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George Weissman, Class of 1935

George Weissman, Leader at Philip Morris and in the Arts in New York, Dies at 90

George Weissman, who helped transform Philip Morris from a midlevel tobacco company to a diversified conglomerate known for contributions to the arts, and who then led Lincoln Center for nearly a decade, died on July 24, 2009 in Greenwich, Conn. He was 90.

The cause was complications of a recent fall at his home in Rye, N.Y., his son Paul said.

Mr. Weissman began his corporate ascent in the movie and public relations businesses, and one of his early tasks as a young marketing executive at Philip Morris — which became part of the Altria group in 2003 — was to help develop the very effective masculine mythology of Marlboro cigarettes.

He applied similar deftness when Philip Morris acquired Miller Brewing in 1969 and came up with the new Miller Lite brand.

Mr. Weissman also pushed Philip Morris to become a major donor to arts groups, particularly experimental undertakings like the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He said in an interview with The New York Times in 1990 that the arts initiative began with a traveling exhibition of modern art in 1965.

“We wanted to demonstrate to our own employees that we were an open-minded company seeking creativity in all aspects of our business,” Mr. Weissman said. “And we were determined to do this by sponsoring things that made a difference, that were really dangerous.”

In an interview with Forbes in 1983, he said that giving to the arts also impressed customers, and that more people go to museums than ballgames.

In 1983, Mr. Weissman installed a branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art on the ground floor of the company’s new Park Avenue headquarters, across from Grand Central Terminal. He was on the Whitney board from 1979 to 1990.

When Mr. Weissman retired as chairman of the company in 1984, he spoke of fishing for salmon. But he was soon as busy as ever, becoming vice chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1984, then serving as chairman from 1986 to 1994.

He oversaw the construction of the Samuel B. and David Rose Building and united all 12 Lincoln Center constituents in a 19-month festival to honor Mozart’s bicentennial. He also encouraged the Classical Jazz series, a forerunner of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which eventually got its own space, in 2004.

George Weissman, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, was born in the Bronx on July 12, 1919. After graduating from Townsend Harris High School, he earned a degree in business administration from the business school of the City College of New York. He then edited a small weekly newspaper in New Jersey and worked as a reporter for The Star-Ledger, based in Newark.

He joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, helping to chase submarines and shell beachheads for 3 1/2 years. After his discharge, he wrote a review of the Samuel Goldwyn movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” for some labor papers. Goldwyn hired him as a publicity agent at $125 a week.

After Goldwyn fired him in a dispute over promoting a movie, he got a job with Benjamin Sonnenberg, who is credited with helping create the modern public relations industry. Soon, Mr. Weissman was devoted full time to the Philip Morris account. He was hired in 1952 as assistant to the president of Philip Morris.

In 1960, Mr. Weissman became chief executive of Philip Morris International, where he helped build up overseas sales to the point that they accounted for a third of both sales and earnings for the entire company. In 1966, he was named president of Philip Morris itself, and he guided the company’s strategy of using profits from cigarettes to expand into other businesses, including the acquisition of the Seven-Up Company in 1978.

When Mr. Weissman became chairman and chief executive of Philip Morris in 1978, he told Fortune magazine that he saw himself as the quintessential Marlboro man.

“I’m no cowboy and I don’t ride horseback,” he said, “but I like to think I have the freedom the Marlboro man exemplifies. He’s the man who doesn’t punch a clock. He’s not computerized. He’s a free spirit.”

Mr. Weissman had few compunctions about describing his own habits. “Forty cigarettes a day, one or two beers and I also drink some wine,” he said in a press conference in Paris in 1980.

Under his leadership, Philip Morris employed blacks in prominent executive positions, resulting in boycotts in some places in the South. The company also advertised in black and Hispanic newspapers and magazines.

Mr. Weissman joined other business leaders in signing petitions against the Vietnam War. When the Nixon administration’s “enemies list” was released by a Senate committee in 1973, he was on it.

In addition to his son Paul, Mr. Weissman is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Mildred Stregack; his daughter, Ellen; his son Daniel; and a grandson.

Mr. Weissman told Forbes in 1980 that he felt Philip Morris had a “Masada complex,” referring to the desperate defense of first-century Jews against powerful Roman legions. He said it first fought the tobacco industry as it clawed its way up the ladder, then the government and anti- smoking activists.

He seemed to have trouble understanding the view of those who argued that arts organizations should refuse tobacco money as tainted. “Do you stop the Bolshoi from coming here because you don’t believe in the Russian system?” he said in an interview with The Times in 1987.

Source: New York Times, July 28, 2009