Warren Hellman: S.F., Jewish community lose an icon

Just last week, a meadow in Golden Gate Park was renamed Hellman Hollow — a fitting gesture for the man who gave San Francisco one of its cultural treasures, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, which takes place annually at that site.

Warren Hellman lived long enough to accept the honor from the city he adored. But on Dec. 18, a mere three days after the renaming ceremony, the billionaire financier, musician, athlete, philanthropist and passionate lover of life died from complications of leukemia. He was 77.

A memorial for Hellman was held Dec. 21 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and a larger community celebration is going to be held in the coming weeks, most likely at Golden Gate Park.

With his youthful outlook and appearance, Hellman seemed impervious to age. Though he had the magic touch when it came to money, Hellman was happier on stage with his band, the Wronglers, banjo in hand, breaking off a sparkling clawhammer solo.

Playing the banjo was perhaps No. 1 among Warren Hellman’s many passions.

He also was happier attending Torah study, as he did regularly for more than 25 years, often at his San Francisco home. He participated in his last Torah study session just a week ago, remotely by phone from a hospital bed.

And he was happier still when giving away vast sums of his fortune to make the city and the world a better place.

“Money,” Hellman once said, “is like manure. If you spread it around, good things will grow. And if you pile it up, it just smells bad.”

“There aren’t too many people who can move as smoothly as he could from one area to another,” said Hellman’s friend and fellow philanthropist, Tad Taube. “He was a great human being and a very committed Jew. He had a global perspective on life and the world; a real renaissance man.”

Added Nate Levine, former executive director of the JCC of San Francisco and a member of the Wronglers: “I’ve met lots of people in the Jewish community, and I don’t know anyone who exemplifies the concept of menschlicheit like Warren. He was generous, he was kind and had a real fondness for the people he met.”

Frederick Warren Hellman was born in New York City in 1934, the son and great-grandson of bankers, one of whom, Isaias W. Hellman, co-founded Wells Fargo Bank and served as an inspiration to Hellman.

Hellman did not grow up with formal Jewish education or religious experience. Nevertheless, according to daughter Tricia Hellman Gibbs, Jewish values provided the bedrock of his upbringing.

“They were the fabric of his life,” Gibbs said. “He lived the commandments — the integrity, his business ethics, the way he conducted his family life [all] indicated it was in his very composition.”

World War II brought a young Hellman to California, where his father was based as an Army major and his mother as a member of the Women Air Force Service Pilots, a group of female civilians who flew military planes from aircraft factories to bases.

Hellman attended Lowell High School in San Francisco and later studied economics at U.C. Berkeley. After two years in the Army, he went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1959.

After graduation, through a family connection he landed a job at the Lehman Brothers investment bank and quickly worked his way up, becoming the youngest partner in the firm’s history at age 28. He later served as Lehman’s president, based in New York.

After returning to San Francisco, he co-founded Matrix Partners, a private equity firm that invested early on in Apple and SanDisk, in 1977. Then, in 1984, he co-founded Hellman & Friedman, another private equity firm that raised more than $25 billion in venture capital. His career made Hellman a wealthy man.

Warren Hellman and Tricia Hellman Gibbs at their father-daughter b’nai mitzvah Aug. 20, 2009. photo/joseph amster

“It was never really a matter of choice,” Hellman told j.’s predecessor, the Jewish Bulletin, 15 years ago, speaking of his business savvy. “It’s in my genes. There was a brief period when I thought about becoming a diplomat. But I can’t imagine not doing what I do. I love investing. I love everything about it.”

Rather than take a Trump-like approach of conspicuous consumption, Hellman took more pleasure in giving money away.

Hellman funded the San Francisco Free Clinic and gave generously to the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Foundation (which he chaired) and the M.H. de Young Museum. His support launched the Bay Citizen news website in 2010 to support local journalism.

He also helped set up an aquatic sports endowment at U.C. Berkeley, where he spent his undergrad days as a water polo player, and endowed the Hellman Fellows Program for Cal faculty.

Hellman met his wife of 56 years, former ballet dancer Patricia “Chris” Sander, on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth. The couple had four children, all of whom followed in their father’s philanthropic footsteps.

“Philanthropy was his connection to Judaism in the beginning,” Gibbs said.

Hellman’s father, Marco Hellman, was at one time the largest single donor to San Francisco’s Jewish federation. “That was the aspect of the Jewish tradition that was important in his family,” Gibbs continued. “Even without him saying so specifically, their philanthropy was Jewish philanthropy. That was true even before his involvement in the Torah study, before his involvement with federation.”

His Jewish wrestling began three decades ago with a chance encounter at a dinner party, when Hellman met Rabbi Brian Lurie, then the CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Lurie asked Hellman if he belonged to a synagogue, and was told no.

“I said, ‘Are your children getting a sense of being Jewish?’ ” Lurie recalled. “He said no. I said, ‘Warren … if you had a Jewish background [and rejected it], that would be one thing. But you’re passing up 4,000 years of something that’s been handed down to you, and you’re not even taking a look at it.’”

Hellman agreed, and said to Lurie, “So what are we going to do about it?”

The two started meeting regularly, about once a month, to study Torah together. They met in the basement of the Pacific Club, where Hellman was a member.

Later, Hellman and former Jewish Community Endowment Fund Director Phyllis Cook organized a more formal Torah class, which still meets every three weeks.

At first the group studied around the Hellmans’ dining room table, and later gathered in other participants’ homes before settling on Hellman’s office as the regular meeting place. At one point, the class went to Israel together wearing

T-shirts that read “Warren’s tribe.”

“He became a serious Torah student,” Lurie added. “He filled the class with friends and relatives, and made it a very important part of his life. That was Warren. He didn’t do anything halfway. As laid-back as he was, Warren had to win. He had a real drive.”

In the Bay Area Jewish community, Hellman was a major player, supporting organizations such as Jewish Vocational Service, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Lehrhaus Judaica and the Jewish Community Federation. He was chair of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, and played an important role in negotiating the transfer of the Judah L. Magnes Museum’s archives to U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

Hellman’s personal interests were wide and varied. He loved to ride horses. He was a marathon runner, an avid swimmer and skier. But music held a special place in his heart.

As a young father, he bought Pete Seeger’s banjo instruction book. Hellman struggled to master the instrument, but over time became more than proficient. Playing banjo opened up a new world for him, one that led to what he called “the single most fulfilling thing” he had ever done.

In 2001 he launched the Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which morphed into Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free, three-day musical blowout that over the years has featured such stars as Emmylou Harris, Alison Kraus, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle.

The festival routinely draws up to 600,000 people every year, and for the last few years, Hellman himself took the stage, decked out in Western string bow tie and suit adorned with rhinestone Jewish stars.

“In front of everybody, he went from being an obvious beginner to someone who could hold his own onstage with lifelong bluegrass musicians,” music critic Joel Selvin eulogized in the San Francisco Chronicle. “His bliss was a palpable part of his performance. So were the corny old jokes.”

Hellman recently set up an endowment to make sure the popular festival would continue after his death.

“How could you have more fun than that?” he told Forbes in a 2006 interview. “What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?”

A longtime Republican who supported a number of Democratic candidates, Hellman funded San Francisco campaigns that focused on providing social services, rather than cash, for the homeless and sought to reform the city’s pension system.

In recent years, Hellman stepped back somewhat from the frenetic pace he had been used to. His wife was stricken with dementia, a heartbreak that brought out the best in him, according to his daughter.

“He was incredibly loyal to my mother, even through her Alzheimer’s,” Gibbs said. “He took care of her, he loved her. That’s a real grounding thing for a child [to witness].”

In 2009, Hellman and Gibbs had a father-daughter adult b’nai mitzvah ceremony at his synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. With the Wronglers providing musical entertainment, it was the ultimate blending of his love of family, Judaism, music and San Francisco.

 “It was tremendously exciting,” Hellman said afterward. “After 75 years, I have come home.”

Warren Hellman is survived by his wife, Chris Hellman; son Marco Hellman; daughters Frances Hellman, Judith Hellman and Patricia Hellman Gibbs; sister Nancy Bechtle; and 12 grandchildren.

J. editor Sue Fishkoff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.