NEW YORK — One by one, speakers rose to toast the elderly gent with baggy pants and a shy, gaptoothed smile.
"Of course, he didn't wear a tie tonight," teased one. Another called attention to the honoree's cheap watch and the plastic bag that serves as his briefcase.
The joshing at a Manhattan gathering would have been nothing out of the ordinary except that the man pulling a worn blue blazer over his head in mock modesty was none other than the onetime billionaire, Chuck Feeney.
Never heard of him? No surprise there.
Over the years, the frugal 76-year-old has made a fetish out of anonymity. He declined to name his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, after himself, registering the $8-billion behemoth in Bermuda to avoid U.S. disclosure laws. He lavishes hundreds of millions of dollars on universities and hospitals but won't allow even a small plaque identifying him as a donor.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, March 13, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Philanthropist: The Column One article in Saturday's Section A about philanthropist Chuck Feeney misspelled Liechtenstein as Lichtenstein.
"We just didn't want to be blowing our horn," he explains in a rare interview at his daughter's Upper East Side apartment.
The party was to celebrate a biography of the elusive tycoon by Irish journalist Conor O'Clery, titled "The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune," published last fall.
Feeney said he cooperated with the book and submitted to an interview because he is driven by a new public mission: nudging hedge fund heavies and silicon scions into "giving while living."
It is the latest trend in philanthropy and one that he, more than anyone, jump-started several years before billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren E. Buffett followed suit.
Feeney, a founder of the conglomerate Duty Free Shoppers, said he wants to "set an example" to address "that layer up there of people," the ones, as he puts it, who have "a jillion dollars. . . . I mean, honestly, if you ask them, 'Tell me what you're doing with your money this week?' they couldn't spend a fraction of what they're accruing."
Most foundations, set up after the donor's death, dribble out barely more than 5% of their assets each year, the legal minimum.
But Feeney, raised in a blue-collar Irish Catholic family in New Jersey, quietly transferred the bulk of his fortune to his foundation when he was 53. Then, eight years ago, he instructed his board to pay out every last dollar by 2016.
So far: $4 billion down, $4 billion to go. Atlantic Philanthropies is spreading its wealth at the rate of more than $400 million a year, more than any U.S.-based family foundation apart from Bill & Melinda Gates and Ford.
As Feeney sees it, there is too much misery in the world to justify delay. "I'm not going to die until I can spend it," he vows with a merry chuckle.
Feeney's biggest beneficiary has been Cornell University, which he attended on the GI Bill, earning spending money by selling sandwiches to fraternities. Over four decades, he has donated an astonishing $588 million to the Ithaca, N.Y., campus, almost all of it anonymously.
Many of Feeney's grants are still directed to traditional bricks and mortar -- $60 million for a Stanford biomedical center and $125 million for a UC San Francisco cardiovascular complex.
But others are iconoclastic: Fighting homophobia among South African Muslims. Lobbying against the death penalty in New Jersey. Buying medical supplies for Cuban-trained doctors. Funding a Washington office for Sinn Fein during the Irish peace negotiations.
Feeney built his global enterprise through cutthroat competition and uncanny business intuition. He speaks fluent French and Japanese. And he still hop-scotches from Dublin to Da Nang seeding new projects.
But his demeanor is affable and unprepossessing and his conversational style is hesitant. He is allergic to introspection. Direct questions send him into vague digressions leavened with humorous asides.
In the tiny world of stratospheric wealth, Feeney is a man of yin and yang: extravagant charity coupled with personal penny-pinching. "It's the intelligent thing to be frugal," says the erstwhile billionaire, who jokingly refers to himself as "the shabby philanthropist."
He once owned six luxurious homes from the French Riviera to Mayfair to Park Avenue. These days, he owns none, instead hunkering down in a cramped one-bedroom rental in San Francisco with his second wife, Helga, his former secretary.
He raked in billions selling duty-free cognac, perfume and designer labels. But you won't catch Feeney in a Hermes tie or Gucci loafers. He once met the prime minister of Ireland with his drugstore glasses held together by a paper clip.
Feeney doesn't own a car and prefers buses to taxis. Until he turned 75, he flew coach. Now, making excuses for wobbly knees, he upgrades with frequent flier miles.
Fine dining? "There are restaurants you can go in and pay $100 a person for a meal," he muses. "I get as much satisfaction out of paying $25. I happen to enjoy grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches."