In Darryl Zanuck's Last Drama, a Forgotten French Lover Sues for $15 Million

updated 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As soon as she and Darryl Zanuck left their private plane, Genevieve Gillaizeau sensed trouble. There at the end of the Palm Springs runway stood the wife and son of the legendary movie mogul who had been her lover for eight years. A local bodyguard stepped on one of the couple's two Yorkies to distract her and, as she watched helplessly, Richard Zanuck instructed his security men to put his father, desperately ill from jaw cancer, into a waiting limousine—and to keep Gillaizeau out of the car. "Dick said to me, 'Go with the luggage,' " Genevieve, now 34, recalls. "When I walked into the living room of the house, it was filled with people, most of them drunk. They were having a cocktail party. Darryl was a sick, sick man—he was supposed to be in bed. I walked out in the garden and cried. I went back in to say goodbye, and Dick wouldn't let me." That was in 1973. Last December, seven years after what Genevieve calls "the Kidnapping," Zanuck died at 77. Gillaizeau had not seen her patron since that day in Palm Springs, and now she claims she is heartbroken. "Zanuck was all I had," she says. "He was my first deep relationship, the most important person in my life—and then he was taken away."

Gillaizeau can never bring Darryl Zanuck back, of course, but she is intent on getting what she sees as her due from his family. To that end, she has retained palimony pioneer lawyer Marvin Mitchelson to sue Zanuck's survivors for $15 million. She claims to have six wills by Zanuck in her possession, each naming her as a beneficiary—plus a contract with 20th Century-Fox, Zanuck's old studio, promising her 45 percent of his deferred income and death benefits. In court papers filed last week, she charges that Richard browbeat the old man into writing a will that cut Gillaizeau out. "He didn't like his family, and I brought him something he didn't have," she maintains. "He would call me 20 times a day when we were apart. And when he got sick I took care of him."

Gillaizeau v. Zanuck promises to be one of the hottest Hollywood epics of any year. Not surprisingly, Darryl's widow, Virginia, and son vehemently deny all of Genevieve's claims. "I don't want a duel between myself and this person, who I think is a lowlife," sniffs Richard Zanuck, 45, co-producer of The Sting and Jaws. "I find the charges preposterous. I would like to see the evidence. There was a period we didn't get along, but I considered him my best friend."

Whether or not she can back up her claim with documents, Gillaizeau will bring to the case some of the spiciest circumstantial evidence ever heard in a courtroom. She and the aging tycoon were long known in public as lovers. They met in 1965 at Maxim's in Paris, when she was still a runway model working under the name of Genevieve Gilles; Zanuck quickly succumbed to her charms. "The first thing he recognized in me," Gillaizeau once told an interviewer, "is that I was elegant." Raised as an orphan in convent schools, the 19-year-old Gillaizeau found the old man irresistible. "He was 63, but his age didn't bother me," she says now. "He was wonderful, very powerful and smart. About sex, he was like Picasso." Still, Gillaizeau concedes, "I don't believe any young woman who says she is madly in love with a much older man."

Darryl, though, was clearly mad about Genevieve. He showered her with diamonds (one worth $800,000); shuttled her among hotel suites in Paris, New York and Los Angeles; and, as he had done for earlier girlfriends Juliette Greco, Bella Darvi and Irina Demick, he put her in movies. A 1970 comedy titled Hello-Goodbye left her with a $40,000 leopard-skin coat from the wardrobe—and no career to speak of. But her relationship with Zanuck prospered—and so did Genevieve. As she said shortly after her movie bombed, "Amitié—friendship—if you can get that from Zanuck, you can get everything."

But in winning the old man's friendship, Gillaizeau apparently incurred his son's undying enmity. In 1970 Darryl ousted Richard as president of Fox, angered, according to the papers filed by lawyer Mitchelson, by falling profits and funny bookkeeping. Press reports at the time indicated that Darryl had an additional reason: His son had refused to develop suitable starring roles for Genevieve. Two years later, Gillaizeau alleges, Richard persuaded his mother, who owned a pivotal percentage of Fox stock, to vote Darryl out of the chairmanship. Hollywood's last tycoon then retreated to New York's Plaza Hotel in the company of Gillaizeau. "Darryl was heartbroken," Genevieve recalls. She maintains that he decided then to disinherit Dick.

Cut off from his family, Darryl became even more isolated when he developed cancer of the jaw from chain-smoking cigars and underwent surgery that left him disfigured. A year later Zanuck's doctors persuaded Gillaizeau to bring him back to his Palm Springs estate, where "the Kidnapping" occurred—and where, she says, the disease's effect on circulation to Zanuck's brain left him mentally enfeebled. She charges that his family kept him under sedation in California for the last seven years of his life and induced him to change his will.

Genevieve is not hurting financially. Still unmarried, she lives in an eight-room co-op in Manhattan's elegant Dakota with her 1-year-old son by a father she will not name. She travels occasionally to Paris—where she stays at the chic Plaza Athénée—and says she is writing a novel about l'affaire Zanuck. Richard Zanuck still uses the grand beachfront estate in Santa Monica that was once his father's main residence. But Darryl's money seems to have left nobody totally happy. "Dick really hated his father," Genevieve maintains. "And by voting her stock against Darryl, his wife stabbed him in the back. It's a strange family." Genevieve insists that she remains despondent. When she lost Zanuck, she says, "Emotionally, I was a wreck. But I fought back. I went on and on, and no one knew." They know now.

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