This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


In Princess Diana's Death and the Bettencourt Affair, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction 

By Becky Hughes

August 8, 2017

The Bettencourt affair may be one of the wildest high-society scandals of all time, but few Americans know it by name. Tom Sancton, author of new page-turner The Bettencourt Affair (Dutton), first broke the story in the U.S. for Vanity Fair in 2010, uncovering this Parisian intrigue involving Liliane Bettencourt, the world’s richest woman and heiress to the enormous L’Oréal fortune, and François-Marie Banier, a charismatic artist, and the legal battle that ensued after Banier received hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts from the aging heiress.

The Bettencourt Affair is not Sancton’s first foray into the world of celebrity scandal. After Princess Diana‘s tragic death in 1997, Sancton co-authored Death of a Princess, a deep journalistic dive to find the true story behind the circumstances of Diana’s death. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fatal crash, Sancton and co-author Scott MacLeod have updated Death of a Princess with all the latest information on the tragedy and its effects on the royal family today.

Parade caught up with Sancton to discuss the devastating loss of Princess Diana and the sensational story of the Bettencourt affair.

Twenty years after her death, what is Princess Diana’s legacy?

She’s kept this amazing aura she had—the queen of hearts, this very special person who was beautiful and photogenic and cultivated the press, when it suited her, and was fascinating for a number of reasons. I think the fact that she died young under those circumstances has projected her into some kind of special status. People who die young, like John F. Kennedy and James Dean, we’ll always think of them as the exceptional, young, charismatic people that they were when they left us.

How has Diana’s death affected the royal family today?

It was a terribly traumatic event. And the way that the royal family handled it, especially the queen, was very much criticized at the time. [The queen] didn’t really show, publicly anyway, the kind of grief and emotion and respect that people expected her to at the time, and I think she tried to make up for that, but it was an event that the royal family had a lot of trouble dealing with on many levels. It was certainly traumatic for the young princes, and for Prince Charles as well.

It was an unexpected and devastating human event that exploded in the middle of this family. They’re human beings, but they’re much more than that. They’re symbols, they’re monarchs, they represent the state. But on the human level, they were very much affected, and to some extent destabilized by it.

There are so many rumors and conspiracy theories still out there today. What do you think really happened that night?

Scott MacLeod and I examined every possible conspiracy theory that was written about or circulating on the internet or in any number of published books and articles. We came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a conspiracy. I think you can very easily explain, if you look at the circumstances, that a drugged and drunk driver, driving too fast to escape the pursuing paparazzi, just lost control of the car in the tunnel.

It’s a traffic accident that took place under unusual circumstances—but, nonetheless, a traffic accident. You don’t have to look too far for an explanation when you look at the state the driver was in. In our book, we laid out many other scenarios, conspiracy scenarios, and analyzed them and pursued them as far as we could. Basically, at the end of the day, we didn’t really buy into any of them.

Has any new information come out since you first wrote the book?

A lot has happened, because the book came out very quickly, just a few months after the accident. At that point the French investigation was still going on. And then it was followed by a very thorough British inquest. Both the French and the English concluded that there was no conspiracy. As far as the paparazzi goes, they were a contributing factor in the accident—but they were not held criminally responsible. In legal terms, the person held responsible was the driver who, unfortunately, was killed instantly in the accident.

And then there were other things that came out in subsequent years. It appears from forensic evidence that there was a second car, presumed to be a Fiat Uno, considered by many to have collided with the Mercedes that was used to drive Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana. The French investigators looked at thousands and thousands of cars, and there was one Fiat Uno that appeared to have been in an accident, to have been repainted, that matched descriptions by certain eyewitnesses.

And there were a number of different findings concerning different paparazzi who were in the tunnel or who were considered to have been part of that pursuit who were never actually apprehended or investigated, and so there was some speculation that some of them could have been involved in a conspiracy.

Your new book, The Bettencourt Affair, is about a more recent French scandal involving the family behind L’Oréal. Can you explain it for people who are unfamiliar with the story?

This legal case was an absolute obsession in France for years. What really got people’s attention was the characters involved—Liliane Bettencourt, the world’s richest woman, and this much younger, gay, kind of flamboyant, charming, boyish artist, François-Marie Banier, who received hundreds of millions of dollars from her over the years in gifts.

Then Bettencourt’s daughter [Françoise] sued Banier for elder abuse. Françoise and her mother, Liliane, had a terrible relationship, and Francoise decided in 2007, after her father died, to launch this suit against Banier.

Banier was not a household name by any means, but he had written three best-selling novels by the time he was 25. He was somebody who had had very close relationships with some very famous and accomplished, wealthy people, ranging from Salvador Dali to Vladimir Horowitz, Johnny Depp, dozens and dozens of very influential people. One of the intriguing things about the book and about his story is, who is this guy? How did he manage to charm and manipulate and fascinate so many important people?

You interviewed Banier in person. What did you learn about him?

He’s self-interested, he’s very self-centered, he’s materialistic—there are sides of him that are not necessarily that admirable. But on the other hand, he is a fascinating conversationalist. He’s a workaholic, he goes out and does street photography every morning. In the afternoons, he works on his novels. He works 16, 18 hours a day.

The thing that struck me most was how aggrieved he was at this whole thing. His take on it is, look, Liliane Bettencourt was lonely, she was bored, she was depressed, and I came along and opened the doors to this exciting worl

d of art galleries and auctions and travel and theater, and I introduced her to some fascinating people and saved her life.

And she actually said this many times in writing, in letters to her lawyers. So Banier considers that his role was a very positive, almost altruistic role, and that it was normal that she gave him what she felt like giving him. If you total up what he got, it was just a tiny, tiny fraction of her fortune. She was in love with him, in a platonic way.

But Liliane and Banier are no longer in contact?

In 2010, her lawyers and her family almost sequestered her away from him. Every time he tried to call her house or contact her, he’d be told by domestic servants that she wasn’t available, and finally he realized that he wouldn’t be able to see her anymore.

And now Liliane’s daughter is under investigation for witness tampering.

It would be a horrible irony, really, if the person who launched this whole legal battle wound up the final victim. This is the final act of this very complicated legal battle. What Françoise did, basically, was give 700,000 euros to her star witness, former accountant of the Bettencourt family.

I think it’s very unlikely that she would be sent to jail, though that particular crime has a maximum three-year prison sentence and a 45,000-euro fine. The fine she could pay out of her pocket change, that’s no problem.

What do you want readers to take away from The Bettencourt Affair?

The book is really a saga; it’s not just a legal battle. It’s about three generations of this very wealthy family and what’s become of them today. The lesson I come back to is very simple: Money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s not a guarantee of happiness, of personal success, or even invulnerability to things like this suit.

No comments:

Post a Comment