The death of Edmond J. Safra on Friday brought to a close one of the most extraordinary success stories - in or outside of banking - of the 20th century.
Widely regarded as the last of a breed of old-style private bankers, Mr. Safra had just weeks ago rescued a deal to sell his Republic New York Corp. to HSBC Holdings PLC by agreeing to forego personally some $600 million in profits from the deal.
The saving of the HSBC deal was a signature piece for Mr. Safra. Shocked bankers, upon hearing of his violent death on Friday, paid tribute to a man whose worldwide banking empire stretched from Latin America to New York, Europe, and the Far East.
"He was the ultimate banker," said Jacob Berman, president and chief executive of Commercial Bank of New York.
"He was almost the last of the personality-focused New York bankers," said Lawrence J. White, a professor of banking at New York University's Stern School of Business and former banking regulator.
"You're now in the world of the Citigroups, the Chases, the Fleets - big, corporate and anonymous - there was a personal element to the way bankers like Safra did business," Mr. White added.
In a day and age of increasingly automated and impersonal business relationships, Mr. Safra was something of an anachronism.
"He was a Middle Eastern banker. Honor was very important to him and his emphasis on family and personal relationships was much stronger than what you find in a completely modern country," said Martin Mayer, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institute, a Washington- based think tank and the author of several books on banking.
Mr. Safra, the 67-year-old honorary chairman of Republic New York Corp., suffocated along with a nurse after a foiled break-in by two hooded, knife-wielding intruders at his Monte Carlo penthouse apartment.
The two had barricaded themselves in one room while Mr. Safra's wife, Lily, and her daughter hid in another. A personal security guard was stabbed during the attack by the intruders, who are believed to have set fire to the apartment as they fled.
Many close associates, including two brothers in Brazil, and officials of Republic New York were already en route to Monte Carlo on Friday and unavailable for comment.
Private bankers in Geneva expressed shock and dismay at the death of a man who set up not one but two banks in that city and retained friends and close connections to the local banking community for decades.
"He was a very charitable man and did much for many communities around the world," said one Geneva-based banker who declined to be identified.
"This is absolutely tragic."
Born into an old Sephardi Jewish banking family in Beirut in 1932, Mr. Safra fled anti-Israeli sentiment in Lebanon and settled with his family in Brazil in 1952. Three years later the family founded Banco Safra SA, which is still run by his two brothers, Moise and Joseph.
Opting to strike out on his own, Edmond Safra took off for Geneva in 1956, where he set up Trade Development Bank. In 1966 he opened Republic National Bank of New York, the main banking unit of Republic New York Corp., and in 1983 sold Trade Development Bank to American Express Co.
Mr. Safra's departure from American Express opened an ugly chapter.
Unhappy with the loss of Trade Development Bank, Mr. Safra launched a second, European private bank, Luxembourg-based Safra Republic, in 1988. Some American Express employees launched a smear campaign against him upon learning of his plans to establish a competing business.
American Express eventually apologized to Mr. Safra and paid $8 million to charities on his behalf. Both Republic and Safra Republic are set to be acquired by HSBC Holdings PLC for $10 billion.
With a personal wealth estimated at over $3 billion, Mr. Safra became notoriously shy of publicity over the years.
His holdings in Republic as well as Safra Republic were controlled through Saban Holdings, an obscure Panamanian company, and he gave few interviews in his lifetime, refusing to be photographed the last few years from fear of kidnapping.
Bankers described his hillside villa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Villefranche, just east of the town of Nice as a sumptuous, fortified bunker complete with its own helicopter pad. They added that he left the villa several years ago for an apartment on the two top floors of the Monte Carlo building that housed Republic's local branch.
Tight security, however, did not make Mr. Safra less vulnerable to random crime, including a reported mugging outside Republic's headquarters at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan after he became ill with Parkinson's disease.
The progressive nervous disease, which causes tremors and muscle weakness, made it increasingly difficult for Mr. Safra to maintain his day to day scrutiny of his banking empire and eventually prompted him to put Republic up for sale.
Alan "Ace" Greenberg, chairman and chief executive of Bear, Stearns & Co. recalled that in recent years, Mr. Safra had openly expressed a desire to get out of the banking business as his health failed and he became progressively unable to keep in touch with many of his biggest clients.
"He had been very sick and had been out of the banking world for the last few years," Mr. Greenberg said.
"He wanted to sell."
As a banker, Mr. Safra was well known for putting safety ahead of profits and his banks were among the best capitalized in the world. He was also famous for his financial acumen.
According to one story, Mr. Safra was enthusiastic upon being informed by U.S. staff that Penn Central, the defunct railroad company whose collapse almost brought down several U.S. banks in the 1980s, wanted to borrow a large amount of money from Republic, then a still a relatively small and unknown institution.
"If they're coming to us," Mr. Safra is said to have told the New York staff, "then they must really be in trouble."
However, since a large portion of the assets were parked in low-yielding but safe investments, analysts saw little interest in recommending the bank's shares to investors.
A spokeswoman for Republic in New York said that Mr. Safra is expected to be buried in Jerusalem in accordance with his wishes