What's in a Name?

Paul Renoir once had it all. But after years of botched business deals, he has virtually nothing left of his inheritance save the one thing he can't lose: His lineage to the famous painter.

Friends and family are quick to defend Paul's business dealings, fraudulent or otherwise. They paint a picture of a naive man taken advantage of by less-than-scrupulous opportunists. "They're very sweet, caring people," Dean Terry says. "Sometimes that innocence has been taken advantage of. A lot of people feel the Renoir name would benefit [them] a lot."

It was in 1978 that Paul's dealings took his then-wife, Louise, and four sons to North America. He was dining in Alberta, Canada, with the country's minister of agriculture and a client who had bought some drawings. When the host apologized for the poor quality of the cheese served at dinner, Paul chimed, "Oh, we can make cheese."

Through it all, Paul and Marie-Paule still have a famous name, and each other.
Deron Neblett
Through it all, Paul and Marie-Paule still have a famous name, and each other.

One problem: Paul did not know how to make cheese. But that didn't stop him from selling some small Renoir originals to raise the $250,000 to $400,000 he needed to invest in a factory. A second problem: In North America, governments have tighter controls over cheese production and pasteurization. "In France … we never get sick from cheese because we know when it's good or not," Marie-Paule explains. "But when you sell in Canada or in America, you have to be sure the people know what's going on."

After many batches of bad Brie, Paul finally flew in an expert from France to help. In the end, Emmanuel says, they got their act together. "When we close down, we were making extremely good cheese, and people 20 years later remember." Despite making quality cheese and distributing it in major supermarkets, the company couldn't stay afloat. Emmanuel blames the failure, somewhat cryptically, on "finance."

Things weren't going so well on the home front, either. Paul's marriage was strained after the loss of a son, Nicolas, to leukemia. In 1982 the French Consulate of Houston invited Paul to judge a student art competition. At one of their functions, he met Marie-Paule Farinola, the divorced wife of Adriano Farinola, who then owned Pino's restaurant. "After a week, he wanted to stay," Marie-Paule says. "I didn't say nothing. After a couple of days, I said I have an extra room, if he wants to stay and visit more." In three weeks, they decided they were in love, and Paul went back to break the news to his family. "What we did was [kiss] for three weeks," Marie-Paule says. "When he came back, it was a different story. He must have been tired from his trip, but boy, he was very excited to see me at the airport."

The family archives arrived shortly thereafter. The files took up so much space that it became difficult to move around the house. At the time, Marie-Paule's daughter, Nathalie, had never even heard the name Renoir, and wasn't impressed. When Paul's son Emmanuel showed up with his wife and son, it was too much. "I thought he was an invader in my home," says Nathalie, who is 37 but sounds 17. Marie-Paule remembers fondly one family dinner when Nathalie broke down and told Emmanuel to move out.

It was Emmanuel who would conceive the Renoirs' next venture: Renoir Sparkling Water. The bottles featured Renoir paintings and the slogan "Thirst Impressions" on the label. One advertisement read: "Renoir is marvelous. No, not the artist or the cinéaste who directed The River or Boudu sauvé des eaux. It is a delicious water, without sugar, salt or calories." The concept, though silly, should be remembered in its proper context. In the early '80s bottled water was still a national joke. The idea that one could make money selling something that people could get from their taps was nothing short of visionary. Possibly even genius.

The way Nathalie remembers it, the venture began when Paul was flown out to make an appearance for an existing company, which had found itself in debt. Some sort of deal was struck giving Emmanuel control as the company's CEO. Before Emmanuel could take over, however, Paul had to bail the company out. The only remaining Renoir originals of any note appeared to be a plaster fireplace medallion depicting Coco, a statue of the Venus Victrix and a red pencil sketch of the sculpture. Since Paul's aging mother, Maria-Paulette (who went by Popo), and his son Pierre were the only Renoirs with good credit, a holding company was formed that put the assets in her and Pierre's name. That ownership eventually would put Popo in the middle of a family tug-of-war. Not willing to part with the last scraps of his grandfather's estate, Paul used the Venus Victrix drawing as collateral to obtain loans from Joe Russo, who would be convicted of bank fraud ten years later (see "The Trial of Joe Russo," by Alison Cook, December 1, 1994). Marie-Paule eventually put up her own house to obtain another loan from Russo, so that the company could get its water shipped to stores.

"It didn't succeed, which was sad because the Renoir water was the first to come out with any essence flavor at all….And several years later, then Perrier came out with flavors. There could have been a very profitable company," Nathalie says. Nathalie knew things weren't going well when she visited Emmanuel's apartment and they were using crates for furniture. "They're not businessmen."

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