Richard Gilder, 1932–2020


Notebook September 2020

On the life of one of New York City’s great philanthropists.

Alexis de Tocqueville would recognize the late philanthropist Richard Gilder—a valued friend and supporter of this magazine, who died in May at eighty-seven—as exactly the kind of American he so admired when he explored this then-new country in 1831. U.S. citizens, Tocqueville marveled in Democracy in America, don’t wait for government to solve their problems. If a road needs fixing or a school needs building, they organize themselves in their local communities and just do it. To solve any problem of “public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion,” he wrote, “there is nothing the human will despairs of achieving through the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

Such citizens are still the backbone of this country, and the Tocquevillian miracles Gilder accomplished show why they and the culture that nurtures them are so precious. In the mid-1970s, Gilder, a fifth-generation New Yorker, saw his hometown dying. After the federal government refused to bail it out, Gotham staved off bankruptcy by a whisker. But City Hall found it could squeeze taxpayers no further to fund the unaffordable benefits that devil-may-care officials had lavished on city workers year after year to win their votes. Essential services languished; merely ornamental ones—park maintenance, above all—simply stopped. The Central Park that had served as Gilder’s backyard through his childhood on West End Avenue and then on East Seventy-ninth Street became a dustbowl, its magnificent Art Nouveau bridges decaying, its pools choked with junk and pond scum, the magnificent Bethesda Fountain and Terrace at its heart smeared with graffiti by the unruly teens who gathered there to smoke pot in those “If it feels good, do it” days. Worse, the take-no-guff dope dealers and the lurking muggers, along with the muttering deinstitutionalized homeless in their makeshift “bum stands,” as my son used to call them, spawned an atmosphere of continual threat.

Just then, with the stock brokerage he had founded in 1968 prospering thanks to clairvoyant bets on FedEx and Southwest Airlines, Gilder wandered over to Parks Department headquarters to see what a private citizen could do when government fails. The bureaucrats had no idea. But when his fellow tycoon George Soros asked the same question shortly afterward, Gilder once told me, the officials replied that “there was another crackpot who’d been messing around; maybe you two guys should get together.” They soon did, figuring out how private money and modern management could rescue Central Park and then launching a non-profit to make their plan a reality.

Only when Ed Koch became mayor in 1978 did their idea gain traction. The enterprising Parks Commissioner, Gordon Davis, glimpsing a can-do spark in Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the founder of a tiny youth-employment program to help clean up Central Park, created the new post of Central Park Administrator for her. He put her together with the two investors, and the marriage of her energy and know-how with their funding gave birth to the Central Park Conservancy. The new organization promptly drew up a blueprint for park restoration and began executing it, tackling in 1981 the sadly defaced Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, restoring the most serenely beautiful spot in New York—its focus a bronze angel, endowed, says the Gospel of John, with healing powers, ones New York desperately needs again. Eventually the group restored the cesspool that Harlem Meer had become back into the crystalline pool that the park’s designers, Olmsted and Vaux, had carved out early in their sculpting of the park from 1858 to 1876.

Area by area, the park came back to life, but not fast enough for the impatient Gilder, especially as the city itself kept spinning out of control. In 1991, when New York’s crime epidemic hit its grisly peak, with over 2,200 annual murders—an average of one every four hours for an entire year—Gilder lit a fire under Rogers. “Betsy,” he asked, “what would it take to more or less finish the park?”

“Fifty million,” Rogers shot back, a lot of money in those days, even for a tycoon. Gilder mulled it over. And he came up with a scheme—the matching grant—devised by another quintessential Tocquevillian American, Benjamin Franklin. Gilder would donate the then-breathtaking sum of $17 million, on the condition that other New Yorkers would pitch in the remaining $34 million. The stupendous offer made headlines; jaws dropped, and money cascaded in. With the magical speed of a Disney cartoon, the fifty-five-acre Great Lawn, denuded hardpan, sprang back to velvety green life, to the city’s amazement. This dramatic metamorphosis underlined all the Conservancy’s other improvements and showed New Yorkers that they had their park back. They flocked in.

The transformation marked a fateful inflection point for the city as well. It showed that problems spawned by folly, mismanagement, and incompetence could be solved by will and effort. At the very moment that Mayor David Dinkins was whining about a city that others had declared “ungovernable,” not only did Gilder conjure this rabbit out of a hat, but also transit officials Robert Kiley and William Bratton were washing graffiti-fouled subway trains sparkling clean and making subway stations orderly and safe. Citizens saw that New York was fixable, and, even while Dinkins remained mayor, Bratton, the chief transit cop, began to bring down the dystopian crime rate. So in 1993, when Rudolph Giuliani ran against Dinkins—Gotham’s second-worst mayor after the former staffer of his who now holds the office—on the promise that he could fix what Dinkins deemed irreparable, voters, having seen the park, the subways, and the crime rate already improved, were ready to believe him and elected him to save their city.

The rescue of the park had nothing to do with being “green,” of course. Right down to its multi-million-dollar underground sprinkler system, Central Park is more a work of art—of horticulture and landscape architecture—than of nature. It is cultivated, not wild—the very thing Gilder liked so much about the panorama of metropolitan civility always on display there. When the park throngs with people of every age, ethnicity, and eccentricity, “all respectful, and all drinking in the cultural experience,” he once said, “it’s like being at a concert.”

Gilder understood that America’s unique culture of opportunity and individual responsibility had made his accomplishments possible, and he cared deeply that his fellow citizens should understand just how special and precious an inheritance they possessed, so that they could make the most of it. “Here’s the only country built on ideas, and these ideas have got to be mastered,” he once exclaimed. “I’d like to inject them in every person. All men are created equal: just start with that!” That instinct led him to become, somewhat circuitously, a kind of Johnny Appleseed of American history, preserving, transmitting, and explaining the American past, and revivifying the teaching and learning of American history across the land.

He did this primarily through two institutions, one of which took shape almost by accident. His friend Lewis Lehrman, who probably would have been most content to remain a college history teacher had duty not called him to run his family’s Rite-Aid drugstore chain, had been collecting American historical documents since his Yale student days, and he persuaded Gilder to join him. With the investor’s fortune supercharging the drugstore magnate’s efforts, word got around in 1990 that two moguls were throwing money at U.S. history. Soon the news reached a Gettysburg College professor, Gabor Boritt, who urged the pair to establish an annual prize for the year’s best Civil War book. To attract attention, he suggested, why not make the prize even richer than the Pulitzer’s $3,000—say, $5,000?

Big deal, Gilder replied. “Let’s make this a knock-your-socks-off kind of prize,” he countered—$50,000. Prizes for works about other eras followed, all judged by continually renewed teams of gilt-edged scholars, to avoid the ideological taint that has devalued the Nobel Peace Prize or the Pulitzer Prizes in journalism.

Now fired up with history, Gilder happened to hear a David Brion Davis lecture on slavery that set him ablaze. Between 1492 and 1800, the Yale professor noted, two million whites and ten million blacks came to the New World. “Ten million!,” Gilder thought—marveling at the size of the number. “Nobody knows about this!” Suddenly, the plans he and Lehrman had casually discussed for starting an institute where teachers and scholars could use their collection became urgent. Teachers had to hear Davis’s talk! The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History sprang instantly into existence.

From those frantic beginnings arose a mighty engine for improving the teaching of American history. The thirty teachers listening to Davis’s lectures in 1994 have grown to a thousand teachers participating in thirty seminars at the nation’s top universities every summer. Two American history–themed high schools have sprouted in New York, with the institute’s support, and they graduate students who excel. A national network of 25,000 schools with seven million students receives a torrent of classroom materials.

From these beginnings, too, it was a short step for Gilder and Lehrman to join the board of the New-York Historical Society, moribund after years of disastrous management, under which fire and flood had damaged its precious collection. The duo recruited other new, energetic board members, supplied the museum with a face-lift, a café, a shop, and of course programs for students and teachers, with Gilder delighted by the sight of dozens of yellow school buses lined up near the now-bustling institution.

In 2004, to announce its rebirth and celebrate its two-hundredth anniversary, the museum staged a blockbuster Alexander Hamilton show. After all, that great Founding Father was a New Yorker, as was his fellow Federalist author John Jay, and the nation’s first capital under the Constitution was New York, with George Washington inaugurated on the balcony of its City Hall. The first treasury secretary was one of Gilder’s heroes, his financial system designed to give Americans the means to pursue their own happiness in their own way and fulfill all the potential that lay within them. While Gilder never airbrushed away the warts on America’s portrait, slavery above all, it was the land of limitless opportunity that he loved.

Gilder devoted himself to philanthropy—including eventually helping the American Museum of Natural History build a new planetarium and Yale new science buildings—not long after Ronald Reagan left the White House. I think he shared the sentiment with which Reagan ended his Farewell Address. Up until the mid-1960s, the president mused, Americans “absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country, and an appreciation of its institutions.” They got that spirit from family, from school, from popular culture. “The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special.” So did television. But since the Sixties,

things have changed. . . . We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection. So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important . . . . If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.

And the result will be “an erosion of the American spirit.”

Dick Gilder understood that imperative down to his fingertips—though, like Reagan, he never could have dreamed how far the erosion could go. We’ll have to armor ourselves in his Tocquevillian optimism, and not despair of building it up again.