Obituary: Robert W. Wilson / Hedge-fund founder and philanthropist

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Robert W. Wilson, a retired hedge-fund founder who became a major philanthropist, donating about $600 million to causes that included environmental conservation, the American Civil Liberties Union and Roman Catholic education (though he was an openly gay atheist), died Dec. 23 in New York City. He was 87.

Mr. Wilson was found dead in an inner courtyard of the Manhattan apartment building where he lived. The police said he left a note indicating that he had leapt to his death.

Gary Castle, a philanthropic-giving specialist at the accounting firm Anchin Block & Anchin who worked with Mr. Wilson for many years, said Mr. Wilson had suffered a stroke in June.

Mr. Wilson earned a fortune in the stock market as the founding partner of a hedge fund firm, Wilson & Associates, that specialized in short-selling, the strategy whereby traders sell borrowed shares of a stock, betting that it will decline in value before it has to be bought at its most recent closing price. He founded the firm in 1969, retired in 1986, and soon after began giving away most of his wealth, which peaked at around $800 million in 2000, Mr. Castle said.

The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Monuments Fund, which seeks to preserve historic sites, were among the recipients of his earliest and largest donations -- an estimated $100 million each.

In 2007, Mr. Wilson began giving money to the Catholic school system of the Archdiocese of New York, which he considered fundamentally more efficient than the public schools. Over several years, his $30 million in contributions made him the archdiocese's single largest individual donor.

In making his donations, Mr. Wilson felt obliged to disclose his status as a former Episcopalian turned atheist.

Mr. Wilson attached one major condition to almost all his contributions -- namely, that the money be used to spur matching contributions from others. In most cases, the check was delivered only after the other donors had been lined up. Mr. Wilson began using the technique in the late 1980s, before matching gifts were common in the fundraising world.

He was known for his frugal habits. Mr. Wilson rarely took a cab, managing to get where he needed by subway, until he had the stroke.

"One of the dumbest things you can do with money," Mr. Wilson said in a 1979 interview with Forbes magazine, "is spend it."

Mr. Wilson put his already considerable fortune at risk in 1978 in what Forbes magazine called "the most catastrophic short play in modern times." In that deal, he bet against Resorts International, taking a large short position on the hotel chain (which had just built the first casino in Atlantic City, N.J.) in May, when the share price was around $15. By the time the stock reached $190 in the fall of that year -- and Mr. Wilson cut his losses -- he was out about $10 million, which would amount to about $30 million in today's dollars.

Robert Warne Wilson was born Nov. 3, 1926, in Detroit. He told friends that his father sold insurance, and that he came from a family of a "lower upper middle income" station. He graduated from Amherst College, magna cum laude, with a degree in economics in 1946 and earned a master's degree in economics from the University of Michigan in 1947. He then entered Michigan's law school but dropped out, taking a job on Wall Street.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here