Scandal on the Seine
e is a French intellectual enjoyed the added advantages of his appealing known for his suave looks. The Frenchman he most closely good looks and inherited resembled back in the 1970s was the beetlewealth. Indeed, Bernard- browed romantic singer Charles Aznavour. Henri Lévy is so famous Indeed, you can cut out a picture of Aznavour’s in France that he is features, place it over a picture of BHL and referred to merely by hardly tell the difference. And his signature the acronym BHL. She sartorial uniform of black suit and white shirt is an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and fashion muse does not come cheap. Both are from Charvet, known for her outlandish but imaginative taste a swanky French tailor. Those shirts are (and inherited wealth). BHL once told Daphne specially designed so that their collars never Guinness: ‘You’re no longer a person, you’re curl and they cost £265 each. Francis Wheen, the biographer of Karl Marx, a concept.’ Until recently, she was the lady he spent time with when he was away from Paris. watched BHL in action at an Intelligence But now her status may be about to change, for Squared debate in London. ‘His opponent, BHL has let it be known that he is parting from Christopher Hitchens, made a point of thankhis wife of two decades, the French film actress ing all the men who had attended because and singer Arielle Dombasle. Will Daphne they would serve as a counterweight to all the step up to the role of official consort? And women swooning over BHL. He’s everybody’s fantasy of what a French intellechow will Parisian society greet tual should look like. He is vain her – with froideur, indifférence ‘You’re no and self-regarding, of course. He or rapturous enthusiasm? longer a already had a torrid love life and In Paris, of course, it will always be BHL who looms larger. He has person, you’re having a British aristocrat as a mistress adds to that. He’s not an been part of French public life a concept,’ ivory-tower person, he travels to ever since his appearance in 1977, BHL told dangerous places – he was at the as a young academic attacking the siege of Sarajevo, for example. All inherent corruption of Marxism, Daphne French intellectuals are thought on the television discussion programme Apostrophes. You can find bootleg to be Marxist, but BHL isn’t from the tradition video footage of this historic moment on the of Sartre. He’s non-Marxist and non-Maoist.’ Lévy was born in Algeria in 1948, but moved internet. Wearing a white open-neck shirt, its collar spread across the lapels of his black to Paris with his parents a few months later. jacket, with his chest exposed and a lit His father André, a Sephardic Jew, had fought cigarette in his hand, this nouveau philosophe with the Free French Forces in Italy during the cut a dashing figure. His flowing locks, Second World War and afterwards founded a aquiline nose, delicate features, dark eyes, company, Becob, which specialised in importperfect complexion and cool, serene gaze put ing rare African woods. Bernard-Henri was one in mind of a French aristocrat at the court educated at the university for the French elite, of Louis XIV rather than a Left Bank socialist the Ecole Normale Supérieur, where he studied intellectual. The programme moderator’s under the philosophers Louis Althusser and daughter reported back to her father that all Jacques Derrida. But from early on he felt the her friends thought the 28-year-old Lévy was need to be engaged in the world; his first book the new Rimbaud, the late 19th-century poet (he has written more than 30) was a work of and libertine who achieved renown at an even reportage about the Bangladesh civil war. Through his books and newspaper columns, younger age. The myth of BHL was born. Although the toad-like visage of Jean-Paul BHL has adopted many courageous and nuanced Sartre, the ultimate French public intellectual, positions, variously attacking the French never deterred female admirers, BHL has predilections for fascism and anti-Semitism on
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the Right and for ideological conformity and anti-Americanism on the Left. He has spoken up against fascism in Argentina, communism in Poland, genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, and Islamic terrorists everywhere. He has defended the state of Israel while pressing for a Palestinian state, and he supported the war in Iraq. He has lambasted the US government for its pursuit of the director Roman Polanski over a sex crime with a 13-year-old girl, arguing that Polanski had already served a six-week sentence 33 years ago, only fleeing the jurisdiction when the judge reneged on a deal.
fter his father’s death in 1995, BHL ran the family wood-importing business for a couple of years before selling it for hundreds of millions of francs to François Pinault, the owner of Christie’s and Gucci. According to Capital magazine, Lévy is among the 100 richest people in France. He has a lifestyle to match, with a Sri Lankan butler and, since he has never passed his test, a chauffeur to drive his Daimler. There is also a palatial, fully staffed house in Marrakech. His main job, the one he has held for the longest time, since 1973, has been at the publishing house Editions Grasset, where he commissions books from leading public figures. He has also benefited from the patronage of politicians. A favourite of President Mitterand for several years, he launched SOS Racisme, an anti-racist body that was seen by some as a means of garnering votes for the Socialist party, and for which he was rewarded in 1991 with the chairmanship of the government commission that hands out subsidies to French film-makers, giving him considerable power over his peers. Two years later, after courting the conservative prime minister Edouard Balladur, he was made chairman of the highbrow state TV channel Arte. His roles as recipient or dispenser of patronage seem to suit him equally well. But there is a dark side to BHL. A biography published in 2006 by two investigative journalists, entitled A French Impostor, challenged his intellectual credentials and questioned his
g e t t y i m ag e s . r e x f e at u r e s . c a m e r a p r e s s . a l a n dav i d s o n . k e y s to n e f r a n c e . g o f f p h oto s . r e u t e r s . U r l i / s t i l l s / g a m m a- r a p h o / c a m e r a p r e s s
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a Left Bank intellectual with a personal fortune and a perfectly coiffed mane, whose affair with the avant-garde aristocrat Daphne Guinness has shocked le tout Paris. Christopher Silvester on an intriguing tale of couture, philosophy, scorned wives and amour fou
Homme d’affaires, clockwise from above: Les derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire manuscript by Bernard-Henri Lévy; the wedding of Daphne Guinness and Spyros Niarchos in Paris, 1987; BHL and Daphne Guinness in Nice, 2010; BHL meets President Jacques Chirac to discuss Afghanistan at the Elysée Palace, 2002
The name is Lévy, Bernard-Henri Lévy, clockwise from above: BHL in Paris in 1979; BHL on a diplomatic mission to Afghanistan in 2002; his future wife Arielle Dombasle, in 1981; BHL and Arielle at a Vanity Fair party during the Cannes Film Festival 2007; on their wedding day on the Côte d’Azur in 1993
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After a month’s separation, and after he had poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel – not exactly hired a private investigator to check her out, where one goes if one intends to be discreet. BHL began a surreptitious affair with Arielle Several more sightings followed, in Toronto, – ‘Elevators and barmen were our only friends,’ London and New York, though significantly each has said. It lasted seven years, until they not in Paris. At the beginning of this year, eventually married in 1993. A few years later, David Patrick Columbia, who edits the New she starred in a film Lévy had directed called York Social Diary website, noticed Daphne Le Jour et La Nuit, with Alain Delon co-starring and BHL lunching at the Grill Room of the as a character based partly on BHL, partly on Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. According Arielle’s father and partly on Ernest Hemingway. to a witness seated at the neighbouring table, It was a horror as far as the the golden couple had stared at French critics were concerned. each other through sunglasses The golden The distinguished magazine for a full five minutes before couple stared Cahiers du Cinema called it the exchanging a word. Columbia at each other worst French film for decades had already seen them a few and BHL provoked laughter months earlier at Michael’s, a for a full five when he tried to explain what Midtown restaurant favoured minutes before the film was about to an audiby media big-shots. On each exchanging ence at the Berlin Film Festival. occasion they were a source of ‘Bernard and Arielle are where fascination to the other patrons. a word fact and fiction meet,’ declared ‘People as clearly defined the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. intellectually and fashion-wise as this couple,’ Today, the Paris-based American fashion Columbia wrote, ‘are rarely unaware of their commentator Mary Deschamps sees them as surroundings.’ Only a couple of weeks ago they ‘the intellectual Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie both attended the Another Magazine dinner at of France’. ‘He’s part of what is referred to as the Istancool Festival, which was held in the la gauche caviar,’ she explains. ‘Meaning Left grounds of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. BHL idealism but spending on bling-bling. He’s looked on admiringly as the ‘concept’ that is greatly admired as a champion of many causes. Daphne went on stage to discuss the art of She’s kind of a ditzy blonde, totally redone hat-making with Philip Treacy. cosmetically. They’ve been together for years ‘Hopefully for her, he’s in love,’ says and they were in all the magazines, but every- Deschamps. ‘In any case, it looks like yet one sort of makes fun of them – the intellectual another display of trophy lovers. People are and the blonde bombshell.’ going to be pretty cynical. It’s the classic story. He’s dumped Arielle for a younger, prettier, he new bombshell in BHL’s life, richer girl. It goes back to the King of France. If Daphne Guinness, 42, is sometimes the King could do it, others could, too. But I described as a brewery heiress, think this might mar his reputation as an although her family have been intellectual. What will the French think? I don’t more involved in ownership of think the French are going to think much.’ Some commentators I spoke to declined to land and other assets for many years. She is a peroxide blonde who has worn two dark offer an opinion about the change in BHL’s badger stripes in her hair ever since her 1999 domestic arrangements, possibly because they divorce from the Greek shipping heir Spyros feared upsetting him or Arielle or Daphne, or out Niarchos, to whom she was married for 12 of the traditional Gallic respect for the privacy years and with whom she has three children. of the bedchamber. One French commentator She is said to have received £20 million in her would only say there was unlikely to be much of divorce settlement in addition to her own a reaction in Paris because ‘the French still don’t family money. Her mother was French and care about public figures’ private lives’. BHL is counted the artists Salvador Dali and Marcel unlikely to be bothered either way. ‘I took the Duchamp among her friends, while Daphne measure of the absurdity of the judgement of prefers the world of haute couture fashion. Paris a long time ago,’ he once said. ‘Whether With her slim figure, much-fêted poise and it’s good or bad, it’s the same either way.’ In his 2003 book about the murder in penchant for avant-garde creations, she was a muse to the late fashion designer Alexander Pakistan of the American journalist Daniel McQueen and recently bought the entire Pearl, BHL wrote a novelistic passage in which clothing collection of her fellow muse, the late he speculated about Pearl’s last thoughts about Isabella Blow, rather than let it be auctioned by his wife. ‘He thinks of Mariane, that last night, Christie’s. She has given her name to a Comme so desirable, so beautiful – what do women des Garçons fragrance and has inspired a want, deep down? Passion? Eternity?’ BHL make-up line. Her use of such words as ‘crikey’ and Daphne will no doubt have many years of and ‘gosh’ in interviews betrays her upper- passionate interchange ahead, but perhaps she class origins, but one interviewer, Jim Reginato should avoid adopting wifely status. The late of American fashion magazine W, testified to Sir James Goldsmith, who for many years had her innate style and intelligence, saying that a wife in London and a mistress in Paris, once averred that a man who marries his mistress ‘she does diamonds and particle physics’. In October 2008, the New York Post reported creates a job vacancy. Arielle should underthat BHL and Daphne had been ‘making out’ stand. After all, she was once the mistress.
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ethics. His scholarship is sometimes dubious. Years ago he was derided for suggesting that Himmler had stood trial at Nuremberg six months after his suicide and earlier this year he was mocked for citing the 20th-century philosopher Jean-Baptiste Botul in a book about the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant – the trouble was that Botul and Botulism were a satirical invention of literary journalist Frédéric Pagès. A proposed indictment against him for tax evasion was quashed by Nicolas Sarkozy back when he was Minister of Finance. Although BHL refused to endorse Sarkozy for the presidency in 2007 – claiming that he still considers the Left to be his famille – he has always been careful to avoid directly criticising him. It is BHL’s private life that has burnished his allure. By the late 1980s he was married to his first wife but leading the life of a libertine, sleeping with as many as three women in a single night according to a friend quoted in a magazine interview in 2003. He only requires four hours of actual sleep. When his current wife, Arielle Dombasle, first saw a picture of him, by her own account she thought he was Jesus Christ; and when he first met her, at a book signing, he was, to use his own words, ‘thunderstruck’ by her beauty. A strawberry blonde actress who was born in America, Arielle’s father was a silk manufacturing heir from Lyon, who indulged his interest in archaeology. After the premature death of her mother, Arielle was raised by her maternal grandparents in Mexico, where her grandfather served as de Gaulle’s ambassador. Her grandmother was a poet who lived to the age of 101 and it is from her that Arielle took her professional surname. By the age of ten, she could drive a car, water-ski, parachute and scuba dive. Fluent in four languages, she trained as a classical singer in Paris but switched to acting instead and in the course of a career that has encompassed more than 100 film and TV roles, she has worked with major arthouse directors, though especially with Eric Rohmer, while also recording several albums of songs in different styles. Two years after their first meeting, during which time BHL had divorced his first and married his second wife, Arielle met him again in Milan and they spent a passionate night together. She, too, was married – The fourth Mme BHL? Daphne Guinness, to a society dentist some June 2009 30 years her senior.
Scandal on the Seine [Profile of Bernard-Henri Levy]