By Christian Plumb and Tim Hepher
PARIS, June 5 Legendary French banker Antoine Bernheim, a master of high European finance and a fixture at companies from Christian Dior to Le Monde, died on Tuesday, aged 87.
His death was announced by Vincent Bollore, another French entrepreneur who was his frequent ally in boardroom battles at Italian insurer Generali, where Bernheim ended up serving as chairman for nearly a decade.
"Antoine Bernheim's grandson told me this morning that he had died in his sleep," Bollore said in a statement, adding that Bernheim had provided him with "unbending support and precious advice" for decades.
A charismatic figure whose calculations shaped both French and Italian finance for decades, Bernheim pursued most of his professional career at French investment bank Lazard.
A graduate in law and science, he was Generali chairman between 1995 and 1999 and again from 2002 until 2010 and was vice chairman of a range of companies, including French luxury group LVMH and French investment group Bollore .
Bernheim also advised other leading lights of French capitalism including luxury goods billionaires Bernard Arnault, LVMH's head, and Francois Pinault, chairman of PPR.
"Antoine Bernheim was a great European," Laurence Parisot, the head of French business group Medef, said in a statement, adding that he had made "a particular mark on the Italian and French economies."
France's main business daily Les Echos described him in an online obituary as a "Talleyrand of business" - referring to the famed French diplomat - a "kingmaker" and "above all a player."
His tenure at Generali came to an end in April 2010 following disagreements over strategy with the main shareholder, Mediobanca, the powerful Italian investment bank with which Bernheim fell in and out of favor over the years.
Although he was born and died in Paris, he pledged to defend Generali's position as a standard bearer of Italy and once told a newspaper "I consider myself totally Italian."
As a young Parisian, Bernheim served as a resistance fighter during World War II - his parents were deported to Auschwitz and died there - but it was for his record in French and European banking that he was later awarded the highest level of the French Legion d'Honneur.
Bernheim was a key player in the in-fighting between two of Europe's greatest banking houses, pitting Lazard - of which he was a partner - against the Mediobanca of the late Enrico Cuccia, the older banker who presided over Milan banking for a generation.
A charismatic figure compressed into expensive three-piece suits, Bernheim moved at ease within the closed, drawing-room atmosphere of Italian finance, but rarely spoke out in public.
Even his movements lent spice to Italy's many banking feuds.
In a rare public foray after being ousted by Mediobanca as head of Generali in 1999, Bernheim said he was "stunned by so much ingratitude" and publicly accused Mediobanca of waging vengeance for incursions by Lazard into the Italian market.
Six months later, reverting to cloak-and-dagger secrecy, he crept into a Generali shareholder meeting and watched investors vote on a bid for another insurer from a side room equipped for him with a television set rather than appear before the throng.
"Antoine Bernheim was one of the great bankers of our time," Kenneth Jacobs and Bruno Roger, heads of Lazard in the United States and France respectively, told employees in an internal memo. "As a firm, we owe a great debt to him."