Billionaire Lily Safra dies of cancer aged 87. This is how she made her fortune
Lily Safra, a billionaire socialite and philanthropist who inherited a fortune from her banker husband Edmond Safra, has died aged 87 from pancreatic cancer, according to her spokesperson.
Safra died on July 9 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Safra’s fourth husband, Brazilian banker Edmond Safra, died in 1999 in a fire at their apartment in Monaco. Lily Safra chaired the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, which describes itself as donating to organizations supporting education, science and medicine, religion and humanitarian aid in 40 countries.
Forbes estimated his fortune at $1.3 billion.
Lily was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1934 to Jewish immigrants to South America. His father, Wolf Watkins, was of Czech and British descent and manufactured railroad cars in the town of Mesquita, near Rio de Janeiro, where the main street was called “Rua Mister Watkins”.
Lily moved to Montevideo, Uruguay when she was 17 and soon married Mario Cohen; together they had three children. The marriage ended in divorce, and she returned to Rio de Janeiro. In 1965, at age 30, she married Alfredo “Freddy” Monteverde, owner of the Ponto Frio household appliance store chain. Monteverde battled bipolar disorder and committed suicide in 1969, according to a statement from spokesperson Lily Safra.
Her third marriage, to Samuel Bendahan in 1972, lasted only a year before their divorce. She married Edmond Safra, who was reportedly Freddy Monteverde’s banker, in 1976. Edmond Safra’s family was originally from Aleppo, Syria, before moving to Brazil. He has built a multibillion-dollar fortune via a large stake in the publicly traded parent company of the US-based Republic National Bank, which he founded, as well as a private banking business in Europe.
Edmond was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid-1990s and eventually needed full-time nursing care. In December 1999, his nurse Ted Maher staged a break-in and started a fire at the couple’s Monaco apartment in order to play the hero and save his wealthy boss, according to testimony at Maher’s trial. But Edmond Safra and another nurse died of smoke inhalation in a bathroom while trying to avoid the fire. Maher was convicted of arson and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
A few months before his death, Edmond Safra had agreed to sell his banking empire to HSBC for nearly 10 billion dollars. According to his lawyers, more than half of Edmond’s estate went to charity, with the rest going to Lily Safra and Edmond’s three sisters.
Edmond and Lily owned homes in Geneva, London, Paris, New York and Monaco. Their French Riviera home, La Leopolda, sits on 18 acres and was a former property of King Leopold II of Belgium.
Edmond’s Brazil-based brothers Joseph (d. 2020) and Moise (d. 2014) had separate banking fortunes of $1 billion from their ownership of Banco Safra in Brazil as well as private banking assets Europeans. Joseph Safra’s widow, Vicky Safra, is currently worth $7 billion, while his four children share a fortune of $7.2 billion, per Forbes‘ estimates.
Lily Safra is survived by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.