Robert W. Wilson leaps to his death at 87; hedge-fund founder and philanthropist

December 25, 2013

Robert W. Wilson, a retired New York hedge-fund founder who committed his life to donating his fortune to charities, died Dec. 23 in Manhattan. He was 87.

He leaped from his 16th-floor residence at the San Remo apartment building on Manhattan’s Central Park West, according to a person with knowledge of the incident who asked not to be identified because family members hadn’t been notified. Police said an 87-year-old man was found in a courtyard at the rear of the building and pronounced dead from an apparent suicide. Mr. Wilson suffered a stroke in June, Gary Castle, his accountant, said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Mr. Wilson, whose Wall Street career spanned five decades, started Wilson & Associates, a hedge fund, in 1969 after working as a securities analyst. He retired in 1986 and, by 2000, his net worth peaked at about $800 million, Castle said. By then, Mr. Wilson had already begun to give most of his money away, donating more than $500 million to charities, primarily to conservation groups, Castle said.

One recipient was World Monuments Fund, a New York-based organization dedicated to preserving architectural and cultural heritage sites worldwide. In 1989, Mr. Wilson responded to a direct-mail appeal from the group seeking donations of $25 or more. He sent in a check for $5,000, Bonnie Burnham, president of the fund, said in a telephone interview.

His support grew to a $100 million matching-fund grant to the organization that generated $300 million for projects in about 50 countries.

Robert W. Wilson, a Wall Street investor who gave away much of his $800 million fortune. (Roy Zipstein/Via Bloomberg)

“He became the challenge king of the philanthropic world,” Burnham said.

Mr. Wilson also made a $100 million gift, linked to matching donations, to the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, according to a statement on its Web site. Other groups he supported with large contributions included the Nature Conservancy, located in Arlington, and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, Castle said.

Robert Warne Wilson was born Nov. 3, 1926, in Detroit. He graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1946 and earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Michigan in 1947. He then entered Michigan’s law school and, after two years, left for Wall Street.

In 1949, Mr. Wilson got his first job in New York, as a trainee at First Boston, which was later acquired by Zurich-based Credit Suisse. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to First Boston in 1953.

Mr. Wilson moved back to his home town that year to become a securities analyst in the trust department at National Bank of Detroit. He returned to New York in 1958 to work as an analyst, and eventually as a vice president, at General American Investors and went to A.G. Becker four years later, where he remained until founding his hedge fund.

Mr. Wilson’s career as an investor was almost tripped up in 1978 by what Forbes magazine described as “the most catastrophic short play in modern times.” In May of that year, he created a short position of 200,000 shares of Resorts International at an average price of $15 each, according to a 1979 account in Forbes. The company had just opened the first gambling casino in Atlantic City, and Mr. Wilson was betting the stock would fall. Instead, the shares rose to $20.

The shares continued to rise and by September reached $190. By then, Mr. Wilson was buying back the stock at appreciated levels, costing him millions of dollars in losses.

Mr. Wilson served as chairman of the New York City Opera and on the boards of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Opera.

He was divorced from his wife, Marilyn, and had no children.

— Bloomberg News

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