Banned in Brazil: Award-winning author and journalist Isabel Vincent

Sheldon Gordon
Magazine Section: 

Isabel Vincent

For an investigative journalist, having one's findings challenged in court is always a risk. For  alumna Isabel Vincent (BA 1990 UC), though, being sued for defamation and having her biography of international socialite Lily Safra banned in Brazil for the past two years was only one of the obstacles her book encountered.

Vincent was The Globe and Mail's Latin America correspondent, based in Rio de Janeiro, from 1991 to 1995. Since 2008, she has been an investigative journalist with The New York Post, the tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch. She is also the author of four books.

The book that caused the legal fracas is Gilded Lily: Lily Safra, The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Women. Safra is the widow of Brazilian billionaire financier and philanthropist Edmond Safra, who died in 1999 at age 67 in a fire deliberately set in his Monte Carlo penthouse by his male bodyguard-slash-nurse.

Lily Safra's nephew alleges that Vincent defamed his late step-father in the book. Although Gilded Lily was neither sold in Brazil nor translated into Portuguese, the accusation prompted a Brazilian court to ban possession of the book in Brazil and set in motion protracted legal proceedings. The plaintiff seeks to have copies of the book removed from circulation worldwide.

A writer needs a strong stomach to undertake an unauthorized biography, says Vincent.  During the three years that she spent researching Safra’s life, she had to search public records on three continents. “Then there were the friends and former employees [of Safra] who wouldn't speak to me for fear of being sued by a woman who is used to getting her way.”

Although Lily Safra made ominous noises through a high-powered Washington, DC, lawyer, ultimately she did not sue.

The biggest challenge for Vincent, however, was getting the volume published. Publishers in most countries, including Canada, wanted nothing to do with Gilded Lily, she says. “They feared being sued. My father didn't understand why he couldn't find the book on sale in Toronto.” Only in the US, with its First Amendment protections, was the book published (in 2010).

Vincent's first book was See No Evil: The Strange Case of Christine Lamont and David Spencer, which appeared in 1996. It covered the politically-inspired abduction of a Brazilian billionaire businessman in 1989 by a ring that included two young Canadians, David Spencer and Christine Lamont. The Canadian couple were convicted of the kidnapping and sentenced to 28 years each in Brazilian prisons.  (They were eventually transferred to Canada and paroled.)

Vincent's reporting of the case was at odds with much of the Canadian media coverage, which assumed that Spencer and Lamont were innocent. In 1996, however, Lamont confessed that she and Spencer had participated in the kidnapping. For her work on the case, Vincent received the Canadian Association of Journalists' Award for excellence in investigative journalism.

Her second book, Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justice, was published in 1998 and explores how Swiss banks profited from the unclaimed bank accounts of European Jews murdered in the Nazi era. This volume received the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem Award for Holocaust History.

Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced into Prostitution in the Americas was published in 2006. The book recounts how, for several decades prior to 1940, a Jewish organized crime ring lured impoverished Jewish women from the shtetls of Russia and Poland and forced into prostitution in South America. Vincent won the National Jewish Book Award (Canada).

Vincent was born to a Portuguese Catholic family in Toronto in 1965. (She attributes her interest in Jewish themes to having grown up among Jewish classmates.) When she enrolled at U of T, she affiliated with UC because her brother had previously done so and recommended it to her. She majored in English and recalls having “great professors” at UC, most notably Alexander Leggatt, an authority on Shakespeare.  “I learned so much from them,” she says. 

“My first week at UC, I searched out the offices of the student paper The Gargoyle,” she recalls. Vincent wrote for the publication for two years before moving on to The Varsity, where she became the editor. “I learned to be a journalist at U of T even though it had no journalism school.”

During her last year at U of T, Vincent interned at The Globe and Mail, then was hired full-time by the paper and worked in its Arts section for a year.  When a role at its South America bureau came open, she was the sole applicant with the requisite Spanish and Portuguese languages. As a 26-year-old foreign correspondent, one of her first assignments was covering the Medellín cartel and the drug wars of the early 1990s in Colombia.

“As a Canadian,” Vincent wrote, “I was a threat to no one…. As a result, I had better access than my US or even Colombian colleagues, many of whom lived with constant death threats.”

She once challenged the patriarch of the Ochoa clan, whose three sons were leading cocaine traffickers for Pablo Escobar, on where his wealth had originated.  “He seemed genuinely offended,” wrote Vincent. "‘I made my money honestly,’ he said, before he signaled his bodyguards to throw me out.”

When her Rio posting ended, Vincent returned to the Globe in Toronto, and reported crime stories. In 1998, Conrad Black hired her as a roving correspondent for his newly launched National Post, and she did in-depth reporting from Cuba and Kosovo. When she was laid off in 2005, she went back to Rio and researched Gilded Lily while freelancing for TIME, the New York Times Magazine and Maclean's

When The New York Post was seeking four reporters to staff an investigative unit, she was alerted by a Canadian friend at the paper and was hired straight from Rio.  It didn't take long for Vincent to show her zest for poking at the seamy underbelly of public life. She revealed that New York Congressman Charlie Rangel had failed to disclose rental income from a villa he owned in the Dominican Republic. He was later censured by the House of Representatives for this and other ethical lapses. Vincent was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

“The competition at the Post is fierce, and the editors are very exacting,” she says.  “We're expected to produce an investigative piece every week. But there's plenty to write about. The corrupt politicians keep us employed.”  The key quality of an investigative journalist is skepticism, says Vincent.

“Don't believe anything you read or are told until you verify it.”