An Evil King, His Teenage Prostitute & the Most Expensive Villas in the World
This is the story behind two of the largest and most expensive villas in the world — bought with blood money, as gifts to a prostitute-turn-mistress:
The Evil King
King Leopold II was the evil Belgian King who exploited the Congo. A pedophile and white supremacist extraordinaire, he was once dubbed “Satan and Mammon in one person.” The ambitious and greedy king kick-started Europe’s so-called “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s.
He shrewdly convinced the world that his bloody and enormously lucrative land-grab in the Congo was for humanitarian reasons. Instead, it was pure greed and approximately 1.1 billion he stole from the Congo went to financing his lavish lifestyle and spoiling his mistresses with gifts. The atrocities he oversaw were unknown to the outside world for years. Leopold told European and American powers that he was only in Africa to save the natives from the Arab slavers and bring Christianity to what Stanley dubbed the “Dark Continent.”
Because of British weaponry and technology, “a few thousand white men working for the king were able to dominate some twenty million Africans,” according to King Leopold’s Ghost. They turned the Congo into a massive forced labor camp, mainly involving the harvesting of wild rubber. Whomever resisted was either murdered or had their hands and feet chopped off with a machete — including women and children.
Leopold named his colony Congo Free State, although it was anything but.
But they did more than dominate. Their cruelty—casually burning down villages, shooting Africans for sport, torturing them, amputating limbs, forcing them to work until they keeled over or were lashed to death—was beyond sadistic. One of the weapons of choice was the chicotte, a vicious whip made out of hippopotamus hide that left permanent scars. Twenty strokes of it sent victims into unconsciousness, and a 100 or more strokes were often fatal.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, Leopold had a Jeffrey Epstein-like penchant for underage, preferably virginal girls….
The Teenage Prostitute
The King met his mistress, Blanche Zélie Joséphine Delacroix (later known as Caroline Lacroix), when she was a 16-year-old Romanian-born prostitute 1899 (the King was 65 at the time). And as an even younger girl, instead of being in school, she was the mistress of Antoine-Emmanuel Durrieux, a former officer in the French army, who supported the two of them by betting on horse races. When his luck soured, he became a form of pimp, prostituting her to well-born clients to pay his gambling debts.
One day in 1900, while residing in Paris, Leopold II of Belgium was shopping for yet another mistress and heard of her “attractions”. A meeting was arranged for the following day; Blanche went to a secluded room, where Leopold arrived with two aides who interviewed her. Leopold was pleased and invited Blanche to Austria with him; a large sum of money duly arrived the next day, along with some empty trunks, as Leopold was aware that she loved to buy clothes.
As a mere sixteen-year-old (compared with Leopold’s age of 65), Caroline’s relationship with the old king quickly became public knowledge, causing Leopold to be labeled lecherous and besotted. Though Leopold had previously embarked upon affairs with other mistresses (earning him the nickname ‘The King of Belgians and Beauties’), his affair with Caroline was unique, and the Belgian press in particular enjoyed publicizing their affair for years.
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. She frequently traveled to Paris to visit her dress- and hat-maker, once bragging that she spent three million francs on dresses at a single store on one occasion. Because of these presents, she was deeply unpopular both among the Belgian people and internationally.
Around this time, Leopold became increasingly criticized for his greed-induced actions in the Congo Free State, which he treated as his own personal colony. Her unpopularity in Belgium increased dramatically once its people began to realize that all of Leopold’s riches from the Congo were not benefiting his country, but rather himself and his young mistress. As she largely profited from the King’s income from the colony, she became known as La reine du Congo (“The Queen of the Congo”).
She later gave birth to the King’s two illegitimate sons (one birth happened at the villa Les Cèdres) and she and Leopold married in a religious ceremony when he was 74-years-old, just five days before his death, though their failure to perform a civil ceremony rendered the marriage void under Belgian law. After the King’s death, it was soon discovered that he had left her numerous properties, items of high material value, Congolese bonds, and other valuable sources of income – all of which turned her into a multimillionaire.
Seven short months after Leopold’s death, she married Durrieux, the man who had been pimping her when she was a teenager, and whom she had been cheating on Leopold with throughout their relationship. Durrieux helped her steal the necessary papers to secure her inherited fortune and keep it shielded from Leopold’s other family members.
For years, the Belgian government and Leopold’s three estranged daughters attempted to recover some of this wealth, with varying success. Since most of Leopold’s wealth was hidden, his offspring from previous marriages received very little in the end, and she and Durrieux got the last laugh.
Caroline and Durrieux divorced soon after, and she was able to keep the bulk of her wealth intact (though she settled with Durrieux and gave him a sum of one million dollars in order to retain custody of her two sons). Various suitors such as Count Boni de Castellane and Gaston Bonnefoy, were reported to be engaged or interested in her, particularly after her divorce.
The Extravagant French Riviera Villas
Even before becoming King of the Belgians, Leopold II discovered with delight the breathtaking beauty of the Côte d’Azur. In 1895, the king stayed at the Grand Hôtel de Nice and purchased several properties including the Villa Radiana, the Villa Léopolda, and the Villa Ibéria which is next to the Villa Les Oiseaux (now called Les Cèdres), then owned by David-Désiré Pollonnais. When he died, the king bought the estate, which allowed him to reunite his land which extended to the end of Villefranche bay.
Fortunately, Leopold is only a footnote on today’s Cap Ferrat, where his legacy is buried in the past and where the beauty of the villas live on despite their provenance. Here are the details of those villas:
La Leopolda in Villefranche Sur Mer
Built over a century ago, Villa La Leopolda is rich in history, but also with extravagant anecdotes. Purchased by King Leopold II of Belgium in 1902, it stands on a 50-acre estate 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 that run right down to the resort of Villefranche.
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.
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 (who is the current owner). They lived in Monaco and used the property to hold incredibly lavish parties. The president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Prince Charles and Prince Rainier III visited the billionaire in the villa.
Edmond was Lily’s fourth husband and the second time she was widowed In 1969, her second husband, the Brazilian multimillionaire Alfredo Monteverde, died from two gunshots to the chest. The Brazilian authorities ruled it a suicide and Lily kept his entire fortune, with the help of Edmond Safra, who was her late husband’s (and now her) banker. This is how she and Edmond met.
But 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 scrutiny for the “suicide” of her husband. Edmond listened to his brothers and broke off the relationship, returning to New York. 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).
You can read the whole story in this biography. Nowadays, Lily still has Monaco residency but reportedly spends most of her time in London. According to her biography, she is not in contact with any of her four children.
Russian billionaire businessman 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.
Les Cèdres in Cap Ferrat
In the middle of the 19th century, the Côte d’Azur was still a wild land covered with scrub, pine forests, and olive groves. Villa Les Cèdres was built in 1830 by the Pollonnais, a Jewish family who were carpet merchants in Nice. Then called the ‘Les Oiseaux’ villa, it was bought in 1850 by the Jewish mayor of Villefranche-sur-Mer (from 1872 to 1900), David-Désiré Pollonnais, who extended the villa. At the time, the 35-acre property had an operational olive tree farm, and many of those trees are still alive on the grounds today.
The mayor’s descendants sold the property to King Leopold II, who expanded the gardens that still surround the home. The King transformed this bucolic paradise into a superb property called “Les Cèdres”. The estate of Villa Les Cèdres is the largest private botanical garden in the world. “It’s a real treasure, I call it the Louvre of botany,” said Franklin Picard who, in 1999, published a cult book on Les Cèdres.
However, King Leopold II chose to live in Monaco instead, and Cap Ferrat became home to his teenage mistress. Cap Ferrat was the ideal spot for an illicit love affair, well-hidden from prying eyes. The King set Blanche up at the ex-villa Vial at Passable, renamed the “Radiana” until Les Cèdres expansion was completed. A golden prison with panoramic sea views lost in the midst of luxuriant vegetation. Blanche spent her days at Les Cèdres alone, waiting for her royal lover who forbade her to go out or to receive other visitors.
After Leopold’s death, Blanche Delacroix was evicted from villa Les Cèdres, and his nephew, King Albert I, became its new owner. In 1924 it was acquired by Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, the creator of Grand Marnier. The sale of the famed Grand Marnier liquor to Gruppo Campari included this villa. Despite misleading news reports that this is a billion-euro property, the villa is actually just a small part of the total Grand Marnier purchase, and in 2019 they sold it to Ukraine’s richest man, billionaire (and alleged mafia boss) Rinat Akhmetov, for €200 million (it had been on the market for €350 million).
According to political journals Post-Soviet Affairs and The Nation, Akhmetov was investigated on murder charges and for his alleged role in organized crime, but to avoid prosecution in the Ukraine, he fled to Monaco. In June 2005, Serhiy Kornich, then head of the Ukraine’s Interior Ministry’s economic crimes department, stated publicly that Akhmetov was “the head of [an] organized crime group.”
Rinat Akhmetov is married to Liliya Nikolaievna Smirnova (born 1965), and has two sons with her, Damir (born 1988) and Almir (born 1997). Akhmetov owns London’s most expensive penthouse at One Hyde Park, which was originally purchased for a reported $213 million as a portfolio investment and spent another reported $120 million to fix them up.
This 18,000-square-foot luxury villa has 14 bedrooms, a party hall, conservatory, stables, and an office building, as well as a 50-meter swimming pool and acres of botanic gardens where 20,000 plant species are grown, including some used in the manufacturing of the Grand Marnier.
A bronze statue of Athena, draped with a marble tunic, stands guard at the front entrance. Inside, the vibe is decadent and slightly weathered, consistent with the estate’s Belle Epoque heyday: grand sitting rooms, chandeliers, French doors, and floor-to-ceiling 19th century portraits in ornate frames. A wood-paneled library holds 3,000 books on flora and naturalism, including a 1640 edition of a botanical codex worth several hundred thousand euros.
The garden is centered around a main avenue which ends in a floral roundabout at the foot of a symmetrical staircase leading to the villa’s entrance. The area northwest of the building contains four terraces adorned with flowerbeds and statues. In the southeastern portion of the property there is a rectangular shallow pond surrounded by flowerbeds in the King’s arms, and small rose and orange gardens. The entrance to the path leading to the stables is framed by a sculpted arch, Corinthian columns and vine-covered trellises. The villa also boasts a reception hall, terraced winter garden, chapel and stables.
Located in Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat, between Nice and Monaco, the villa’s famous neighbors include Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Andrew Lloyd Webber.