Lewis Cullman



On Friday I received a book in the mail, Can’t Take it With You; the Art of Making and Giving Money, by Lewis B. Cullman.


I don’t know Lewis Cullman although I’ve seen him and his serenely elegant wife Dorothy many times at charitable events I’ve covered over the years. They make a handsome couple. He wears glasses (aviator-style) and when not in formal garb, tends to look professorial to these eyes.


Dorothy and Lewis Cullman

I knew that he was a member of the family that controlled and built Philip Morris (now Altria, referred to coincidentally in Friday’s Diary) which was run for many years by his eldest brother Joe, who passed away a few weeks ago at 91, and whom I knew slightly. Other than that, my knowledge of the Cullmans was sparse except for the corporate connection and the fact that there were four brothers, three of whom, along with their wives, were/are very, very active philanthropically in New York.


So with that meager knowledge, and mainly out of respect for the sender who was kind enough to sign a copy of his book for me, I gave it what I assumed would be a quick look.


Mr. Cullman starts by telling us how back in the early 1960s he had an idea of buying a small but profitable company in Atlanta called Orkin Exterminating. It’s a textbook example for any student of business of what it’s like to buy a going business for millions of dollars. And it wasn’t easily accomplished despite some very savvy partners, some very grand connections and impressive financial access. In fact it was complicated and by the time the deal was closed it was far from what the man originally envisioned. In fact he ended up with stock not in Orkin, but in Rollins Broadcasting, which was not at all what he had in mind. Although it was fortuitous: Rollins became a bonanza.


However, the story reveals the teller. Thoughtful, focused, able to roll with the punches and unflagging in sense of purpose and enthusiasm. I was thinking, after reading that, how all those qualities are apparent on the face of the man.


From there he goes into the part of the story which always interests me: where he came from. The Cullmans are one of those remarkable families which have had generations of bright, productive, and ambitious personalities. On his maternal side they trace their ancestry back to the Spanish Inquisition – Sephardic Jews who fled to Holland the same year Columbus landed in San Salvador, and later emigrated to South America, the Caribbean and finally the island of Manhattan when it was still New Amsterdam.


Among the distinguished forebears in the vastly prolific line were Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo and Emma Lazarus (who wrote “Give me your tired, your poor…” ). By the second half of the 19th Century Cullman’s great-grandfather made a fortune in the tobacco business (cigars).


Cullman was born in New York City eighty-five years ago, the youngest of four brothers and a sister – and the first of them to be born in a hospital. His father, also called Joe (after his father) who prospered the family business, was a domineering personality who had expectations of his sons following in his footsteps – including attending his alma mater, Yale (which all the boys did). Lewis, however, from childhood, wanted to be a weatherman, which was such a far out notion that he never revealed his dream to anyone until he wrote his senior thesis on Weather Forecasting at Yale.


Click to order

His recollections of growing up at that time in New York and America are like a soothing balm compared to current contemporary life. Family dominated nearly everyone’s ideal quest. It provided the rudiments of tradition, decorum, an aspiring work ethic fueled by an ingrained sense of community and purpose. Ideals – attainable or not. Cullman was lucky – he had parents with a strong sense of priority to those ideals and responsibility to their children. They were well-sheltered, well-fed, well-provided for and well-treated. Their efforts were rewarded: all of them went out into the world to become decent and in some cases exemplary citizens.


Cullman successfully resisted his father’s urgings to enter the family business and after several entrepreneurial forays, eventually became (as is recounted at the beginning of the memoir) a very successful businessman-investor on his own.


Despite the obvious family fortune, every son was expected to make it on his own, and evidently each did. And once that was achieved, there was a next step, a new step.


“ Gee,” he recalls his mother saying frequently, “I’d much rather give money away when I’m alive than have somebody afterwards say ‘Isn’t it nice? She left all that money to this person or that cause!’ If that’s what your choice is, why not get some pleasure out of it, instead of just having it be written up after your gone?”


The sons all followed their mother’s suggestion. The greatest part of Lewis Cullman’s self-made fortune came from the paper and print business – mainly a company many Americans are familiar with called At-A-Glance (datebooks). He and his partners took a company of 350 workers and a payroll of $5 million and in twenty years built it into a half-billion dollar business with 1400 workers and a payroll of $56 million.


And when the money started rolling into Cullman’s personal coffers, he and Dorothy embarked on a new, greater personal odyssey – giving it away.


The Cullmans’ philanthropic activity has included many of the great institutions of New York City including the Met, Lincoln Center, MoMA, the Museum of Natural History, Central Park, The New York Public Library and many many other institutions large and small that affect the quality of life of the community and its citizens.


Once he gets into the business of Giving It Away, he minces no words about those who are less inclined or downright stingy. He poses the question: “What good does it do to be wealthy if you don’t use the money for something constructive?” He points out that the top 25 richest on the 2002 Forbes 400 had a collective wealth of about $345 billion – half the annual gross domestic product of Canada. “Think of what would happen if,” he suggests, “all those multibillionaires on the annual Forbes list decided they could rest easy with just, say, a billion each in the bank.


Tens of billions, maybe even hundreds of billions would be added to the philanthropic pool. Museums and the performing arts would flourish as never before. Medical and scientific research would leap forward. The poor would be taken care of even as the government abandons them. All of our lives would be enriched beyond measure.”


Reading Cullman’s words I was reminded of so many of those “multibillionaires” both he and I are familiar with, and the lesser but still monumentally rich multi- and centimillionaires who are in awe, and even envy the prestige, not to mention social prestige, that accompanies the names Dorothy and Lewis Cullman. So many – not all, mind you – but very many, would pay all kinds of prices to re-create such a public image for themselves and their already over-decorated egos, (“surgically enhanced” of course by the accoutrement of property and possessions and donations) to obtain positions on prestigious committees. Yet their main interest is really just protecting and maintaining their assets (often through foundations – which Cullman also criticizes roundly). Because in fact, they really don’t want to give it away – they really just want more. For themselves. Period.


In the end Cullman cites the example of Andrew Carnegie who advised the rich to spend the first half of their lives accumulating wealth and the second half distributing it to “those causes best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.” He modestly explains that Carnegie’s philanthropic largesse a century ago (more than $7 billion in today’s dollars), is greater than anything he could hope to accomplish at this late date in his life. However, Dorothy and Lewis Cullman have given away more than $100 million in their lifetime and hope before they are finished to double that figure. For a better community, a better world, and a better life for them, for all that. I finished the book in that one sitting.