The butler did it (or at least, he lit the fire, by taping more than 20 hours of incriminating conversations). And that’s just the first of the many apt clichés about a scandal that has gripped France for a decade.
The story of this convoluted war of wills (pun intended), told with skill by former Time Paris bureau chief Tom Sancton in The Bettencourt Affair, features a cast of characters pulled straight from a Tolstoy novel: L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, the $40 billion-dollar woman; her only child, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, vying for control of her mother’s life (and her money); and the flamboyant, brash photographer François-Marie Banier who, over the course of a quarter-century, befriended the likes of Truman Capote and Salvador Dalí and then insinuated himself into hundreds of millions of the Bettencourt’s fortune.
Nearly deaf since childhood and married to a respectable but acquiescent diplomat, Liliane delighted in Banier’s theatrical manner and his artistic aspirations, lavishing upon him artworks by Picasso and Matisse, insurance policies and cash gifts; she even reportedly considered adopting him. But her family and staff believed he was taking advantage of her age and increasing mental frailty, which was the crux of her daughter’s lawsuit against Banier.
In the end, the lawsuit revealed political hand-offs, money laundering, Swiss and offshore accounts, as well as Fascist and Nazi collaboration. The entire ordeal is known in France as l’affair Bettencourt, which culminated in years of prosecutorial expense, suicides and the downfall of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and several ministers and judges.