Rich man, poor man, happy man
Dreaming the impossible is nothing new to Chuck Feeney ... Neither is making it happen.
At 76, he’s slowed down, walks with a limp, but the mind and eyes are as sharp as ever. He skewers the super-rich who live only to accumulate, but die like everyone else despite their best efforts.
“No pockets in a shroud,” he says.
Ironically, our conversation is taking place in a coffee shop next door to a major Donald Trump building. Trump would be everything Feeney is not, except Feeney was once a hell of a lot richer - and has had consistently more hair. Real hair.
He was once named Forbes 23d richest man in the world. He was shocked and appalled. I told him about it because I had picked up a copy of Forbes and he hadn’t seen it. It was the only time I have ever heard him speechless.
As founder of Duty Free Shops, he had amassed a grand fortune of four or five billion dollars and immediately set about giving it away. At the time Forbes finally caught up with him, that was well underway. He was disgusted to make their lists but proud that they noted he sometimes used safety pins to keep his pants hitched.
Yes, he’s cheap. We talked about a well-known Dublin hotel. He likes it. Why? Because “I go in there every Sunday morning to pick up the newspapers for free.” Once, when I stayed with him in Connecticut, we walked about four miles along old railroad tracks into town. He wanted to visit the public library and stock up on their free discarded magazines.
His frugality is legendary, but his philanthropy is awesome. The New York Times reported last week that he had just given the biggest philanthropic gift in America this year to a new and badly needed hospital in San Francisco.
I’ve always suspected he is giving it all away because he’s too Irish, too troubled by conscience to keep it. He’s the kid from New Jersey who made it big but wants everyone to believe he still has the street cred back in Elizabeth
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 North Jersey guy who went through Cornell by selling sandwiches, and somehow made it all happen from there.
He packed all his Jersey friends on a plane a few years back and brought them all to Ireland on a junket. There was Pat the priest and Bill the plumber and Mary, who he once fancied, and she, of course, wished she’d married him - and lots of others. Some rich folks jet off to the Riviera, Chuck prefers his buddies and rainy days sitting around a hotel lobby in Ireland talking of old times.