For more than two recent decades, the top contributors to the UJA-Federation of New York’s annual campaign would gather one evening every fall at a handsome Upper East Side apartment for the drive’s kickoff. Alan “Ace” Greenberg and his wife Kathryn would stand at their door, welcoming guests to what came to be known as “the Greenberg event,” a combination cocktail party and fundraiser that every year raised tens of millions of dollars and set the tone for the next months of solicitations for the philanthropy.
Greenberg, who died of complications from cancer at 86 on July 25 “was a known quantity,” whose success in business, as chairman of the Bear Stearns investment banking firm, and his philanthropic commitment to a wide variety of Jewish and civic causes inspired other people to give, said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.
“His generosity was very known,” said Solomon, who earlier served as chief operating officer of UJA-Federation. “His legacy is all the people who saw him as a role model for what it meant to be a mensch.”
Greenberg was described by friends this week as a cigar-chomping, risk-taking iconoclast who helped build Bear Stearns into a major brokerage and headed the firm when it collapsed in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession; as a hands-on manager who would wander around the office for 45 minutes every morning talking to employees of all stripes; as a master, self-taught magician who kept a deck of cards on his desk; as a champion bridge player who played with the likes of Warren Buffet and Malcolm Forbes; as a fisherman and archer and hunter and pool player and dog trainer; as a gruff, no-nonsense boss who eschewed long conversations with colleagues but gave $360,000 to some of his firm’s lowest-paid employees who were likely to lose their jobs when Bear Stearns merged with JPMorgan Chase. As a big giver who eschewed public honors. And as a proud Jew who every year led his family seder and never forgot his roots in Oklahoma City, son of a clothing-store owner.
He told PBS talk show host Charlie Rose that he always gave half of his considerable charitable donations to Jewish causes — in addition to UJA-Federation, recipients included the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and several projects sponsored by The Jerusalem Foundation.
Greenberg was a friend of the late Teddy Kollek, the long-time mayor of Jerusalem, who established the Foundation to support projects that the municipal budget did not cover.
“He was from a generation who knew what it was not to have a State of Israel,” said Moshe Fogel, executive director of The Jerusalem Foundation, “a generation that appreciates the challenges facing Israel.”
Non-Jewish recipients of Greenberg’s largess included the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan (to provide Viagra for men who could not afford it), and a dwarfism program at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
But Greenberg, who also presided over UJA-Federation’s annual Wall Street dinner, was best known in Jewish circles for the “Greenberg event,” which he and his wife hosted from 1988 to 2011.
Sitting on a big stuffed chair, in a room decorated with the mounted heads of stuffed animals, Greenberg would hold court as his several dozen guests would mingle before getting down to business. A high-profile guest like Barbara Walters would speak. Greenberg would tell a story, then announce his pace-setting gift — then he would call cards, asking each guest how much he or she would contribute to the campaign.
“People felt at home,” Solomon said. “He built a sense of community.”
In later months, Solomon said, Greenberg would call or meet with other prospective donors. “He covered more cards than anyone else in the campaign — he raised money for the cause with no fanfare.” Many of the people whom Greenberg contacted were Bear Stearns clients. “It was difficult to say no to him. He made a lot of people a lot of money.”
Daniel Forman, a philanthropic advisor to Yeshiva University who, when raising funds for UJA-Federation worked closely with Greenberg, wrote this week that “there was no wasting time with Ace.” He said his face-to-face fundraising sessions with business and corporate leaders “usually lasted no longer than 20 minutes (including breakfast) and our batting average was 1.000.”
In Abigail Pogrebin’s 2007 “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish” (Broadway Books), Greenberg said he considered tzedakah mandatory, “a Jewish tax.”
“Everyone knows I’m a Jew,” he told Pogrebin. “There isn’t anybody I do business with who doesn’t know. If my name was O’Reilly, I might be embarrassed by somebody saying something against Jews, but it doesn’t happen with a name like Greenberg. They might think it, but they don’t say it.”
When he headed Bear Stearns, he insisted that all executives give four percent of their after-tax compensation to some philanthropic cause.
“He had this deep conviction that if you became very successful you had an absolute obligation to pay it back,” said Eric Goldstein, a longtime UJA-Federation lay leader who attended several Greenberg events and became CEO of the philanthropy July 1. “He was a philanthropic giant.”
Goldstein said he met with Greenberg, at Greenberg’s invitation, a few weeks ago to discuss UJA-Federation business. “He remained very committed.”
“For him, there was no [financial] gain” in his philanthropic activities,” Solomon said. “At a very basic level, there was a decency about him,” said Solomon, who added that Greenberg a few decades ago offered, unsolicited, to have the firm hire disabled individuals from a UJA-Federation agency that Solomon then headed.
Solomon told the story of bringing his soon-to-become-bar-mitzvah son to Bear Stearns about 30 years ago to open an account with the bar mitzvah gifts the youth was sure to receive. A broker took the Solomons down to the trading floor.
Greenberg, who spotted the visitors, stopped his official business and started doing magic tricks. For minutes on end. “For this 13-year-old kid,” Solomon said.
When Bear Stearns staffers would bring him business-related questions, he’d bark, “I’m busy,” Solomon said.
“He was a really good magician,” said his daughter, Lynne Koeppel. She said her father would often invite magician friends to the Greenberg home for dinner, and years later would entertain her family’s birthday parties with magic tricks.
He liked magic — and hobbies like fishing and bridge — because “he didn’t like hobbies where the richest person won,” Koeppel said.
Greenberg is survived by his wife; his daughter; a son, Ted; a sister, DiAnne Hirsch; a brother, Maynard; and five grandchildren.
Greenberg attended Oklahoma University on a football scholarship; after suffering a back injury, he transferred to the University of Missouri, where he studied business. He started as a $32.50-a-week clerk at Bear Stearns in 1949; by 1958, he was a full partner; he worked up to CEO in 1978 and chairman in 1993.
His philosophy, he wrote in “Memos From the Chairman” (Workman Publishing Company, 1996,) was, “The time to stop stupidity and be tough is when times are good. Any schlemiel and most schlamozels try to cut costs when times are bad.”