Lily Safra, star-crossed socialite and philanthropist, dies at 87

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Lily Safra, star-crossed socialite and philanthropist, dies at 87
In 2011 Sotheby's offered this Louis XV lacquer Commode attributed to B.V.R.B from the Collection of Lily & Edmond J. Safra. Est. $3/5 million. Photo: Sotheby's.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Lily Safra, a Brazilian-born socialite and a philanthropist who led a star-filled, star-crossed life with enough jet-setting ups and tragedy-filled downs to fill a dozen Danielle Steel novels, including the bizarre death of her fourth husband, banker Edmond J. Safra, died July 9 at her home in Geneva. She was 87.

A spokesperson for the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, which she directed, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Lily Safra, who was known to the press — especially the British tabloids — as “the Gilded Lily,” led what at first glance might seem to be a charmed life: As one of the richest women in the world, she owned homes in New York City, London, Paris, Geneva and Monaco; amassed a world-class art collection; and counted Prince Charles and Jacob Rothschild among her close confidants.

She used her wealth to great ends — building synagogues and schools, funding medical research, endowing hospitals and museum wings around the world. Much of her beneficence came through the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, but she also gave spontaneously, and from her own pocket: After reading articles in The New York Times about people in need, she gave $500,000 to the newspaper’s Neediest Cases Fund.

But the glamour was offset by heartbreak. Her second husband died by suicide in 1969; her son Claudio was killed in a car accident, along with a grandson, in 1989.

The worst came in 1999 when her husband, founder of Republic National Bank, died in a fire in their penthouse apartment in Monaco. Edmond Safra had locked himself and a nurse — he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and needed care — in a bathroom that doubled as a safe room, and refused to come out.

Lily Safra, who was in another wing of the apartment, escaped unharmed.

As a private banker for some of the world’s richest people, and as a private person himself, Edmond Safra was the subject of constant baseless rumors about the Russian mafia, Colombian drug dealers and other people said to be clients, and about the services he might have provided them.

The rumor mill began again after his death. British tabloids were filled with stories about two knife-wielding assailants, masked in balaclavas, who had come in through a skylight to kill him. When they failed to break through the bathroom door, it was said, they set fire to the house and escaped, stabbing Ted Maher, another of Edmond Safra’s nurses, in the stomach and thigh along the way.

But the real story was more intimate, and even more strange. A few days after the fire, Maher, a former Green Beret, admitted to setting a wastepaper basket on fire and stabbing himself. His plan, he said, had been to alert authorities and save the day, winning his employer’s good graces. Instead, the fire raged out of control.

Despite Maher’s admission of guilt, it took almost three years for the case to go to trial. During that time, gossip swirled and was spread not just by British reporters, but also by an American, Dominick Dunne, who wrote several extensive, innuendo-filled articles about the case for Vanity Fair.

Lily Safra decamped for London. She bought a six-floor belle époque town house in Belgravia, one of London’s most exclusive neighborhoods, and began to make a name in the city’s social circles. In 2001, Vanity Fair photographed her sitting beside Prince Charles at a dinner at Buckingham Palace; a year later, she and Rothschild co-sponsored a 5,000-pounds-a-plate charity event they called “An Evening With Elton John.”

Although (or perhaps because) she was welcomed by London’s elite, she became an irresistible target for the city’s tabloid press. Some reporters dragged up unfounded hearsay about her second husband’s suicide; others recycled conspiracy theories about Edmond Safra’s death, despite Maher’s conviction in 2002.

They were especially suspicious of her charitable work. One newspaper, The Independent, blamed her for single-handedly making London’s elite social scene more like that of New York, where, quelle horreur, “social position is defined not by what you have, but by how much you can afford to give away to worthy causes.”

Safra was not an especially litigious person, and she seemed content to let the yellow press do its job. But she came close to filing a lawsuit in 2005 when Lady Colin Campbell, a biographer, wrote a novel about a woman who murders her way to great fortune; several details from the plot mapped closely onto Safra’s own story.

After Safra quietly threatened legal action, the book was pulped.

Although many journalists tended to portray Safra’s life as a rags-to-riches tale, it was nothing of the kind, except in the sense that almost everyone who ended up extremely wealthy was much less wealthy to begin with.

Lily Watkins was born Dec. 20, 1934, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Her father, Wolf Watkins, was a British engineer who had moved to Latin America in search of business opportunities and found them while servicing the region’s booming rail industry. Her mother, Annita (Noudelman) Watkins, a homemaker, had fled her native Ukraine in the face of antisemitic pogroms.

Wolf Watkins owned a rail car factory in Mesquita, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, where he soon moved with his young family. He became a town elder, and even today the town’s main street, Rua Mister Watkins, bears his name.

When Safra was 19, she moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, where she married Mario Cohen, a hosiery magnate. They had three children but a rocky marriage, and they soon divorced.

She returned to Brazil, and in 1965 she married Alfredo Monteverde, a Romanian immigrant who had been born a Greenberg but Hispanicized his surname. He made a fortune owning a chain of appliance stores, but he struggled with depression. He died by suicide in 1969, leaving her some $200 million.

Safra’s survivors include a daughter, Adriana Cohen; a son, Eduardo Cohen; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Complete survivor information was not immediately available.

After Monteverde’s death, she moved to London. She met Edmond Safra, scion of a Lebanese merchant family, when she asked for his help in handling her sudden wealth. They began dating, although his religious Sephardic family disliked his more secular Ashkenazic girlfriend, and they broke up.

She was briefly married to another businessman, Samuel Bendahan, but they split after just a few weeks, and she soon returned to Safra. They married in 1976 in a ceremony attended by, among others, Ronald and Nancy Reagan and the Aga Khan.

The Safras lived in New York for several years and established themselves among the city’s elite through the 1980s. Lily Safra sat on charity boards and even managed to pull her famously withdrawn husband out of his shell long enough to attend the occasional gala.

Although they had homes across Europe, they eventually settled in Monaco and the nearby French Riviera, where they bought a villa once owned by the king of Belgium and said to be one of the continent’s most expensive properties.

The Safras were known as generous benefactors, and Lily Safra continued to build on that reputation after her husband’s death. Their foundation endowed the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, the Edmond J. Safra campus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience in Brazil and the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital in Israel.

Outside the foundation, her personal beneficence was vast and eclectic. She paid for students to visit Auschwitz and to study at the Paris Opera. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the campus of Dillard University, a historically Black institution in New Orleans, she gave the university $500,000 for its recovery.

Many of her donations came through selling pieces of her vast art collection. In 2012, she sold 70 pieces of jewelry, including a 34.05-carat rectangular-cut diamond ring, to benefit 20 charities, including one that aided impoverished Rwandan children.

By then, Safra had largely fallen out of the public eye. She had sold her town house in exchange for something smaller and more manageable (although still in Belgravia). Her dinners were now more likely to be low-key, intimate affairs among friends than grand galas. She was said to prefer the company of her grandchildren to that of lords and ladies.

The British papers wondered where she had gone, and why she had seemingly given up on pursuing power and fame. But it was also possible that they had misread her from the start.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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