didn’t know the history of the building and the Knox family’s similarities to his own before he began the process of transforming the townhouse into his showpiece bank in Manhattan. Here was the site where Edward Knox, recently arrived from Geneva, was determined to become successful. And here was Edmond, the displaced Lebanese-Brazilian Genevois, some six decades later, determined to conquer the financial world.
“He knew more about the history of the Knox building than I did,” said Eli Attia, the architect who would later be commissioned to design an addition to the building. “There were no banks in that area, but Edmond was more intelligent than most developers and he had a vision.”
Whatever his reasons for buying the Knox Hat Company building, the townhouse at 452 Fifth Avenue was a perfect fit for him. Nevertheless, he spent $2.5 million converting the retail space for a bank, removing the mezzanine, installing plate glass windows and wood paneling, and decorating the lobby with Louis XIV antiques, of which he had become an avid collector. The Republic’s refurbished lobby was without a doubt the most opulent of any bank in New York at the time. On the ninth floor, Attia created a small apartment with space for separate quarters for Edmond’s valet. Later, when he became even more successful and his thriving business outgrew the confines of the ten-story structure, Edmond commissioned Attia to add a gleaming glass tower to the original building, and a palatial 13,000-square-foot apartment for himself on the twenty-ninth floor.
His formula for success was little changed from his days in Geneva. He still extolled the conservative banking formula he had learned from his father: “security, seriousness, hard work, careful lending, and controlling expenses.”
“You can take a chance in life, but not with a bank,” Edmond was fond of telling his aides. “A bank is not a playground. Banking is conservatism. And it has been the same for a few thousand years.”
In New York, as in Geneva, he offered discretion to a client base of wealthy Sephardic refugees and royal families from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, many of whom had banked with Safra Frères for generations.
But doing business in America was markedly different from doing business anywhere else in the world. For one thing, the media-shy Edmond felt he needed to be much more public if he was going to be as successful as he wanted to be. This is why he needed to open with a splash. He told his friends that a relatively unknown swarthy Lebanese banker with thick eyebrows was not going to pass muster among New York’s elite, with their Harvard pedigrees and their connections to the Kennedy clan.
So, at the bank’s grand opening on a frigid morning in January 1966, Safra made sure he had all the elements that would make New Yorkers sit up and take notice. Robert Kennedy, New York’s junior senator, cut the yellow ribbon officially opening the city’s newest bank and mingled with the new officers and organizers—themselves a who’s who of New York business and legal circles. There was the prominent lawyer Theodore W. Kheel, the mediator of many New York labor disputes who had strong ties to the city’s Democratic political machine. Kheel, who was extremely well connected in New York power circles, was Republic’s new chairman, although his authority was nominal. Peter White, a former senior vice president of the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company and Republic’s new president and chief executive officer, was also on hand at the ribbon cutting. In the New York Times article that chronicled the opening, Edmond was mentioned almost as an afterthought and was described as “a Lebanese banker whose family controls 36 per cent of the new bank.”
Of course, Edmond, who hated publicity, didn’t mind receiving only a fleeting mention in the third paragraph of the New York Times story, which went on to marvel that the bank’s initial capital—$11 million—was the largest of any other private commercial bank in U.S. history.
Still, the newspaper was skeptical about the bank’s chances at success: “Republic, of course, will be a pygmy among New York City’s banking giants,” noted the New York Times reporter, adding that the largest, Chase Manhattan Bank, had assets at the end of 1965 of $15.3 billion.
With his obsessive attention to every detail of his new business, Safra set out to prove them all wrong. By 1969, he had come up with an ingenious way to lure more depositors. He offered account holders who brought in new depositors free color television sets and Singer sewing machines for every three-year deposit of $10,000 or more. U.S. commercial banking rules limit the use of gifts as a way to attract new depositors, but the rules do not apply to account holders bringing in a new customer. “If someone brings a friend to the bank to open a deposit, the sponsor gets a color TV,” noted the Wall Street Journal. Soon depositors crowded Republic’s lobby to open accounts.
“Stockholders of Republic National Bank of New York, trooping in for the annual meeting, had to weave their way through throngs of customers shoveling money into the bank,” reported the Wall Street Journal.“Crowds of customers milled around temporary work tables set up to handle the overflow from tellers’ positions, and bank clerks were opening new accounts as fast as they could type up the forms.”
It didn’t seem to matter that they were locking themselves into long-term deposits that offered extremely low interest rates or that they could have probably gotten a better rate elsewhere. But even as the free sixteen-inch Zenith sets were drawing hundreds of new account holders, some of the bank’s own stockholders were urging Edmond to undertake a more aggressive public relations campaign. “As it is,” quipped one stockholder, “all anyone knows about us is that we sell more TV sets than anyone else in New York.” The giveaways soon earned the bank the derisive moniker “TV bank” in New York business circles.
But attracting new depositors would only prove part of the Republic’s success. Like the other Safra banks, Republic was also involved in the trade of precious metals. It was the first bank in the U.S. to be granted a license to sell gold for industry, and eventually it became the largest seller of gold bullion after the U.S. government stopped selling gold in 1968. Safra, whose name means “yellow” in Arabic, set about buying gold coins and industrial gold around the world. After the U.S. Department of Treasury lifted the forty-one-year-old ban on private ownership of gold, the bank became the leading importer of gold coins. By 1980, the bank controlled one-third of the U.S. market for gold used by dentists and jewelers. Its gold holdings eventually became so vast that Edmond ordered the construction of special vaults in the sub-basement of the bank’s headquarters to store blocks of gold and silver. The vaults were among the most modern precious metals warehouses in North America, with a loading dock capable of handling four armored trucks and two tractor trailers at the same time.
Even though U.S. tax laws forced Edmond, a nonresident for tax purposes, to take on the title of honorary chairman, everyone at Republic knew he was firmly in charge. Nothing escaped his watchful eye; all loans had to be approved by him. When he faced a particularly difficult decision, Safra would lock himself in a boardroom with only his most trusted Sephardic aides, who included Jacques Tawil, who had accompanied him to Milan in 1948; Cyril Dwek, a fellow Halabim whose family had known the Safras for generations; and, later, Walter Weiner, a New York lawyer who would earn his stripes dealing with Lily’s sticky legal issues over the Monteverde estate on two continents. Edmond was so impressed with Weiner’s dedication and intelligence that he later made him Republic president, and then chairman.
Edmond was a man obsessed with his banks, which he often referred to as “my children, my life.” In the early days of Republic, he lived in his small suite of rooms on the ninth floor, rarely leaving the building until it was time for him to jet off to Geneva to take care of affairs at the TDB. He conducted intercontinental business in the mornings while shaving. Later, after he bought a magnificent villa on the Riviera, he regularly received his clients at home. Peter Cohen, a former board member and chair of Republic, recalled that the reception areas of the grand château often resembled a lavish doctor’s waiting room, with elegantly dressed clients awaiting their turn to speak to Edmond.
“His is one of the few banks in the world where the proprietor is at home—the service is that close and personal,” said Cohen.
On the rare occasions that he did take time off, he loved to put on a pair of jeans and ride a bicycle through Central Park.
But Edmond’s obsession with banking eventually paid off in a big way. In the first month of its history, Republic opened 20,000 accounts—a record for a commercial bank in New York City. From that single townhouse on Fifth Avenue, Edmond transformed Republic into the twentieth largest bank in the U.S. Republic had sixty-nine branches in New York, Florida, and California, and 300,000 depositors in the heyday of its success in the mid-1990s.
“I’m now competing with the big boys in their own country,” Edmond told the New York Times, six years after the founding of Republic National Bank of New York. “I must say the Americans have been more than fair to me. Doing business in America is beautiful.”
A little more than a decade later, Edmond’s fascination with America soured as he became enmeshed in a war that nearly cost him his “children” and, even more important to him, his reputation.
EDMOND WAS USED to getting what he wanted in business. But his romantic life was another matter. His single-minded dedication to his banks, especially when he was building his empire in the 1950s and 1960s, left the young banker, who was growing prematurely bald, little time to socialize, although he did have something of the jet-set playboy in him. He kept a fully staffed and equipped 100-foot yacht named Aley after the hillside village in Beirut where he was born and where he operated his first successful venture with the family chauffeur. The yacht was anchored off the coast of Cannes. Friends from Brazil recalled lavish parties and endless backgammon games—which Edmond loved to play—aboard the yacht.
But even as his mother and sisters offered to set him up with marriageable young women from the Levant—Syrian Jewish virgins whose families they knew personally—Safra rarely expressed any interest in marriage. Everything changed, of course, when he saw the blonde in the green satin dress at his brother Joseph’s wedding in São Paulo in the late 1960s.
“Who is that beautiful woman?” he whispered to his friend Nasser.
“Don’t you see, Edmond?” Nasser replied. “She’s with Fred, her husband.”
Although Edmond had done business with Alfredo for years, he may have been only vaguely aware of his wives and affairs. After 1957 his Swiss bank kept him away from Rio de Janeiro, where Alfredo’s own company was based.
But by August 1969, when Alfredo died under bizarre circumstances at his home in Rio de Janeiro, Edmond’s and Lily’s fortunes seemed inextricably linked.
Immediately following Alfredo’s death, the surviving Monteverde family members were extremely puzzled by his will, although their first instincts seem to have been to trust his widow. At one point, Regina Monteverde, who was promised her Copacabana apartment, which Alfredo owned, and a monthly living allowance from a separate legacy to the will, even signed an agreement with Lily agreeing to the split in assets. But in the months after his death, as they examined Alfredo’s business affairs more closely, they questioned why certain assets had not been disclosed. The Monteverdes decided they needed to take action.
They feared that Lily was working closely with Edmond and decided to take their battle for Alfredo’s estate to a level that would force them both to come to account. Immediately following Alfredo’s death, they feared that Edmond was orchestrating Lily’s financial and legal affairs.
A legal challenge in Brazil was simply not an option because of the ease with which judicial officials could be bribed. Besides, Lily and Edmond had too many friends among Rio de Janeiro’s power elite—people who could be easily bought and persuaded to falsify an important document or lie under oath. The Monteverdes decided it would be in Britain, in Her Majesty’s courts, that the battle over the estate would be fought. At the time, Lily was living in London, where Edmond’s Trade Development Bank also had a branch office.
As one of their British attorneys noted in court, the Monteverdes “instituted proceedings so that a British court may establish whether or not there were assets in the possession or under the management or control of Alfredo, and, if so, whether any such assets have been concealed to the English or Brazilian authorities by the defendant.”
The Monteverdes, who had all lived in England before the Second World War, had unshakable faith in British justice. But, as they were to find out years later, even British justice proved no match for Edmond Safra.
Still, in the beginning the Monteverdes (Rosy and her mother Regina) were full of hope that justice would prevail. They filed suit against Lily and Edmond’s Swiss bank in a British court, convinced that Lily and Edmond had colluded to secure Alfredo’s estate.
“The relationship between the bank and the first-named defendant Lily Monteverde is not, as the Bank has sought to suggest, merely the normal relationship between a bank and its client (or a bank and the widow of a former client),” noted the court filing against Lily and the Trade Development Bank. At the time, lawyers for the Trade Development Bank tried to dismiss the Monteverde family suit against the bank, arguing that it had nothing to do with Alfredo’s estate.
“On the contrary, it is clear from the information about the Bank and its officers which I have been able to obtain that the bank is directly interested and involved in the matters which are the subject of these proceedings,” said Rosy.
Lily, who now controlled Alfredo’s vast empire, allowed Safra to oversee all financial and legal decisions. One of her main attorneys at the time, Jayme Bastian Pinto, was a director of the Safra Group in Brazil. Shortly after Alfredo’s death, Lily had also appointed Bastian Pinto to head up one of Alfredo’s old firms in Brazil, the Universal Company, which she now controlled.
“In October 1970, a meeting at which I was present was held to discuss a possible settlement of the matters at issue in these proceedings,” noted Rosy in one of her court filings. “At the request of Lily Monteverde’s advisers this meeting was held in Geneva. I obtained the clear impression that Mr. Bastian Pinto was acting on the direct instructions of Mr. Safra and that Geneva was chosen for negotiations in order that Mr. Safra should be able to instruct Mr. Bastian Pinto.”
A year later another meeting was held in Geneva to try to come to an out-of-court settlement. “Immediately after [the meeting]…Mr. Safra flew to London to join Lily Monteverde.”
It didn’t take long for the Monteverde family to find out that Lily and Edmond were extremely close. As Rosy noted in court filings, “From my own knowledge and from what I have been told by my friends in Brazil, I can say that since my brother’s death by gunshot wounds, Mr. Safra has become extensively involved (either personally or through his agents such as Mr. Bastian Pinto) in the running of the Brazilian companies comprised in the partnership which is subject of these proceedings and that he now has a personal interest in these companies.”
One of many exhibits that the Monteverdes entered as evidence to link Lily and Edmond was a letter on Trade Development Bank letterhead in which the widow of Alfredo Monteverde “renounces all rights, title and interest in or arising from the above policy of assurance issued by your company [Abbey Life Assurance Co. Ltd.] on 9th July 1968.” The date on the letter renouncing Lily’s rights on Alfredo’s £750 policy (“It was too little money to bother with,” said a lawyer who was familiar with the Monteverde estate) is December 5, 1969, which proved that Edmond’s bank was indeed looking after Lily’s interests shortly after Alfredo’s death on August 25, 1969.
And well he should, for the court challenges against Lily would prove the first major threat to his own Swiss bank as the TDB was directly implicated in the lawsuit. While Edmond, no doubt, assured Lily that he would fix everything, it would take hundreds of thousands in legal fees and years of worry and frustration to repair the fallout from what turned into a legal quagmire on two continents. In the end, Edmond would make the resolution of Lily’s legal issues a matter of the most urgent concern, and, in addition to the very capable Bastian Pinto, he would dispatch Walter Weiner, his most trusted attorney, to ensure that everything was taken care of.
The most serious claim in the suit was the accusation that Lily and Edmond, through his TDB, were hiding Alfredo’s assets from the surviving family, and, most important, from his son, Carlos, the other heir to the Monteverde fortune. Among the inventory that they alleged had not been noted on a list of Alfredo’s assets prepared by Lily’s lawyers, were properties, including the house on Rua Icatu, shares in various Brazilian companies, and jewels—diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and platinum. Also missing from the inventory were important paintings, including two works by Paul Klee (Helldunkel Studie and Côtes de Provence), Le Clown by Fernand Léger, La Promenade des Jeunes Ecolières by Pierre Bonnard, Papier Colle by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso’s Le Peintre Colle, and Vincent van Gogh’s Après l’Orage. Like the jewels, the paintings had all been insured in London. Lily did declare the Van Gogh and some other paintings of lesser value by Brazilian artists in the inventory of the estate.
“The widow will neither account to us nor even disclose to us the assets which are in question,…and the mother and the daughter are seeking relief from this position which I describe as unconscionable,” argued Charles Sparrow, the lawyer for the Monteverde family in Britain’s High Court of Justice.
For her part, Lily argued that she did not need to disclose the gifts that she had received during her marriage to Alfredo, which included the Icatu house that was transferred into her name in August 1968.
Regina and Rosy demanded nothing less than two-thirds of Alfredo’s assets, arguing that they had operated Ponto Frio with Alfredo as a family company, and that the capital for the start-up in 1946 came from the gold and other assets that they took to Brazil from Romania, via England.
In court proceedings that would drag on for more than three years, the Monteverde family claimed that Alfredo’s 1966 will was not valid since he was not of sound mind when it was drafted. In October 1966, when the will was signed, Alfredo was going through a particularly bad bout of the “spring disease.” He was undergoing intense psychiatric treatment and was on medication that clouded his judgment, the family argued. Alfredo’s prescriptions for that period were entered as evidence in court. From 1955, when he was first diagnosed with manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s known today, Alfredo was, at various times, put on a combination of antidepressants such as Nardil (phenelzine sulfate), lithium carbonate, and Tryptizol (amitriptyline hydrochloride). All of these medications, taken in conjunction with each other or alone, could have slowed his intellectual functions and caused confusion, among other side effects.
In an affidavit, Dr. Giacomo Landau, one of Alfredo’s physicians who had treated him since 1955, noted that at the time he drafted his 1966 will, “Alfredo João Monteverde was under my treatment at various occasions. It is no doubt about it [sic] that this patient suffered from a serious maniac [sic] depressive illness and he was so ill that he was not responsible for any decision that he might have made. He was all the time on heavy drugs which could cloud his memory.” Another Rio de Janeiro psychiatrist, Dr. C. Magalhães de Freitas, also noted under oath that Alfredo had been particularly ill in the fall of 1966, and that he had been interned twice that year at the exclusive São Vicente Clinic in Rio de Janeiro to treat his depression.
It was mainly for these reasons that Rosy and her mother questioned the validity of the 1966 will. “On my brother’s death, his widow the defendant Lily Monteverde obtained a grant of probate to an alleged will of my brother (the validity of which is not admitted by my mother or myself) and obtained possession and control of all the family assets formerly in the possession or control of my brother,” said Rosy in papers filed with the court in London.
The Monteverdes also said that it was completely out of character for Alfredo to have excluded his mother, sister, and beloved niece, Christina, from the will. Both Rosy and her mother had worked as important consultants and had invested their own portions of the family fortune in Globex, the parent company of Ponto Frio. To prove this, hand-scrawled letters by Alfredo written to his mother and sister regarding the family business were introduced as evidence, as were the powers of attorney that he had drafted for his mother and sister to act on his behalf in all personal and business matters in the event of his illness or death.
The court proceedings were particularly ugly, with both sides accusing each other of greed. At one point, Charles Sparrow, the lawyer representing Regina and Rosy, caused some consternation when he declared in open court that his clients did not accept that Alfredo had committed suicide.
Inextricably tied to the English proceedings was a suit brought by Regina against Lily in Brazilian court, demanding the guardianship of Carlos Monteverde, her grandson, who was nine years old when Alfredo died. (Carlos had been adopted from an orphanage in Rio in 1959 while Alfredo was still married to his second wife, Scarlett.)
Under the 1966 will, Alfredo had named Lily as the guardian of his adopted son. Under Brazilian law, this is the standard legal course of action provided that the child is the natural-born off-spring of the deceased. But as nearly everyone in Rio knew, a case of mumps as an adult had rendered Alfredo sterile. So it was with much surprise that lawyers found a registry document dated October 17, 1964, allegedly signed by Alfredo and declaring that he was the natural father of the child and that his mother was Silvia Maria Monteverde, a woman no one had ever heard of. The Monteverde family was skeptical about this document and thought it was made by Alfredo when he was in the fog of a depression. Court records indicate that the 1964 registration was used by Lily to prove that her rights to Carlos and his share of the Monteverde fortune were ironclad.
Lily left Brazil with the children almost immediately after Alfredo’s death. After all, Carlos didn’t need to hear the gossip that was building in Rio social circles. Why did Alfredo Monteverde commit suicide? asked the ladies as they picked through their salads at the Gavea Golf and Country Club and the Rio de Janeiro Yacht Club. Why did Lily leave so suddenly? others wondered. She didn’t even pack any of her clothes! She didn’t say goodbye!
“On September 15, 1969, she [Lily] escaped with [Alfredo’s] son to London without saying goodbye to me,” said Regina in an affidavit. “I never saw the child again, and never received news of him, not even at Christmas or New Year’s.”
Previously, Carlos had been in fourth grade at the Instituto Souza Leão, an upscale day school near the Icatu house in Rio. The decision to cut Carlos off from his family and friends in Brazil so quickly after the death of his father was also questioned by many of Lily and Alfredo’s friends in Rio. Lily’s rather cavalier treatment of the boy also became fodder for Regina’s lawsuit seeking guardianship.
“The defendant in order to better attend to her interests removed her ward from Brazil, by taking him to a foreign land, where he is being educated in a form different from the Brazilian way, far away from the social contact with his relatives and with his environment,” argued Regina in Brazilian court filings.
Lily vigorously denied the accusation, brushing aside the fact that she did enroll the grieving Carlos in boarding school shortly after Alfredo’s death, and she did begin living in a flat near Kensington Palace, rented for her by a corporation controlled by Edmond. She defended her decision to go to England by arguing that it was “to safeguard the interests of the minor child Carlos Monteverde, above all in order to prevent him becoming directly involved in this sordid type of defamation, while taking advantage of the deceased’s wish to have his son brought up in England, as he himself had been.”
Furthermore, Lily noted that Regina had taken little interest in her own grandson when he was in Brazil. “Regina, as her name indicates, has always shown herself to be a willful and dominating person, imposing her wishes and desires, often in an arbitrary manner.”
In court papers filed in both Brazil and England, Lily’s lawyers did their utmost to present her as the devoted mother, worried for the well-being of her son. “She has given her son all her love and devotion,” said Lily’s attorney. “If she was already lavishing special affection on [Carlos], she has given him far more since the death of his father, when she redoubled her tenderness in an endeavor to make good that sad loss.”
To complicate matters even further, Alfredo’s second wife, Scarlett Delebois Monteverde, also demanded the guardianship of Carlos. In court papers filed in Rio de Janeiro, she claimed that she had adopted Carlos jointly with Alfredo after the boy had been abandoned as an infant at the reception room of the judicial authority for orphans in Rio de Janeiro in early 1960.
In her initial arguments to win guardianship, Scarlett made the argument that there was “a collision of interests between the present guardian [Lily] appointed by testament and the minor, and further emphasized that there exists a concealment of property” on Lily’s part which was jeopardizing Carlos’s interests under the will.
Like Regina and Rosy before her, Scarlett accused Lily of hiding Alfredo’s assets and only declaring a small fraction of what they believed to be an immense fortune. For instance, at one point Lily declared that at the time of his death Alfredo owned only 1,479,200 shares of a total of 23 million in Globex. The figure made up just over 5 percent of shares in a company that he had founded and controlled his entire adult life. Moreover, Lily stated in initial court proceedings that Carlos owned only 7,663,165 shares or roughly 25 percent of the company—half of what should have been his entitlement under the 1966 will.
“Where are the remaining 15,396,835 shares of Globex capital?” asked the attorney for the Monteverde family. “If the defendant had any real interest in defending the rights of her ward, it is obvious that the defendant would make, or would be making, every effort to find the whereabouts of such shares ‘mysteriously’ disappeared. However, it appears that the defendant is simply not interested in finding these shares.”
Scarlett’s initial challenge to the probate court (known formally as the Court of Orphans and Successions) in Brazil was thrown out by the judge, who upheld Lily’s rights over Carlos. Undeterred, Scarlett appealed. When Lily learned that Scarlett had arrived on the scene, she immediately accused the Monteverde family of co-opting her for their own cause. Initially, at least, this was not true. Stelio Bastos Belchior, the Brazilian attorney for Regina, denied that there was any collusion with Scarlett on his client’s part, and actually petitioned the court on behalf of Regina to halt Scarlett’s initial proceedings.
But Regina must have regretted such a hasty decision, for prior to the appeal, the two women did join forces. Regina and Scarlett signed a joint statement that they would both look after Carlos and consult one another on the management of his assets should Scarlett win the guardianship of the boy.
The team effort enraged Lily. “One sees that the plaintiff, after the death of her son, did not accept his will, scheming and elaborating a plan and a strategy, directly or indirectly to circumvent the will of the deceased, either by trying to obtain the guardianship of the minor by means of the application of Marie Paule Delebois Monteverde, or upon that attempt failing, to sue (as she has done in England) for his share in the fortune of the deceased,” said Lily in her testimony.
Lily was relentless in her attacks on her former mother-in-law, whom she characterized as “an elderly lady with an imposing capacity for dissimulation and no moral qualities befitting her age.” When she found out about her son’s death, Regina grieved with her daughter-in-law and promised to help her, Lily told the court. But “from the moment she learned of the contents of his will like a stroke of magic, all consideration, affection and trust which the plaintiff lavished on the defendant disappeared.”
At one point, Lily cautioned Regina “to hold her venom in check so as not to harm the son of Alfredo.”
But Rosy and her mother claimed they were only protecting the interests of Carlos and were not after the money for themselves.
As Regina’s lawyer made clear, “if as a result of this action Mrs. Regina Monteverde should obtain any benefit by way of property or assets, she now formally declares that she will take all the legal steps required for the purpose of assigning that benefit to the minor Carlos.”
But after accusing the Monteverde family of trying to co-opt Scarlett to their cause, Lily seemed to turn around and do the same thing. It is not clear whether Edmond’s legal advisers paid Scarlett to withdraw her claim in Brazilian court, but it is clear that in the end Scarlett abruptly changed sides.
On August 26, 1973, João Augusto de Miranda Jordão, Rosy’s attorney in Rio de Janeiro, sent an urgent telegram to Rosy’s home in Chiasso. “Scarlett in Rio with Lily’s American lawyer asking to stop the legal action, and saying she has come to agreement with Lily STOP.”
Walter Weiner was “Lily’s American lawyer” who traveled to Rio to take control of the situation. But while Weiner was used to the wheeling and dealing that took place in American boardrooms and courts, the legal complexities of Rio de Janeiro proved a challenge even for him.
Although Scarlett informed her Brazilian attorney that she did not wish to continue with the appeal, she did not have the authority to call it off. Her lawyer, Theodoro Arthou, had been retained by Regina, and he refused her request. Scarlett and Weiner then went from law office to law office in Rio trying to find a lawyer who would take her power of attorney and present a motion to the court to withdraw the appeal. They finally found a lawyer who was willing to take on the case. But it doesn’t appear as if he terminated the proceedings.
“I learned only a few days ago that my instructions to terminate the proceeding had not been followed,” noted Scarlett in a June 1973 affidavit. “While I believed initially that the lawsuit instituted by me could benefit the minor, I realized finally the motives of Mrs. Regina Monteverde and Rosy Fanto were otherwise. In view of the aforementioned facts, I have decided to bring to a definite end the lawsuit which I initiated and which is now pending before the Federal Supreme Court.”
Scarlett’s statement to the court withdrawing her action to adopt Carlos is worth noting in some detail because it so completely and utterly contradicts her previous statements.
In her sworn deposition seeking the termination of her petition to adopt Carlos, she says that Carlos Monteverde is Alfredo’s “natural son.” Yet in a previous deposition, made in 1970, three years earlier, she admits that she and Alfredo adopted two children—Carlos and Alexandra—because they couldn’t have children of their own. Alexandra was never mentioned in the 1966 will because Scarlett had retained sole custody of the girl when she split from Alfredo in 1962.
She also contradicted herself with respect to her former mother-in-law Regina. In 1970, she had signed a contract with Regina promising to honor each other’s wishes in the care of Carlos, arguing that this would be in the best interests of the child. But less than three years later, she viciously attacked Regina when she sought to have the entire case closed. “The thought of Regina Rebecca Monteverde being appointed as the tutoress of Carlos is absolutely appalling to me. Given the combination of the unstable temperament and advanced age of this woman, her appointment as tutoress would be most detrimental to the best interests of the minor.”
Her petition to withdraw the legal action in Brazil appears to have been drafted to benefit Lily’s own claim to the boy, and to discredit the Monteverde family’s claims against Lily and the Trade Development Bank.
“I am now firmly convinced that Lily Monteverde has fully and faithfully discharged her duties as turoress of the minor and administratrix of the estate and has acted in accordance with the wishes of Alfredo João Monteverde. I am of the firm conviction that the welfare of the minor Carlos Monteverde will best be served by the continued guardianship of Lily Monteverde. I am also convinced that Lily Monteverde is devoting all of her efforts to carrying out the wishes of Alfredo João Monteverde with respect to Carlos.”
In the end, Scarlett’s testimony proved a key factor in Lily’s legal battle to adopt Carlos. Edmond had indeed fixed everything, and on February 8, 1973, the Brazilian courts cleared the way for her to adopt Carlos. As for the legal case against Lily and the Trade Development Bank in Britain, it was settled out of court, but the terms of the settlement were never made public.
The protracted legal battles in London and Rio de Janeiro left Lily a nervous wreck. According to those who knew her at the time, she lost weight and had trouble sleeping.
But while the battles must have caused both Lily and Edmond much anxiety, they also drew them closer together. Although they were forced to keep their personal relationship under wraps while the legal actions were playing themselves out in court, they clearly found time to be together. Edmond visited Lily on his regular trips to London to oversee the London branch of the Trade Development Bank. Lily frequently traveled to Geneva where Edmond convened meetings with the new principals of Alfredo’s companies—many of them Halabim business associates, who reported directly to Edmond. While Lily and Carlos were now the majority shareholders in Globex and Ponto Frio, Edmond was clearly in charge.
Although they were trying to be discreet, many of their friends said that Lily and Edmond frequently went on holiday together. Their favorite destination was the French Riviera, with its fine restaurants and azure waters. In Antibes they could relax on a yacht moored off Millionaires Quay in the shadow of Fort Carré, the sixteenth-century fort where Napoleon Bonaparte was once imprisoned. In the evenings they headed to Juan-les-Pins, the picturesque village that had been the seaside haunt of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and other luminaries in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the summer of 1970, Lily rented a yacht called the Blue Finn. Ever cautious, Edmond told her to rent the boat under a third-party name. The boat, rented under the name Dr. Iperti from Milan, was later traced to Lily Monteverde.
Their friend Marcelo Steinfeld recalls visiting the two lovers and spending a few days with them aboard the yacht. In a black-and-white photograph he took of their boat trip on the Riviera, a relaxed, balding Edmond appears in bathing trunks sitting next to Lily, who is wearing a terry-wrap over her bathing suit, her wet hair pulled back from her suntanned face. They are on the sun-splashed deck of the boat, digging into a late lunch.
“They really knew how to enjoy themselves,” said Steinfeld.
Soon after arriving in London, Lily bought herself a full-length sable coat. She became such a good customer at the couture houses in Paris that she was soon on friendly terms with the legendary designers Valentino and Givenchy, later inviting them to her sumptuous balls and intimate dinners. Like a princess in a fairy tale, Lily was finally living her grandest dream, but in order to gain even greater entry into the grandest salons of Europe, she needed to be even more fabulously wealthy. That would surely come when she married one of the world’s most distinguished bankers.
But although Edmond was in love with Lily, he wasn’t ready for marriage. For one thing, his family did not approve of her. Not only was she divorced and quickly approaching middle age, she had four children from previous marriages and she was an Ashkenazi Jew—an outsider. Joseph had made his family proud when he had married Vicki, a fellow Halabim. Most of his sisters—Eveline, Gabi, and Huguette—would go on to marry within the Sephardic community in South America. The exception was Arlette, who had insisted on a “mixed” marriage to an Ashkenazi Jew. Edmond, who, despite geographic distance was still extremely close to his siblings, knew the grief it would cause his family in São Paulo if he married Lily against their will. At her age, how would she produce heirs to take over the banking empire that he was building?
The free-love hippie movement may have taken hold in Europe and North America, but in the Halabim communities of São Paulo many clans lived much as they had done in the nineteenth century. In São Paulo, a Halabim man was supposed to marry within the community. If he couldn’t find a mate at the synagogue or through family connections, there were ways of finding suitable young women among their extended families still in Syria or the ones who had settled in Brooklyn and New Jersey. There had to be thousands of young, good-looking, eligible women whose families would literally jump at the chance to have a rich man like Edmond as a son-in-law.
“The Safras put a lot of pressure on Edmond not to marry Lily,” recalled Steinfeld. “They thought no good could come of the marriage, and they wanted nothing to do with her.”
At first, Edmond might have made excuses about the legal obstacles they both faced with the Monteverdes breathing down their necks in the British and Brazilian lawsuits. Furthermore, they couldn’t possibly get married so soon after Alfredo’s death. That would invite gossip—something Edmond clearly abhorred. Lily had to think of the children and her own reputation. No, it was better to wait. They could simply go on as before.
But Lily wanted to be married, and she wanted to conquer high society. She did wait for a few years, but then she grew tired of waiting.
Edmond, who had been taught to size up a person by looking them straight in the eye, clearly slipped when it came to his lover. For all his intelligence and street smarts honed in the souks of Beirut, he never foresaw the emotional tidal wave that was about to wash over him.