The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune
By Conor O’Clery
Chuck Feeney has spent much of the past quarter-century trying to erase his enormous wealth. He has neither a house nor a car. He wears a $15 plastic watch, buys suits off the rack, and wonders sometimes if he really needs more than one pair of shoes. In 1988, when Forbes magazine named him the 23rd richest man in America, the news shocked many of his old friends from working-class Elizabeth, N.J. Up to a point, though, the magazine had its facts right. What reporters didn’t know was that, six years earlier, Feeney had begun transferring much of his wealth to charitable trusts based in Bermuda. He was already on the road to giving it all away.
Feeney, now 76, has been nearly as secretive about his philanthropy as he was about his status as a billionaire, said Michelle Conlin in BusinessWeek. For decades, he made most of his donations anonymously. But he agreed to a biography when he realized his story was leaking out, and Conor O’Clery’s “superbly written page-turner” is the result. Feeney, a Korean War vet who went to Cornell with help from the GI Bill, launched the Duty Free Shoppers retail empire in the late 1950s when he and a partner started selling tariff-free liquor to American sailors stationed in Europe. As they built the business into a worldwide chain of airport concessions, said Jim Dwyer in The New York Times, they took advantage of a gray area of the law and were often “one quick step ahead of police or immigration authorities.”
After the “rollicking” tale of Feeney’s entrepreneurial achievements, said Jonathan Birchall in the Financial Times, our hero is shown devoting “as much energy to giving money away as he did to making it.” The $4 billion that Feeney’s foundations have thus far dispersed have supported AIDS clinics in South Africa, education programs in Vietnam, cancer research in Australia, and peace initiatives in Northern Ireland. But this “complex” man, a well-loved father of five, set the bar high four years ago when his foundation announced that it intended to spend its way out of business by 2017. To do so, said Leslie Lenkowsky in The Wall Street Journal, “it will have to donate at a rate of about a million dollars a day.”