The Billionaire Who Wasn't

How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune


By Conor O’Clery

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The astonishing life of the modest New Jersey businessman who anonymously gave away 10 billion dollars and inspired the “giving while living” movement. In this bestselling book, Conor O’Clery reveals the inspiring life story of Chuck Feeney, known as the “James Bond of philanthropy.” Feeney was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to a blue-collar Irish-American family during the Depression. After service in the Korean War, he made a fortune as founder of Duty Free Shoppers, the world’s largest duty-free retail chain. By 1988, he was hailed by Forbes Magazine as the twenty-fourth richest American alive. But secretly Feeney had already transferred all his wealth to his foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies. Only in 1997 when he sold his duty free interests, was he “outed” as one of the greatest and most mysterious American philanthropists in modern times, who had anonymously funded hospitals and universities from San Francisco to Limerick to New York to Brisbane. His example convinced Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to give away their fortunes during their lifetime, known as the giving pledge.


Praise for The Billionaire Who Wasn’t
“Chuck Feeney’s success in business, coupled with his commitment to philanthropy, stands as living proof that it is possible to do well and do good at the same time.”—Bill Clinton
“You may never read a book as uplifting as Conor O’Clery’s The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune. In vivid, unvarnished prose, The Billionaire Who Wasn’t recounts Feeney’s meteoric rise from blue-collar beginnings in Elizabeth, N.J., to a perch as one of America’s titans of commerce, head of Duty Free Shoppers, the largest liquor retailer in the world.”—Washington Post’s Express
“A rollicking story of how, by stealth, an Irish American obsessed by secrecy built a business empire and revolutionised philanthropy.”
The Economist, best books of 2007
“An engrossing look at an unusual, influential philanthropist. . . . A superbly written, detailed look at Chuck Feeney, who gave away billions. Reads like fiction.”—BusinessWeek, top ten business books, 2007
“The riveting story of a billionaire who gave it all away disturbs deeply rooted assumptions about wealth and power. . . . What makes him so fascinating, and gives such richness to O’Clery’s brilliantly engrossing account, is that Feeney both embodies and rebukes the American Dream. O’Clery turns his prodigious research and mastery of sometimes intricate detail into a tight, pacey, crystal-clear narrative. . . . An epic tale.”
Irish Times
“An interesting and well-written book defining a man whom most of us have never heard of.”—Library Journal
“If [Conor O’Clery’s] compelling narrative becomes a blue-print for future efforts to record the life stories of philanthropists, then the reading public might become far more aware of the major donors who have existed in their midst. O’Clery’s account of how Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney rose from a blue-collar New Jersey neighbourhood to immense riches as founder of global retail enterprise Duty Free Shoppers, and then gave almost every cent away, reads like a cross between a whodunnit and an airport business guru book.”—Philanthropy UK
“Dublin-based journalist O’Clery presents an archetypal American success story, a rags-to-riches account with a twist. . . . A smart business book detailing some vicissitudes of retailing, wrapped in a vivid biography of an engaging tycoon.”—Kirkus Reviews
“For America’s new generation of Internet and private equity billionaires, this is an exemplary tale.”—
“A gripping read.”—Sunday Business Post

Phrases Make History Here (1986)
Melting Snow: An Irishman in Moscow (1991)
America, A Place Called Hope? (1993)
Daring Diplomacy (1997; published in Ireland
as The Greening of the White House)
Ireland in Quotes (1999)
Panic at the Bank (coauthor, 2004)

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: first, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is called upon to administer . . . to produce the most beneficial results for the community.

It was sunny and already hot at Nassau International Airport early on Friday, November 23, 1984, as passengers disembarked after the three-hour flight from New York. Most were American vacationers intent on partying in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend. One rather deferential middle-aged man in blazer and open-neck shirt, unremarkable but for his penetrating blue eyes, emerged from economy class. He and his wife took a taxi to an office building on Cable Beach, a string of hotels and apartment blocks by the pale aquamarine ocean waters of the Atlantic, halfway between the airport and the city of Nassau. He was in familiar territory, as he had often used the subtropical island for the business dealings that made him one of the world’s wealthiest men. This time, however, he had come to the Bahamas to conclude a deal unlike any he had made before, one that would change his life irrevocably.
Two attorneys were also bound for the Bahamas that morning to meet him. Frank Mutch flew into Nassau airport from Bermuda to act as a legal witness to the deal. Harvey Dale was expected to arrive simultaneously from Florida, where he was spending Thanksgiving with his parents. He was bringing all the necessary documentation. Dale had choreographed the event with meticulous attention to detail. The culmination of two years of planning, the transaction was taking place in the Bahamas to avoid the huge financial penalties that it would incur elsewhere. The Harvard-trained lawyer had secured a conference room from a trust company at Cable Beach where the papers would be signed, a complex process that would take up to three hours but would still allow time for everyone to catch evening flights back to their points of departure.
But when the time came for the signing session, Harvey Dale was nowhere to be seen. The one thing he could not control was the weather. That morning all planes were grounded at Palm Beach airport because of a persistent thunderstorm overhead. His frustration grew as the hours passed and his flight was not called. In the Bahamas the others waited, going out for a fish and chips lunch before returning to the office and sitting around the conference table, making desultory conversation.
Dale was able to board the Nassau-bound flight at West Palm Beach in the early afternoon. The commuter jet flew straight into the still-rumbling storm cloud and took a heavy buffeting but quickly got clear and arrived in the Bahamas an hour later. He burst into the conference room, out of breath, sometime around 4:00 PM. There was only an hour before they had to vacate the building and return to the airport. He opened his briefcase and spread out agreements, power of attorney, corporate resolutions, and other legal documents on the table. “No time to talk, you sign here, you sign there,” he said. Then he gathered up the papers, and they all hurried off to catch evening flights out of the island.
On the drive back to Nassau airport, the man in the blazer, Charles F. Feeney, felt a profound sense of relief. He had flown into the Bahamas that morning an extremely rich man; now he was flying out with little more to his name than when he had started out on his various business ventures three decades earlier. While millions of Americans gave thanks that Thanksgiving weekend for the material things with which they were blessed, he celebrated having divested himself personally of the vast wealth with which fate and his genius for making money had burdened him.
It was all done with the utmost secrecy. Few outside of the small group that gathered that day in the Bahamas would know what had taken place for a long time to come. As much as four years later, Forbes magazine listed Feeney as the twenty-third richest American alive, declaring him to be a billionaire worth $1.3 billion. But Forbes had got it wrong, and would continue to repeat the mistake for many years afterward. Chuck Feeney had gotten rid of it all. He was the billionaire who wasn’t.


The Umbrella Boy
In the spring of 1931, the Empire State Building was opened in New York as one of the last great triumphs of the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties. At the same time, a number of shocks began hitting the U.S. economy. The Great Depression settled over the United States, banks collapsed, and unemployment soared. It was precisely at this juncture of American history that Chuck Feeney was born, on April 23, 1931, into a struggling Irish American family in the blue-collar neighborhood of Elmora, New Jersey.
His parents, Leo and Madaline Feeney, had come to New Jersey from Philadelphia a few years earlier. The newly married couple had high hopes of a new life in the prosperous environs of New York City, only a few miles away on the other side of the Hudson River. Both their fathers worked on the railroad in Philadelphia and gave them wedding presents of railroad passes for the Pennsylvania-New Jersey line so they could keep in touch.
The pair set up home in Newark’s Vailsburg section and later moved on to Elmora, a neighborhood that stretches over both Elizabeth and Union townships. Leo got a job as an insurance underwriter, and Madaline worked as a nurse. They had three children, all born in Orange Memorial Hospital in Elizabeth, New Jersey: two girls, Arlene and Ursula, and in between, their only son, Charles Francis Feeney.
The Feeneys survived the Depression better than many of their neighbors. Both were hardworking. Young Charles saw his mother take on double shifts at the Orange Memorial Hospital and his father setting off at dawn in suit and tie to commute to his job with Royal Globe Insurance Company in New York City. They lived first in rented houses, but when a grandfather died and the family inherited $2,000, they were able to put a down payment on a small, two-story red-brick house on Palisade Road, Elizabeth, in a neighborhood of Catholic Irish and Italian families. The house still stands, shaded by a spruce tree, in a quiet avenue of single-family homes amid a network of busy highways: the Garden State Parkway, Interstate 78, US Route 22, and State Route 82.
Money was tight in the Feeney household. Anyone who lived in working-class New Jersey in the 1930s knew the value of a dollar. Even with two jobs, they had little disposable income and struggled to pay their $32-per-month mortgage and maintain the family car, a green Hudson with worn floor-boards and a horn that went off when rounding corners. Their old jalopy sometimes broke down on trips to Philadelphia—the railroad passes did not last for long—or the retread tires would get punctures. They would sometimes visit Madaline’s relatives in Pottsville, who were considered rich because they owned a “pretzel factory,” which in reality was no more than a large oven in the kitchen, and who reputedly hid their money around the house, though no one admitted to finding any after they died.
People looked after each other in those tough times. Madaline Feeney was a discreet Samaritan, doing favors without anyone knowing. When she noticed that Bill Fallon, a neighbor who had Lou Gehrig’s disease, walked to the bus stop to go into New York every day, she would pick him up in the car as he passed the house on the way to the bus stop, pretending that she too was on her way somewhere. “He never knew that she wasn’t going anywhere,” recalled Ursula. During World War II, Madaline Feeney went off at night in a blue uniform to work as a volunteer Red Cross nurse. She could never understand how other Red Cross workers could take money for their “voluntary” service, which became something of a scandal when disclosed in the newspapers.
Leo Feeney was a daily Mass-goer and also spent much of his time helping others. He joined the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s fraternal society that rendered financial aid to members and their families. He was always conscious of getting value for money. When the children were big enough, he walked them to the library on Elmore Avenue. “We pay taxes,” he would tell them, “so we must make use of it.”
The young Feeney was a lively boy, and a bit mischievous, according to his sister Arlene. “He got thrown out of kindergarten in Bradley Beach for being cheeky. Not that he got into a lot of trouble or anything, but he was always funny. The highlight of my day was to sit with him and laugh. He was a clown. He had a quick wit. He was my mother’s favorite. She would say, ‘My Charles, my Charles. . . .’”
As early as ten years old, Feeney was displaying a talent for making money. “We didn’t have anything,” recalled his friend, Francis “Skip” Downey. “A dime was a dime in those days.” His first entrepreneurial venture was selling Christmas cards door-to-door, provided by his pal Jack Blewitt’s father. Blewitt had the local streets booked for himself, so Feeney went to another neighborhood. He earned a few dimes more helping the mailman post letters coming up to Christmas, and when it snowed he and a friend, Moose Foley, offered to clear people’s driveways. “I would call and collect the 25 cents and Moose would dig the snow, and we would split the money,” he said. Here he learned his first lesson in overextending a business. “If I got too far ahead collecting money, I had to help out with the shoveling!”
He was always thinking up new money-making schemes, however unrealistic. One summer afternoon, when he was eleven and hanging out at Skip Downey’s house, he got a black crayon and wrote the words “Downey’s Beer and Pretzels” on the porch, on the off chance that someone might come by and pay them to fetch an order. Skip’s mother saw it and told the young Feeney, “Charles, if that is not gone by sundown, you will not see the sun come up.” But she adored Chuck, said Skip, now a retired Exxon executive. “He was such a happy-go-lucky guy. She called him ‘the mayor’ because he knew everyone.”
Charles Feeney went to St. Genevieve’s Grammar School on Princeton Road, Elizabeth, and in eighth grade he became the only boy to win a scholarship to Regis High School on East Eighty-fourth Street in Manhattan. This was a Jesuit college for “Roman Catholic young men from New York metropolitan area who demonstrate superior intellectual and leadership potential” and who could not otherwise afford a Catholic education. He hated it. He had to get up every morning and walk forty minutes to the station to catch the 7:45 train to the boat pier and get a ferry across the Hudson River, then a subway to Eighty-sixth street. He often didn’t get back until 7:00 PM, and then he had homework assignments to do. He couldn’t make new friends in Manhattan when he had to commute so far, and all his boyhood pals had gone to St. Mary’s of the Assumption High School in Elizabeth, at the top of a hill just at the end of the main street. After a year and a half of misery, and watching his parents scrimp and save to pay his fares, he got himself expelled from Regis High. “I got caught cribbing in a religion exam, but it was part of my plot. If you get caught cribbing in a religious exam they asked you to leave.”
At St. Mary’s, Feeney was much happier. Practically all the kids were Irish like himself. He was at the center of everything going on. He played Wayne in the school presentation of the comedy The Divine Flora, and wore the No. 38 jersey for the high school football squad. He was voted the “wittiest” in his class by the seniors in 1947. His peers voted him the class “cutup” because, said his friend Bob Cogan, “he was always fooling around and he made fun out of everything.” He and his best friend, John “Jack” Costello, put on a comedy show. The school magazine for 1948 carried an advertisement: “For an Evening of Pleasant Entertainment Visit The Club Carefree Featuring America’s New Comedy Sensation, CHARLIE FEENEY and JOHN COSTELLO.” For teenage boys, St. Mary’s was like heaven: There were 100 girls to only thirty-five boys in Feeney’s year, and there was an all-girls’ school across the road. Charlie Feeney had developed into a lean, good-looking youth and “they screamed at us like we were the Beatles,” said Cogan.
Always on the make, Feeney made pocket money on weekends caddying at a golf course near Port Elizabeth. “It was nine holes for $1.00 with a tip of 25 cents, or eighteen holes for $1.75 and a tip of 25 cents,” he recalled. “I would always look for two nine-hole players.” During the summer holidays, when his mother took leave from nursing to rent a rooming house at Point Pleasant on the New Jersey shore and take in paying guests, he got jobs on the boardwalk renting beach towels and umbrellas, and allowing himself to be “dunked” in a tub by contestants throwing balls at him for a few cents. He got so good at winning cuddly toy prizes on the Skee-ball machines that he had to go to another district. In the end, the owner of the machines gave him a job giving out change.
In those days the beach was run by the junior branch of the New Jersey mafia. They had the concessions, including a 25-cent admission fee to parts of the sands. “If you came for a day’s stay on the beach, they sold you a colored ribbon that you wore with a safety pin,” said Feeney. “They had a bunch of guys who would say, ‘Let me see your entrance ribbon, kid.’” His mother provided ribbons to her lodgers. A school friend figured out how to make an extra few cents by reusing ribbons or cutting them in two. “The mob was not pleased and let them know and they stopped,” said Arlene.
As a teenager, Charlie Feeney would invite his friends to come for the weekend to the rooming house and bunk down with him in the attic. In the morning he took them for breakfast to a store where donuts were left in a box outside before it opened, allowing hungry boys to help themselves. In the evenings they roamed the boardwalk or went to the cinema. Skip Downey recalled driving Feeney, when they were sixteen, to the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, the place on the New Jersey shore to take a girlfriend on a date. The guy at the back door recognized Feeney and let them in free. They climbed a ladder behind the screen, crossed a catwalk and went down a ladder at the other side to get to the seats.
His friend Joe Cash years later remembered Feeney as “the type of guy who made you feel he was your best friend and whenever you talked to him he always seemed to be going down the road; he was always thinking ahead.” Jack Costello would recall his friend as a hustler who sold umbrellas on the Point Pleasant boardwalk and who “was always working and always making money.”
Four months after he graduated in June 1948, and still only seventeen, Feeney went with Costello to the recruiting office in Newark and signed up for the U.S. Air Force. “He volunteered,” said his sister Ursula. “He didn’t have to. He tried to go even earlier than that with Frankie Corrigan. One night they tried to sneak away from the house. They couldn’t go anywhere. The car wouldn’t start! They were going to join up and lie about their age, and they wanted me to come down and sign some papers that their mother had given them permission.” At the time, three years after the end of World War II, there was still conscription and Feeney knew that he would be drafted anyway within a couple of years. “So I felt, well, I’ll just be scratching my ass, I may as well get it over with, so I signed up for three years.”
Joining the military opened up new horizons for the New Jersey teenager. After training as a radio operator at Lackland Air Base in Texas, he was sent to serve with the American occupying force in Japan. It was his first time out of the United States. He now had a new life and a new first name—in the Air Force everyone started calling him Chuck. As an exceptionally bright recruit, he was assigned to the U.S. Fifth Air Force Radio Squadron’s Mobile Detachment 12 at Ashiya Air Base, on the southern tip of Japan. This was the nearest air base to the Korean Peninsula. His squadron was part of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)—an arm of the National Security Agency that had broken the Japanese military code near the end of the war.
Japan was in ruins after the war, but life was not hard for a young serviceman. “Duty there was considered a sweet tour by American soldiers,” wrote David Halberstam.1 “American dollars went far, the Japanese women were friendly and ordinary enlisted men lived like aristocrats.” Staff Sergeant Feeney, however, spent a lot of spare time learning Japanese to improve his intelligence skills. He took lessons at the U.S. military language school and read Japanese comic books, much to the amusement of Japanese children.
When the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, Ashiya Air Base became a staging post for F-80 fighter jets and C-119 planes that dropped supplies to U.S. soldiers on the front line. Feeney’s tour was extended from three to four years. He wasn’t sent to the fighting, but his desk job turned more serious. His squadron’s task was to intercept radio communications used by the Russians flying sorties over the Sea of Japan. Soviet pilots would pick up the frequency of aircraft the United States sent up from Ashiya. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union would become a local hot war if a line in the sky was crossed, and the American planes could only go so far before entering hostile air space. One new pilot, just out of his teens, flew across the line for five minutes, enough time for the Russians to scramble. His plane was shot down and he was killed, along with two Russian language specialists on the flight who had been on the shift with Feeney two nights before. He heard their screams in his earphones. When he returned to the United States, Feeney visited the family of one of his fallen comrades in the Bronx district of New York. He didn’t know what to say. “They were dead because this guy didn’t follow orders which were very clear—don’t go over the line.”
Throughout his four years of service in Japan, Feeney did not return home once. He was on the other side of the world, and there was a war on. “When he called at Christmas, we’d all sit in the kitchen and wait for the phone call,” his sister Arlene remembered. They would accept charges. “We didn’t have the money, so it was always—‘Don’t talk too long!’” His family never saw him in person wearing a uniform. However, the Elizabeth Daily Journal published a photograph of Sergeant Feeney and Corporal Costello, both in U.S. Air Force uniform, hair parted and Bryl-Creamed, enjoying a three-day furlough together in Tokyo. Costello was less fortunate than Feeney. He was sent into combat in Korea as a ground radio operator, though he survived the war and fathered a large family. The caption quoted Feeney saying, “It takes more than a war to keep Jack and me from getting together.”
In his letters home, Feeney wrote that he was not allowed to disclose what he was doing. “Maybe that’s where he got some of the secrecy from,” said Arlene. “When he got out and came home he’d be sitting there doing that”—she rapidly tapped the kitchen table—“tap, tap, tap: then he’d say, ‘I’m sorry, Morse code, used it in the service.’ I don’t know whether he ‘thought’ in it, but he kept on doing it every once in a while, going like this, tap, tap, tap.”

The Sandwich Man
While still in Japan in the spring of 1952, Chuck Feeney began to think of how he might take advantage of the GI scholarship he was entitled to after his discharge. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 GI Bill of Rights, money was made available to returning World War II veterans to go on to higher education, and the scheme was renewed for Korean War veterans. It changed the lives of many Americans who served in the armed forces, such as Donald R. Keough, who went on to run Coca-Cola, and Bob Dole, who became a U.S. senator. Skip Downey suspected that his old school friend had his eye on a GI scholarship all along. The family didn’t have the money to send him to college, but “in his mind he knew he was going to college and he went to the Air Force to be eligible for the GI Bill.”
Feeney went to the base library and began to read up on universities. He found an article in the Readers’ Digest, entitled “A School for Cooks,” which featured Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management. “I sort of thought, I could do that, I could look after people.” The course offered an outlet for his entrepreneurial bent. Cornell, located in the town of Ithaca in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, was the first university in the world to establish a bachelor’s degree in hotel management. Feeney had never set foot inside the two grand hotels in Elizabeth, the Winfield Scott and the Elizabeth Carteret, since defunct, but he liked the idea of “travel, elegant surroundings, people serving you.” He applied for admission and was called for an interview in Tokyo with a Cornell recruiter. The woman who ran his Japanese language school knew the interviewer, and “she looked over the guy’s shoulder to see he wrote only nice things about me!”


On Sale
Aug 27, 2013
Page Count
432 pages

Conor O’Clery

About the Author

Conor O’Clery is an award-winning journalist and author who served as foreign correspondent for the Irish Times in London, Moscow, Beijing, Washington, and New York. He has written books on Russian, Irish, and American politics. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland.

Learn more about this author