The billionaire’s widow

A new book focuses on the life and loves of international socialite Lily Safra
Dafna Izenberg

In December 2002, a Monaco courtroom was temporarily transformed into a synagogue. It was the trial of Ted Maher, charged with (and ultimately convicted of) starting the fire that led to the death of international banker Edmond Safra.

The presiding judge asked the accused whether he had any questions for the rabbi who had just testified on behalf of the prosecution. Maher requested that the rabbi say a prayer for the deceased. The rabbi replaced his wide-brimmed hat with a yarmulke and began to pray in Hebrew on the witness stand. It was at this moment that Edmond Safra’s wife, Lily—who had previously suffered such widely publicized personal tragedies as the suicide of her second husband and the fatal car accident of a beloved son and grandson—broke down in public for the first time in her life.

This is one of several stranger-than-soap-opera episodes recounted in Isabel Vincent’s new book, Gilded Lily, which delves into the life and fortunes of the enigmatic widow Safra. Known among elite circles in New York, South America and Europe for her lavish parties and unfailing philanthropy, Safra is also seen as having shrewdly positioned herself to inherit millions from the two very rich men she married, both of whose deaths have been investigated for a variety of strange circumstances.

Safra certainly had her pick of men. Often described as petite and porcelain-like, she was a popular dance partner at the Clube Israelita Brasileiro (CIB), the Jewish community centre in Rio de Janeiro that she frequented as a teen in the mid-1940s. But the boys she met there were not up to snuff in her parents’ eyes. Born in 1934, Safra was prepared “from a very early age to marry a rich man,” an old acquaintance told Vincent. Safra’s father, Wolf White Watkins, had come to South America from England in his 20s determined to strike it rich. He loved to flaunt what money he had, strutting around in custom-made linen suits and tipping indulgently—he once gave an attendant $100 to park his car. Watkins showered his youngest child and only daughter with the most expensive toys, chocolates and clothing, cultivating in young Lily a taste for the finest things in life as well as an enduring habit of extravagance—last February, Safra made headlines when she bid US$103.4 million on a 1961 Alberto Giacometti sculpture at a London auction, setting a new record for any artwork previously sold at an auction.

To fend off the subpar suitors, Safra’s parents whisked her away to Uruguay, where her mother Annita’s family lived, and where she met Mario Cohen, an Italian-Jewish man nearly nine years her senior whose family had a successful hosiery business in Argentina. They married in September 1952, two months shy of Safra’s 18th birthday, and promptly had three children.

But Cohen proved too frugal for Safra’s taste, and she tired of her low-key life in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. When she met Alfredo Monteverde, she saw a way out of her unhappy marriage. While Cohen tried to hold on to his young wife, the two ultimately divorced and Safra married Monteverde in 1965. A Romanian Jew from a prosperous family that fled Europe in 1939, Monteverde settled in Rio with his mother and sister and went on to build a booming refrigerator business. He was a savvy entrepreneur with a social conscience and a great sense of humour. But he also suffered from manic depression, and his personal life was erratic. He went through women frequently, and divorced twice before marrying Safra. Theirs was his longest marriage, and for a time, it was a happy one. Safra was said to be smitten. In a family portrait included among the photos in the book, she is at her most beautiful, with Betty-Draper-perfect hair, a classy silk scarf and a sweet smile.

But the relationship faltered, and by 1969, Monteverde wanted a divorce. Safra did not. And then, suddenly, Monteverde was found dead in his bedroom, two bullets in his chest. The police report concluded that he shot himself, as did a subsequent investigation commissioned by Monteverde’s mother and sister, who never believed he committed suicide. They also challenged the way Monteverde’s assets were divided, having been largely left out of his will. Meanwhile, Safra seemed determined to protect her own inheritance, and left Brazil less than one month after her husband died. She moved to London, where Monteverde’s banker, Edmond Safra, helped her secure control over her late husband’s entire fortune.

This, says Vincent, was the true turning point in Safra’s life. The Monteverde inheritance was enough money to set Safra up for her dream of a fairy-tale life, endless days of fancy dresses and extravagant parties. But she still wanted a husband, and she quickly started a romance with Edmond Safra. The relationship was frustrating; Edmond was mad for her but continuously hedged on the question of marriage. His family didn’t approve of the fact that she is Ashkenazi, a Jew of European descent, while Edmond was from a long, proud line of Halabim, Sephardic Jews from Syria. So she moved on, and, in 1971, fell head over heels for the handsome—and younger—Samuel Bendahan, a Sephardic Jew of much more modest means.

Bendahan initially resisted Safra’s advances, but she pursued him steadily, and, after a courtship of less than six months, the two eloped while holidaying in Acapulco. By all accounts, the relationship was Safra’s most passionate; in photos with Bendahan, she looks euphoric. But everything changed as soon as the couple returned to London. Edmond Safra, desperate to win her back, agreed to marry her. So just weeks into his marriage, Bendahan was instructed by two of Edmond Safra’s employees to vacate her flat. Bendahan tried to contact his wife, but she was unavailable at every turn. They divorced in Reno, Nev., in 1973, one year after they were married. Three years later, she became Edmond Safra’s wife.

And then the real party began. With her fourth marriage, Safra moved into the role of international socialite. She now counted the world’s richest and most famous among her friends, everyone from Valentino to Prince Charles. She frequently threw lavish parties, once giving each of her female guests a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes as a “goody bag.” She thought nothing of paying for costly upgrades to a Rio hotel where guests of her son’s wedding were staying, and hired a commercial jet to fly friends from New York in for the affair. In 1988, the Safras purchased a huge villa in the south of France, and Safra spent $2 million in decorator fees on her bedroom alone. In 1996, the couple moved into a 10,000-sq.-foot apartment in Monaco, a mini-fortress over which Mossad-trained guards stood watch.

Edmond Safra was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid-1990s, and by 1998, required full-time, live-in nursing care. This is how Ted Maher came to the Safras’ apartment in Monaco, where, according to the evidence at his trial, he fabricated a break-in and then started a fire so that he could play hero and rescue his rich boss. Instead, Edmond Safra and another nurse barricaded themselves in a bathroom and perished from smoke inhalation.

Upon her husband’s death, Safra received $3 billion from the sale of his bank, a deal that had been in the works for some months. Today, at age 65, she is one of the world’s richest widows. She continues to court the society pages with glamorous parties, huge philanthropic contributions and ostentatious art purchases. And yet, as Vincent writes, despite her conspicuousness as a member of the world’s “billionaire’s club,” despite her regular appearances at charity balls dressed in the most gorgeous couture, Lily Safra in many ways remains as mysterious as she must have been to all those boys in Brazil, back when she was a debutante in a beautiful white organdy dress, with tiny flowers embroidered on the sleeves.