Nina Martyris is a literature-focused freelancer. Her writing has appeared on The New Yorker’s website, The Paris Review Daily, The Guardian, NPR and elsewhere.
Liliane Bettencourt, the beautiful heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics empire and richest woman in the world, had everything. But she was also bored stiff. Enter François-Marie Banier, a handsome, talented, brazen, witty, gay novelist and photographer, an aesthete known to have a way with older women.
Emotionally and fiscally, their interests dovetailed: Banier opened up the stimulating art world to Bettencourt by escorting her to galleries, introducing her to his bohemian friends, reading aloud to her from Stendhal’s Charterhouse, and being thrillingly irreverent in denouncing the giant Monet in her mansion as “hideous.” Entranced, she lavished him with money and gifts, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse, apartments, and millions in life-insurance policies. For 25 years, Bettencourt played the generous Galatea to Banier’s Pygmalion, with the total of her largesse teetering to an incredible one billion euros.
In 2007, Bettencourt’s only child, her daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, filed a criminal suit against Banier for abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness), claiming that this “Rasputin” had ruthlessly exploited her then 84-year-old mother’s oncoming dementia. Meyers, a quiet woman described by a friend as “an austere Carmelite nun,” says her hand was forced when an eavesdropping chambermaid told her she had heard Banier asking to be adopted by Bettencourt.
The scandal, which electrified France for a decade, came to be…