THE BILLIONAIRE WHO WASN'THow Chuck Feeney SecretlyMade and Gave Away a FortuneBy Conor O'CleryPublicAffairs; 337pp; $26.95
The Good A superbly written, detailed look at Chuck Feeney, who gave away billions. Reads like fiction.
The Bad Talk about making you feel guilty--Feeney is as selfless as they come.
The Bottom Line An engrossing look at an unusual, influential philanthropist.
They call them the woodwork donors—the philanthropists who traipse around behind the scenes giving stealthily and mysteriously, insisting on ironclad anonymity every step of the way. Until he was outed 10 years ago, New Jersey-born Chuck Feeney was the world's most profligate secret Samaritan. He remains, at 76, the most unusual. Eschewing all traces of luxe, the man who compiled what would today be worth $4 billion buys his suits off the rack, uses a plastic bag for a briefcase, sports drugstore spectacles, wears a $15 plastic watch, and flies coach. He owns no house and no car. He wonders aloud about the need for more than one pair of shoes. When he's in New York, he likes to dine on chicken pot pies at grubby midtown dives. "It has always been hard for me to rationalize a 32,000-square-foot house or someone driving me around in a six-door Cadillac," the publicity-phobic Feeney told BusinessWeek in a rare interview in 2003. "The seats are the same in a cab. And you may live longer if you walk." As New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer once said, this is a man whose life is like Donald Trump's, only backwards.
In his superbly written page-turner, The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune, Irish journalist Conor O'Clery chronicles Feeney's fascinating life. He also probes the psychology behind Feeney's stark rejection of life as an exercise in conspicuous consumption. Feeney's Depression-era childhood, Catholic upbringing, charitable parents, and poor-kid status at ritzy schools all conspired to influence his largesse. In crisp, Dickensian detail, O'Clery gives us the smells, sights, and sounds of Feeney's hardscrabble upbringing; his explusion from Manhattan's selective Regis High School; and his financing his way through Cornell University's hotel management school as the "sandwich man," selling 700 baloney-and-cheeses a week out of a wicker basket.
Feeney's early days in business were an exercise in frugality. He held meetings in coffee shops and had an entertainment budget of zero. With his business partner, Robert Miller, he built Duty Free Shoppers into an international behemoth. That part was known throughout the 1970s and '80s. What wasn't known until 1997 was that 15 years before, Feeney had decided to systematically give it all away. He had grown tortured about the state of the world and his having so much. In 1982 he secretly transferred his share of Duty Free to an offshore Bermuda foundation he'd set up named Atlantic Philanthropies. It was one of the biggest and most unusual philanthropic feats in history.
Feeney was obsessed with concealing his identity and even keeping the endowment a secret from Miller, who revels in a life of ostentation and whose socialite daughters went on to marry a prince, a Getty, and a von Furstenberg. Any grant from Atlantic came with hyper-lawyered nondisclosure agreements and vows of secrecy. He agreed to this book only because the story was already leaking out, and he wanted to make sure the details were correct.
O'Clery also shows how Feeney used his philanthropy to further political ends—notably Feeney's role in trying to advance the Irish peace process through backdoor diplomacy. Irish leaders credit Feeney with helping to build reconciliation in that country.
As the father of the "giving while living" school of philanthropy, Feeney has had a great deal of impact in philanthropic circles. This carpe diem approach has influenced other super-philanthropists, including Bill Gates and Michael Dell, to donate their fortunes during their lifetimes as opposed to bequeathing riches posthumously. The philosophy goes against the grain of most American philanthropy, where charities limit annual giving to 5% of their endowments. In 2003, Feeney's Atlantic made a stunning announcement: It planned to spend itself out of business over the next 12 to 15 years, giving away $350 million annually to four causes: disadvantaged children, the care and treatment of the elderly, global health problems, and human rights.
Feeney's spend-it-now philanthropy has also influenced others to better prepare their children for lives of privilege minus the psychological hex wealth can sometimes be. In keeping with his ideas that life should not be an acquisition spree and that work and a sense of purpose ultimately bring a richer existence, Feeney long ago bestowed modest sums on each of his five children. He did the same for himself. The worth of his stake today? $1.5 million. Feeney isn't just influencing current philanthropic practice. He's also picking up where Andrew Carnegie left off: As the legendary steelman said: "The man who dies rich dies disgraced." By Michelle Conlin