The Stern S&M murder: Relic of a bygone era

On Wednesday, a Swiss jury concluded the case of Cecile Brossard, who was accused of the 2005 murder of her boyfriend, French financier Edouard Stern. Stern, the 38th richest man in France, was nicknamed "the Little Prince of Finance."

Stern's death was deceptively simple: in the middle of an argument, the financier was shot by his girlfriend and potential fiancee. Given that their relationship appeared to be souring and that Brossard apparently delayed responding to a marriage proposal, the story seems to be made of the kind of sad, human stuff that underlies most crimes of passion.
However, appearances can be deceiving. The argument in question, which fueled Stern's murder, took place as he was tied up, strapped into a harness, hooded, and wearing a latex suit. According to some sources, Brossard was a high-priced prostitute who worked extensively in Paris and Geneva. Even if this is untrue, there is no doubt that, when Stern asked Brossard to marry him, she replied with a demand for $1 million.

On the other hand, Stern was notoriously brutal with his mistress, comparing her to concentration camp guards, threatening her with knives, and demanding a return of his money. In fact, one could argue that the million dollars was more a toy for control and humiliation than an actual sum of money.

On one level, the l'affaire Brossard is not all that revolutionary. After all, it's only been thirty years since Nelson Rockefeller died in the company of Megan Marshack, his comely young assistant. Of course, that was a gentler time: although it was fairly common knowledge that Rockefeller had a heart attack while in the grip of passion, most newspapers were fairly restrained in their analysis of the situation. The same goes for the Rockefeller family. When asked what he would say if he ever met Marshack, Stephen Rockefeller, the former Vice President's grandson, replied "I would tell her 'I hope you made my grandfather happy'."

In many ways, Marshack seems like the last sweet, loving sex scandal. The following year witnessed the Von Bulow and Harris/Tarnower cases, both of which involved lust and murder among the insanely wealthy. In the Von Bulow case, newspapers and prosecutors averred that Claus Von Bulow murdered his wife Sunny in order to inherit part of her $40 million fortune and pave the way for a marriage to his mistress. A year after his aquittal, Von Bulow settled a civil case with Sunny's children by agreeing to divorce his comatose wife, give up claims to her fortune, leave the country, and never profit from her story.

Jean Harris' 1980 murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower is, perhaps, an even more appropriate comparison to the Brossard story. Like Brossard, Harris was a woman of a certain age who was passionately involved with an older man. Like Stern, Tarnower was prone to abusive and cruel behavior. In both cases, it appears that the affair was coming to an end, and the men were not being too graceful about the whole matter.

Although Harris was notoriously tight-lipped about Tarnower's cruelties, it seems like the doctors was at least somewhat non-confrontational in his plans to replace Harris with a much younger woman. Stern, on the other hand, was downright brutal. Brossard testified that, on the night of his murder, Stern directly referenced her dowry, stating "One million dollars is a lot of money to pay for a whore."

Oddly, Stern's cruelty seems to have moved Brossard's jury to be more merciful with her. On the one hand, it pointed out that shooting Stern while he was tied up was particularly "cowardly," and rejected her claim that this was a crime of passion, stating that "Her cynical, deliberate and manipulative behavior was not [that] of a reasonable woman who commits a crime under an excusable emotion or despair."

However, the jury also took into account Stern's "humiliating, harassing, and occasionally cruel" behavior when it came time to judge Brossard. Recognizing her "profound regret," the court sentenced her to 8 1/2 years in prison. Given that she has already served four years as this court has slowly worked its way to a conclusion, it is possible that Brossard could serve as little as eighteen months behind bars, or could even be released later this year.

It seems likely that this tale, which reads like a twisted version of Pretty Woman, will be remembered largely as the last relic of a bygone gilded age. With falling financial markets, fewer and fewer financiers are able to afford high-priced mistresses of the Brossard ilk. As Edward Hayes' "High-end girlfriend index" indicates, the flush, sexy mid-2000's are behind us, and even the mega-rich are downsizing their harems. In today's context, it seems like the very mention of a million dollars would have sent Stern scurrying to Craigslist in search of a replacement!
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