La Maison Guerlain, the ornately gilded Art Nouveau perfumery at 68 Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, is redolent of grand luxe. It is, after all, the home of the country’s oldest perfume-maker. But this week customers could be excused if they perceived a bit of stench as they perused the store’s scented gloves—specifically, the foul odor coming from new developments in the sordid elder-abuse scandal surrounding Jean-Paul Guerlain, 85, the family’s last master perfumer, who has a form of Alzheimer’s, and his relationship with Christina Kragh, his companion.
Stéphane Guerlain, 61, his only son and legal guardian, has been summoned to appear before the correctional court of Versailles on January 17. He faces criminal charges of willful violence, moral harassment, making death threats, and subjecting a vulnerable person to “housing conditions incompatible with human dignity.”
Stéphane Guerlain’s lawyer, Pascal Koerfer, categorically rejected all allegations made by Christina Kragh, the elder Guerlain’s love interest, against his client and said that the elder Guerlain was placed under Stéphane’s guardianship in consideration to the risks of manipulation and abuse to which he could have been subjected by Kragh’s entourage.
“Kristina [sic] Kragh managed to impose herself in Mr. Jean-Paul Guerlain’s house,” Koerfer said, “and for the past nine years, has [engaged in] multiple procedures leading to 12 decisions of justice, that rejected all her claims. Mrs. Kragh thinks she can justify the unjustifiable, by multiplying outrageous and shocking penal procedures; with systematic recourse to media.”
The incendiary charges were filed by Maître Frédéric Bélot, a lawyer for Kragh, 63, a fiery blonde Danish-born equestrian who has lived with the celebrated perfumer since 2005 at La Vallée, his now woefully dilapidated 133-acre country estate 25 miles southwest of Paris, near the wealthy village of Les Mesnuls and tête-à-tête with the Rambouillet forest.
“It’s very sad for Mr. Guerlain,” says Bélot, who was introduced to Kragh by Tom Ajamie, a Houston–based lawyer who has represented dozens of victims of elder abuse, some of them documented in his book Financial Serial Killers. “He was used to living at a very high standard,” Bélot continues. “Now every day is a fight for survival.”
It’s the latest legal salvo in a bitter family dispute. The younger Monsieur Guerlain, an intellectual-property lawyer, strongly opposes his father’s romantic relationship with Kragh and has gone to extravagant lengths to end it, so far without success. He thwarted the couple’s efforts to get married in 2020, citing his father’s “senile dementia” and asserting that his father lacked the mental capacity for making the decision to marry.
Kragh rejects that assessment. “Jean-Paul is not gaga at all,” she says in a phone interview, although she concedes that his short-term memory can be shaky. Stéphane filed charges against Kragh last year, accusing her of maltreating his father, but failed to convince the court. “The judge saw that it was a trick to get her out of the house,” Bélot says. “All of the charges were dropped.”
Jean-Paul’s multi-million-dollar fortune was derived in part from the sale of the Guerlain company to LVMH, the global luxury conglomerate, in 1994. Stéphane gained full control of his father’s finances in 2018 by petitioning the guardianship court of Versailles, on the basis of his father’s diminished mental acuity—and, according to Koerfer, after Kragh visited a renowned gallery owner and offered him a Delacroix painting owned by Stéphane’s father. (According to Belot, “It was Jean-Paul who asked Christina to bring it to the dealer to check the insurance value. She never tried to sell it.”)
“At the same time of this attempted malfeasance,” Koerfer says, “the doctors in charge of Mr. Guerlain alerted the Guardianship Judge of his condition, which led to his placement under a protection order, with Mr Stéphane Guerlain as his curator.” In return, he formally agreed to maintain his father in the style and comfort to which he was accustomed.
Instead, according to Kragh, he dismissed the housekeeper, the full-time cook, five gardeners, and the chauffeur. He has refused to pay for maintenance of the half-timbered 19th-century villa, orangery, stables, and rental apartments which have fallen into an advanced state of decrepitude. An extensive bailiff’s report, with photographs of cracked walls, pervasive mold, and flooding due to inattention to the gutters, is attached to the first of two criminal complaints submitted to the court. On the son’s orders, the couple is forced to live on a meager weekly allowance of $137.
The younger Monsieur Guerlain, an intellectual-property lawyer, strongly opposes his father’s romantic relationship with Kragh and has gone to extravagant lengths to end it.
“I’ve never seen anyone so cruel as Stéphane,” says Kragh, who speaks in a brisk, Danish-inflected accent. “He smiles to Jean-Paul’s face, but behind his back he takes everything away.”
It certainly sounds like a grim predicament for the celebrated perfumer, an officer of the Légion d’Honneur, who created several classic scents for the 194-year-old brand: Vetiver, Habit Rouge, Samsara, Chamade, Parure, Nahema, and Jardins de Bagatelle.
According to the legal complaint, Stéphane cut off their heat and hot water for three weeks during a cold spell in November and has confiscated his father’s passport, cars, warm cashmere sweaters, and down duvets. In addition, Kragh says he removed his father’s address book and guest-room mattresses, blocked his Internet access, and canceled international dialing from the landline, making it practically impossible for the erstwhile bon vivant to stay in touch with his wide circle of friends around the world. (The villa has no cell-phone reception.)
“Stéphane wants to isolate his father,” Kragh says. “He tries to keep people away so they cannot witness how badly he is treating us.”
Before the son assumed financial control of La Vallée, the couple rented out six apartments, as well as stalls in which clients could board their horses. According to Kragh, Stéphane evicted the tenants and removed doors in the stables. “We’re losing 20,000 euros [$22,830] a month,” she says. “Stéphane prefers that we have no money coming in. He’s a wacko sicko.”
Jean-Paul, an accomplished equestrian, qualified twice for the French Olympic dressage team. Kragh is now obliged to pay for the upkeep of the couple’s seven horses, and she mucks out the stalls herself, but she lacks the funds for their vaccinations and veterinary care. Enterprisingly, she now advertises locally home-grown horse manure as free to anyone who can take it, so neighbors can fertilize their own gardens.
“I’m Danish, not French,” she says. “I always find a solution.”
With the criminal complaints filed by Bélot, Kragh is hoping for a more salubrious alternative to the son’s pervasive control of their lives. She claims that Stéphane has had issues with past women in Jean-Paul’s life.
According to the first lawsuit, Stéphane has subjected Kragh to almost daily harassment for the past three years, barging into the villa unannounced on the pretext of overseeing the property and his father’s care. On one memorable occasion, she claims, he put dog excrement in her shoes. The complaint also describes his grabbing and throwing her against the wall, ordering her to “get out” in a vindictive tone.
She recorded one of Stéphane’s foulmouthed tirades on her cell phone in May 2020, wherein he repeatedly called her a “bitch,” threatened to evict her horses, and declared he was going to asphyxiate her by the quaint rural method of stuffing her head in a haystack. (The 40-minute recording was transcribed and verified by an officer of the court.)
An updated complaint served on Stéphane by a bailiff last week alleges that he attempted to kill—or at least severely injure—her, on November 20, 2021, by driving his gray Audi at a high speed on the property, seemingly intent on hitting her. According to Françoise Michaud Casaril, one of two friends of Kragh’s who provided statements to the police, “Stéphane Guerlain only missed his victim because Christina Kragh had the reflex to jump into the bushes. Madame Kragh believed that Stéphane Guerlain was going to kill her.”
The son lives in the nearby village of Grosrouvre, a convenient 20-minute drive away, allowing for frequent visits. “Stéphane bought a big house, and he’s doing a lot of construction,” says a friend of Kragh’s, who passes the property while horseback riding. Workmen recently installed a swimming pool. “It’s a beautiful house,” she adds. “He’s making sure he has a very comfortable situation.”
The accumulated stress of years of contentious interactions with Stéphane, including his verbal and physical threats, has taken a toll on Kragh’s physical and mental health, according to affidavits submitted by her doctors. With a legal showdown in the Versailles court upcoming, she fears for her safety at La Vallée.
“No one understands why I’m still here,” she says, “but I love Jean-Paul, and I can’t just leave him. I’m just trying to stay alive.”
Christopher Mason is the author of The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s Auction House Scandal, the TV host of Behind Mansion Walls on Investigation Discovery, and a contributor to The New York Times