Edmond Safra was born in Beirut in 1932. He was a Sephardi, a Mediterranean Jew, whose family had become prosperous bankers in Aleppo, Syria, in the nineteenth century. Edmond began his own banking career in Milan at the age of sixteen, and by the 1980’s he had become one of the world’s richest men, with banks in several countries and a luxurious estate, La Leopolda, on the French Riviera. He had built his financial kingdom in a traditional way, relying on his reputation for probity and discretion. Edmond Safra’s operations had no place for glitz and public relations specialists.
In 1983, Safra decided—inexplicably, to most observers— to sell his Trade Development Bank in Geneva to American Express. One prominent motive was probably Safra’s nervousness about the danger he faced from Third World debt, and some cynics suspect the whole ensuing arrangement with American Express was a carefully thought-out scheme to join the American Express family and then arrange a divorce that would leave his partner with the Third World debt burden.
Whatever Safra’s motive was, he soon became unhappy with the operating style of American Express and dissolved the marriage. Fearing that Safra would steal back his old employees, American Express assigned Susan Cantor to find evidence that would hurt Safra’s reputation and weaken him as a competitor. Cantor, who had just been hired as a personal assistant to Jim Robinson, the chairman of American Express, then chose a professional jack-of-all-dirty-trades, Tony Greco, to execute the scheme. Greco, who made his home on Staten Island, planted a series of phony stories about Safra in undiscriminating publications in Europe and South America.
The enraged Safra fought back by hiring his own detectives. Safra’s counter-investigation climaxed when Greco, identified as the source of the smears, was tailed in his car to American Express’s corporate headquarters in New York City, where he met Susan Cantor. From this point on, American Express’ machinations unraveled, and they finally paid $8 million to charities named by Safra. The man who took the rap was Harry Freeman, Robinson’s close aide and the boss to whom Susan Cantor reported. Freeman later grumbled that “What happened was a game common in corporate America called ‘Protect the CEO.’”
Burrough has told a complicated story with grace and clarity.