- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2010

By Isabel Vincent
Harper, $25.99, 336 pages

It is astonishing how quickly you become engrossed in “Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World’s Wealthiest Widows.” The best way to describe this book is to quote the trenchant blurb on the dust jacket from quintessential society scribe, Dominick Dunne. “Isabel Vincent has written a riveting account of the life of the international socialite and billionairess Lily Safra. … She understands the lives of the very, very rich. It is a good read.”

He penned those words shortly before his death last fall, just as he finished his own novel, “Too Much Money,” that also delves into the ascension of the cunning and fabled hostess. He is right.

Ms. Vincent, an investigative reporter for the New York Post, has produced a compelling biography that reads like fiction. It is crammed with the combustible mix of staggering wealth, greed, corruption lust, murder, financial malfeasance and cover-up, along with kidnapping and betrayal at the pinnacle of the haute monde.

If the connotation was not demeaning, I would call this scrupulously researched and well-written account - really a thriller or a double murder mystery - this summer’s ultimate beach read. (I hope the author will take this as a compliment. It is intended as such.)

Even if one has little knowledge or is only vaguely familiar with the high-maintenance, high-flying players involved in this story, they will be totally sucked in. There are so many twists and turns and tragedies in Lily’s fascinating life and climb to the top that you become absorbed in her complex family relations and her endless machinations; thus, the book is hard to put down.

Ms. Vincent spent four years sifting through documents and conducting interviews on three continents in order to penetrate and deconstruct the carefully created “Good Wife” mystique that surrounds the much-married, aging dowager. It was the shocking murder of her fourth husband - legendary banker Edmond Safra, who suffocated while bolted in a bathroom, by a fire set by one of his nurses at his lavish and security-proof Monaco penthouse in 1999 - that catapulted Lily into the limelight and generated news around the globe. Sleeping in a separate apartment, she managed to escape the flames by fleeing down a back stairway and across a balcony. With his death, she inherited an unimaginable fortune.

Suspicions linger and tongues still wag about the oddities of that night despite the fact the one of Safra’s nurses confessed to and was convicted of the crime. Why did police and firefighters wait hours to enter the apartment? Did the nurse act alone or was there a much bigger conspiracy? Just what was Lily’s role in this grisly scenario?

“It was never explained satisfactorily why she, Lily, had taken the keys to the apartment away from all the employees shortly before the tragedy,” wrote Mr. Dunne who remained puzzled by the bizarre circumstances. “The greatest unexplained question will always be why there was no guard on duty that night since the Safras maintained a private cadre of 11 guards trained by the Mossad.”

Wealth by death was not new to the South American beauty nor was the murder of a spouse. In 1969, her second husband, multimillionaire Brazilian businessman Alfredo Monteverde, who was in the process of divorcing Lily, died under deeply mysterious circumstances. He was found sprawled on his bed in their home in an opulent Rio suburb with two gunshot wounds in his chest. It was quickly ruled a suicide - even though there was no gunpowder residue on his hands and there were many unanswered questions.

The bitter battle over his large estate pitted Lily against his mother and sister, and brought the world famous financier Edmond Safra, an adviser to Monteverde, to her side. He served as her eminence grise/ wealth manager for years as they plotted and planned and she became his mistress. Using his unlimited resources, they outmaneuvered and out-litigated their opponents. Lily ended up with up with more money that she dreamed of ($300 million plus) but failed to attain her real goal - a proposal from Safra. His family despised the pushy wannabe, felt she was not Jewish enough and vehemently opposed their marriage.

To compensate for her loss, Lily set her sights on a hunky, younger stud named Samuel Bendahan, a Moroccan native whom she pursued, seduced and overwhelmed with her wealth. It was a torrid, lusty union that lasted only a year.

Enraged by her marriage to a sexy, suave man of the world, the balding middle-aged Safra, who controlled all her assets, stepped in with lightning speed and snuffed it out. In a fascinating chapter, Mr. Bendahan speaks out for the fist time, describing Lily’s ardent courtship and the whole messy breakup, including the humiliation, harassment, lawsuits and jail time he endured. In the end, Lily simply disappeared and served him with divorce papers. “That is how our marriage broke up,” he later wrote. “With no more prelude than I have described.” He remains somewhat traumatized and confused by the whole ordeal.

Finally in 1976 at age 42, the well-coifed, well-lifted social alpinist got her man. She married Safra in a low-key ceremony and was free to mix and mingle with the grandest people with the grandest titles in the most stylish houses anywhere in the world, including her own over-the-top homes in New York, London and Monte Carlo. And she could and can zip in and out in her own private jet.

Now 76 and single, with some three billion at her disposal, she relishes the role of Lady Bountiful and is in constant demand, dispensing largesse to fashionable charities and attending ultrachic soirees all over the world.

She has become a luminary, a fixture in the social firmament not just because of the Sturm und Drang or notoriety of her past, but also because of her exquisite clothes and impeccable taste - a prerequisite for entree into the air-kissing crowd - plus her chameleonlike ability to blend in and cater to the icons and paragons of the Establishment.

Her most important characteristic, according to Ms. Vincent, is her “steely determination.”

Even as a young woman, married to her first husband, Mario Cohen, a hosiery factory owner in Argentina and Uruguay and a minor figure on the social circuit, she was upwardly mobile and known for giving elegant parties.

She still does - the buzz continues.

But what about that shady past? Is she really the Black Widow?

“I have always believed Lily is a woman of great luck and fortune,” said a childhood friend. “Her life has always struck me as the plot of a great novel.”

He was clairvoyant.

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist and contributor to the Daily Beast.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide