by Malcolm Curtis|October 17, 2006
GENEVA – The Salève, an upthrust of sedimentary rock, towers above the final resting place of Edouard Stern. The mountain overlooking Geneva is a popular takeoff spot for parachutists who soar above the walled Jewish cemetery, where Stern was buried last year in the nearby village of Veyrier.
He was a high flier too, one of France’s richest men, a 50-year-old banker whose charmed life came to a brutal end in bizarre circumstances.
On the edge of this quiet community on the French border, the simple grave belies none of this. Stern’s name is inscribed along with his dates of birth and death on a white marble tablet that leans against a dark upright stone, where his name and the dates appear again.
A small wicker basket containing yellow and purple flowers stands at the foot of the tomb, where well-wishers have placed rocks of different sizes on the mortuary slab.
On an autumnal day when nearby vineyard leaves turn gold in the pale sunlight, nothing here suggests the tale of sex, power and money that brought the millionaire’s life to a shuddering halt.
A book published Thursday by two Swiss journalists has raised new questions about what happened.
Stern, ranked the 38th richest man in France, died on March 1, 2005 after his tall, blond mistress shot him four times with a handgun. She fired two bullets into his head.
Police found him dead in his luxury apartment in Geneva, clad in a flesh-coloured latex body suit. At the time, Swiss newspapers reported that Stern was bound in a harness.
Cécille Brossard, 37, charged with murder 15 days after the death, remains in jail while awaiting a jury trial set to begin early next year.
She has confessed to the killing. But her lawyers maintain it was a crime of passion by a woman in love with a man who humiliated and psychologically abused her.
Reporters from the Tribune de Genève newspaper allege that Stern had promised to marry Brossard and deposited a million Swiss francs in her bank account.
In a 240-page book, Mort d’un Banquier (Death of a Banker), writers Alain Jourdan and Valérie Duby say a dispute arose between the pair when Stern secured a judicial order blocking the money in Brossard’s account. They claim the banker pretended to the authorities that the cash had been deposited for Chagall paintings that were never delivered.
An added ingredient in this spicy stew is Stern’s close friendship with Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s Interior Minister and a leading right-wing contender to succeed President Jacques Chirac. Speculation has swirled in newspapers here that compromising financial links between the banker and Sarkozy could be revealed in the trial.
Meanwhile, the judge handling the case has had his home broken into and believes he is being followed, according to co-author Jourdan.
Earlier press reports suggested the Russian mafia may have been involved in a contract killing, although no evidence of this has surfaced.
The linking of high-born Stern with a former call girl reputedly involved in sadomasochistic practices is creating a stir in Geneva, with its reputation for dour Protestantism. But behind the dignified façade of the wealthy city of Calvin, where private banks manage more than a trillion dollars worth of assets, money and sex seem to go discreetly hand in glove. The classified sections of the local newspapers bulge with ads for prostitutes and exotic sex.
It was into this milieu that Stern apparently slipped.
Known as the “Mozart of finance,” he was born in 1954 to the family owning Banque Stern, a private investment bank with German-Jewish origins dating back to the 19th century. He studied in Paris at the prestigious Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales. He worked for his father before squabbling with him and setting out on his own.
He went on to become a senior partner of investment bank Lazard Frères after marrying the daughter of chairman Michel David-Weill. For a time he was dubbed “heir-apparent” to take over the investment house with its bases in Paris, New York and London. But he left Lazard after reportedly quarrelling with his father-in-law. He also separated from his wife, Beatrice David-Weill, who lived in New York with their three children.
He developed a reputation as an activist shareholder in companies such as Suez, the industrial conglomerate, and the Vivendi media group. Directors of Rhodia, the French chemicals company, threw him off the board after rejecting his call to break up the company to maximize shareholder value.
Stern set up his own investment fund, based in Geneva, managing almost $900 million (Canadian) in assets.
Brossard came from a broken middle-class home in the Paris suburbs. When she was eight, her father, an advertising executive, divorced her mother.
Brossard moved out of the house as a teenager. She moved to London, where she worked as a barmaid in a pub before returning to Paris, where she was employed in a leather goods shop at the Roissy airport. A British newspaper reported that she worked as a “high-class call girl” in Britain in the mid-1990s. She later became a sculptor, producing bronze works that frequently depicted nude women, according to the authors of Death of a Banker.
In 1996, she met Xavier Gillet, a French naturopath with a practice in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland. Twenty years older than her, Gillet left his wife and child in 1998 to marry Brossard in Las Vegas.
The couple settled in an apartment overlooking Lake Geneva near Montreux, where Brossard led a lavish lifestyle, running up debts of more than $1 million.
She met Stern at a dinner organized in Paris for art gallery owners and financiers. The banker was immediately attracted to her and obtained her phone number through art dealer Robert Benamou, who had earlier sold Francis Bacon paintings to Stern. A few weeks later, a “passionate and destructive” four-year romance began.
People close to Stern recalled often “disputes, reconciliations and violence” in the relationship, which involved trysts at a small stone house Brossard bought in the French village of Nanteuil-le-Haudoin, near Roissy.
Brossard has sought psychiatric counseling while in prison. If she is found guilty of a crime of passion, she faces a maximum jail sentence of 10 years under Swiss law.