The quip “More money, more problems” is presumably as old as money is. Though money per comedian Eddie Murphy can afford those who have it the fancy car to drive around in search of happiness, it also brings challenges.
In the 1970s kidnapping of the well-to-do seemingly became a thing. There was a Getty heir held hostage who lost an ear in the whole ordeal, and then very famously Patty Hearst was taken. One senses to this day that the high-profile kidnappings of the ‘70s revealed yet another problem for the seriously rich: avoiding becoming a target for the ransom seeking.
On January 23, 1978, Baron Edouard-Jean “Wado” Empain was taken hostage in Paris by a group of sophisticated criminals in search of what at least some imagined would be their final heist. Surely if they could kidnap the dashing and wildly successful Empain, the ransom that would come their way would set them up for life. Or would it?
What happened in January of 1978 and beyond is the story told by Tom Sancton in his 2022 book, The Last Baron: The Paris Kidnapping That Brought Down An Empire. On its face the story and well put together book give the impression of page-turner extraordinaire. Which leads to another popular maxim: don’t judge a book by its cover. The cover of The Last Baron is magnetically good such that the book demands to be read, only for the story inside to come off as a bit dull, and worse, very contradictory.
About the captain of industry in “Wado” Empain who became a hostage of a group led by the wellborn and similarly dashing Alain Caillol, he was the grandson of Edouard Louis Joseph Empain. Though born a commoner in the mid-19th century, the Belgian built a remarkable metals and engineering company that had interests all over Africa and Europe. Most famously perhaps, the hard-charging founder built the Paris Metro.
Notable about the founder’s grandson is that he was seemingly more than just a good-looking heir. He had a head for business, and oversaw what Sancton describes as impressive growth of the corporation that the first Baron founded. Not only did Wado lead Empain’s pivot into nuclear energy, he also maneuvered the corporation’s acquisition of Schneider, another major French corporation, againsts the wishes of the dirigistes inside the French governmental establishment. The effective Wado wasn’t to be deterred by France’s powerful political class.
The result of all this was that by 1978 Wado oversaw a conglomerate comprised of 174 companies and 136,000 workers. Caillol and his fellow kidnappers saw in Wado an easy target given the predictability of his daily movements in Paris, a useful one in that they loathed capitalism (though apparently not its fruits…) while Wado extolled its virtues, plus the head of such a large corporation was clearly flush with cash such that it would be easy to extract the 80 million francs (roughly $70 million in today’s money) from the Empain Schneider conglomerate. Or would it be? More on this question in a bit.
Without giving up too much of the story told by Sancton, the kidnapping of Empain was successful only for the so-called “Master of the Universe” to be held for two months in pretty dreary conditions. Readers might be wondering why two months in consideration of Wado’s importance and his money. The first answer is that as with all business in France, government is never very distant from the action. Surely for the worse as evidenced by London in England existing as the third largest “French” city in the world. But for the purposes of this review, the view inside government was that rather than give in to Wado’s captors, the response was to “play for time, to wear down the kidnappers and wait for them to commit an error.” Also, the view up top was that “If a ransom was paid,” the “next day there would be a dozen new kidnappings.” Don’t give in to terrorists, or something like that.
This was no solace for Wado, who lived in a cold tent for part of his captivity. Worse, and possibly as a partial copycat to Getty in 1973, Wado’s captors chopped off the top of his pinky finger as a minor (but very painful) threat about what could happen in the near future if the ransom demands were not met. In other words, Wado’s life hung in the balance only for French law enforcement and President Giscard d’Estaing to play hardball with those who held his life in their hands.
All of which brings us to Wado’s family. Here is where the book stopped making sense. Mentioned earlier were the story’s contradictions, and the contradictions were what made a not terribly interesting story pretty difficult to believe. Let’s start with the contradictions.
On p. 8 of The Last Baron, Sancton writes that the perception of Wado as a “jet-setting playboy” didn’t stand up to reality. In Sancton’s words, contra the playboy image driven by the tabloids, Wado was “anything but. Inhabited by a natural timidity, he valued privacy and discretion over flashy displays of wealth.” All well and good, but two pages later Sancton describes the same Wado as someone who “had a weakness for fast cars, beautiful women, and gaming tables.” For someone who was “anything but” a playboy, Wado was very much a playboy per Sancton. Indeed, routine references were made throughout The Last Baron to Wado’s love of women, but most of all his insatiable desire to gamble. On p. 213 Sancton writes of Wado’s “post-adolescent revolt” defined by “chasing girls, partying all night, roaring down city streets and back roads at the wheel of his sky-blue Austin-Healey,” which is only mentioned as a taste for the reader of what’s written throughout the book.
The contradictions weren’t just related to Wado and his lifestyle. While Sancton wrote of there existing “no warmth and tenderness” between Wado and his Columbus, OH-born beauty of a mother (Rozell), six pages later he wrote of how “as usual, he [Wado] was putty in his mother’s hands.”
Of course, the biggest contradiction of all concerned Wado’s wealth, along with Empain Schneider’s (the corporation) wealth. As previously mentioned, Sancton writes early on of the massive corporation Wado oversaw (174 companies, 136,000 workers), but when his lieutenant at Empain “made the rounds of banks” in search of ransom money, “the most he could come up with was 30 million francs.” Wado’s personal holdings didn’t include a big stash of francs either, and about the seeming lack of cash, Sancton at least alludes to the possibility that this revelation proved at least a partial catalyst for a post-kidnap split inside Wado’s own family that continued to his death.
All of the above is well and good, but The Last Baron is making a case that Wado’s kidnapping ultimately brought down a global business, along with a family that was supposedly worth billions in modern terms as recently as 1929. Sancton reports that when founder Edouard Louis died in 1929, he left his heirs the modern equivalent of $2 billion. This is important simply because the company Wado was running by the 1970s was even bigger. Or was said to be. Sancton describes it as an “empire,” but there wasn’t 80 million francs inside the company or in Wado’s bank account to more than pay the ransom? How could this have been?
Without giving away too much, Wado eventually sells his 35% stake in this global conglomerate for 30 million francs plus the assumption of 15 million francs worth of gambling debts. The latter is mentioned to dissuade any readers from assuming Wado had relatively little money based on gambling debts. No, the sale as mentioned included it. Which means over a third of what we’re told was a massive, seemingly multi-billion franc company in terms of valuation only paid out its 35% owner 45 million francs?
Contradictions like the above were difficult to overcome. They subtracted from the story more broadly. What else was left out? Or mis-analyzed?
All of which made a not-terribly intriguing story similarly difficult to take seriously. No doubt Wado himself gave the surface impression of a compelling character, but much like books, we similarly can’t judge people based on appearances alone. The Last Baron’s intrigue begins with its cover, only for it to gradually lose its excitement with each turn of a 303-page book.