NEW YORK — One by one, speakers rose to toast the elderly gent with baggy pants and a shy, gap-toothed 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 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.
"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 for people 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 percent 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 directed to traditional bricks and mortar — $60-million for a Stanford biomedical center and $125-million for a University of California at San Francisco cardiovascular complex.
But others are iconoclastic: Fighting homophobia among South African Muslims. Lobbying against the death penalty in New Jersey. Buying 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.
A reluctant billionaire
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. I get as much satisfaction out of paying $25. I happen to enjoy grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches."
Niall O'Dowd, a friend of Feeney and editor of Irish-America magazine, reflects: "The way he copes with his wealth is to never remove himself from his working-class persona. He keeps grounded by acting like it hasn't happened to him — like basically he is still the same guy."
At the book party, most of the guests were bused in from the Garden State: former classmates from St. Mary's of the Assumption High School and an extended clan of Feeney-Fitzpatricks, including two of his five children.
O'Clery, former international business editor of the Irish Times, spent two years traveling with Feeney and investigating a financial empire that had been sheathed for decades in obsessive secrecy. He unfolds a story of ferocious entrepreneurship that operated, he concluded, "on the edge of legality but was never corrupt."
After graduating from college, Feeney, who had served in the U.S. Air Force in Japan during the Korean War, moved to Europe. With a partner he knew from Cornell, Robert Miller, he began peddling duty-free liquor to sailors.
The two went on to sell cars to American soldiers based in Europe and Asia. Eventually, profiting from a postwar boom in tourism, they built Duty Free Shoppers into the biggest retailer of liquor and cigarettes in the world and a global purveyor of luxury goods.
Their ingenious schemes stretched the limits of the duty-free concept.
As O'Clery explains, Duty Free Shoppers allowed a tourist in Mexico, for instance, to peruse a catalog and choose a cashmere sweater to be shipped from Amsterdam to his home in the United States. Leaving Mexico, he could declare the faraway sweater as "unaccompanied baggage" and avoid paying duty. Feeney and Miller operated with Swiss bank accounts and offshore headquarters in Lichtenstein, Monaco and the Netherlands Antilles. They registered assets in the names of Danielle, Feeney's French wife, and Miller's Ecuadorean wife, Chantal, as a precaution against the long arm of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
Today, Feeney makes no apologies. "Most large companies structure their affairs so that they minimize their tax payments," he says, rocking back on an armchair in his daughter's apartment. "As long as you do it within the law, it's okay."
For Duty Free Shoppers, publicity was to be avoided at all cost, to ward off not just tax collectors but also competitors. "If you had a machine to make money, you wouldn't blow your horn and say copy me, copy me," says Feeney, whose annual share of dividends from the business reached $155-million in 1988, making him richer at the time than Rupert Murdoch, David Rockefeller or Donald Trump.
Why did he decide to give it away, leaving himself with a net worth then that dipped below $1-million? "I'm an easygoing guy," he shrugs. "I like to eat my grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches quietly. I don't like people to say, 'Look over there; he's eating a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.' "
In 1990, Feeney had separated from Danielle. And, in the divorce, she retained their mansions and luxury apartments, along with $100-million.
"The wealth got to him," says a nephew, Daniel Fitzpatrick. "He got disgusted by it, in my opinion. He said, 'This expensive heavy-duty lifestyle doesn't fit me.' "