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L'Oreal's Dark Roots Are On Display In 'The Bettencourt Affair'

Nina Martyris is a literature-focused freelancer. Her writing has appeared on The New Yorker's website, The Paris Review Daily, The Guardian, NPR and elsewhere.

Liliane Bettencourt, the beautiful heiress to the L'Oréal cosmetics empire and richest woman in the world, had everything. But she was also bored stiff. Enter François-Marie Banier, a handsome, talented, brazen, witty, gay novelist and photographer, an aesthete known to have a way with older women.

Emotionally and fiscally, their interests dovetailed: Banier opened up the stimulating art world to Bettencourt by escorting her to galleries, introducing her to his bohemian friends, reading aloud to her from Stendhal's Charterhouse, and being thrillingly irreverent in denouncing the giant Monet in her mansion as "hideous." Entranced, she lavished him with money and gifts, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse, apartments, and millions in life-insurance policies. For 25 years, Bettencourt played the generous Galatea to Banier's Pygmalion, with the total of her largesse teetering to an incredible one billion euros.

In 2007, Bettencourt's only child, her daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, filed a criminal suit against Banier for abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness), claiming that this "Rasputin" had ruthlessly exploited her then 84-year-old mother's oncoming dementia. Meyers, a quiet woman described by a friend as "an austere Carmelite nun," says her hand was forced when an eavesdropping chambermaid told her she had heard Banier asking to be adopted by Bettencourt.

The scandal, which electrified France for a decade, came to be known as the Bettencourt Affair.

The Bettencourt Affair is also the title of Tom Sancton's riveting page-turner chronicling this sweeping Tolstoyan saga. What started as a deeply personal mother-daughter drama spiraled into a colossal political scandal — L'Oréal is, after all, one of France's corporate crown jewels — that consumed and destroyed the presidency of "bling bling" Nicolas Sarkozy. In an unforeseen twist, secret tape recordings made by the Bettencourt butler – who hated Banier – revealed damaging conversations about illegal donations in the tens of thousands made by the Bettencourts to Sarkozy's campaign. As the scandal billowed and the Bettencourts' secret Swiss bank accounts and influence peddling came to light, detractors dug up the company's ugly past: how its founder, Bettencourt's father, had prospered under Nazi occupation, and how Bettencourt's husband André had authored several virulent anti-Semitic articles during the war.

A former Time Paris bureau chief, Sancton is perfectly placed to document this extraordinary story and the haute Parisian power milieu in which it is embedded.

As Sancton dryly observes, "There was no dye that could hide the family's dark roots."

A former Time Paris bureau chief, Sancton is perfectly placed to document this extraordinary story and the haute Parisian power milieu in which it is embedded. In gripping but unsensational prose, he brings the debacle alive in its many dimensions, recreating not merely the lurid courtroom drama, but capturing "the ineffable sadness at its heart." He has an unerring journalistic eye for the telling vignette, evident in moments like Bettencourt happily showing off her tango footwork at a pastry salon in Buenos Aires, where she had travelled to visit an exhibition of Banier's work. Yes, she had bankrolled the exhibition, but in that carefree tango moment, she was a long way from the airless corporate world of L'Oreal. "I don't like blandness," she said in a rare interview. "I like salt." Banier was that salt.

Judiciously, Sancton doesn't take sides, restricting himself to perceptive observations about the Freudian motivations driving the dramatis personae of this family battle. Bettencourt comes across as a willful and lonely billionaire, but Sancton takes care to point out that profligate though her gift-giving might seem, she was, at least in the initial years of the friendship, hardly a batty old woman being preyed on by a sophisticated wolf. She had taken care to guard the family legacy by setting up a trust whereby her daughter and grandsons would receive almost all her L'Oréal stock upon her death. The rest of her money, she said fiercely, was hers to do with as she pleased.

Sancton describes Meyers as the awkward, studious, homebody daughter (she has written books on the Bible and Greek mythology) who has a frosty relationship with her mother and resents the dynamic interloper Banier. Of the three, she is the most inscrutable. Banier, whom Sancton interviews at length, is as brash and magnetic as "a character out of a Balzac novel." The child of an abusive father and utterly indifferent mother, he has spent his whole adult life forming deep and needy relationships with famous people like Salvador Dali, Vladimir Horowitz and Johnny Depp.

Today, Bettencourt, 94, is in the grips of Alzheimer's. Banier, found guilty, continues to work but is a "broken and wounded man." Meyers emerged victorious but faces serious charges of bribing a witness. In any case, as Sancton points out, years of mud-slinging, bitterness and airing of tawdry political secrets has ensured there are no winners. The Bettencourt affair has effectively made nonsense of the family's cherished motto, "live happy, live hidden."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Martyris