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Hijacking Dr. Hofmann

When Genevieve Pignarre married an heirless millionaire and spirited him off to Paris, was she rescuing him from the clutches of an evil lawyer or just digging for gold?


Genevieve and Hofmann in front of his Paris apartment in April 2000.  

Genevieve Pignarre decided she had no choice but to fly to New York to rescue—others would say kidnap—her 96-year-old husband, Dr. Herbert Hofmann, and sneak him back to Paris. On January 19, 2004, the 59-year-old former model arrived at Newark International, hopped into a cab, and headed to Lexington and 72nd, where she would camp out for the night in the apartment of her 87-year-old friend Lucy Sharock. Genevieve planned to bust her husband out of his Sutton Place apartment the following morning. Lucy would come along to help. If Genevieve’s plan succeeded, she and Hofmann would spend his final years together in his 2,500-square-foot Paris apartment. If it failed, Genevieve might never see her husband again.

It had come to this because of Dr. Hofmann’s fortune. His life had been equal parts Gatsby, Zelig, and Forrest Gump. A doctor and businessman, he made a massive and mysterious fortune overseas, and is said to have operated on Eva Perón and Chiang Kai-shek and lunched with Joseph Goebbels and Prescott Bush. But as his life approached its second century, he began to suffer from severe dementia. According to people who spent time with him, he hallucinated, chirped like a bird, and asked every woman he encountered to marry him and bear his children. Because of Hofmann’s frail mind, Arie David, the lawyer who drafted the trust that holds the bulk of Hofmann’s estimated $400 million fortune, considered Genevieve and Hofmann’s six-month-old marriage a scam—their wedding, at City Hall in July 2003, a shameless ploy for a senile man’s money. David told Genevieve to hire an attorney; he was coming after her.

But Genevieve was coming for Hofmann first. Stretched out on Lucy’s foldout couch that January night, she mulled over the threats to her plan. Two months shy of 97, Hofmann traveled poorly. He needed extra gear—his meds, his wheelchair. Genevieve also worried about the possibility of snow. If their flight was canceled, David’s team might find them and steal Hofmann back. Above all else, Genevieve feared Raissa, the large Russian nurse-housekeeper whom she believed David had hired to guard Hofmann.

When Genevieve and Lucy rolled up to Hofmann’s place the next morning, all systems were go. The sky was blue, and Raissa was nowhere to be found. The staff treated Genevieve like a returning hero, she says. Hofmann, who thought Genevieve was still in Paris for the holidays, was delighted to see her. Genevieve hurried Hofmann out of his pajamas and into a suit, packed his essentials into two Gucci suitcases, and wheeled him downstairs, where she hailed a minivan taxi. She told the staff she was taking Hofmann to visit friends upstate.

“See you Thursday!” she said as she slid the cab’s door shut.

Genevieve, Lucy, and Hofmann headed back to Lucy’s for a quick lunch before the flight. Whenever Hofmann flew, he first visited Lucy, an amateur psychic, to find out if he’d have a good trip. She read his cards on that afternoon as well.

“He said, ‘You read the card. It be good?’ ” Lucy recalls in her Spanish-accented English. She doesn’t remember which card Hofmann chose, only that it boded well.

“I said, ‘Yes, it be good.’ ”

Twenty months later, Hofmann lies in a hospital bed in a back bedroom of the Paris apartment he shares with Genevieve, his housekeeper Elvira, and his 16-year-old miniature pinscher, Wanda. The tug-of-war over him now spans the Atlantic. Depending on whom you believe, David is either fighting to save the severely demented Hofmann from Genevieve’s suffocating embrace, or playing fast and loose with Hofmann’s gigantic trust. And Genevieve is battling either for the right to be at her husband’s side for his remaining days or for the chance to bilk him for all she can get. They both claim to be looking out for Hofmann’s interests, not a share of his money. Each says the other is lying.

Genevieve met Dr. Hofmann, as she calls him to this day, at a loft party on Greene Street in Soho in November 1970. They made an unlikely couple.

Genevieve was 26. Born in Burgundy, she grew up in Paris. “My house was the Eiffel Tower,” she says. She spent lots of time there, she explains, visiting her uncle, who managed the restaurant at the top of the tower. Four days before her 15th birthday, Genevieve lost her father to “an illness of the heart.” Two years later, her younger brother, Gerard, drowned in the Seine. Genevieve lost her taste for Paris, and after stops in London and Martinique, found herself living at 55th and Lexington and freelancing as a model.

Hofmann, at 63, was 37 years older. He was born just south of Buenos Aires, the son of a wealthy Swiss-Argentine pharmacist, and became a prominent and connected gastroenterologist. He claims to have befriended Juan Perón when Perón was still an ambitious military officer. Though Hofmann doesn’t show up in history books and Perón’s biographer hasn’t heard of him, Hofmann told friends that he was the one who diagnosed Evita’s cancer and recommended the American surgeon who treated her. (Evita, Hofmann told Genevieve, was a bit of a pill.)

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