Write Responsibly: Liquor Heir Tony Cointreau Pens a Memoir

Tony Cointreau. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

Tony Cointreau. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

What do Mother Teresa, Ethel Merman and Lee Lehman all have in common?

Recently, more than 100 people gathered at a rented mansion off El Cid in Florida, New York’s largest retirement community, to find out.

At a party thrown by big-time Broadway producers Fran and Barry Weissler, Tony Cointreau, the 71-year-old heir to the Cointreau liquor fortune, signed copies of his first book, Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa … and Me.

Mr. Cointreau’s book begins as a surprisingly dark account of childhood traumas that eventually led him down diverging paths of glamour and solemnity, as the title suggests. He details growing up with a brother who hated him, an all but absent mother, a sadistic grandmother who actually served him his pet bunny rabbit on a silver platter for dinner and a nanny who, 40 years later, admitted that she had voluntarily handed him over to a sexually predatory schoolteacher at New York City’s Browning School, who proceeded to rape and molest him.

Mr. Cointreau engaged in a lifelong quest for love and a mother figure, which landed him at the feet of Mother Teresa herself.

“At the party, people came up and saw the name Mother Teresa on the cover [of the book], and their hands flew up in front of their faces in awe,” Mr. Cointreau, who lives on the Upper East Side with his partner of 48 years, Jim Russo, said in a phone interview the day after. “People think, Ethel Merman and Mother Teresa together? What an odd couple! But it isn’t at all. They were my other mothers.”

Every day in Calcutta, Mr. Cointreau and Mother Teresa sat on the terrace of the Mother House of the Missionaries Charity. “We would talk and talk, and sometimes she’d ask me to sing, so I would sing and sing and sing for her,” said Mr. Cointreau. He spent 12 years volunteering at Mother Teresa’s home for destitute men dying of AIDS in Greenwich Village, as well as at the home she operated in Calcutta.

Of course, Mr. Cointreau has also benefited from the life of a wealthy heir. He missed his high school prom because he was too busy at a party in Paris. He sang at Tony Bennett’s holiday party, where Cary Grant topped off his drink, though probably not with Cointreau liqueur (Mr. Grant was famously more of a gin martini kind of guy).

With family friends like these, who needs a biological family? He was unofficially adopted by Lee Lehman, the wife of Robert Lehman, the late head of Lehman Brothers, after meeting her at one of the Lehmans’ house parties at the age of 13. (Again, being the heir to a French liquor magnate has its perks.) He took on a career in the theater, splitting his time between New York and California, when he met his second adoptive mother, Ethel Merman, who was starring in Gypsy at the time. 

Most of his time is now spent doing low-profile charity work, though he might have a last-minute career change in mind. Mr. Cointreau said his publisher is in possession of two additional completed manuscripts. He came to writing while working with Mother Teresa, when after a long day of volunteering he would record his thoughts into a tape recorder. After she died, he had the tapes transcribed, and, he said, “that opened another can of worms.”

Asked if any of these volumes were ghost-written, Mr. Cointreau said, “I wrote every friggin’ word. Who else could write it?”