Billionaire businessman, bluegrass musician Warren Hellman dies at 77

Warren Hellman, an iconoclastic Bay Area businessman who used his wealth for philanthropy and to focus on projects he loved, such as bluegrass banjo, died at 77 on Dec. 18.

In many online and newspaper tributes to Hellman, he was described as an “only in San Francisco” character. A photo of him on the front page of his hometown San Francisco Chronicle showed Hellman playing banjo in a free music festival he endowed wearing a blue sport jacket emblazoned with spangly silver Stars of David.

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Hellman, who celebrated his bar mitzvah at 75, referred to himself onstage as, “The Rhinestone Jewboy,” the Bay Citizen, an alternative newspaper he founded in 2010, reported in its lengthy (and worth reading in full) appreciation of him.

The Citizen wrote that Hellman died from complications from treatment he had been receiving for leukemia:

“Doctors had told Hellman that the illness could be neutralized, and he postponed chemotherapy treatments this fall to appear with his band The Wronglers at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, his lavish annual gift to the city, and to tour with one of his idols, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. With typical humor, Hellman joked in recent weeks that he had changed his name to Luke Emia. He referred to his dreaded chemo medication as Retuxif-ck.”

Berkeley writer Frances Dinkelspiel, who wrote a book about Hellman’s entrepreneurial great-grandfather,  Isaias Hellman – an immigrant from Bavaria who launched one of California’s first banks and earned millions in banking, transportation, real estate and oil – said one of the proudest moments of Hellman’s life was appearing on the radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion," last summer with The Wronglers, and Gilmore.

In recounting his mix of mainstream and alternative, the Citizen wrote that Hellman was “a lifelong Republican who supported labor unions, an investment banker whose greatest joy was playing songs of the working class in a bluegrass band, and a billionaire who wanted to pay more taxes and preferred the company of crooners and horsemen.”

Hellman was an endurance runner and skier who participated in extreme marathons, “had a penchant for politically incorrect humor and little tolerance for phonies.”

Hellman’s daughter Patricia Hellman Gibbs described her father as “a Renaissance man, excelling in so many aspects of life.He was a phenomenally successful businessman, a lifelong competitive athlete, a community leader, a dedicated musician, and fiercely devoted to his family.”

Hellman served two years in Germany with the US Army, received an MBA a Harvard Business School and then spent 15 years at Lehman Brothers in New York before co-founding Hellman & Friedman, a private-equity firm.

Hellman & Friedman helped take Levi Strauss & Co. private for $1.8 billion in 1985, invested $224 million in advertising company Young & Rubicam in 1996, bought into Formula One Racing for $312 million in early 2000, and became the first outside investor in the Nasdaq Stock Market in 2001, the Chronicle reported.

He was active in Bay Area politics and supported ballot measures that reformed the city’s pension system and created an underground parking garage beneath Golden Gate Park, the Chronicle said. 

He funded the San Francisco Free Clinic and then the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, now an annual, free, three-day event that draws hundreds of thousands to Golden Gate Park. The festival’s website featured a video of the memorial service for Hellman at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El on Dec. 21, 2011.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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