Leon Levy (September 13, 1925 – April 6, 2003) was, according to Forbes magazine, a “Wall Street investment genius and prolific philanthropist,” who helped create both mutual funds and hedge funds. He co-founded the mutual fund manager Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. in 1959. There he started dozens of mutual funds that, at his death, had grown to manage more than $120 billion. In 1982, he sold Oppenheimer to the U.K.’s Mercantile House for $162 million and co-founded Odyssey Partners, a private investment partnership. It grew to be a $3 billion hedge fund before it was dissolved in 1997.
Mr. Levy’s financial philosophy stressed common sense and the psychology of investors. He studied at
Townsend Harris High School and was strongly influenced by his father, a well-known economist and business executive who taught him the role corporate profits play in charting the economy’s direction. To honor his father, he founded the Jerome Levy Economics Institute at Bard College.
When he died in his late seventies, he was estimated to be worth a billion dollars, though his personal wealth might have been substantially higher were it not for his philanthropic interests. In the last year of his life, Mr. Levy commuted up the Hudson River from New York City to teach a class at Bard College, Contemporary Developments of Finance, in which he focused on his belief that investing is as much a psychological as it is an economic act.
Mr. Levy’s philanthropy began in the 1950s, when he established the Jerome Levy Foundation. Mr. Levy and his wife Shelby White grew to be well known for their philanthropic efforts, which amounted to more than $200 million before his death. They donated $20 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the construction of the new Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, a gallery hosting the largest selection of Hellenistic and Roman artwork ever exhibited at that museum. When completed, the gallery hosted a number of pieces from Mr. Levy and Ms. White’s substantial art collection, which also includes art from the Near East. Since 1997, they have also given more than $6 million to 133 scholars for the publication of archaeological excavations that had previously been completed but never published. The projects funded by their program, the Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications, include excavations at some of the highest profile archaeological sites throughout Greece and the Middle East, including Knossos, Aphrodisias, Kition, Ras Shamra, Sarepta, Mt. Gerizim, Ekron, Lachish, Megiddo, Jerusalem, Pella, Jerash, the Dead Sea Plains, Assur, Nineveh, Nuzi, and Tepe Hissar. They have also been generous benefactors to Christ’s College, Cambridge, the New York Botanical Garden, Rockefeller University, and the Institute for Advanced Study, among many other organizations.
As mentioned, Mr. Levy founded the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College in 1986 as a tribute to his father. He contributed to its development over the years and served as chairman of the Institute’s Board of Governors.
In 2002, Levy published a memoir, written with Eugene Linden, called The Mind of Wall Street: A Legendary Financier on the Perils of Greed and the Mysteries of the Market.