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The Billionaire Who Loved Bluegrass

Financier and philanthropist spread around his millions so "good things will grow"

F. Warren Hellman, a banjo-picking billionaire whose life followed such an extraordinary and eccentric arc it perhaps could only have taken place in San Francisco, died Sunday evening at UCSF Medical Center. He was 77.

The cause was 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. 

A rugged iconoclast whose views on life rarely failed to surprise, 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 who shared his love of music and cross-country “ride and tie” racing.

Lanky and angular, an endurance runner and skier, Hellman had a penchant for politically incorrect humor and little tolerance for phonies. He was a ragged dresser, an apologetic capitalist and one of the most beloved figures in San Francisco history.

Hellman acquired the nickname “Hurricane Hellman” early in his business career. At 26, he became the youngest-ever partner at Lehman Brothers, the now-defunct financial services firm; in 1973, at 39, he was named president and head of investment banking. In 1977, he co-founded the venture capital firm Matrix Partners, an early investor in Apple, Continental Cable (now Comcast) and Stratus Computer. In 1984, Hellman launched Hellman & Friedman LLC, a private equity firm that has raised over $25 billion in capital.

Hellman spent as much energy distributing his wealth as he did acquiring it.

His causes were endless — pension reform, the UC Berkeley aquatics program, the Mills College cross-country team, the Jewish Community Endowment Fund — and he frequently wrote songs about them. His passion for journalism led him in 2010 to found The Bay Citizen, where he served as chairman.

“Jesus Christ, I'm a frenetic busybody,” Hellman joked in a 2001 interview.

Phil Bronstein, the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and a friend of Hellman’s for more than a decade, said: “Warren was San Francisco, and his passion for the city ran deep. His philanthropy and quiet leadership were unparalleled.”

Jonathan Nelson, the founder of Organic, Inc. and a longtime Hellman friend who, while riding on a ski lift one day, encouraged Hellman’s fantasy to stage a free bluegrass festival, said Hellman left his mark on the world in numerous ways.

There is a “crazy Zelig thing” about Warren, Nelson said. “Not only did he have three full careers in finance but he founded a newspaper and he went to Burning Man with me.” Nelson said he took Hellman to the desert art festival for his 70th birthday. “It was so amazing that he went back the next year.”

Born in New York City in 1934, Hellman was the son of investment banker Marco “Mick” Hellman and the great-grandson of Isaias W. Hellman, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who launched one of California’s first banks out of a Los Angeles dry goods store and went on to earn millions in banking, transportation, real estate and oil.

Hellman never met Isaias, but had been enthralled with him since childhood. “I was asked once, ‘If you could meet someone who went before...’ I didn’t hesitate: It would be I.W.,” he said in February during an interview at the Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley. “He was a remarkable human being, with a fantastic ability to see over the horizon.”

To the audience's delight, Hellman then sang two verses of a song had written for his great-grandfather:

I.W. Hellman, he was a pioneer / came to California in his 16th year / he crossed the isthmus to come here / and become California’s greatest financier.

He went to work in a dry goods store / and said this is not what I came here for / so I’ll put me a safe right here by the door / because I am probably a banker at my core!

In this video, Hellman sings about his great-grandfather with The Wronglers:

Hardly Strictly 09 - the Wronglers

During World War II, when his father was sent overseas, Hellman moved to the Central Valley, near Vacaville, with his mother, Ruth Koshland Hellman, and his sister Nancy — now Nancy Bechtle, herself a San Francisco philanthropist and community activist.

Even as a child, Hellman showed evidence of having a profound disrespect for rules. Chris Hellman, his wife of 56 years, once said she traced his drive to an incident when one of his arms was severely burned at age 9 in a kerosene lamp fire. It seems he was sneaking into his mother’s bedroom with plans of making off with a toy that didn’t belong to him. “I never really liked authority,” Hellman later acknowledged in an interview.

An avid horseman, Hellman would escape for long rides — a practice that so unnerved his mother that she enrolled him in the San Rafael Military Academy to give him discipline. When his father returned at the end of the war, the family relocated to San Francisco, where Hellman enrolled in Lowell High School. He went on to the University of California, Berkeley, where he triple-majored in economics, political science and history, graduating in 1955.

Hellman served two years in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, before enrolling at Harvard Business School. He then spent 15 years at Lehman Brothers in New York. Often described as “deal-driven and aggressive,” Hellman achieved extraordinary financial success independent of his wealthy family legacy.

Hellman met Chris, a former ballet dancer, on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth, in what his daughter, Dr. Tricia Hellman Gibbs, described as “the most romantic story ever.”

“My mother was in the London Festival Ballet; she was traveling to New York from Southampton, England by ocean liner,” she said. “And my dad was returning home to New York from England. My father saw this group of beautiful young dancers at a table and asked to be introduced. So they met on the Queen Elizabeth, and were together from that day on. I feel extremely fortunate to have had that in my life: parents whose love story I look up to.”

In recent years, as Chris became stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and Hellman cared for her, “that love has continued,” Tricia said. “He still sees her as the beautiful dancer he met on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth.”

Tricia, a former member of the U.S. ski team and the founder, along with her husband Richard Gibbs, of the San Francisco Free Clinic, said she spent much of her childhood doubled over at her father’s jokes. In a statement, Hellman's four children said their father possessed "the deepest repertoire of mildly inappropriate jokes of anyone we ever met, wrote some truly humorous bluegrass songs, and once made (his daughter) Frances laugh until milk came out her nose. You could always crack him up with a Monty Python line (“NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition”)." 

“We laughed so much; he was the funniest father,” Tricia said. 

Hellman in his early years at Lehman was hard-charging and, by his own accounts, occasionally out of control. One evening, while vacationing on Cape Cod, he and a friend were arrested when their partying got out of hand and they drove across neighbors’ lawns.

“We got to Bill’s house, and Bill decided to go up on his roof while I got sick under a bush,” Hellman recalled. “And this police car pulls in and the cop said, ‘Boys, have you been out driving?’ And I said ‘Oh no, officer.’ But he put his hand on my hood and felt it was warm and took us down to the Falmouth jail.”

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