“All WE CAN DO IS TRY TO LEAVE A LEGACY OF GOOD WORKS.”
Leon Levy (1925-2003) was, to quote Forbes magazine, a “Wall Street investment genius and prolific philanthropist” who helped create both mutual funds and hedge funds.
As a young man, he was close to his father, the economic analyst Jerome Levy (1882 – 1967), who strongly influenced his son’s career and values. “Dad did not view economics as a way to make money, but as a way to improve society,” Leon once remembered, explaining a fundamental belief he shared.
Leon Levy spent his professional life on Wall Street, starting out as a research analyst after leaving the U.S. Army. Within three years, he was the youngest partner of Oppenheimer & Co. During the next five decades, he became one of the most innovative and influential figures in the financial world. From the start, he was a generous patron of the arts and a benefactor of a wide range of causes and institutions; he did not turn to philanthropy at the end of his life.
“As in my philosophy of investing, I tend to take a long view in philanthropy. In general, I prefer to give money to pursue a concept or idea. People bring ideas to me, but quite often I think of a question I would like to have answered. In philanthropy, as in business, I prefer to back a person rather than an institution, to support people and ideas.”
His experience as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army serving during the occupation of Germany following World War II made a lasting impression. Deeply patriotic, he believed in a democratic, just and equitable society — this tenet determined much of his philanthropy.
Leon was also guided by his boundless curiosity, optimism and desire to enable individuals to reach their full potential. “I give funds with few strings attached. I believe that liberal arts education is both important and imperiled; the study of arts, ideas, history and politics prepares students to enjoy life as well as contribute to society.”
As an undergraduate at City College of New York, Leon’s favorite course was in abnormal psychology, and he always maintained a keen interest in studies of the brain. Late in life, as President of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he commented: “My involvement with some of the great minds in the sciences reveals the meagerness of my own achievements. Talk to a cosmologist at the Institute for Advanced Study, and any of our achievements on this puny planet shrinks to insignificance. All we can do is try to leave a legacy of good works.”
In 2002, Leon Levy published a memoir called “The Mind of Wall Street: A Legendary Financier on the Perils of Greed and the Mysteries of the Market.”
Copyright © 2002. Reprinted by arrangement of Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.