As billionaire heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics empire, Liliane Bettencourt might have preferred to have spent her twilight years in tranquil retirement at her lavish homes in Paris, Brittany and on her private island in the Seychelles. Instead, the world’s richest woman and a pillar of polite French society, who has died at the age of 94, was caught at the centre of a national scandal and a bitter public feud with her only daughter.
Liliane Henriette Charlotte Schueller was born on October 21 1922, the only child of Louise Madeleine Berthe and Eugène Schueller, the brilliant entrepreneur who founded what was to become the world’s largest cosmetics, shampoo and beauty group after developing a revolutionary hair dye in the family kitchen. Her mother died when she was just five years old and she formed a close bond with her father whom she adored. At 15 she joined her father’s company as an apprentice and in 1950 married André Bettencourt, a politician. He was a close friend of her father, served as a minister under Charles de Gaulle and became deputy chairman of L’Oréal.
If money cannot buy happiness, a huge fortune can buy silence, helping the Bettencourt family to escape scrutiny over the more suspect aspects of its history. André Bettencourt was a member of La Cagoule, a fascist organisation that Liliane’s father funded and supported in the 1930s and that collaborated with the Nazis during the second world war. He also wrote for a vehicle of Nazi propaganda, the antisemitic magazine La Terre Française.
In 1944, the year of the Allied landings in Normandy, André Bettencourt saw the error of his ways and joined the Resistance. Scheuller, however, faced prosecution for collaboration after the war but escaped conviction thanks to Bettencourt claiming he had also been in the Resistance and had saved the lives of Jews.
Liliane and André settled in their Art Moderne mansion in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. They had one daughter, Françoise, born in 1953. After the death of her father in 1957, Liliane inherited the L’Oréal fortune. The company went public in 1963 with Liliane maintaining a majority stake. In 1974, fearing the company might be nationalised after the election, she exchanged almost half her holding (nearly 30 per cent) for a 3 per cent stake in Nestlé, the food multinational. She developed a strong partnership with the Swiss group, entering into a controlling shareholders pact that expired in 2014.
While the Bettencourt home in Neuilly became a focal point of Paris society with famous politicians, financiers and artists all regular visitors, Liliane preferred to keep out of the limelight and shunned media attention. The couple were said to conduct “the ordinary life of the very rich”. Together with her husband and daughter, Liliane set up the Fondation Bettencourt Schueller to support medical, cultural and humanitarian projects. In the meantime, her daughter married Jean-Pierre Meyers, the grandson of a rabbi killed at Auschwitz. If this was not already a remarkable twist in the Bettencourt family history, Françoise gave up her Roman Catholic upbringing to adopt her husband’s religion, raising her sons in the Jewish faith.
The Bettencourt family seemed to enjoy a charmed life. But under the veneer of this existence, passions were already running high between mother and daughter. Liliane was a glamorous, socialite, old-style Hollywood-star mother — she once claimed even Mao Zedong had taken a fancy to her — disappointed by a daughter she described as “always a cold child”. The daughter could not have been more different — an intellectual, brilliant pianist and author of an anthology of Greek gods. As long as André, whom they both adored, was alive, the mother-daughter tensions remained under control. But soon after he died in 2007, hostilities erupted in the open on a grand operatic scale.
What seems to have sparked the feud was Liliane’s friendship with François-Marie Banier, a celebrity photographer and society dandy, on whom she lavished gifts estimated at more than €1bn including her island in the Seychelles, works of art and life assurance policies. To her daughter’s dismay, Liliane felt she could do what she wanted with her fortune. She doled out cash and presents to what her daughter described as her “predatory” entourage. Liliane also became one of Bernard Madoff’s biggest European victims, losing €22m.
The daughter wasted little time after her father’s death to lodge a criminal complaint against Banier, accusing him of taking advantage of the psychological weakness of her mother for personal gain. The daughter subsequently sought to place her mother under legal guardianship, claiming her mental faculties were declining and that she was being manipulated and swindled by her entourage. The old heiress resisted these efforts, accusing her daughter publicly of being “deranged”. The feud developed into a national scandal with allegations that Liliane had made illegal political donations to Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential election campaign. Everybody claimed her political donations were quite proper, but spying butlers and tell-tale secretaries suggested otherwise.
Just before her 89th birthday in October 2011, Liliane lost her long and bitter battle against her daughter. A court placed her under the control of her daughter and her two grandsons after doctors concluded she was suffering from “mixed dementia” and “moderately severe” Alzheimer’s and was in the midst of a “slow and progressive process of cerebral degeneration”. The judge also had harsh words for her entourage and her lawyer and wealth manager for allowing her to sign donations, close bank accounts and modify the beneficiaries of life assurance when her absence of lucidity was known. Banier, for his part, was convicted and given a four-year suspended prison sentence. He returned much of the largesse he received and the private island in the Seychelles was sold in August 2012.
It was a sad end to an otherwise extraordinary privileged life. Liliane Bettencourt sat on top of a $39.5bn fortune, ranking 14th in the 2017 Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people. She was the richest woman in the world. But money, even on such an enormous scale, was ultimately unable to buy her happiness.
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