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Frank Pearl, D.C. financier and philanthropist, dies at 68

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In a city where the rich and influential like to see their names emblazoned on university buildings and museum wings, Frank Pearl so craved anonymity that he was regarded as the most powerful unknown man in Washington.

Mr. Pearl, who died of cancer May 4 at age 68, was an indefatigable real estate lawyer who helped launch the leveraged buyout boom of the 1980s. He helped mastermind one of the first monumental leveraged buyouts, using almost entirely borrowed money to turn an $80 million investment in a greeting card company into a $290 million public offering.

The deal “was the light bulb that went off with everyone on Wall Street,” said Bryan Burrough, whose book “Barbarians at the Gate” chronicled that freewheeling era of high finance. “It was enormously influential because it showed the incredible potential profitability in leveraged buyouts, not just doubling or tripling your money but increasing your money by 500 percent.”

As he became one of Washington’s most successful financiers, Mr. Pearl led private equity funds focused on health care, engineering technology and, perhaps most enduringly, book publishing.

He was a key architect of one of the most ambitious publishing enterprises of the 1990s. His Perseus Books Group conglomerate included publishing houses such as PublicAffairs — an important force on current affairs, politics, history and biography — and is now one of the country’s largest independent book distributors.

Under Mr. Pearl’s guidance, Perseus accumulated a list of cele­brated authors, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West, Orlando Patterson, Evan Connell, the late Gina Berriault and the late Iris Chang. Chang’s nonfiction volume “The Rape of Nanking,” about Japanese atrocities in China during World War II, was published by the Perseus imprint Basic­Books in 1997 and became a critical success and international bestseller.

Mr. Pearl invested in the publishing industry at a bleak moment for the trade, when most presses sought to keep readers by churning out low-brow crowd-pleasers.

Mr. Pearl had money to burn and expressed a willingness to set the fire himself. In a rare interview, he told The Washington Post that his mission was to ensure that “publishing doesn’t simply become a lowest-common-denominator commercial operation. It’s of crucial importance to the intellectual landscape in this country that important books get published and stay in print.”

Wide-ranging interests

Mr. Pearl was an omnivorous aesthete whose tastes encompassed classical British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and Mississippi bluesman Mose Allison. He learned to play the harpsichord. He was an aficionado of Renaissance oil paintings and ancient Greek philosophers. He took the name for Perseus Books from a son of the Greek god Zeus.

As well connected as he was cultured, Mr. Pearl’s closest associates included former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, Washington’s socially prominent Cafritz family, diplomat Richard Holbrooke, conductor Leonard Slatkin and Washington power broker Vernon E. Jordan Jr.

Jordan, the former executive director of the National Urban League, confirmed the death of his friend, which occurred at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. “He was one of the most quietly influential individuals I have known,” Jordan said.

A millionaire many times over by 44, the balding and bearded Mr. Pearl became a wide-ranging philanthropist, prominent arts patron and Democratic Party donor. His political largesse alone reportedly was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over several decades. (He was among those whom then-Vice President Al Gore called from the White House before the 1996 election to seek a donation of $25,000 to $100,000 for the Democratic National Committee. Gore memorably defended the calls by saying there was “no controlling legal authority” to prohibit the solicitations.)

Mr. Pearl immersed himself in Washington’s cultural elite, serving as a National Gallery of Art trustee and a Kennedy Center board member. At the Kennedy Center, he underwrote musical productions and provided seed money to finance a summer Mozart festival.

He funded cancer research at Georgetown University and endowed scholarships for inner-city Washingtonians.

Lindsey Buss, president of Martha’s Table, a soup kitchen in Washington, said Mr. Pearl was one of the organization’s most consistent donors over three decades. He said Mr. Pearl helped finance a vital day-care program at the organization.

He also sometimes found startling solutions to some of the kitchen’s daily problems. Mr. Pearl once arranged for a dead steer from his farm in Rappahannock County, Va., to be dropped off at the soup kitchen. “He asked us how we wanted it butchered,” Buss said.

Whether closing business deals or making private financial gifts, Mr. Pearl sought to preserve his anonymity. He kept his name off news releases and out of the comprehensive Pratt’s Guide, the go-to reference for venture capitalism.

“Living life as a public person is an unnatural way to live,” he once told The Post. “There is something unbecoming about seeking publicity.”

Frank Hilton Pearl, whose father was a lawyer, was born May 27, 1943, in New Haven, Conn., and raised in Chicago. His parents valued the fine arts and encouraged their son to take painting classes and attend performances at the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony.

He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from American University in 1966 and graduated from its law school in 1969. That same year, he married Geryl Tull. Besides his wife, survivors include a sister.

Launching buyout wave

After law school, Mr. Pearl began practicing with the small Washington firm of Lane and Edson, which specialized in housing and real estate matters. Mr. Pearl’s cachet rose when he succeeded in winning the business of Washington real estate mogul Conrad Cafritz.

Another pivotal client was Raymond Chambers, a New Jersey real estate investor for whom Mr. Pearl had once handled a real estate transaction in Maryland. Chambers said Mr. Pearl often expressed his interest in moving into corporate transactions. So when Chambers partnered with former Treasury secretary William E. Simon to form the investment group Wesray Capital Corp. in 1980, he insisted on hiring Mr. Pearl as their attorney.

Two years later, Wesray created a tempest on Wall Street with its leveraged buyout of Gibson Greetings of Cincinnati. Wesray purchased Gibson in January 1982 for $80 million and the next year took the company public for $290 million. Simon alone transformed an investment of $300,000 into a profit of $70 million.

Mr. Pearl, the creative force behind the financial structuring of the Gibson deal, became a partner at Wesray and participated in dozens of leveraged buyouts. He was involved in the firm’s gigantic buyout of Avis, the car rental company, which Wesray bought for $265 million in 1986 and later sold for $1 billion.

But as the business of leveraged buyouts attracted a hinkier crowd of investors willing to engage in hostile takeovers and use junk-bond financing, Mr. Pearl decided to retire in 1988.

He had acquired a taste for fine living. With his wife, he sailed around the world in a 92-foot sloop and enjoyed extended stays in France, California and the Virginia countryside. He had homes in Palm Beach, Fla., Flint Hill, Va., and, until recently, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Mr. Pearl returned to Washington in 1989 and picked up his career as a private investor. He plowed $200 million into the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., with partners who included hotel executive and Republican presidential adviser Fred Malek.

Mr. Pearl balanced his investments with his growing philanthropic, political and artistic endeavors. Jordan said Mr. Pearl hosted low-key dinners for presidential contenders and used his clout to sway other contributors.

The financier entered publishing through a friendship with Charles Moffett, a National Gallery curator who became director of the District’s Phillips Collection museum. They collaborated on financing a book about the painter Jacob Lawrence, and Mr. Pearl used the experience to learn about distribution and the other fine points of the trade.

The book, “Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series” (1993), with an introductory essay by Gates, was well received critically and encouraged Mr. Pearl to start Perseus Books.

‘Least frivolous person’

As top editor, Mr. Pearl installed Jack Shoemaker, a widely respected industry veteran who been West Coast editor for the New York publisher Pantheon Books. Shoemaker had never heard of Mr. Pearl when the investor approached him through an intermediary but later told New York magazine that he found Mr. Pearl to be “the least frivolous person I’ve ever met.”

Mr. Pearl spent tens of millions of dollars on Perseus Books Group, which included Counterpoint Press and later saw the addition of imprints such as Public­Affairs; BasicBooks, the nonfiction specialist; Avalon Publishing for travel and guide books; Basic Civitas, focused on black history; Nation Books for nonfiction works of a progressive political spirit; Seal Press for women’s nonfiction; and Westview Press for college textbooks.

As the company grew, Perseus Books underwent various personnel changes, from the top down. It moved into distribution, made a series of acquisitions and now, under president and chief executive David Steinberger, is one of the largest independent book distributors in the country.

Mr. Pearl continued to bring high-profile partners such as Holbrooke and former Fannie Mae chief executive James A. Johnson into his many business ventures. Perseus bought Converse shoes in 2001 for nearly $45 million at a bankruptcy sale and then, after a series of successful product launches, orchestrated its sale to Nike for $305 million in 2003.

Mr. Pearl was recently working on an investment in the manufacture of vans that would allow improved access for quadriplegics, Chambers said.

As always, Mr. Pearl was the mute more than the trumpet.

“He did not want to be recognized for anything that he did,” Chambers said. “He just wanted to go quietly about doing his business. In Frank’s case, if he had been recognized for his creative financial structuring achievements or his philanthropy, it might have taken away his quiet satisfaction for having done it.”

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