Farewell to a Giant and a True Renaissance Man
I am a lucky man. During my life, I was fortunate to have met some giants of humanity, who can be referred to as truly extraordinary people.
Of the many exceptional people I had the good fortune to get to know in person, only one stands out.
The term “Renaissance man” or polymath is used for a very smart person who is good at many different things. The idea comes from a time of history called the Renaissance, which lasted from about 1400 to about 1600.
One of the most famous people alive during this time was Leonardo da Vinci. He was most famous as a painter, but he was also a scientist, engineer, and mathematician. Leonardo is called a “Renaissance man.” Another “Renaissance man” was Michelangelo, who was a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. In my lifetime, the only such man that I got to know was an Australian transplant to America.
Here is the story.
One of my fondest memories is a surprise phone call in the 1980s that I received from my artistic mentor, the late violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. He urgently summoned me to his second floor studio at 211 Central Park West to witness what he called “an unforgettable experience.”
When I arrived, I found three people seated in a circle in his studio/office. Next to Isaac sat one of his closest friends, the violinist Sasha Schneider and a very distinguished looking gentleman with unforgettable hair, holding a cello.
I sat down and listened to the magic of the three artists making wonderful music.
Nearly two hours later, Isaac introduced me to the cellist, who with a barely detectable Australian accent introduced himself simply as “Jim.”
Later on, I learned that the cello player I met was Sir James Wolfensohn, a legend in the world of banking, one of the most respected figures in global finance.
That first encounter in Isaac Stern’s home let to an over three-and-a-half-decades long friendship that will always be one of the treasured experiences of my life.
Jim was often characterized as a modern Renaissance man, who was as comfortable with the top figures of the arts world as he was with global business leaders and politicians. He was a native Australian who was an Olympic fencer in his youth. A classical music aficionado since his teens, he began cello lessons as an adult from the ailing star Jacqueline Du Pre.
In what he referred to as “a totally egocentric affair,” beginning at age 50, he would gather top musician friends at Carnegie Hall to join him for once-a-decade birthday concerts. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to one of their very first rehearsals.
James David Wolfensohn was born in Sydney on December 1, 1933. His parents, Hyman Wolfensohn and the former Dora Weinbaum, had emigrated from London a few years earlier looking for economic opportunities.
Hyman Wolfensohn, known as Bill, had spent years as a personal secretary to banking scion James de Rothschild — the future World Bank president was named in Rothschild’s honor — and hoped his experience and connections would let him launch his own career.
From his mother, who sang on Australian radio and gave her son piano lessons, he developed a love of music. He was unabashed enough to take on female roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in high school, and was an avid symphony fan.
A onetime air-conditioning salesman, Jim rose to the very pinnacle of the world of high finance and joined the ranks of the global elite at the bond-trading house of Salomon Bros. in New York. At Salomon, he was put in charge of advising Chrysler as it edged toward bankruptcy in the late 1970s, adding to the sense of economic malaise that, along with the crippling oil embargoes and war in the Middle East, rattled the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
Helping arrange what was then the largest-ever corporate bailout in US history, Jim was put in weekly contact with top officials such as Paul A. Volcker, then chairman of the Federal Reserve — further deepening his list of key contacts. He also proved his ability to work across borders, smoothing over a cultural rift between combustible Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca and the Japanese bankers who had lent the Detroit auto company $600 million.
After receiving the princely sum of $10 million when Salomon was sold, Jim started his own boutique consulting firm and gradually built a client list that included companies as diverse and colorful as Mercedes-Benz and Ralph Lauren.
But it was his extraordinary work at the World Bank that truly defined his public life. After a middle-class upbringing in Australia, he wrote, early trips to India and Nigeria as an air-conditioning salesman had left “an indelible mark.”
“The inequity was so striking that I could hardly absorb what was in front of me,” Jim wrote in his 2010 revealing memoir A Global Life. “I had known what to expect intellectually but the reality was a shock.”
As a consequence, even as he built a spectacular global career in finance, he trained his sights on the World Bank presidency — mostly out of humanitarian concerns.
His artistic connections date back to 1980, when he became chairman of Carnegie Hall and after contributing $1 million to help save the hall, raised another $60 million from his friends to renovate the venerable performance space. During his decade as chairman, he was credited with stabilizing the institution’s finances.
In 1990, he was recruited to do the same for the Kennedy Center, suffering at the time from the sort of budget shortfalls that had beset Carnegie. In his memoir, Jim referred to the institution as a “white elephant,” with outdated equipment, a leaky roof, cracking granite, and a hidebound approach to programming.
Our paths crossed frequently — including at events held for the benefit of the IAS (Institute for Advanced Study), the US institution that was home to Albert Einstein.
Jim became IAS’s longest-serving Board Chair (1986–2007). During his leadership, Jim led the Institute into the 21st century, greatly expanded its financial resources, affirmed the importance of the arts to science and scholarship, and furthered global outreach and broad recognition of the IAS as one of the world’s leading centers for intellectual inquiry. An independent institution located in Princeton, New Jersey, the IAS is entirely supported by charitable contributions and grants. It receives no tuition, licensing, or other fees.
But my strongest, most enduring memory of Jim takes me back to a place where I did not expect to run into him. The year was 1995 and I decided to walk over to the Upper West Side on West 79th street for an October Shabbat Yizkor service at the venerable Carlebach synagogue to honor the memory of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, “the Singing Rabbi,” who tragically passed away the previous year.
The uniqueness of the Carlebach Shul lies in its ability to bring together and inspire a wide spectrum of the Jewish population. The unaffiliated Jew, the modern-Orthodox, the traditional Hasid, as well as a host of Scholars-In-Residence all come there to pray, sing, dance, and learn together in an environment that embodies holiness, spirituality, and joy– as the shul’s founder envisaged it.
As I sat down in the back row, I noticed a man seated in front of me, completely wrapped in his tallit, praying fervently during most of the service. The man wrapped in his tallit swayed with full kavannah (spiritual intensity) in conversation with the Creator.
Only when the man in front of me took off his prayer shawl at the end of the service did I realize that it was Jim Wolfensohn. I cannot describe the emotions I experienced when I saw the head of the World Bank, the most cosmopolitan, highly visible, and universally admired global personality in this very private, deeply spiritual, very personal moment in the unlikely setting of an Orthodox synagogue.
In the decades following this unexpected but deeply revealing encounter, whenever I saw Jim in the company of world leaders, on television, in the company of IAS scientists, or giants of the art world, I always closed my eyes to recall those very private moments when Jim was alone with the Creator under that well-worn tallit.
This week Jim left us, less than four months after losing the rock of his existence — his beautiful wife Elaine.
His many friends and admirers are deeply saddened by his passing. He was the last of a generation that will sadly never again enrich the world. The last of the true Renaissance men. Rest in peace dear friend!
Gabriel Erem is the co-founder of E2 Global and founder of Lifestyles Magazines International and Meaningful Influence.