Philanthropist and Society Fixture Lily Safra Dies at 87

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Philanthropist and high society fixture Lily Safra has died in Geneva, Switzerland, at age 87.

Her death was revealed on Saturday by the Edmond J. Safra Foundation in a brief statement. Media reports indicate the cause as pancreatic cancer.

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“For more than 20 years, Mrs. Safra faithfully sustained the philanthropic legacy of her beloved husband Edmond, providing support to hundreds of organizations across the globe,” said the organization, where Safra was chairwoman at the time of her death.

Born Lily Watkins in 1934 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to Czech-British engineer Wolf Watkins and Annita Noudelman, she grew up in South America and was first married to businessman Mario Cohen. They had three children and divorced in the early 1960s.

A second marriage to Alfredo “Freddy” Monteverde ended with his death in 1969, after a struggle with mental health. Her third union was short-lived and ended in divorce.

Safra became a fixture of New York society after her fourth and final marriage in 1976 to banker Edmond J. Safra, to whom she stayed married until his 1999 death in a mysterious and controversial arson fire in Monaco that attracted significant media coverage because of his wealth. One of Safra’s nurses was convicted of starting the fire. Safra left half his fortune to charities while Lily Safra reportedly inherited $800 million.

In the decades that followed, she was known as “one of the leading philanthropists in the world with an enduring devotion to her late husband” and for “only [doing] splendid evenings,” wrote society columnist Aileen Mehle, best known under her pen name “Suzy.”

Her life-long connection to culture and couture also saw her regularly mentioned in the fashion world. A 2003 dinner she hosted in her New York home saw the likes of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; New York’s then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Evelyn and Leonard Lauder, and Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera among her guests.

At the 2004 Sidaction AIDS benefit dinner, she was spotted in conversation with Karl Lagerfeld and Lady Amanda Harlech.

Through several organizations she cofounded, Safra supported a large number of causes, with a particular focus on furthering education and research on brain diseases, especially Parkinson’s, which had affected her husband in the latter part of his life.

In 2012, she put her jewelry collection, with a sizeable section devoted to the jeweler JAR and a 32-carat ruby ring by Chaumet, up for auction at Christie’s Geneva.

The “Jewels for Hope” sale netted nearly $38 million, with proceeds distributed to some 32 charities including the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Paris Opera, the Paris Ballet, the Royal Opera House London and Henry Street Settlement in New York.

After the 2019 fire that devastated the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Safra pledged 10 million euros for its restoration.

According to a biography published by the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, Safra received a number of awards, among which honorary doctorates from prominent higher education institutions like the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Imperial College London; honorary fellowships from King’s College London and the Courtauld Institute of Art, and France’s Legion d’Honneur.

She also served as trustee of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and board member of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.

Safra is survived by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. A funeral service will be held on Monday in Geneva.

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