Here's a Name That Top New York Nonprofits Won't Soon Forget: Carroll Petrie

Every city has them: super-generous philanthropists with wide ranging interests who, over time, touch and improve many corners of a community's life. These people are often virtually unknown to the wider public that enjoys the fruits of their giving, but who otherwise know everyone.

New York recently lost one such figure, and she won't soon be forgotten, at least within a certain rarefied world. 

Carroll Petrie died peacefully January 22 in her Manhattan home at the age of 90. Petrie gave hundreds of millions of dollars to hospitals, schools, museums and other cultural institutions. The largesse was funded by her husband Milton Petrie, 23 years her senior, a pawnbroker's son who founded Petrie Stores Corporation, a collection of 1700 women’s apparel stores that allowed him to become one of the richest men in America with a fortune estimated at $1 billion when he died in 1994. Petrie was very generous with his fortune, giving to institutions like Beth Israel Hospital, but also to total strangers whom he read about in the news and whose distress moved him. 

His 120-page will established the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, naming Carroll and seven others as will executors and foundation trustees. After 15 years of marriage, the fourth for both, he bequeathed her two homes, including a Fifth Avenue apartment, cars, planes, jewels, fine art, antiques, $5 million in cash and a $150 million trust fund that guaranteed her $10 million a year in income for life so that she could continue her lavish lifestyle appearing at galas in gowns by Valentino and Chanel while socializing with the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Barbara Walters.  

Born Carroll McDaniel in Greenville, South Carolina, she studied in nearby Spartanburg at Converse College for two years before moving to New York City to work as a model. On a trip to Paris, she met and married Alfonso Portago, Marques de Portago a Spanish millionaire nobleman, with whom she had two children, Antonio and Antonia. They lived in Paris until her husband blew a tire in his Ferrari 335 S causing his death and that of 11 others in a 1957 automobile race. With the exception of a few years spent in Hong Kong and Europe, she settled in New York for the rest of her life.

It wasn’t until her marriage to Petrie that she hit her philanthropic stride with generous gifts, as reflected in these names honoring their contributions:

  •  At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court opened in 1990.
  • The Museum of Modern Art named its fifth floor café in the couple’s honor.
  • In 2012, the Parrish Art Museum in New York named an entire wing for the Carroll Petrie Foundation. Petrie served on the boards of all three museums.
  • Her alma mater, Converse College is now home to the Carroll McDaniel Petrie School of Music.

Petrie also backed New York-Presbyterian Hospital and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She also served on the Sloan Kettering Board. Another major mission of the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation was to promote quality education for New York public school students. Additionally, she served on the Gracie Mansion and Central Park Conservancy boards. Both New York Institute of Technology and Long Island University awarded her honorary doctorates. For three years, she was chairperson for The United Nations Association’s National U.N. Day. Spain honored her with the Medal of Honor of the Order of Isabel La Catolica.

A lifelong dog lover, she was an avid supporter of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA.) While watching news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, she sent $100,000 to the organization’s president to rescue a dog she saw stranded on the roof of a home. In July 2012, Mrs. Petrie launched the Carroll Petrie Foundation Dog Rescue Project, a $1 million initiative administered through the ASPCA which moved 7,308 dogs from overcrowded shelters to 47 partner shelters in 22 states where they could more easily find homes.