Saturday, July 17, 2010

The L'Oreal heiress and a picture of rudeness

François-Marie Banier's enemies will be watching the novelist's difficulties with glee, writes Anne Elisabeth Moutet.
Published: 5:27PM BST 16 Jul 2010
Francois-Marie Banier arrives in court for L'Oreal fraud trial
Francois-Marie Banier arrives in court for L'Oreal fraud trial Photo: Rex Features

By the time most of you read this on Saturday, François-Marie Banier, the society photographer and novelist, will have been grilled for 48 hours solid by the French police, without the benefit of a lawyer. They want to know, among other things, whether he evaded tax by hiding, through a Liechtenstein trust, the gift of a Seychelles island (estimated at 500 million euros) from the L'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt.

The procedure is known as garde à vue, and it's as unpleasant as it sounds (France is regularly taken to task about it by the European Court of Human Rights, and regularly blows, in answer, an elegantly argued raspberry in Strasbourg's general direction).

But a number of people must be watching the proceedings with unmitigated glee. There's Françoise Meyers-Bettencourt, the heiress's only daughter, who started the whole thing three years ago when she felt her mother was being estranged from her by the entourage.

Many members of Liliane Bettencourt's staff actively loathed Banier, not least because he was extremely rude to them. He would call before taking Liliane out, one of them told the police, reminding them "to make sure she had her chequebook with her".

But there are also family members of the many prominent elderly ladies (and a few gentlemen) he paid court to in the past decades, who tell surprisingly similar tales of suddenly not being able to visit or telephone them, of works of art suddenly vanishing from a wall or a chimneypiece, of property in prime locations – a studio near Paris's delightful Place de Fürstenberg, a flat on rue Servandoni – being gifted or sold at peppercorn prices to the enterprising artist.

Frédéric, the grandson of interior designer Madeleine Castaing, a kind of French Elsie de Wolfe, recalls appropriations physical and moral – beyond the Chaim Soutine pictures and Cocteau and Picasso autograph letters and the rue Visconti flat, what galled him most was a black and white photograph taken by Banier of his grandmother, aged 95, dishevelled in a nightgown and without her trademark wig, which ended up in various retrospectives across Europe's museums. Banier could become rough when refused a prized possession, Frédéric Castaing told the police. "He shouted at her and once urinated in her teacups, in front of her staff ".

Banier, it is said, learned his shocking rudeness from Salvador Dali. The great Surrealist painter would receive him, still in his teens, in his suite at the Meurice hotel, and graphically comment on the supposed physical attributes of the waiters serving them tea. "Banier wants to shock, he only manages to be embarrassing," wrote Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent's longtime partner, after a 10-day holiday in Toulon. Still, Banier managed to get Princess Caroline of Monaco to pose for him with her head shaved, and the notoriously skittish Isabelle Adjani to make monkey faces to his camera. More recently, he has photographed, and made friends of, Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, Caroline's daughter Charlotte Casiraghi.

You have to admire his aplomb. Visiting a gallery with Liliane Bettencourt, he freezes in front of a picture. "The colour of our friendship is the precise blue of this Matisse," he exclaims. On cue, the billionaire heiress replies, "François-Marie, this picture is yours."

This week, just before he was taken for questioning, Banier gave a long interview to L'Express, shooting salvoes at his detractors. "Of course I can't influence Liliane Bettencourt," he protested. "I advised her to buy Cheval Blanc, the Premier Cru vineyard; Ilford, the British photographic company; [the ailing daily] Libération; a museum; a skyscraper for L'Oréal's new headquarters. She did none of it. How can anyone possibly think I manipulate her?"

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2010

No comments: