Excerpt from Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widowsby Isabel Vincent
©HarperCollins Publishers, 2010 ($25.99)
In Vincent's book (read DailyFinance's review here), Edmond Safra's widow has always yearned to live an extravagant lifestyle -- one that few ever have the chance to experience. As a billionaire widow, she is able to afford the best that money can buy, from the largest, most impressive homes to the highest of high fashion. Lily is also known for hosting magnificent parties that are so over-the-top that even her impressive guests, who are often royalty and fellow billionaires, are left speechless.
A few months after Ted's escape and eventual return to prison, Preston Bailey, the noted New York event designer, was assigned the task of stage-managing Lily's triumphant return to Manhattan society. Just as with the double-header parties at La Leopolda to celebrate the end of Edmond's troubles with American Express, Lily was determined to throw herself an unforgettable return to high society in Manhattan.
It's not that she had ever really left. Even during the drama of Edmond's death, the lawsuits, and Ted's trial and escape, Lily still managed a regular presence at parties on both sides of the Atlantic. With her new super wealth, she bought herself a lavish home in London---one of the most staggeringly beautiful houses in London," gushed Women's Wear Daily, and continued to maintain homes in New York, Paris and the south of France.
In May 2000, five months after Edmond's death, she flew to New York to attend a special United Nations gala in honor of Edmond's work for Israel. In August, she donated a fountain and garden in Edmond's name for Somerset House in London. The spectacular Edmond J. Safra Court, which was the first major public fountain to be commissioned in London since the ones in Trafalgar Square in 1845, has fifty-five jets of water that rise out of the granite-covered ground. The number five was Edmond's favorite number; he believed that it warded off evil spirits.
A month later, Lily was spotted in "the chicest of black dresses" at a benefit for the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. That summer, she was back in London attending a gala at Buckingham Palace, where she was seated to the right of the Prince of Wales, the host of the evening. She also attended her friend Lynn Wyatt's tropical paradise-themed birthday party in the south of France. There were also the flurry of dinner parties she threw for friends in London and New York and at La Leopolda during the summer season on the Riviera.
A month before Ted's trial began in Monaco, Lily was among 115 guests at a fortieth-birthday party for Elton John's partner, David Furnish. It was a black-tie affair, with champagne and white truffle risotto, in both London and Venice (Elton chartered a plane for the London-to-Venice trip). The guests were decidedly more rock-and-roll royalty than the kind Lily was now used to. It's rather difficult to imagine the gilded Lily on the dance floor alongside guests like Donatella Versace, Elizabeth Hurley, Sting, and Isabella Blow. Lily's friend Lynn Wyatt appears to have been right at home, though---"dirty-dancing" with video artist David LaChapelle, "in dangerous déshabillé as his shirt hung open, his suspenders dangled at his knees and his trousers slipped down his hips."
After the conclusion of Ted Maher's trial in Monaco in December 2002, Lily's public relations consultants appeared to work overtime to reestablish her important role in society. Triumphant after Ted's conviction, Lily flew to New York to dedicate the synagogue on the Upper East Side that Eli Attia had begun in the 1980s. Following the nasty legal battle with Attia, the beaux-arts-style synagogue, with massive doors of carved brass, was completed by the French architect Thierry Despont. Attia's early work on the house of worship on East Sixty-third Street, off Fifth Avenue, was conveniently forgotten. The Sephardic community for whom it was built was also conveniently forgotten at the dedication even as Lily organized a dinner for three hundred people at the University Club of New York on Fifth Avenue.
Instead of inviting the important members of the New York Sephardic community that her husband had generously supported over a lifetime, the sacred occasion seemed to become just another New York society event. At a later party for the synagogue, it was Lily's golden dress and her "17th century heavy gold necklace recovered from a Spanish ship" that took precedence over the dedication of the Edmond J. Safra synagogue. After the University Club fête, Lily's friends threw other parties to commemorate the grand occasion. One party was held at Swifty's and was hosted by the Iraqi-born financier Ezra Zilkha and his wife, Cecile. Later, Lily was the guest of honor at another lavish party hosted by Joan Rivers at her palatial apartment, which was exquisitely decorated with white lilies, snapdragons and roses for the occasion. "There were Buccellati's silver sparrows at each place setting and silver vases filled with bunches of tiny white roses." Lily arrived wearing "an iridescent claret-colored taffeta coat over claret brocade pants with little satin slippers to match," by Oscar de la Renta.
"Lily is a lovely, courageous woman, who in the last several years has gone through hell since the mysterious death of her husband in a fire in their Monte Carlo apartment and later at the trial during which she handled herself impeccably and emerged in triumph like the lady she is," said her friend Aileen Mehle in her Women's Wear Daily column a few weeks after the conclusion of Ted's trial in Monaco.
The "lovely, courageous" Lily also celebrated her legal triumph with the purchase of a new Paris apartment on the exclusive avenue Gabriel, a duplex with marvelous views of the Eiffel Tower from every room-the same apartment that Blaine Trump's family lived in when Blaine was a student in Paris. Again, her friends at Women's Wear Daily felt compelled to defend her honor: "These days and nights, she is a happy woman, out lunching and dining with her friends, wearing marvelous clothes, and emerging from the three-year nightmare and the ugly, false and unfounded speculation that followed her in print after the death of her husband, Edmond, in their Monte Carlo apartment, a victim of a fire set by one of his nurses, the now-imprisoned Ted Maher."
Indeed, after years of tension following the bizarre death of her husband, Lily was ready to reassume her place as a leading hostess in New York. Because she believed in doing nothing by half measures, Lily hired Preston Bailey, the most sought-after event planner in Manhattan, to create an evening that would impress even the high-society luminaries who had seen it all.
Bailey is a striking figure on the New York social scene, with his muscular physique and his shaved head-smooth and polished like a billiard ball. He is a former model from Panama who embarked on his career as haute society's foremost event planner when he designed the 1998 wedding of Joan Rivers's daughter Melissa at the Plaza hotel. Bailey turned one of the ballrooms of the hotel into a Czarist winter garden from Doctor Zhivago, featuring 30,000 white flowers and 100 trees painted white.
For Lily, he would transform one of her empty Fifth Avenue apartments overlooking Central Park (she owned two) into a French country garden. "We agreed that a lush garden setting would be the perfect antidote to the endless weeks of rain we'd been having, so I set about conjuring an atmosphere that would recall the French countryside," wrote Bailey in an article for Elle Décor that devoted one of its glossy pages to the decoration of Lily's party room. "Still, nothing short of a magical evening would wow the guests."
Two weeks before the party, Bailey set about transforming the foyer and forty-seven-foot-long living room in the apartment into a French garden. In the dining room, he attached a grid covered in lemon leaves to the ceiling and hung rose petals sewn together to look like garlands of wisteria in white and lavender. He lined sections of the walls with screens imprinted with photographs of vast landscapes. "I then wove thousands of blossoms into the screens to further blur the boundaries of the area-used weathered green trellis lit from behind to convey dappled sunlight." The effect was similar to dining under a huge wisteria tree.
For the centerpieces, Bailey used white peonies flown in from Holland, cymbidium orchids, lavender, sweet pea, blue hyacinths, and Australian dendrobium orchids. "At each window there were trellis arbors draped with celadon and pink Fatima orchid 'curtains' outlining the park views."
The sixty guests, who included former British prime minister Lady Margaret Thatcher, Brian and Mila Mulroney, Michael Bloomberg, Diane Sawyer, Nancy Kissinger, the Erteguns, Joan Rivers, Princess Firyal of Jordan, Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera, Robert Higdon, and Lynn and Oscar Wyatt (who flew in from their home in Texas), assembled for drinks at Lily's other apartment on a higher floor. For dinner, they took the elevator to the other apartment. "When the elevator opened 60 jaws dropped at the sight of a fabulous 'conservatory' fragrant with the smell of all those flowers," gushed Mehle.
"It was a scene of great beauty and those 60 who have been everywhere and done everything could hardly believe their eyes." As Bailey himself noted, "I waited in the foyer-it was a harbinger of the lavish things to come, with elephant's ear branches, trellis, and light patterns bathing the walls and floors-for everyone to arrive. I was handsomely rewarded with audible gasps, most definitely a few dropped jaws and I'm not exaggerating, a few soft shrieks of delight."
After dinner, the guests "lounged on wrought iron garden furniture under 10-foot topiary trees built of birch branches and hanging with pears, lemons and limes."
Isabel Vincent is an award-winning investigative journalist currently working for the New York Post. She is the author of Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas; Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justice; and See No Evil: The Strange Case of Christine Lamont and David Spencer. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times "T" Magazine, the Independent, Marie Claire, L'Officiel (Paris), and other international publications. She lives in New York City.