DOES CHUCK FEENEY EVER WON- der what it would be like to be a billionaire? Someone, say, like Robert Miller, his college friend and former business partner. According to newspaper accounts, Miller has homes in New York, Gstaad, Paris and Hong Kong, as well as a 32,000-acre estate in Yorkshire, England, where he is restoring the grouse moor. When his daughter married Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, Queen Elizabeth II hosted a party at Claridges. The same accounts describe Miller as ""obsessed with secrecy,'' although when you throw three-day parties where your wife arrives in a hot-air balloon dressed as a South American princess, it's hard to keep your name out of the papers altogether.
Feeney could have had all that, too, except that back in 1984 he turned over his share of the business he and Miller founded together, Duty Free Shoppers, Ltd. (DFS), to a charitable foundation he created. Including other investments, Feeney gave the foundation something like $500 million, an amount that has grown to about $3.5 billion today. And over the years the foundation has given away $600 million to causes ranging from Feeney's alma mater, Cornell University, to a youth program in Limerick, Ireland. Feeney, personally, is also the largest American contributor to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. But Feeney, too, was obsessed with secrecy. Until last week, when he reluctantly assented to be interviewed for a front-page story in The New York Times, he was virtually unknown, even in the tiny world of billion-dollar philanthropy. Just a few months ago Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $975 million. Associates say he actually has less than $5 million.
The effect of these revelations in a culture that has abandoned the ideal of renunciation, except of dessert, was electrifying. ""I've never seen anything like it,'' said Thomas Troyer, an expert in philanthropic law. Not many Americans have given away as much as $500 million. If anything, some observers detect a trend away from charity on the part of the very rich, which that occasional social critic Ted Turner attributes to the influence of Forbes. By publicly ranking Americans by how much money they have, the magazine supplies an answer to the rhetorical question, What good does it do to have more money than you could possibly spend in your lifetime?
Not that there haven't been gifts bigger than Feeney's. Walter Annenberg, the retired publisher of TV Guide, has donated well over $1 billion to charity in the last decade. But Annenberg is 88, and still has more than $3 billion, according to Forbes. Feeney made his gift in the prime of life--he is just 65 now, with five children from his first wife (he has since remarried). He did it, moreover, without any intention of taking credit. The very existence of his foundation became known only by accident, when it sold its share of DFS for around $1.6 billion to the French conglomerate LVMH MoEt Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The foundation ranks fifth on a list of the biggest Ameri- can grant-making institutions (although it was actually incorporated in Bermuda, thereby avoiding U.S. disclosure requirements)--a list whose names invariably honor the generosity of their donors. But there is no Feeney among the Fords and Rockefellers, only the willfully obscure Atlantic Foundation and Trust.
There was nothing in Feeney's history to set him apart from the run of software and real-estate moguls on Forbes's honor roll. He was raised in the modest middle-class suburb of Elizabeth, N.J., and helped put himself through Cornell selling sandwiches door-to-door in the fraternities. The few known facts about his career paint a picture of a typically hard-driving and acquisitive businessman; his company thrived by paying ""commissions'' to tour guides for herding their captive itinerants through DFS's doors. His conversion from accumulating money to giving it away suggests an almost religious transforma- tion, but Stephen Hall, a longtime friend, says Feeney described himself as ""not very religious.''
Great luxury never seemed to hold much attraction for him, either. He lives modestly by millionaire standards, with apartments in Manhattan, California and Ireland; he has also been known to take in the Kentucky Derby. As chairman of the foundation he is paid a salary, which a foundation official describes only as ""less than $1 million.'' But he is legendary among friends for flying coach, for meeting over lunch in coffee shops and for his $15 wristwatch. One colleague recalls how Feeney was about to attend a black-tie dinner in Dublin last year wearing a sweater, until someone pointed out that that was not the way to avoid calling attention to himself. Feeney grudgingly donned a tuxedo, although he had to scrounge a bow tie from a waiter when it was time to speak.
In any case, he has applied himself to charity with the same vigor he brought to business. He chose heavyweight directors, including Frank Rhodes and Michael Sovern, presidents emeritus of Cornell and Columbia, respectively; he hired a small but top-flight professional staff, headed by Joel L. Fleishman, a law professor at Duke. The virtue of secrecy was that they didn't get unsolicited grant applications. Instead, they sought out potential beneficiaries on their own, chiefly universities, health and youth programs in American and Irish cities. One recipient, Michael Brown of City Year, a youth program based in Boston, says Feeney's foundation put him through ""probably the most rigorous grant process we'd ever experienced.''
The one seeming anomaly in Feeney's career is his involvement with the controversial Sinn Fein, with its links to the IRA. Feeney, whose grandparents immigrated to the United States from County Fermanagh, is deeply committed to Irish causes but appears to be sincerely interested in peace, not buying bombs. According to Conor O'Clery, an Irish journalist and the author of an upcoming book on the 1994 IRA ceasefire, Feeney was one of a small group of Irish-Americans who served as intermediaries between Sinn Fein and the Clinton administra- tion. ""Feeney was the key person there,'' O'Clery says, ""because he said in effect that he would underwrite an office for Sinn Fein in Washington. He brought financial clout to the whole thing.''
So now his anonymity has been punctured, but there's no sign that his outlook has changed. The visible rewards of great philanthropy--the honors, the balls, the quasi immortality of having a hospital or museum wing in one's name--hold no attraction for him, any more than his former partner's grouse moor. Instead, Chuck Feeney goes his own way, quietly proving that, yes, money really can buy happiness.
Charles Feeney created a foundation with his money. Other philanthropists prefer large, one-time gifts. A list of "96's largest givers, compiled by Slate and Newsweek:
$50 million to the Emma Lazarus Fund, to help immigrants become U.S. citizens
46 million to educational, social and reforms in Russia
12 million to the Algebra Project, for math education in the United States
10 million to South African ventures
1.5 million to criminal-justice programs in the U.S.
100 million to Scripps Research Institute, to establish the Skaggs Institute for chemical biology
60 million (pledged over five years) to the Illinois Institute of Technology
60 million worth of 20th-century art ot the Metropolitan Museum of Art
60 million to the Illinois Institute of Technology
45 million to UCLA, for a neuroscience and genetics research facility
15 million to the City of Hope, Mayo Clinic, Tel Aviv Foundation, Barilon University
40 million worth of Carnival stock to the New World Symphony in Miami
35 million to the University of Southern California Business School
20 million to Yale University residential colleges
10 million to Duke University
27 million to Harvard and the University of Washington
100 million to his foundation
Feeney's foundation, the only one not named after its sponsor, ranks among the great philanthropic groups. The top givers:
GRANTS ASSETS FOUNDATION (1996, IN MILLIONS) Ford Foundation $348 $8,177 W.K. Kellogg Foundation 253 5,994 Pew Charitable Trusts 180 3,800 J.D. & C.T. MacArthur Foundation 146 3,100 Atlantic Foundation and Atlantic Trust 140 3,500 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation* 136 3,754 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation 114 2,900 Rockefeller Foundation** 111 2,400 Lilly Endowment* 99 3,093 Annenberg Foundation 89 1,835 *1994 FIGURES. **1995 FIGURES. SOURCE: NEWSWEEK RESEARCH, CENTER FOR FOUNDATIONS