L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt's messy dance with Jewish history

From a Nazi-sympathizer father to Jewish grandchildren, Liliane Bettencourt led a complicated but colorful life.

Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter Francoise Bettencourt Meyers. (photo credit: CHARLES PLATIAU / REUTERS)
Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter Francoise Bettencourt Meyers.
Liliane Bettencourt, billionaire L'Oréal heiress, passed away in Paris on Thursday at the age of 94.
The French socialite was the richest woman in the world with an estimated net worth of $39.5 billion, according to Forbes. While she accomplished much in the boardroom and the beauty industry, Bettencourt dealt with various controversies stemming from her family's connection to fascism and Nazism before and during the Second World War.
Her father and founder of the L'Oréal cosmetics company, Eugène Schueller, was a Nazi sympathizer who helped bankroll the far-right organization La Cagoule in the 1930s. The group was known to be violent and virulently antisemitic. Prior to the breakout of WWII, La Cagoule members planned to overthrow the French government and attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Leon Blum, the country's first Jewish and socialist leader.
Schueller also allowed La Cagoule to hold meetings at the L'Oréal headquarters. After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, many members of La Cagoule supported the pro-Nazi Vichy government. After the war, some found refuge in the company.
Liliane married André Bettencourt, a former member of La Cagoule, in 1950 and Bettencourt soon after rose to prominence at L'Oréal.
André Bettencourt's fascist past came to attention after Jean Frydman, a board member of a L'Oréal subsidiary, alleged in 1989 that he was fired because he held dual French and Israeli citizenship and that the company wanted to avoid an Arab boycott of Jewish-linked businesses.
Frydman, himself a Holocaust survivor, publicized the fact that André wrote several antisemitic articles in La Terre Française, a pro-Nazi newspaper, during the German occupation. In one article from 1941, he wrote that the Jews are a people whose "race has been forever sullied by the blood of the righteous. They will be cursed." Bettencourt apologized for his writings, calling them "errors of youth" and said that he "will always beg the Jewish community to forgive [him] for them."
Liliane and André had one child, a daughter named Françoise.
Françoise went on to marry Jean-Pierre Meyers, a Jewish man whose grandfather had been murdered in Auschwitz. The couple has two children, who were raised in the Jewish faith. Françoise has authored several books about the Bible and Jewish-Christian relations.
Liliane was also a key player in some well-known controversies unrelated to her family's connection to fascism.
She had been under the guardianship of her family since a court battle, known as the “Bettencourt affair,” ended with a ruling in 2011 that she was incapable of looking after her fortune because she suffered from dementia and had been exploited.
The case — brought by Françoise and which soured relations between the two — centered on Francois-Marie Banier, a celebrity photographer who befriended Bettencourt in the 1980s and received lavish gifts from her, including life insurance policies worth $400 million.
Another strand of the sprawling affair later led to allegations of illegal payments by Bettencourt to members of the French government associated with former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. Sarkozy was eventually cleared in the case.
Liliane was also a victim of American fraudster Bernie Madoff's now-infamous Ponzi scheme, losing 22 million euros when she invested in French fund Access International Advisors, which, in turn, invested 95% of its money with Madoff.
After the end of the Bettencourt affair, Françoise and Liliane mended their relationship.
Françoise, Jean-Pierre and their son Jean-Victor are all members of the L'Oréal Board of Directors. The family owns a 33% share of the company. Françoise said in a statement that the family remains committed to the company and its management team.
Reuters contributed to this report.