She met the Quebec billionaire in early 1992 when he wasn’t even a millionaire, just a wild-eyed goofball with thinning blond hair, strolling aimlessly in the sand. She was in her bikini, tanning on a Brazilian beach near her home when the stranger approached and asked her name. Though she didn’t have a clue what he was saying—she spoke Portuguese and he could just muster a few words in Spanish—it was evident enough that this shirtless stranger was enthralled with her. He hung around, and though she didn’t like him at first, she was charmed by his persistence. Plus, he was hilarious. One night when they were out, she was refused entry into a club because of her age. Other men might have been angry; this one made a funny face, dropped his pants and mooned the bouncer. “He was always making me laugh,” she told Maclean’s recently, reminiscing about the long-ago fairy tale that turned nightmarish as the years wore on. “He did things other people thought of doing but didn’t have the guts.”
At one point, his friend, the son of a minister in the government, came along. Fluent in Portuguese, he tried convincing her parents this stranger from Quebec was worthy of their daughter’s affections. She was 17; he was 32. Her father didn’t approve, but the man who was courting her told her not to worry. “I’ll take care of you,” he told her, according to her testimony.
So began the 10-year relationship between the billionaire, a pillar of Quebec’s business community, and the Brazilian 15 years his junior. It was a tumultuous affair that produced three children, but also suicide attempts, numerous affairs, and allegations of profligate drug use. Ultimately it has ended up in Quebec Superior Court as a constitutional challenge to Quebec’s laws governing unmarried couples. Should she win her case, “Lola,” as she’s been dubbed by the local press, could walk away with $50 million and a $56,000 monthly allowance. She will also have changed the meaning of marriage in this country, ensuring that unmarried couples in Canada have the same rights and obligations to one another as married ones.
A publication ban prohibits naming the couple, but their names are an open secret in Quebec. The identity of the billionaire, referred to as “Eric,” has been winked at in print and on radio, and divulged outright on several Internet sites. A reporter accidentally named the man’s well-known company on live television. “Lola,” meanwhile, has enlisted a pugnacious family lawyer named Anne-France Goldwater to compel the millions from his coffers. During the trial, Goldwater gave frequent interviews; during one on the radio, she suggested Quebec law reduces women to “cows” whose value amounts to no more than their wombs.
The trial, and ensuing media scrutiny, has devolved into a “disgraceful circus,” complained Pierre Bienvenu, one of the billionaire’s five lawyers, to the judge during the proceedings. If this much is true, then the money behind the show is Herbert Black, an art collector, philanthropist and businessman unofficially known as Montreal’s Scrap Metal King (he made his millions with a metal recycling business). A former acquaintance of Eric’s—the two dined together, and Eric flew in Black’s helicopter on occasion—Black has taken up Lola’s cause, to the tune of $1.2 million so far. And it isn’t because he dated Lola for two years, either. “Even if she got nothing and they changed the law, I would consider it a major victory for every lady in Quebec,” Black says. “Our law is obsolete and it has to be changed.”
In the picture shown in court she is all gangly limbs and knock knees, 17 years old but looking even younger. Eric was at once enthralled and worried; she dressed provocatively and, he thought, partied a lot. “I knew she was young, and I wanted to act as her guide,” he said in his testimony. “Maybe I was naive.” In the spring of 1992 he invited her to Montreal, all expenses paid, to see a show. “I’d seen the performance on Brazilian television. It was the most amazing and magnificent thing I’d ever seen,” she told the court. Trouble was, at 17 she needed her parents’ permission to leave Brazil. They agreed to sign for her passport, but not the authorization to leave the country. A sympathetic police officer, who took pity on her after hearing her story, signed that paper.
Her father wasn’t happy. “I have the obligation to feed and house you, but forget about all those nice things you love so much,” she recalled him saying. “Tell your father to go screw himself,” Eric said later, according to her testimony. From that point on, he picked up where her father left off, paying for everything—hotels, clothes, airline tickets around the world. Over the next two years, “Lola,” the self-described “simple girl from a village in Brazil,” saw not just Montreal, but Los Angeles, Spain, France and Japan. They celebrated her 18th birthday in Tahiti. She still lived with her parents, but she left Brazil 13 times during this period, barely finishing high school because of all the travel. She wanted to study architecture. “You could come to Canada to study,” Eric told her. “You could work anywhere in the world with a Canadian diploma.” She says she didn’t understand—where would she live? With me, he told her. “In Canada, it’s normal.” She testified that when asked about marriage, Eric said, “We’ll see if we’ll get to that point.”
Lola moved to Montreal in January 1995, the beginning of what she calls the “five-star years.” She remembers $20,000-a-night hotels in Dubai. She could measure Eric’s rising fortunes by which class they flew: from economy to business, and on to his company’s $25-million jet—and, later, $40-million jet. Then there were parties: the yearly bash at their house that went on all weekend, where she’d meet faces she’d seen in magazines. Sometimes she had to call her sister in Brazil to find out who they were. She’d been anti-drug most of her life, but she tried drugs a few times. Cocaine wasn’t the end of the world, she figured. It helped her stay awake.
Not long after, their troubles began. Eric’s work meant he travelled a lot, and she would tag along despite a fledgling modelling career and the language courses she was taking at McGill University. Eric wanted to have kids, but he didn’t want to get married. And there were the drugs, she testified. In her testimony Lola said the pair hadn’t become pregnant, despite not using contraceptives. He was also erratic, nice one day and horrible the next. Lola blamed drugs—it was primarily cocaine, she testified in court—for both problems. (In his testimony, Eric said he’d “never overdosed in his life.”) She would call his apartment in L.A., and girls would answer.
That summer, Eric returned from one of his business trips and suggested they “take a break to reflect on the relationship.” He was going to go to Sardinia, in Spain. Unbeknownst to him, she followed, convinced he was on his $35-million sailboat with another woman. Two fruitless weeks of searching later, she left for Berlin, where she knew he was attending a premiere. His testimony confirms that she tracked down his hotel and knocked on his door. “I want to see if you are really alone, reflecting on our relationship,” she said. He wouldn’t let her in, but through the slit, she could see suitcases, not his suitcases. When he let her in, there was a beautiful woman with him, a black model she thought she recognized. She wanted to attack her, but he held her back. As the model left, Lola, in hysterics, stood by the window. “If I jump from here I’ll die and it will be a scandal for you,” she said. “Don’t do that,” she recalls him saying, “It’s stupid. That’s not how life works. Life goes on.”
When he got home, he said he was sick of the drama. He wanted her to go back to Brazil. She refused. “You changed my life, and now you want to send me back home,” Lola told him. Finally, he gave up. “You can stay in my apartment,” he said. “When I’m here I don’t want to sleep in the same room as you.” But things were confusing—they’d fight, then sleep together. Lola testified that she briefly found solace in the arms of an ex-football player who worked at one of the clubs Eric owned, and that they were together long enough for her to get pregnant. She called Eric to tell him. “Maybe it’s you with the infertility problem,” she said.
She considered an abortion but couldn’t go through with it. She made a suicide attempt—not her first, she says. She had the abortion, and told Eric afterwards, when he found her in his bed, recovering. She saw him cry for the first time ever. “I’m sorry about what’s happened,” he said, lying in her arms. “I didn’t want things to happen like this.”
Things didn’t get better, Lola recalls, sitting in the fourth-floor apartment in Old Montreal that’s her home today. It’s within walking distance from the courthouse where she fought to be considered Eric’s ex-wife, a nice place, all wood beams and exposed brick, but temporary. This spring she is meant to move into a $2.5-million house in Outremont—as it happens, a short jaunt from Eric’s Montreal abode. Shortly after that abortion, she returned to Brazil, but met Eric in the Bahamas over New Year’s. She’d decided to move to London to pursue her modelling career. “I was very happy living alone. I was working a lot, certain agents said I could compete against Naomi Campbell,” she says. But he begged her to come to Montreal for Valentine’s Day. He was very good at insisting. Their first child was conceived on Feb. 14, 1996: a beautiful baby girl, born that fall.
Eric was ecstatic but stubbornly refused to marry her. “I wanted to protect [my business] and there were professional reasons why I didn’t want to get married,” he would say later in court. “I respect people who get married, but it’s not my cup of tea.” Instead, he focused his energy on moving into his new house, a palatial spread on the outskirts of Montreal. He was a good father, though he travelled a lot and the relationship was as unstable as ever. “I think it would be better if we separated,” he said to her in the spring of 1998. They went into mediation, where she says the mediator practically forced her to sign a paper declaring their separation. She was even more confused. Separation? She had thought it was mediation to help them stay together. Then, a whirlwind: in the space of a few months, she became pregnant, she miscarried, her father died, and she became pregnant yet again.
He stopped mediation, but wasn’t even on the same continent when their son was born. She says he was partying; he says it was business. At any rate, Lola began to pull away. He saw it, she says, and didn’t see why they should split up. He convinced her to at least stay until the year’s end. That year was 1999. “Why don’t we wait to see if the world ends,” he joked. “If it continues, so should we.”
She joined him for his New Year’s party. “What can I do to make you happy?” he asked when he saw her mood. “You could start by marrying me, and then we’ll see,” she replied. Lola says he relented. “If a piece of paper is so important to you then, okay, we’ll do it.” As Eric explained in his testimony, he wrapped a piece of plastic around her finger as an engagement ring and, just before the stroke of midnight, said he was going to marry Lola. Their marriage would be a huge show on April Fool’s Day. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Eric’s mother said. Lola maintains the marriage proposal was real; Eric said it was one of his jokes, like the time he mooned the bouncer in Brazil. “I probably should have thought twice about joking about this,” Eric later said in court.
In any case, there was no marriage, only a third child, born in Brazil, where Lola wanted to be. Less than two months later Eric said he wanted to break off the relationship for good. Photos had surfaced online of him with another woman on his sailboat, a dancer from New York City. “I already had . . . other realities in my life,” Eric said in his testimony. Things sputtered on for a few more months until Lola moved out in February 2002. They have been in and out of court ever since.
Lola is tall and skinny, her hair as dark as on the day Eric met her, but without the abundance of curls. With her mouth full of braces, she doesn’t look anywhere near her 34 years. Her lifestyle, she realizes, is somewhat absurd. In the summer of 2006, she was tooling around in her ex-boyfriend Herbert Black’s Porsche GT, a half-million-dollar coupe, when the cops pulled her over, if only to drool over the set of wheels. There are only a handful of these in Quebec, one said. The only one he knew of belonged to a certain billionaire. “He’s my ex,” she replied.
She’s hardly a typical woman in any regard. She has a stack of pirated conspiracy theory DVDs, which she watches voraciously. She tells stories about Eric wanting to implant their children with microchips, in case they were kidnapped. She seems conflicted about the trappings of wealth, at once decrying the “totally materialist life” she had with Eric, while defending her pursuit of $50 million. “I deserve it,” she says without an ounce of irony. “It’s nice to be comfortable in life.” Eric, she says, has been stingy. Until 2006, when the courts compelled him to do otherwise, he was giving her $121,000 a year in child support. (In contrast, he spends an estimated $3.5 million a year on maintenance of his sailboat, according to a broker with knowledge of the matter.) But when Lola speaks about her case, it’s with an almost altruistic note. In fact, she sounds a bit like Herbert Black, the ex-boyfriend who has footed her legal bills in the name of an ideal. “Money’s nice,” she says, “but I would be more happy to change the law for other women.”
In fact, money aside, Lola and Eric’s relationship was actually quite normal in the province where they live. Quebecers in general have a jaundiced view of marriage, perhaps because of its religious undertones. (Until 1969, a marriage could only be officiated by a priest.) The percentage of unmarried couples is more than twice that in the rest of Canada. Oddly enough, it’s also in Quebec that unmarried couples have the fewest rights and responsibilities when relationships end.
“Quebec has a two-headed policy: hardline protectionism for married couples and complete autonomy for unmarried couples, with no legal duties or obligations,” says Robert Leckey, a family law professor at McGill University. “Unmarried couples in Quebec owe each other nothing as a result of their relationship. In other provinces, you live together for a stated period and there’s a duty to support your partner, as there is for married people. In Quebec, an unmarried couple could be together for 40 years, but the law still sees them as two strangers who happen to share a home.”
The end result can be messy. “Some people say divorce is actually a virtue of marriage, because there is a mechanism to deal with the dissolution of a relationship,” Leckey says. In Quebec, unmarried couples are meant to negotiate a contract—their own “mechanism”—with the help of a notary, but few actually do so. According to a study by Quebec’s notary association, fewer than 21 per cent make legal arrangements in the event of a breakup. Translation: were it not for her kids, Lola wouldn’t be entitled to a dime of the wealth Eric earned during their time together.
“I think that the phenomenon [of unmarried couples] is an expression of different values between Quebecers and the rest of Canada,” counters Bienvenu, Eric’s lawyer. “You cannot launch an equality debate by saying something happens differently in other provinces.” Bienvenu spoke to Maclean’s outside the courthouse on the penultimate day of the trial. During the conversation, he chastised Lola for posing for pictures for the news media assembled outside. His client, he points out, has done nothing to violate existing laws; in fact, in being so steadfastly against the idea of marriage, he is hardly different from most Quebecers. (Eric has since moved in with another woman, with whom he has two children. He has made his reluctance to marry clear to his current girlfriend, he said in court, just as he did with Lola.)
Hence her remark about women being like cows, says Goldwater, one of Lola’s two lawyers. A veteran of constitutional and family law, Goldwater, working on behalf of a Quebec gay couple, helped change the federal definition of marriage. (In Canada, marriage is a federal jurisdiction, while the celebration and solemnization of marriage is provincial.) Sprightly, profane, quick with a quote—“Herbie’s a good boy,” she says of Black’s financial support of Lola, “he always takes care of his ex-girlfriends”—her tongue has landed her in the spotlight during the trial.
Along with Quebec’s spousal support and family patrimony laws, she is also challenging the federal definition of marriage—for the second time in less than five years—so that it includes unmarried couples who have lived together for three years (one year if they have a child). “A friend of mine,” she says, “a Montreal lawyer, Danielle Gervais, said to me, ‘You know Anne-France, it never occurred to me that gay and lesbian couples would end up having more rights, in a sense, than unmarried couples.’ ”
Regardless of the outcome, the small army of lawyers on both sides of Lola and Eric’s case will likely seek to appeal Judge Carole Hallée’s decision, expected in June. Herbert Black says he’ll finance it all the way to the Supreme Court. He’s an intense fellow, visibly outraged when speaking about Quebec’s marriage laws. When the subject of Eric comes up, a string of unprintable words usually spills from his mouth. He became involved in the case in 2006, well after he and Lola were no longer an item. His money helped pay for several family law experts, as well as forensic accountants to dissect Eric’s wealth. No stranger to big cases— in 2000 he spearheaded and won a US$512-million antitrust case against Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses—he was also instrumental in getting Lola $35,000 in monthly child support in 2006.
These days, Lola spends her time parenting—she has joint custody with Eric—and thinking about what she’ll do with the money. Rich people, she’s discovered, “have bad habits,” but she’ll be different. She has long closed the book on her life with Eric. After the kids grow up, she’ll get her nurse’s degree and help the impoverished. She’ll get her pilot’s licence, buy a helicopter and work for the Red Cross. Africa. Asia. Her native Brazil. “If I have the money,” she asks, “why not?”
Thursday, February 19, 2009