Lily Safra, fabulously rich philanthropist whose life was peppered with drama and mystery obituary – The Telegraph

Posted By on July 16, 2022

Lily Safra never gave an interview on this or any other subject and moved on to other things. After her husbands death, she spent a good deal of her time in London where she set about conquering glamorous society with the same steely determination with which she had once wooed Edmond Safra.

As a result of his death, she had become the fifth richest woman in Britain, and she used her considerable wealth to support various charities, including those favoured by the likes of the Prince of Wales and Lord Rothschild, all of whom rewarded her lavish philanthropic gifts with access to their social life. She maintained her dignity, elegance and air of mystery to the end.

She was born Lily Watkins on December 30 1934 in Rio de Janeiro, where her father, Wolf White Watkins, had emigrated from Surrey before she was born and started his own railway construction business. Her mother was a Jewish emigre from Poland. The family was comfortably off, though not rich.

But what Lily Watkins lacked in wealth, she made up for in willowy beauty, charm, intelligence she could speak at least five languages and sheer energy and willpower. She rewarded her husbands with her warmth, wit and generosity and her rapidly expanding network of high-glamour friends.

At the age of 19 she married Mario Cohen, an Argentine hosiery magnate, and bore him three children, two boys and a girl. But the marriage was not happy and, after divorcing Cohen and obtaining an ample settlement, in 1965 she wed Alfredo Freddy Greenberg he later changed the name to Monteverde the raffish socialite head of a Brazilian electrical distribution business.

Four years later, he killed himself in his mansion in Rio, leaving his widow a personal fortune of 200 million. His death was investigated at unusual length by the Brazilian police, but no evidence was found of foul play.

In the wake of her second husbands death, Lily Monteverde, as she then was, placed her fortune in the safekeeping of the 37-year-old Edmond Safra, head of Banco Safra in Brazil, a somewhat jowly workaholic who was already establishing a reputation for his strategy and cunning. He quickly became besotted with the beautiful widow. It was said that he felt that with all her money, she could not be after him for his.

Their courtship was no easy matter. By all accounts Edmonds brothers disapproved of Lily whom they saw as unsuitable for their deeply conservative and religiously observant Sephardic Jewish family. But when Edmond, under family pressure, ended the relationship, Lily responded in dramatic fashion.

In 1972, in Acapulco, she married Samuel Bendahan, a 35-year-old Moroccan-born British businessman. Gossip suggested that her main purpose was to make Safra jealous. If so, she succeeded, for within two months, the newly-weds had split up.

Later, Bendahan brought a suit against her and Safra, claiming that she had reneged on an agreement to pay him $250,000, but the suit was thrown out of court. Lily in turn charged Bendahan with extortion, but that case was dismissed as well.

In 1976, after her second divorce, she and Edmond Safra were married in a union described by a Brazilian friend as the irresistible combination of a lady with a past and a man with a future. A 600-page pre-nuptial agreement was reportedly drawn up one colleague jokingly called it a merger but the marriage turned out to be a successful one.

Yet not everything in Lilys life was gilded. In 1989, her son Claudio and her three-year-old grandson were killed in a car accident, a tragedy which affected her deeply and from which, according to friends, she never really recovered.

Afterwards, she threw herself into socialising and philanthropy, dedicating herself to funding charitable causes around the world. The rift between Lily and Safras brothers was never healed. They refused to attend the reception which she held after her husbands funeral and relations were not improved by her decision to bury her husband in Switzerland rather than at a cherished family-owned plot in Israel.

Her coming out in Britain occured in 2001 when Prince Charles held a dinner in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace for the biggest American donors to charitable causes. Lily Safra sat at the Princes left hand. They became close friends, and when Lily Safra faced giving evidence at the trial of Ted Maher she reportedly hired the Princes public relations adviser, Mark Bolland, to handle any publicity.

Among many other gifts, she lavished money on the Princes Trust and donated 8million to Somerset House for the fountains in its courtyard which she arranged to be renamed after her husband Edmond Safra.

She gave 600,000 to World Trade Center victims, completed the Edmond J Safra Synagogue in Manhattan in 2002, donated to Afghan Relief, towards rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, and 18million to fund a retreat for families of critically ill Americans. Her Jewels for Hope auction at Christies in 2012 raised millions for a range of causes including Parkinsons Disease and HIV research.

Softly spoken and always immaculately coiffeured, Lily Safras determination to retain her youthful looks left her face with wide open eyes and a slightly strange look that, as an acquaintance remarked, makes it difficult to tell exactly what age she really is.

Lily Safra, born December 30 1934, died July 9 2022

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Lily Safra, fabulously rich philanthropist whose life was peppered with drama and mystery obituary - The Telegraph

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