Correction:

An earlier version of this article quoted Washington philanthropist Adrienne Arsht as saying that she joined the board of trustees of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in 2010 because there were no women on it. Pamela Scholl of the Dr. Scholl Foundation has been a member since 2007. This version has been corrected.

Adrienne Arsht has returned to Washington and is giving away millions

Barring the unforeseen, Adrienne Arsht — one of Washington’s most eclectically connected philanthropists — will ascend to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms on the eighth floor of the U.S. Department of State on Thursday evening. In Georgian and Federal splendor, she and her fellow “Patrons of Diplomacy” will be wined, dined and applauded by Hillary Rodham Clinton for raising $20 million to preserve and promote the finest early art and furnishings of American statecraft.

As one of those valued patrons, the 69-year-old Arsht — a Washingtonian past and present who made her recent fortune in Florida banking — will chat up any number of Old Guard and New Money achievers in her campaign to reinvent and reintroduce herself.

The ebullient Arsht and her fortune are well known in Miami, home of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and generally less so in New York, where she has made generous gifts to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera, or in her native Wilmington, Del. (Last year Delaware Today magazine dubbed her “The Biggest Philanthropist You’ve Never Heard Of.”) But she is trending upward in Washington, where she lived for 18 years with husband Myer “Mike” Feldman — millionaire businessman, lawyer and onetime Kennedy and Johnson adviser — before she left in 1996 to run their Miami bank chain.

Now she’s back, wealthy, widowed and refocused, having sold the bank after Feldman died in 2007 and pocketed a cool $200 million, which is financing her new role as a full-time philanthropist.

Arsht’s donations do not rise to the level of, say, the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation ($100 million to the Kennedy Center alone) or the Cafritz dynasty. But since January 2008, she has donated a hefty $56 million to nonprofit organizations from Miami to Manhattan, including more than $5 million to the Kennedy Center, where she serves as treasurer of the Board of Trustees. She says her ultimate goal is to part with her entire fortune, and if past is prologue, there will be nothing quiet or anonymous about her beneficence.

The way she sees it, her new life here is a natural outgrowth of her old one. “I am not entering this place to establish myself,” she says. “Whatever I’m doing is a continuation of my earlier life here. What am I aspiring to? Just to make a difference, just to matter.”

She’s setting out to make that difference armed with hard-won experience, not just in business and smaller-scale philanthropy, but also in gender battles and establishment-crashing. Her direct — some say pushy — style has not always endeared her to people in the path of her ambitions. But all those victories and setbacks will inform this next act of creating a legacy for herself. “When you start to build something, you’d better have done everything before,” she says.

* * *

Since returning to Washington, Arsht has been busy supporting the arts and preservation. She has hosted receptions and dinners for authors, actors and singers, as well as her celebrated brunches, with diverse guest lists that might find U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios being introduced to Charles Hamlen, who runs a Manhattan talent agency that represents classical performers.

“Send me the documents” is Arsht’s philanthropic equivalent of “show me the money.” She’s quick to see a need, and just as quick to use her capital, her connections and her savvy to fill it. For example:

The State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms needed refurbishing. She wrote a check for $500,000, then hired her favorite Miami marketing firm to draw up pitch materials to lure other donors.

The Center for National Policy was short $100,000 to finance a film on the little-known Sept. 11, 2001, boat evacuation of Lower Manhattan. She wrote a check.

At a Washington Ballet performance of “The Nutcracker,” she noticed the music was canned. She wrote a check for $250,000 to pay for an orchestra for this year’s run.

Arsht likes to give to education, health, the performing arts and, owing to her Miami sojourn, Hispanic causes. She’s increasingly interested in foreign and domestic policy, especially involving Latin America. In Miami, she became active on the Council on Foreign Relations because “Miami is an international city, and every change of government in Latin America is part of your life.”

In Washington, she has joined the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress; the Center for National Policy because its focus on human resiliency intrigues her; and the Atlantic Council because she thinks it should pay attention to Latin America.

At the same time, she is scaling back on political involvement after three active Democratic presidential campaigns. “I am now a contributor, not a fundraiser,” she says.

Arsht oversees her many interests from what is essentially a personal embassy: the Beaux-Arts mansion she bought last year for $8.2 million near the real Embassy Row. It’s her third D.C. residence in as many years and, post-renovation, is the best suited for drawing diplomats, politicians, entertainers and old and new friends into her widening orbit. One wall is adorned with paintings of her three philanthropic crown jewels: the Arsht, Kennedy and Lincoln centers.

In mid-September, she hosted 16 guests, including a former prime minister of Spain, JoséMaría Aznar, at an Atlantic Council brainstorming dinner to explore expanding its focus to include Latin America.

The evening started with cocktails on the sweeping back terrace overlooking a clipped lawn with burbling waterspouts, a setting council CEO Frederick Kempe described as marrying “Old Europe and the best of Washington.”

Amid a sea of well-cut gentlemen’s suits, the 5-foot-3 Arsht — one of just three women present — wore a snug black Valentino skirt suit and black stilettos, with bold jeweled earrings setting off her delicate face and short, highlighted hair. (“I don’t dress to attract men or be sexy, but to be taken as powerful,” she says.) She seated herself between Aznar and European Union Ambassador João Vale de Almeida and welcomed everyone with a gentle reminder of her interest, noting that “the shores of the Atlantic wash up on Latin America.” Then the host/facilitator turned her attention to the diplomats, academics, think tankers, entrepreneurs and money people discussing market potential, immigration and economic stability.

After an evening observing her guests, Arsht drew two conclusions. One: The three Miami businessmen she had added to the council’s guest list had been successfully introduced to important Washington influencers. Two: Serving haricot verts at a working dinner is a bad idea. “They’re too difficult to maneuver onto your fork while you’re looking down the table at the speaker.”

Two weeks later Arsht hosted one of her signature brunches. She throws these events every couple of months as a way to “catch up with my friends” and introduce them to each other. Large round tables covered in shimmery orange taffeta lined the terrace, quickly filling with 60 name-tagged guests bearing plates of cold salmon, mushroom crepes and asparagus. Arsht flitted about making practiced introductions, a deft cross-pollinator.

“Septime [Webre], I’d like you to meet Michelle Kwan,” went one such exchange. “Michelle just got her master’s in foreign policy from the Fletcher School and is here looking for a job. Septime is the artistic director of the Washington Ballet.” Then Arsht was off again, steering Kwan’s escort, Claiborne Pell, grandson and namesake of the late six-term Rhode Island senator, toward Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, a former U.S. chief of protocol. Meanwhile, Webre and Kwan chatted, and the artistic director invited the onetime Olympic figure-skater to a ballet rehearsal. Connection made.

“I’m the dirt farmer who grew the fruit for the pies,” Steve Cox told the woman sitting next to his wife, Avis Renshaw, a longtime Arsht friend whose Leesburg company provided the desserts. In the sunroom, guests talked about college basketball and violence in Guatemala. Vice President Biden’s son Hunter was overheard telling Arsht that Dad and Jill were having a great time at her Biscayne Bay place.

At an outside table, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who knows Arsht as a fellow opera lover, took in the passing parade: Democratic lobbyists Jack Quinn and Heather and Tony Podesta; a couple of major Republican donors who were ambassadors during the administrations of Bush I and II; and some Obama administration officials. This pleased the conservative Scalia. “Washington used to be like this, people from both parties,” he said. “There aren’t those so-called ‘mixed’ events anymore, so this is good. It’s a talent, and she’s terrific for Washington.”

A few days later, as is her custom, Arsht sent the attendees the ultimate party favor in a power town: a full guest list with coveted contact info, reflecting her “golden rule” of sharing what others so fiercely guard.

“I don’t know anyone else who would do that,” says educator Joseph Duffey, a former American University president and presidential appointee who has attended several Arsht brunches. “In this city we have clusters of people, but she shakes that up.”

* * *

Adrienne Arsht learned to give back, and to fight back, from her parents, whose American dream story still resonates with their daughter. Both were children of poor Russian Jewish emigres to Wilmington: S. Samuel Arsht was the son of a wallpaper hanger and a homemaker; Roxana Cannon’s parents owned a dry-goods store and a corset shop before prospering in real estate. Both attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Sam later became an influential corporate lawyer, and Roxana was named Delaware’s first female judge. They gave several million dollars to education and medical entities during their lifetimes, and when Roxana died in 2003, their $22 million estate went to the Arsht Cannon Fund, which, under Adrienne’s influence, has focused on the state’s Hispanic community.

Affluent, accomplished and cultured, the duo breached some, but not all of the anti-Semitic walls erected to keep Jews in their place. The couple felt strongly that they and their daughters — Adrienne, the bright, outgoing firstborn, and Alison, the brilliant, shy sister two years younger — should be free to live and mix among the gentiles of Wilmington’s Chateau Country.

“It was vicious,” Arsht recalls of the era. “My father was the only Jew in the firm, and he never got into the Wilmington Club, which means he was deprived of business opportunities. When I was excluded from ballroom dancing class, my mother went and said, ‘I think you forgot my daughter,’ and I got in. When we lived across the street from the Greenville Country Club, and everyone else in the neighborhood was invited to join except us, she said, ‘You must have lost our invitation,’ and we were accepted. I wanted to be able to do everything. And in truth, after we got in, people stopped noticing.”

The girls were the only Jews at the exclusive Tower Hill School when they entered as preschoolers. As a teenager, Adrienne joined the student newspaper and social service club, and took shop. She left for Mount Holyoke College after junior year. “I knew I had seven more years of undergraduate and law school, and I was anxious to get started.”

“Adrienne was brilliant, and at first we thought it was arrogant to skip senior year for Holyoke,” recalls Ruthie Williams Cornelison, one of Alison’s classmates. Today, she has a different view. “Look, she left in 1959, when you were supposed to be engaged by junior year of college, married the week after graduation, have four kids and join the Junior League. It was hard to go against that, to break out, but she did.”

Arsht majored in economics and political science, and during sophomore year got a vivid lesson in parenting when her mother came to nurse her through measles instead of attending John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. It made Arsht think. “I knew I wanted a career, and I wanted to make a difference. Parenting is a commitment I just never thought I’d be good at.” She pauses, then deadpans: “I don’t do plants. I don’t do pets. I don’t do children or babies. I take them on when they’re 25.”

In 1963, Arsht entered Villanova Law School, and three years later her career began the new old-fashioned way: nepotism, as the first female lawyer in Daddy’s firm. Federal affirmative action soon took her to Trans World Airlines in Manhattan. “In those swashbuckling days, women were either stewardesses or in the legal department,” Arsht recalls. “I reviewed contracts negotiated by five guys. They would all go to lunch and not invite me. They said, ‘We may have to work with you, but we don’t have to eat with you.’ ”

While Adrienne waged gender battles, Alison joined the Cold War with the U.S. Information Agency. A gifted linguist, she was on a translating trip to Moscow in late 1969 when the KGB seized her for a night and a day, Adrienne says, and accused her of spying. Adrienne believes the incident gave her little sister post-traumatic stress disorder, from which she never recovered. Alison committed suicide in 1973 at age 29.

Until recently, Adrienne could not listen to classical music, which both sisters adored, while alone. She says she couldn’t bear to think of “the kind of pain Alison was experiencing ... that she was willing to give up the beauty of music she so loved.”

In her 10 years at TWA, Arsht says she moved from being one of a handful of women in the legal division to the first woman in its property, cargo and government relations departments. In February 1979, a day after turning 37, Arsht’s life changed dramatically. She had her first date with Feldman, whom she met while in Washington on airline business.

Twenty-eight years her senior, long separated and with a grown son and daughter, Mike Feldman was a canny Capitol Hill and White House insider and a founding partner of the powerhouse law firm Ginsburg, Feldman, Weil and Bress. He also was making a great deal of money in radio stations, banks and Washington real estate.

Over dinner at some forgotten K Street restaurant, Arsht found Feldman smart, witty and desirable. “I went back to New York, got my stuff and basically I moved in with him the next day,” she says. He seemed to be Mr. Right. “He was older, he had children and he was so established he wouldn’t be threatened by or interfere with my career.”

In the fall of 1980, at the once-restricted Greenville Country Club, a rabbi married them before 200 guests. Three of Feldman’s eight groomsmen were U.S. senators; the best man was his son, Jim, now a Supreme Court litigator and Washington National Opera president. (Arsht and her stepson remain close: “There is a family bond that developed when she married my father,” Jim Feldman says, though she is not close to her stepdaughter, who lives in California.) With Alison gone, the bride opted for no attendants.

Of course, people in Wilmington noticed the age gap, says Andy Kirkpatrick, the managing partner at Sam Arsht’s firm. “But it came up only in the context of how nice it was that Adrienne, who was no spring chicken, had found someone.”

In Washington, the couple lived at the Colonnade in Wesley Heights, one of countless buildings Feldman and his partners converted to condos; Arsht started a title company to handle his closings. In 1990, they moved to Potomac, where she built a large folly onto the house to bring musicales and parties to her husband “because going out became too tiring for him.”

For her girlfriends, she devised urban slumber parties for 15 or 16 power women at what is now the Fairmont hotel in West End. Pizza, ice cream and life updates were shared by the likes of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and lingerie magnate Josie Natori. Arsht also invested in women-owned firms; joined the Committee of 200, where top women business owners and corporate officers networked; and became active in the performing arts.

Then in 1996, after 16 years of marriage, Feldman and Arsht decided she should move to Florida to run TotalBank, a chain they had owned for 10 years. “It really needed to be managed by someone in the family,” she says. The task ultimately fell to and/or liberated her. “The magic of why the marriage worked is that Mike let me — I hate the word ‘let’ — but he was comfortable with the fact that I needed to live my own life within a marriage. He was very supportive, but it was very hard on him. He’d say, ‘I wish you were here.’ ”

For 11 years, Feldman would fly to Miami for some board meetings, and Arsht would fly home periodically. A few friends speculated on the state of their commuter union. Did the arrangement work? “Oh, God, yes,” she says, adding that she saw him at home in Potomac two weeks before he died at age 92.

Arsht, meanwhile, was making a solo splash in Miami. To promote the bank, she threw dinners for 50 or 60, as well as frequent breakfasts for eight. She adopted the frog as her corporate symbol and never appeared without a frog bauble. “I’d tell the women I was mentoring, ‘You have to kiss a lot of frogs,’ not in a romantic way but in a business way. I must have given out 400 frog pins.”

Breaking into Miami’s macho business and financial circles was not easy, says friend and admirer W. Hodding Carter III, a former Carter administration official who ran the Knight Foundation. “The average male authority figure actually quivered when she came into the room, because they were absolutely incapable of dealing with a very, very, very pushy woman who acted like a man when it came to business. She was a little like a guy. Actually, a lot like a guy. She was very candid.”

“She came in like someone who belonged, and belonged in a full-throated way, and that is always a style that is bothersome to the establishment,” says Alberto Ibarguen, who runs the Miami-based Knight Foundation and calls Arsht “terrific” on many levels. “In a place as new and changing as Miami, I think it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she did threaten people and she wasn’t particularly delicate about it.”

But Arsht saw no need to be delicate. She was a fixture on the after-hours circuit and bristled “when male bank presidents who were out at the same events were called ‘business executives,’ [and] I was called ‘a socialite.’ ”

There were other slights. She had been treasurer and secretary of the influential Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s public-private economic development agency, and it was widely assumed she’d become chair. Never happened. The council was “apparently concerned that she would shake things up too much,” reported South Florida CEO in 2004. The job went to a man.

That obvious snub hurt her, friends say, but Arsht makes no such concession, saying the word “hurt” greatly overstates how she felt. “Until they get that first woman, everybody has been snubbed.”

“She’s just not as tough as people think she is,” says former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, a friend and president of the University of Miami, which has received $6 million in Arsht donations over the years. “She is much more sensitive about what others think.”

Publicly, Arsht smiled gamely and kept moving, especially among the Cubans, whose immigrant success stories were so familiar to her. “The Hispanics really took me in.” One great champion was Jorge Plasencia, co-founder of Republica, which does Arsht’s marketing.

Arsht expanded TotalBank from four to 14 branches with assets of $1.4 billion, after buying two other banks. By late 2007, she had $200 million from the sale to Spanish Banco Popular Español and a new title: chairman emerita, TotalBank.

What put her on the philanthropic map was her rescue shortly thereafter of Miami’s arts center, which had opened in 2006 behind schedule and overbudget. In January 2008, she donated $30 million over three years to keep it afloat, and the grateful board renamed the Cesar Pelli two-building complex for her.

Like her parents, Arsht embraces the use of her name to inspire others to give big and seems unsettled when told some Washington critics deemed eponymous contributions nouveau riche social climbing. “Carnegie Hall, is that nouveau?” Arsht asks. “We can name buildings after companies? That’s okay?

“I want to set an example so women know it’s okay to give. It makes me feel good, and you really can change the world.”

“She’s having fun giving away money. And I find it very clever. She’s giving it away like a guy,” says Laura Liswood, a friend since their TWA days who runs the Council of Women World Leaders. “It’s strategic, with that sense of what the power of money provides you, but it doesn’t fall over into the manipulative or conniving. It’s heartfelt what she gives.”

“The thing Adrienne gets is that in order to get respect in Washington you play with the boys and not the girls,” said a friend requesting anonymity to avoid alienating Arsht. “She has both the money and the natural inclination to understand that influence doesn’t happen at a ladies’ lunch. She has an agenda, but it’s not a hidden agenda. It’s out there.”

Today’s agenda might best be called “She’s Back.”

“This is home,” Arsht says. “I went to Miami for a project, to run the bank. I did it, I sold it, I came home.”

* * *

“I am having a terrific time,” Arsht declares.

Next month, she’s off to Boston for a board meeting of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which she joined in 2009. (She met Jackie Kennedy Onassis and daughter Caroline through Feldman, whose papers Arsht donated to the library.) Then it’s Miami, where she still owns adjacent waterfront homes on Brickell Avenue, in a four-acre compound worth in the neighborhood of $30 million. She’ll be there to catch the Jazz Roots festival at the Arsht Center and to spend time with pianist-crooner Michael Feinstein, a festival headliner and her friend and houseguest.

She often hops the train to New York for a performance at Lincoln Center, and recently flew to France for a pianist chum’s 50th birthday. She happily shops for designer clothes: strapless gowns, power suits, skinny jeans, fitted tops with necklines that show off her vast collection of jewelry by Iradj Moini, who estimates Arsht owns 500 of his designs. Twenty-four of Moini’s meticulously crafted, four-figure purses hang like fine art in niches in Arsht’s main sitting room. “She likes my pieces because they are so glittery and over-the-top,” he says.

Despite this high-flying life, Avis Renshaw, owner of Mom’s Apple Pie Company, finds Arsht endearingly down-to-earth.

They met in the 1980s, after Arsht, in a quest to find a decent fruitcake, tasted one from Mom’s and was bowled over. Arsht ultimately visited Renshaw, who had been turning out pies in a barn behind her Reston home before she and her husband bought a farm near Lucketts.

“I’d never met anybody as openly friendly, without a personal agenda. She was just very concerned and interested in female entre­pre­neur­ship,” says Renshaw, a self-described “construction-boot, blue-jean, flannel-shirt-wearing chick.” The baker adds, “Nothing about me says ‘rung on the social ladder.’ ”

Arsht invested in much-needed automation, and Mom’s flourished. More than 20 years later, Renshaw’s pies and cookies are served at every Arsht brunch, and the women remain friends. Last Thanksgiving, Arsht and Liswood drove to Leesburg to hang out at Mom’s with Renshaw.

“People might say she hasn’t been around for years, but she has,” says Liswood. “I just think that getting to the resource level she has, coming back here as her own person, she is free to be herself. It’s Adrienne in full bloom.”

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post reporter who last wrote for the Magazine about modern beach houses. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

 
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