The philanthropist who set the standard for giving while living
ANALYSIS: Chuck Feeney’s mission to give his fortune to worthwhile causes is moving to completion
CHUCK FEENEY doesn’t do anything by half-measures. I realised this when he agreed to co-operate with me on his biography. At the time – nearly 10 years ago – he was probably the most secretive philanthropist in history.
I had got to know him when working in New York for this newspaper. We would occasionally have lunch in PJ Clarke’s on Third Avenue. I suggested that if he wanted to use his model of giving while living to encourage other wealthy people, his story should be told. I was thinking then only of an interview for The Irish Times. He eventually agreed.
I asked him in the interview about his frugal lifestyle. Did he always wear a $15 watch? “Yes,” he replied, “I’ve got a spare one here. I’ll sell it to you.” I told him I couldn’t afford it.
He called me after it was published and we met up in PJ Clarke’s again. Halfway through the chicken pie he said, “I want to thank you for the article,” and slid a brown envelope across the table. He looked around conspiratorially. “Take it, no one is looking.” I kept pushing it back.
Eventually he said, “Well, open it!” Inside was a $15 plastic watch.
Over time I started talking to Chuck about writing his biography. He said that would be a difficult decision for him but I saw he was tempted. A book about his achievements could better promote the merits and joys of giving while living.
Eventually I faxed a formal proposal to him (he doesn’t do email). I explained I would get a publisher to finance the project, that he would have no control over the content and he would have to release his friends, family and beneficiaries from vows of secrecy. “Okay, I’ll think about it,” he said. I thought he would say no.
Next time in PJ Clarke’s – where the waiters know who he is but pretend they don’t – he never mentioned the proposal. So neither did I. But as we parted on Third Avenue I asked, rather resignedly, “Do you want more time to think over ‘that other thing’?”
“No,” he said. “Let’s do it.” And he turned and walked away. So we did it.
That’s when I found that when Feeney decides to commit to something his word is his bond. He gave the green light to everyone to co-operate with me as I travelled around the world – from the United States and Ireland to the French Riviera (such hardship!) – to research his business and philanthropic life.