Chuck Feeney, the billionaire businessman who dreamed of giving away his entire fortune, died at the age of 92 in his rented apartment in San Francisco.
His death was announced on Monday by Atlantic Philanthropies, he founded the foundation in 1982. The foundation was dissolved in 2020 when all the money had been donated.
A graduate of Ivy League Cornell University, Feeney made his fortune when he co-founded Duty Free Shoppers, a chain of airport stores, with a college friend, Robert Miller.
He sold the company to LVMH in 1996. In retirement, Feeney adopted the ‘Giving While Living’ lifestyle, dedicating his life to contributing to causes he believed in.
“It’s a lot more fun to give while you’re alive than to give while you’re dead,” he said in the biography The Billionaire Who Wasn’t.
Chuck Feeney, pictured in 2007, took part in Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge
Feeney pictured with his second wife, Helga Flaiz, who previously worked as his long-time assistant
Feeney lived in this modest San Francisco apartment for years
In just under 30 years of existence, Atlantic Philanthropies has donated $8 billion to various charities around the world.
In Ireland, where Feeney’s ancestors came from, he gave money to universities and hospitals, in Vietnam he spent money on infrastructure, gave money to human rights organizations in Israel and Jordan, while also paying for research into diseases, including cancer, on every continent.
According to his profile on the foundation’s website, Feeney lived in a rented apartment in San Francisco for the last years of his life. He owned no car or property. Forbes described his apartment as comparable to a college dorm room.
Throughout his philanthropic career, Feeney tried to remain anonymous and so recipients were paid largely in checks. His foundation was based in Bermuda and therefore he did not have to disclose donations for US tax requirements.
In 1984, he transferred his 35 percent shares in Duty Free Shoppers to Atlantic Philanthropies. In 1997 he sold his position in LVMH.
He said he made financial provisions for his five children after his death and retained about $2 million from his business career.
The former billionaire married twice in his life, first to the French Danielle Morali-Daninos, with whom he had five children, and later to his long-time assistant Helga Flaiz.
In addition to his wife and children, he also leaves behind his 16 grandchildren.
Feeney fulfilled his four-decade mission to give away his $8 billion fortune to charity. He set aside $2 million for his and his wife’s retirement
Feeney made billions when he founded Duty Free Shoppers with Robert Miller in 1960
Feeney was born to an Irish-American working-class family in northern New Jersey during the Great Depression, which struggled to pay their $32 a month mortgage.
After spending time in the Air Force where he was stationed in Japan, Feeney became the first member of his family to attend college when he was accepted to Cornell, where he studied hotel management.
After graduating, he moved to Barcelona, where he came up with the idea of selling goods, mainly liquor, cigarettes and perfume, to Americans returning home.
After making a fortune through Duty Free Shoppers, Feeney shrewdly invested in Silicon Valley and at one point owned homes in New York, London, Paris, Aspen, Hawaii and along the French Riviera. According to Forbes, he was at one point the 24th richest person in America.
A tribute to Feeney on the school’s website calls him Cornell’s “third founder” thanks to the large amount of financial contributions he has made over the years, totaling $1 billion. Atlantic Philanthropies’ latest donation was a $7 million gift to the school.
Since 2011, Feeney was a member of Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge, a group of billionaires who pledged to give away most of their wealth before their deaths.
“I can think of no more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than giving while you are alive – devoting yourself personally to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition,” Feeney said at the time.
Speak with Forbes in 2012, Bill Gates called Feeney a “remarkable role model” and the “ultimate example of giving while living.”
Warren Buffet, another philanthropic billionaire, called Feeney his “hero,” adding, “He should be everyone’s hero.”
Feeney was prominent with his donations to Northern Ireland, donating both to the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, and to their enemies Ulster Defense Association, a move that helped pave the way for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement .
Feeney, whose ancestors came from Fermanagh, was among those present at the start of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government in 2007.
It is believed that his donations to Ireland amounted to almost $2 billion.
Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called Feeney a “great friend” and an “extraordinary human being” in a statement following news of his death.
Meanwhile, in Australia, a tribute dubbed him ‘Queensland’s Godsend’ thanks to his nearly $600 million in donations to the region.
In Billionaire Who Wasn’t, author Conor O’Clery wrote that during his business career, Feeney felt doubtful about whether or not he had “the right to have so much money.”
“Many years later, when asked if he was rich at this point in his life, he replied, ‘How much is rich?’ Beyond all expectations. More than deserved, so to speak. “I just came to the conclusion that money, buying boats and all the trimmings didn’t appeal to me,” O’Clery added.