Book Review: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows

It's hard to resist an inside peek of one of the world's wealthiest and most secretive people. In fact, it is so irresistible that I found it next to impossible to put down an advance copy I received of Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows (Harper, $25.99).

The unauthorized biography of billionaire Lily Safra, which hits shelves today, is a riveting tale of one of the world's richest and most elegant women -- a jet-setter who socializes in the same elite circles as Prince Charles and Elton John, in addition to a host of billionaires including Oscar and Lynn Wyatt. What is so fascinating, however, is exactly how Safra was able to climb her way to the top.

Author Isabel Vincent is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times "T" Magazine and the New Yorker. Currently on the staff of the New York Post, it took Vincent more than four years to research and write the 297-page tome. It is easy to understand why Lily Safra is such a difficult subject to research. The widow of the ultra-secretive Lebanese banking billionaire Edmond Safra, founder of Republic New York Corp. (now part of HSBC), Lily is one of the world's most elusive individuals.

Much of the book is devoted to Lily's background, beginning with her upper middle class Jewish upbringing in Uruguay. "The only daughter of Wolf White Watkins had been trained from an early age to marry up in the world", writes Vincent. "In the end, it didn't seem to matter how many times she needed to walk down the aisle."

A foretelling statement, indeed.

Lily married for the first time at the tender age of 18 and had three children in quick succession. But she quickly grew bored with her upper-middle class husband and found a replacement -- the handsome owner of Brazil's most successful chain of appliance stores and one of the country's wealthiest men.

Characterized as a social climber of epic proportions, Lily married a third time, after husband number two mysteriously committed suicide leaving her his vast fortune. Marriage number three was brief, as it appears to have been a disguised attempt to make Edmond Safra jealous. In 1976, Lily succeeded in getting Safra, a life-long bachelor, to the altar.

Although he was a great philanthropist and legendary banker, Safra is also known for his horrific death, which was well-documented and extensively researched by Vincent.

Billionaire Edmond Safra with his wife Lily.
Billionaire Edmond Safra with his wife Lily.

The book also offers fascinating details of Lily's many extravagances, including anecdotes about a few of the legendary parties she is known for hosting. One party described in great detail took place at two empty sprawling Fifth Avenue apartments Lily owned that overlooked Central Park. Guests were served cocktails in one apartment before descending to the second unit for the sumptuous dinner. Lily had the second apartment transformed into a French country garden, complete with ten foot topiary trees and thousands of flowers, many of which were flown in from around the world. Her 60-person guest list included former British prime minster Lady Margaret Thatcher, Michael Bloomberg, Nancy Kissinger, Her Royal Highness Princess Firyal of Jordan, and other bold face names.

At yet another party, Lily displayed her generous nature by presenting each of her female guests with a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes, which typically retail for more than $500 a pair.

Gilded Lily is an intriguing tale that gives the reader an insider's look at an extraordinary life -- not to mention a few valuable tips on how to meet and marry a billionaire.

To read an excerpt from Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows, click here.