Tough times, but still they keep giving

New York’s billionaires, it seems, have not really noticed the downturn. They still spend their summers on lavish yachts in Europe, and are still flying in their own planes. Hearteningly, they also continue to give philanthropically on a vast scale.

Earlier this year, Blackstone Group chairman Stephen A Schwarzman gave $100 million to the New York Park Library. Last week, this town’s richest resident, David H Koch, 68, gave $100 million towards the renovation of the New York State theatre, at the Lincoln Center, where the New York City Ballet and City Opera performs.

In return for their generosity, both men get buildings named after them. But before you scoff that philanthropy is just a means to social climbing and tax-saving – I have heard plenty of withering criticism on the subject, always from friends in Britain, where philanthropy exists on a much lesser scale – consider this story.

Last summer my sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis: she is a young mother and was a first-rate athlete. I heard the news as I was jumping on the shuttle flight to Washington DC. By the time I got to the other end, and through an interview, it was too late to call the UK.

So, alone in my hotel room, I called around my New York girlfriends and, in tears, told them what had happened. They were amazing: uplifting and encouraging.

Fast forward to last week. My sister emailed to tell me that she, her children and husband would be doing a walk at the weekend in Windsor Great Park in aid of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and that she was seeking sponsorship. I emailed the same New York girlfriends and told them. Last Thursday, the day David Koch gave his millions to the Lincoln Center, my sister emailed me from London. “Who are ..?” She reeled off a list of names. They had all given her rather large sums of money. For my friends there is no tax benefit and no social advantage. “I can’t believe it,” my sister wrote. “They haven’t even met me.”

I spent the rest of the day whistling. It didn’t matter that the market bounced around like a yo-yo or that stores where I once shopped years ago were desperately calling because everything was now reduced to 80 per cent off.

Yes, these are dire economic times. But, just as our billionaires still go on their boats, so also, in this city, often criticised by outsiders for its shallowness and greed, authentic gestures of friendship and generosity endure.V

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