Villa Leopolda & Murder in a Monaco Penthouse

    Built over a century ago, Villa La Leopolda stands on a 50-acre estate in Villefranche-sur-Mer, on some of the most expensive land on the French Riviera. Described as the third-largest home in the world, the sprawling property has 19 bedrooms, 14 bathrooms, multiple swimming pools, a bowling alley, a movie theater and an twenty-acre orchard of olive and fruit trees that require a team of 50 full-time gardeners just to care for it. The villa is not only known to have the best sea views in the south of France, but it also sits on 10 acres of immaculate grounds.

    The villa was purchased by King Leopold II of Belgium in 1902, and he used it with his teenage prostitute mistress. Leopold lavished upon her large sums of money, estates, gifts, and a noble title, baronne de Vaughan (Baroness Vaughan), as well as gifting her Villa Leopolda in 1902. Here’s their sordid story.

    During WWI, La Leopolda served as a military hospital. In the 1930s, the villa was significantly expanded by the new owner – American millionaire Ogden Codman, and is still the largest in the area. In 1955, Alfred Hitchcock filmed his ironic detective Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly at the villa.

    At Codman’s death in 1951 the estate was sold to Izaak Walton Killam whose wife inherited the place after his death. In the later 1950s, she sold it to Fiat president Gianni Agnelli (1921–2003) and Marella Agnelli. The Agnellis sold the Villa Leopolda to the Canadian philanthropist Dorothy J. Killam in 1963. Killam lived at the villa until her death there in 1965.

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    In the 1980s the property passed from the hands of Fiat and Ferrari’s CEO, into the hands of a wealthy Lebanese-Monegasque banker Edmond Safra and his Brazilian wife Lily Safra. They lived in Monaco and used the property to hold incredibly lavish parties.

    The publisher John Fairchild later wrote about one of the Safra’s lavish parties in his book Chic Savages and described the occasion as “the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.” At one of their parties, female guests were reportedly given ornate enameled boxes featuring a portrait of the villa. The president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Prince Charles, and Prince Rainier III visited the Safra’s at the villa.

    Lily and Edmond Safra’s story is one that’s almost too crazy to believe. In 1969, Lily’s second husband, the wealthy Brazilian entrepreneur Alfredo Monteverde, died from two gunshots to the chest, after returning from a lunch with Lily, where they had discussed divorce proceedings. Investigators at the time recovered only one bullet and found no gunpowder on his hands at the scene. Detectives quickly “lost” the two main pieces of evidence (the gun and the single bullet), and ruled it a “suicide”, which Lily did not dispute.

    Much to the frustration of his children, who maintain that their father was murdered and that the will was forged, Lily kept his entire fortune, all of his assets, and his business (which she sold for more than $350 million), with the help of Edmond Safra, who was her late husband’s (and now her) banker. This is how she and Edmond met.

    Safra’s brothers (who were also his business partners) didn’t want him to marry her. Not only was she beyond childbearing age, but she was also under some suspicion for the death of her husband. Edmond listened to his brothers and broke off the relationship, returning to New York.

    Edmond was Lily’s fourth husband (all very wealthy) and the second time she was widowed.

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    However, something clicked in Edmond and he and Lily were back together by the winter of 1972. Most attribute the change of heart to his discovery of Lily’s third marriage to Moroccan businessman Samuel H. Bendahan, which transpired not long after their initial breakup. Although the marriage only lasted two months, it was enough to catch Edmond’s eye and the two were formally married in 1976. Their pre-nuptial agreement was 600-pages long.

    Edmond Safra was murdered in a fire (with mysterious circumstances — the full truth of which is still unknown) in their two-story waterfront Monte Carlo penthouse in 1999, and Lily Safra (who escaped through a window and whose net worth is now estimated at $1.2 billion) still owns the villa. Rumors still circulate about who killed her husband, with some suspecting Lily, and others suspecting the Russia mafia (stemming from the rumors that American Express spread, which you can read about in this book).

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    Shortly before his death, he made billions by selling his Trade Development Bank and New York’s Republic National Bank to HSBC. This was Lily’s 4th marriage and she inherited more than €4 billion when Edmond died.

    You can read the whole story in this biography. The biography of Lily Safra, which was written by a professional investigative journalist over the course of 5 years researching in Brazil, was blocked from being sold in Brasil.

    Russian billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov made several attempts to buy Villa Leopolda from Lily Safra before she finally accepted his offer for €370 million (plus €19.5 million for the villa’s furniture) in the summer of 2008.

    Prokhorov attempted to withdraw from the sale in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which led to a lawsuit between Prokhorov and Safra over the €39 million deposit that he had paid on the villa. A French court ruled against Prokhorov in November 2012 with Safra subsequently announcing that she would donate his deposit to various global charities.

    Prokhorov would later deny that he had bought the property, with his spokesperson saying that he had refused to do business in France after his 2007 detention by French police for allegedly providing prostitutes for guests at Courchevel, the ski resort in the French Alps.

    Most recently, Lily still had Monaco residency but reportedly spent most of her time in London. According to her biography, she was not in contact with any of her four children. The billionaire died alone, in 2022, at age 87.

    Want more? Here’s a list of famous villas, the celebrities who owned them, and the crazy things that happened there.

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