Peter Mikelbank
September 21, 2017 04:04 PM

Liliane Bettencourt, widely considered to be the richest woman in the world, has died. She was 94.

The L’Oréal heiress, whose last years have been embroiled in scandals and a legal battle concerning her $44 billion fortune, passed “peacefully in her sleep,” according to a statement released by her family.

Bettencourt had been living in seclusion for much of the past decade, suffering from Alzheimer’s and advanced dementia. She was considered too ill to attend the 2015 trial in which 10 people — including a French cabinet minister — were accused of taking advantage of her fortune.

Eight of those 10 were ultimately found guilty in the five-week-long trial, which highlighted but did not end a prolonged series of scandals involving one of the world’s largest fortunes.

The trial brought an unwanted spotlight onto the heiress and her billion-dollar “gift” — including cash, real estate and paintings by Monet and Picasso — to her “friend,” society photographer Francois-Marie Banier.

Known simply as “The Bettencourt Affair,” the case began in 2007 when Bettencourt’s only daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, filed a lawsuit against her mother’s confidant, claiming he abused her mother. The case and its eventual 2015 trial provided a decade of outrageous disclosures, surfacing stories of Swiss bank accounts, a private tax haven in the Seychelles, household conspiracy, wiretaps, illicit cash donations to then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election campaign and witness corruption.

Liliane Bettencourt
Jacques Brinon/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In one of several criminal cases that weakened his presidency, Sarkozy was himself directly involved in The Bettencourt Affair — the conservative president was placed under formal investigation in 2012, accused of abusing her frailness. Legal authorities later chose to drop prosecution.

For most of the French public, the most galvanizing moment of The Bettencourt Affair occurred in 2010. In the wake of disclosures that her gifts to Banier exceeded $1 billion, Bettencourt gave a rare and exclusive interview to television network TF1. Seated on the terrace of her coastal Brittany estate, the heiress challenged her interviewer with a resolute “et alors?”

Translation: “So what?

Until the revelations of her last private years, Bettencourt enjoyed a remarkable position in France, and her lifestyle was a passage from France’s Poor Little Rich Girl to one of glamour and elegance.

The daughter of Eugène Schueller — the chemist who founded cosmetics giant L’Oréal — Bettencourt was an only child who lost her mother at the age of 5, before beginning to work inside the company’s chemistry labs at 15.

Liliane Bettencourt
Rindoff/Garcia/Getty

In 1950, she married businessman and politician André Bettencourt, who served two French Presidents and eventually became the foreign minister. He passed away in 2007.

In 1957, on her father’s passing, she inherited the cosmetics firm. For much of their lives, the family lived on a private gated estate inside Paris. Though not seen publicly since 2012, as of last December, Bettencourt — who became the ward of her daughter — still held title to one-third of all L’Oréal shares. The company and its diverse brands had over $26 billion in revenues in 2016.

“Liliane Bettencourt died last evening in her home. She would have been 95 on October 21. My mother went peacefully,” her daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, said in a statement. “In this painful moment for us, I wish to recall in the name of our family, our complete attachment and faith to L’Oréal, to renew my confidence in its President Jean-Paul Agon, and his teams worldwide.”

Forbes lists Bettencourt’s net worth at $44.7 billion. The site calls her the world’s wealthiest woman, and the 13th-richest person in the world at the time of her death.

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