Crouching Tiger, Hidden Millions: Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation

It’s easy to overlook Shelby White. Even if you’re plenty familiar with the Leon Levy Foundation, which has programs giving substantial sums towards archaeology, neuroscience, Jewish culture, and other realms, you might not catch that the Foundation’s top trustee is the widow of Leon Levy himself.

He had millions. Millions and millions. From his first “investment” in 1940 ($200 of bar mitzvah money) the young Levy quickly became a Wall Street giant, raking in dividends earned from a series of risky, iconoclastic investments. But from the very start, Levy’s giving kept pace with his earning. He wasn’t one of those who got inspired towards philanthropy late in life, perhaps when thoughts of legacy begin intersect with the inevitability of mortality. He gave early, and he gave often, all through his life. When he was felled by a series of heart attacks at age 77, his eponymous foundation sprang up like a mushroom the following year, in 2004. From the start, Shelby White has been its captain and adviser.

This association by itself might not be enough to arouse interest, but follow me here. Shelby White not only holds the strings at the Leon Levy Foundation (which has only four board members), but in 2010 she signed the Giving Pledge. Shelby White, 75, trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, pledged to give away the majority of her wealth.

All this makes the future of the Leon Levy Foundation very interesting indeed. As of now it’s pretty new: barely a decade old, and down only $60,000 from its initial endowment of $500 million. That puts the foundation among the top 125 foundations in the United States.