How To Be A Billionaire

Anouk Aimee, La Dolce Vita

Anouk Aimee, La Dolce Vita

The Sultanette has had a revelation. After long desiring to age like a French movie star – Moreau, Deneuve, Anouk, Ardant – with that insouciant air of the resigned siren who has had every man she wanted in any orifice she chose – I have a replacement. Elisabeth Badinter.

Not because Badinter happens to be a billionaire. While I value money for its access to life (and shoes) I suspect too much of it (like too many Manolo’s piling up in a closet) would crowd out other necessities.

Scrooge McDuck

Scrooge McDuck

And I’m an equal opportunities Sultanette when it comes to harem members’ financials. As with other male assets, it’s not size that matters, it’s how they manipulate their holdings. There is no bigger turn-off, regardless of net worth, than a stingy man.

Sorbonne Library

Sorbonne Library

It’s not that Badinter “is” a billionaire, but how she isn’t one. First, she is not a lady who lunches. Never mind that I first read about her in the Financial Times’ column, Lunch with the FT. “I like working in my archives more than anything else,” she tells Anne-Sylvaine Chassany at Le Dôme in Montparnasse. It seems she prefers squirreling for research on the 18th century to review on the weekend at her country house. (Okay that’s billionaire-ish but she could be entertaining her 100 closest friends instead, or Hollande or his ex, Ségolène or newbie Julie.)

Second, Badinter toys. “Why on earth did you want to have lunch with me?” she asks Chassany “with almost coquettish self-deprecation.” So wait. This 69-year-old philosopher and feminist writer – on the board of the world’s third biggest communications group and its largest shareholder – is a flirt? An American woman of her stature would be acting her age. Being handsome.

Third, this post-meno executive hasn’t packed away her passions. “It’s really cream?” she prods the waiter when ordering the crème au chocolat et craquant aux quatre épices for dessert. When it arrives she is adamant. “It’s not cream.  It’s not what I call cream.” And no, she will not settle for the sorbet.

The beauty of Google images is that you can survey your prey’s every iteration and I was curious to see if this woman had the earthy essence I imagined. They say you age into the face you deserve and as Badinter’s hair changed from blond to silver, she evolved from playfully coy to seductively intelligent. In one image she looks slyly at the camera from behind an artfully posed cigarette. (Take that, Moreau, Deneuve, Anouk, Ardant!)

Louise XVI at the guillotine, Jan 21 1793, Place de la Concorde

Louise XVI at the guillotine, Jan 21 1793, Place de la Concorde

Which brings us to her love life: Met future husband when she was twelve years old. Married him when twenty-two. Monsieur, sixteen years her senior, was a justice minister for Mitterrand and criminal lawyer who wrote the law to abolish the guillotine in the ‘80s. (French traditions die hard.) They had three children and co-wrote a book on the French philosopher and mathematician, Nicolas de Condorcet.

Pretty text-book perfect if she would have minded her own business and shuttled between Paris and country house and Le Cap d’Antibes or wherever billionaires hide. But Badinter is a cage-rattler. She has written twenty books on philosophy and feminism and, like it or not, she has something to say.

“If a woman wants to rent out her body, that’s no one’s business,” she tells Chassany, concerning her protest against the French law to levy fines against prostitutes (now passed). “Prostitutes who are independent and not coerced by a third party have the right to prostitute themselves. It’s a question of principle.”

Another view that hasn’t won Badinter the Miss Congeniality Award was her defense of the sexual assault claim against Dominique Strauss-Kahn by the Sofitel maid. A group of US feminists accused the “French media and public figures” of soft-pedaling. To that, Badinter responds, “Maybe this is because I’m married to a lawyer, but immediate accusation and finger-pointing horrifies me.”

This mother of three also challenged, in her 1980 bestseller, L’Amour en plus, the notion that maternal instinct is a birthright. Would you expect less of a woman who sings the praises of Simone de Beauvoir? (“Her ideas gave us wings.”) She met de Beauvoir at her home near the Montparnasse cemetery and Badinter cites as inspiration, de Beauvoir’s argument in The Second Sex that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”

Romulus and Remus nursed by a wolf, Peter Paul Rubens.

Romulus and Remus nursed by a wolf, Peter Paul Rubens.

In Badinter’s latest book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, she questions the blind acceptance to maternal necessities like breastfeeding. “We forget that postwar children who were fed with the bottle are those benefitting from an amazing lengthening of life expectancy!”

Badinter feels that  women’s rights can be better won by advocating for gender equality  – a fight that needs time, education and “a bit of making men feel guilt but not too guilty.” That smacks of male manipulation, Liz! So old school. So un-American. We coerce men in America, where does she get these cock-eyed ideas?

“My father had a major influence on me,” says Badinter. “He made me believe that if I worked hard and had ambitions, the world would be mine.”

Badinter’s father, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, dropped out of high school and founded the behemoth communications company, Publicis, above a butcher shop in Paris. He bought a radio station and first broadcast on-the-scene news, advertising jingles, and Edith Piaf. When all was confiscated during the Occupation he went off to fight with the Free French. When he returned, he built it back from scratch.

INF3-304_Unity_of_Strength_La_liberté_pour_la_France,_les_libertés_pour_les_FrançaisBut Bleustein-Blanchet’s most ingenious legacy may have been Le Drugstore installed on the ground floor of the Paris corporate headquarters, a baguette-length from the Arc de Triomphe. While living in Paris with the Good Ex and later in New York, I had penned a few lines for the offices of Publicis but it’s Le Drugstore that I remember most vividly.

It was one-stop-shopping for weary expats offering comfort food, people-watching, literary fodder and fashion glitz. You could get everything there – the latest electronic gadget, CD or bangle, cigars or liqueur-filled chocolates, tooth paste or a tube of designer lipstick. After a Sunday night movie on the Champs-Elysées, the Good Ex and I would grab a salad nicoise at the fiberglass café and watch the tourist riff-raff and slumming Parisians parade by – then browse the international newsstand and French/English book store, never escaping without several pounds of glossy fashion rags from every corner of the earth.

A busy man, Bleustein-Blanchet, and yet Badinter can say of her father, “… he took care of me magnificently ever since I was very little. … I owe him a lot, for his interest in me, his love, the stimulation he never ceased to be.” And maybe the best example this firebrand adman gave his daughter was how not to be. How not to follow the rules. Not to placate the herd. Not to resist declaring, “I have a bizarre feminism!” Never to give in, not even to him.

“He tried everything, absolutely everything” to lure her down the advertising path, she says. “But he had a very very strong personality and if I wanted to exist, it was certainly not by going under his wing.” Instead, she chose a world “radically opposed to his.”

Strawberries_and_crème_fraîcheThis billionairesse feminist philosopher with a penchant for flirtation, a passion for real cream and a talent for speaking her mind, says, “If fathers took care of their daughters the way he did, women would never see themselves as victims.” Can our mothers, as much as they want the best for us, allow us that?

For all we are told to be, perhaps it’s in the refusal to fall in line that we find our strongest and most original selves. What I love best about The Male Harem is what we are not. I am not wife, girlfriend, mistress. They are not husband, boyfriend, keeper. We come together unlabeled, breathe the pure air of uncertainty, revel in an unprescribed intimacy – and find in the “not” a new place to be.