Pistol Packing Philanthropy: What Makes Ike Perlmutter Tick?

Seventy-one year old Israeli émigré Ike Perlmutter has enjoyed a lengthy, ridiculously profitable career almost completely outside the spotlight--and that’s just the way he’s wanted it. Google his name, and you get repeat results including the same press photo taken when he was approximately 42. One photo. In all the world of the Internet. Suffice it to say, this guy is not some adorably goofy-looking Bill Gates-type philanthropist. Transparency is not his priority. Worth $2.7 billion, Marvel CEO Perlmutter is known for his ruthless frugality, rapid-fire dismissals, and remarkable shrewdness around sinking-ship companies. He has a $3.2 million condo in West Palm Beach, plays tennis like a champ, and he’s held a Concealed Carry permit in the state of Florida as recently as 2006. Oh, and he and his wife just gave $50 million to NYU Langone Medical Center. Incongruous? Hardly. Welcome to philanthropy, Perlmutter-style.

Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot known about Perlmutter’s past giving. He and his wife have given modestly through the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Foundation since its inception in 1998, but exact amounts handed out through its various grantmaking programs—urban renewal, medical education, Jewish agencies and synagogues, and United Way initiatives—are unknown. In keeping with Perlmutter’s staunchly anti-publicity outlook, the Foundation’s giving is kept mostly under wraps as well. They don’t even have a website. Overall, there is nothing too flashy or out-there about this or any other of the Foundation’s grantmaking programs. In fact, the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Foundation’s roster of grantmaking programs was, up until this recent large gift, a pretty typical menu for any mid-sized liberal foundation with an interest in Jewish affairs.

But now, boom: $50 million in one fell swoop, and the Langone Cancer Center is even going to be named after the couple. Notoriety seems to be coming unbidden to Perlmutter in recent months—with Disney’s acquisition of Marvel in 2012, Perlmutter suddenly went from under-the-radar to biggest company shareholder, and gossip about his ruthless doings has been swirling around. Perhaps he sees this as the perfect—or just inevitable—time to start investing in something to generate good press. Perhaps that thing is healthcare philanthropy on a much larger scale. Only time will tell.

Though the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Foundation has provided the hospital with over $8 million in the past, this gift might seem like a bolt—a big bolt—from the blue unless you’re more familiar with their past interests. Like any dutiful millionaire’s wife, Laura began volunteering in Langone hospital’s gift shop in the 1980s, eventually rising to become president of its Tisch Hospital Auxiliary, a position she held for seven years, from 1985-1992. Since 1985, Laura has been a trustee for the hospital, and since 2005, she has sat on its Cancer Advisory Board. Her interest in healthcare philanthropy, at least, has been deep, committed, and dogged.

Her husband’s commitment has been declared more recently, when he was seconded to join the board of the Langone Cancer Center. Then, the $50 million gift, which came partly from the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Foundation, and partly from Laura and Isaac personally, was announced.

It’s tempting to speculate at the timing, but one thing is certain: with Disney’s acquisition of Marvel in 2009, Perlmutter suddenly became Disney’s biggest shareholder. He is getting hit with all kinds of publicity, and there are rumors of unsavory behavior swirling around him, too. This gift is obviously a stellar way to get good press, but we at IP are hoping it’s more than that. We’re hoping this ruthless penny-pincher with some obvious authoritarian baggage might be even further persuaded towards the warm waters of healthcare philanthropy, where questions wait to be answered and problems wait to be solved—and where reporters everywhere wait to lap it up.