THE GILDED LILY
Her father was Wolf White Watkins and her mother Annita Noudelman de Castro. She was born Lily Watkins in Porto Alegre, Brazil and had two siblings, Artigast and Daniel.
Wolf was born in Czechoslovakia but grew up in Surrey and trained as a railway engineer. He decided to emigrate to South America to seek his fortune, just as Brazil was electrifying its railway system. He set up his own, successful, railway track company.
Her mother, Annita was of Russian Jewish descent. She had been born in Poland but her family had emigrated to Uruguay.
Lily grew up in Rio de Janiero. She was intelligent (she spoke 5 languages fluently) and was tiny, slender and very beautiful.
As a teenager, she used to go dancing at the Clube Israelita Brasileiro, a popular place for the Jewish community of Rio – and she was a big hit there. Many men wanted to dance with her and she had a lot of suitors.
Her parents were so concerned by this that they moved to Montevideo, to get her away from ‘unsuitable boys’.
And they arranged a marriage for her.
It was to Mario Cohen, an Argentinian of Italian descent who now lived in Uruguay. He was a hosiery magnate and was many years older than her. She was just 17.
It was a very unhappy marriage but lasted 8 years and produced 3 children, prior to divorce in 1960. He gave her a massive payout upon their divorce.
In 1965, Lily remarried. Her new husband was Alfredo Monteverde (known as ‘Freddy’), formerly named Alfredo Greenberg. He was a Romanian Jew who had fled Europe in 1939. He had made his fortune with the ‘Ponto Frio’ brand of household appliances. Lily adopted his son Carlos upon marriage.
But Freddy was a manic depressive and killed himself in 1969.
There was a lot of suspicion about his death. He had been shot twice in the heart but detectives could only find one bullet. And shortly afterwards they ‘lost’ both the bullet and the gun that fired it, so neither could be produced as evidence.
Additionally, just two months prior to his death, Freddy had changed his will, leaving everything to Lily and cutting out the rest of his family.
His family took the case to court but there was absolutely no evidence that Lily had been involved in his death, so she inherited a fortune.
She refused to ever speak about Freddy’s death again – and moved to London.
There, she met her dead husband’s banker, Edmond Safra. He owned ‘Banco Safra’. He was a workaholic who had a reputation for financial wizardry. Edmond helped her seize full control of Freddy’s business empire.
They started dating, but Edmond’s family objected to her because she was from a different branch of Judaism, so he broke off their relationship.
Lily was furious, and immediately married Samuel Bendahan, a wealthy Jewish businessman. The marriage last two weeks before they split, but the divorce proceedings took a year.
In 1976, Edmond and Lily got back together, and got married. Safra was of Lebanese Jewish descent and had taken Brazilian nationality. He founded the ‘Republic National Bank of New York’ (as well as Banco Safra).
Guests at their lavish wedding included Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Aga Khan, Frank Sinatra, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Aristotle and Jackie Onassis.
The couple had a prenuptial agreement they labelled as ‘a merger’. The press reported the marriage as, ‘the irresistible combination of a lady with a past and a man with a future.
The couple owned homes in New York City, Monaco and Geneva, and bought themselves the Villa Leopolda on the French Riviera, from the King of Belgium. Doing it up became Lily’s passion. It is said she spent $2 million on decorating her bedroom alone.
But at the same time, Lily started donating lots of money to charities.
They created the ‘International Sephardic Education Foundation’.
They also funded the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, which was dedicated to medical research and humanitarian aid.
They then opened the E.J. Safra Family Lodge near Washington, to give families of sick children a break. They paid for the ‘Te Ha Shomer’ children’s hospital in Israel and the Centre for Brain Surgery at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (with a branch in Tel Aviv). They also paid for the building and upkeep of several synagogues.
She was invited to a dinner at Buckingham Palace for philanthropists. It took place in the picture gallery. She found herself sitting next to Prince Charles. They got on like a house on fire and were to become firm friends.
Lily suffered tragedy in 1989 when her son Claudio and her 3-year-old grandson were killed in a car crash. She never really got over this.
But in the 1990s she noticed a decline in Edmond’s health. Eventually he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and needed full time carers.
And there were rumours about his business dealings. At various times he was linked with the Russian Mafia, Colombian drug cartels and there were stories he had defrauded a group of Japanese businessmen who were formerly his partners. The rumours said he was trading gold, selling drugs, money laundering and currency trafficking. He denied it all – but became increasingly paranoid.
He carried blue gems with him at all times, supposedly to ward off evil spirits and was obsessed with his ‘lucky number’ – number 5. His car registration was EJS 555.
He installed Mossad-trained security guards at his villa.
On the 2nd December 1999, Lily and Edmond were granted Monegasque citizenship (citizens of Monaco).
The following night, Edmond gave his security guards a night off, saying that he was safe in Monaco. But he wasn’t.
A fire started in the villa. In terror, Edmond locked himself and his nurse into the ‘panic room’ he had installed in the villa. Lily tried to get him to come out, saying there were no assassins. She even phoned him on his mobile. But he didn’t come out, and both him and the nurse, Vivian Torrente, were killed.
The press reported, “apparently he felt so safe here that he did not have his bodyguards stay the night when he slept in Monaco”.
The Safra family claimed foul play. They said it was suspicious that Lily had a separate suite from Edmond, on the opposite side of the villa, that the fire didn’t touch. The video tape in the cameras vanished.
The feud with Lily got worse. She refused to have him buried in the Safra family vault but in Switzerland instead, so none of the family attended his funeral.
And they challenged the will. Edmond had left her an enormous amount of money.
They were unsuccessful, but Lily immediately bought herself a Belgravia mansion and installed armoured windows, had a bombproof basement and employed 35 security guards.
And an arrest was made in the case of murder. It was Ted Maher, a former US Green Beret who had been one of Edmond’s full-time carers but had been sacked for incompetence.
His confession stated he had broken into the villa and started a fire in a wastepaper basket. The intention had been to raise the alarm and ‘rescue’ the couple – and in their gratitude they would re-employ him as a security guard. He even stabbed himself to make it look like a gang had attacked him. But Maher was found guilty and he was sent to prison for 10 years.
And Lily increased her philanthropy.
She donated $600,000 to families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001.
She paid for the rehoming and education of 20 children orphaned in the Rwandan Civil War.
She sold part of her art collection to pay for the ‘Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing’ at the Hebrew University.
She donated lots of money to the US Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. Furthermore, she had a sale of furniture at Sothebys and used the proceeds for various charities including for Dillard University in New Orleans (which served the Black community), to be rebuilt after the hurricane (the US Government had given it nothing).
She made a $12 million donation to the Ethics Centre at Harvard to fight institutional corruption.
Children’s charities were close to her heart and she funded the ‘One Laptop per Child’ movement as well as creating the ‘Edmond J Safra Brain Research Centre for the Study of Learning Disabilities’ at the University of Haifa.
But she was still willing to defend her own interests. When Lady Colin Campbell produced a novel entitled ‘Empress Bianca’, it was clearly based on Lily’s life. She took Lady Campbell to court, won, and forced every copy to be pulped.
In 2011, she was awarded the Legion d’honneur. By now she was nicknamed ‘The Gilded Lady’.
The following year, Lily sold 70 pieces of her jewellery including a 34-carat rectangular cut ring. This was followed by selling 18 more pieces at JAR (Rothschilds of Paris), known as the ‘Jewels of Hope’. It was the largest personal collection ever sold by Rothschilds.
The money from these sales went to the Elton John Aids Foundation, Hope and Homes for Children in Romania and countless other healthcare, education, religious and culture charities.
But it didn’t interrupt her personal love of beautiful things. She bought a life size Giacometti statue, ‘Le Homme qui Marchel’ (1), for $65 million, what was then the highest price ever paid for a statue.
When Ted Maher, her husband’s killer was released from prison, he rescinded his confession saying he had been beaten and tortured to produce it. However, there has never been any evidence to link Lily to the death – despite the Safra family continuing to insist on her culpability.
Lily became a board member of the Michael J. Fox Foundation which carries out research into Parkinson’s disease. She also funded the Pompidou Foundation for Alzheimer’s research.
She was on the Chairman’s Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and donated millions of dollars to the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
She was still one of the richest women in the world.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, she moved back to her home in Geneva, where she died. She is buried next to Edmond. None of the Safra family attended her funeral.
RIP – Rich, Investigated Philanthropist