PHILANTHROPIST AND AUTHOR
LEWIS B. CULLMAN DIES AT 100
January 26, 1919 – June 7, 2019
Lewis B. Cullman, 100, scion of a
distinguished New York family who broke
from the family’s tobacco interests to forge
innovations in business and philanthropy,
died peacefully on June 7, 2019 at
Stamford (Ct.) Medical Center, said his wife, Louise Hirschfeld Cullman. Death was from natural causes.
Mr. Cullman’s career, particularly as it related to his autocratic father and his highly competitive brothers (he was the youngest of five children) had its challenges while he sought to distinguish himself on his own terms. His family had ties to the founders of Barnard College and the New York Stock Exchange, Supreme Court judge Benjamin N. Cardozo, and poet Emma Lazarus, and much was expected of the male children.
An early foray into weather forecasting and preparing snow & ice warnings for New England municipalities did not work out as expected, and after a subsequent stint with the family, Mr. Cullman decided to go out on his own. In his 40s, Mr. Cullman began to succeed from adept and highly creative business deals, preparing him for his happiest years – giving his money away.
It was then that Mr. Cullman (along with his second wife, Dorothy, who predeceased him in April 2009) became a ubiquitous figure in New York’s charity landscape, a lively and energetic force in the often moribund world of board support for large New York institutions.
In his lifetime, Mr. Cullman gave away over $500 million to working charities and not-for-profit institutions.
His jaunty style – Mr. Cullman always wore colorful shirts and ties – reflected his zest for life, and his joy in philanthropy – an involvement that he would describe as “the most rewarding time of my life.”
As a young man, Mr. Cullman sought to find a niche in the business world that did not involve tobacco or securities. (Mr. Cullman’s brother Joseph, who died in 2004, would become chairman and chief executive of Philip Morris, and his brother Edgar, who died in 2011, was chief executive of General Cigar Corporation.) As he recounted in his 2004 memoir, Can’t Take It With You – The Art of Making and Giving Money (Wiley), Lewis Cullman was six or seven years old when he asked for a subscription to the New York City Daily Weather Map, reflecting an early interest in meteorology.
This hobby proved to be a boon to the Navy during World War II. Upon his graduation from Yale University in 1941, Mr. Cullman enrolled in a two-year course in meteorology at New York University College of Engineering. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 accelerated this course to six months, and then Mr. Cullman entered the Navy as an ensign.
First, he was stationed at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station as a meteorologist forecasting for blimps. Later he moved to a new naval air station in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, where the Navy also used blimps as submarine reconnaissance. Being unfamiliar with the area, he risked being court-martialed by sharing classified weather information with Blue Hill Observatory. That risk paid off when in 1944, a hurricane came up the East Coast and the Navy gave orders to move 400 Black Watch airplanes from Quonset Point, Rhode Island to shelter in blimp hangers in South Weymouth. In order to get the airplanes to land safely in South Weymouth, he called upon Blue Hill Observatory to provide necessary ceiling reports. All 400 planes were saved. The total value of 400 planes approximated $100 million in 1944.
Upon his discharge from the Navy, he created Weather Advisors, Inc. – later Cullman Weather Service – seeking to assist municipal street departments in preparing for snow and ice storms. When he learned that the U.S. Weather Bureau was offering the same service, he decided to plead his case in Washington by appearing before Sen. Joe Ball’s Senate Subcommittee on appropriations for the Weather Bureau. His argument was that the Bureau’s mission was not supposed to serve with street departments, citing unfair competition. He also suggested a concept, years ahead of its time, that the three existing TV networks (CBS, NBC and Dumont) have their own meteorology staff, planting the seeds for today’s 24-hour weather coverage.
Frustration with existing government policies caused Mr. Cullman to seek a career change. At his father’s urging, in 1948 he became a trainee at Maurice Wertheim’s investment bank, Wertheim & Company, later joining Cullman Bros. in 1954 on the investment and financial side. Restless in a job that didn’t require enough of him, Mr. Cullman began to contemplate an investment philosophy that he called “incubation,” involving unrecognized securities.
In 1962, he started his own investment advisory business, Lewis B. Cullman, Inc., and shortly thereafter set up Incubation Group Ltd. (Canada). By June of that year, the New York Herald Tribune referred to him as one of Wall Street’s top analysts.
In 1964, Mr. Cullman helped to inaugurate a new era in U.S. financial history by pioneering the first leveraged buyout (LBO), when he and his associates parlayed $1,000 cash into ownership of Orkin Exterminating, valued at $62.4 million. A subsequent succession of deals resulted in his purchase of Keith Clark, a desk calendar company, that evolved into At-A-Glance®, the largest manufacturer of calendars and appointment books in the U.S.
In 1999, when Mr. Cullman sold his company to Mead Paper Company for $550 million, his share was close to $300 million. It was then that he and his wife Dorothy decided to give away most of the money, which they did in their lifetimes.
Mr. Cullman served on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art; the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California; the New York Botanical Garden; The New York Public Library; and Chess in the Schools, an organization that has taught chess to more than half-a-million economically-disadvantaged children in over 125 New York City public schools, for which he served as Chairman and Chairman Emeritus.
(“Lewis B. Cullman – The Power in Small Moves,” a 10-minute film by Sara Lukinson produced in 2013, captured Mr. Cullman’s zest and enthusiasm for working with chess and children.)
Mr. Cullman was a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a director of General American Investors Company, Inc., and was founder and CEO of Cullman Ventures, Inc., a diversified company. He was also the founder of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Child Development Center in Sidney, New York, the headquarters of At-A-Glance®.
With their philanthropy, and the naming opportunities that came with them, Lewis and Dorothy Cullman decided to put the order of their names in accordance with their primary interests, although it was Mr. Cullman’s money they were giving away.
Major beneficiaries of Lewis and Dorothy Cullman’s philanthropy include The New York Public Library (The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Scholars and Writers Program, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Library for the Performing Arts, as well as the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Reading Room in the Science, Industry and Business Library); the American Museum of Natural History (the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Hall of the Universe [this is one institution that, as Mr. Cullman put it in his memoir, “got it wrong. Science is my bailiwick – but maybe they were just being polite”] plus the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics Studies, a joint program of the Museum and the New York Botanical Garden); The Museum of Modern Art (the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Gallery in the Museum’s Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries, and a number of education programs at the Museum); the Metropolitan Museum of Art (major exhibition funding); The Enterprise Foundation; Environmental Defense Fund; Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors); Yale University (refurbishing of Branford College, support of Yale Forestry School, Biology department); Purdue University; Chess in the Schools; The Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival; WNET.org (Channel Thirteen, including major funding for Broadway and Make ‘Em Laugh; and with his third wife, Louise Hirschfeld Cullman, Treasures of New York: The New York Botanical Garden, PBS NewsHour Weekend, and Morgenthau); Mount Sinai Hospital; Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Cancer Chemoprotection Center and Laboratory); New York Weill Cornell Medical Center (renovation of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratories); the American Academy in Rome (the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Pre-Doctoral Rome Prize); Human Rights Watch, Planned Parenthood of New York City, Inc., and the Municipal Art Society.
Mr. Cullman delighted in bringing a creative outsider’s perspective to his relations with institutions that he supported. He often cited with pride his prodding of both the Museum of Modern Art and the New York Botanical Garden in moving MoMA’s renowned outdoor sculptures to the Garden’s Bronx grounds during MoMA’s reconstruction in the late 1990s. After concerns pertaining to damage and insurance were addressed – it took four years – Mr. Cullman was able to see his vision fulfilled in April 2002, and he was enthusiastic about how the innovation benefited both institutions.
Other innovations in philanthropy are credited to Mr. Cullman. One was called “The Cullman Method,” a technique to pay 5% on the unfulfilled portion of a pledge.
Another tactic Mr. Cullman used to assist institutions was a “drop-dead” pledge, one contingent upon the participation of all board members and top management. Should any one of them fail to participate, Mr. Cullman’s pledge would be withdrawn.
In addition to writing his 2004 memoir, Mr. Cullman authored a booklet, How to Succeed in Fundraising by Really Trying, which he distributed for free to interested groups and which is still available via download from this website. He was a vocal critic of private foundations and donor-advised funds (“Release the Pot of Gold,” published on his website LewisCullman.com – written in 2009 after the 2008 market crash – addresses the responsibilities of private foundations. Two later essays, both published by The New York Review of Books, are titled “Stop the Misuse of Philanthropy!” [September 25, 2014 issue] and “The Undermining of American Charity,” co-authored with Ray Madoff [July 14, 2016 issue].)
Education and Family
Mr. Cullman attended Collegiate School in New York City, The Fessenden School in West Newton, Massachusetts, and The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut before attending Yale University (Class of 1941) and New York University College of Engineering to study meteorology.
Mr. Cullman’s first marriage to Thais MacBride, in December of 1942, ended in divorce. The couple adopted a son, Duncan, in 1947. On June 6, 1963, he married Dorothy Freedman Benenson, a divorcée. The two met when they served on the fundraising arm of the U.S. Committee of the World Federation for Mental Health. Theirs proved to be an extraordinary partnership until Mrs. Cullman’s death in 2009, their philanthropy characterized by generosity and good humor.
In December 2010, Mr. Cullman married Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, a theatre historian and former President of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, named for her second husband, the famed caricaturist and contributor to The New York Times arts pages. They were designated “Living Landmarks” by The New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2011. Mr. Cullman assisted his wife Louise in her interests.
Mr. Cullman is survived by his son, Duncan; two grandchildren, Nikken and Mia Cullman; two stepsons, Jonathan and Antony Kerz; and six Kerz grandchildren, Kara, Kaylee, Nicole, Danielle, Leonardo and Max.
Mr. Cullman maintained residences in New York City and Darien, Connecticut.
Notable News & Events
“The Undermining of American Charity”
New York Review of Books (July 14, 2016 edition)