Sandy and Joan Weill and the $20 Million Gift That Went Awry


From left, Paula Zahn, Sanford Weill, and Joan Weill at the opening night gala of Carnegie Hall’s 116th season, held at the Waldorf Astoria. Credit Christopher Smith for The New York Times

If you take a tour of some of New York’s most notable cultural and medical complexes, you are bound to encounter — and re-encounter — one prominent family name.

There is Weill Cornell Medical College on the Upper East Side, where numerous buildings carry the names of its two longtime benefactors, Joan Weill and her husband, Sanford I. Weill ; the latter was the chairman of its board of overseers until the end of 2014. Across town, there is Weill Recital Hall, the 268-seat theater at Carnegie Hall, named after the couple when Mr. Weill helped lead a $60 million fund-raising drive for the concert center in the mid-’80s.

Farther west and a few blocks down is the Joan Weill Center for Dance – Alvin Ailey’s eight-floor, 12-studio complex, opened in 2005 – which bears the name of its former chairwoman, who stepped down last year. (There is even the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, a theater at Sonoma State University, in Rohnert Park, Calif., and the Joan and Sanford I. Weill pediatric hematology-oncology department at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel).

But one place that will not bear their name is on the campus of Paul Smith’s College, in upstate New York, close to where the couple owns a home. For a brief spell this last year, the school was on the verge of being named Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College, courtesy of a promised $20 million donation from the Weills.

Things there hit a snag. The college was created with money and land bequeathed by its founder, Phelps Smith, to honor his father, a local hotelier. When Phelps died in 1937, his will stipulated that the school be built on the site of the former Paul Smith’s Hotel. The will also required that the institution be “forever known” as Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The college, which has a student body of about 1,000, argued that it was so financially strapped (operating at a loss as recently as 2013) that it needed to be released from this restriction in order to safeguard its future.

While some people immediately objected to the name change, Cathy S. Dove, the college’s president, posted an open letter on the college website, praising the Weills and arguing for the name change.

“Joan and Sandy are presenting us with an opportunity to solidify the long-term financial health of our school,” Dr. Dove wrote. “Joan and Sandy are held in high esteem among the world’s most generous philanthropic and educational circles, and her name will bring us new opportunities to introduce our school to other supporters of higher education.”

But in October, a judge ruled that the college had not offered enough evidence to prove it could not survive financially without a name change and blocked the agreement to do so. A few weeks later, the college announced that the Weills would no longer donate the $20 million.

“It was a naming gift, so without the court allowing us to go forward, there was no money,” said Bob Bennett, Paul Smith’s spokesman. “That was the deal, right from the beginning.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that the Weills are not going to give the money,” Mark Schneider, a lawyer who represented alumni who opposed the name change, told The New York Times after the offer was rescinded. “If they really wanted to give a gift to the school, it shouldn’t be contingent on something as self-glorifying as naming the school after Mrs. Weill. They could have named something else.”

“I find it in sort of bad taste,” he added.

It was an ignominious and messy moment for a couple whose social prominence and philanthropic largess were well known, dating back to when Mrs. Weill and her husband, who is known as Sandy, began to make their ascent up the rungs of the city’s financial and cultural institutions.

The recent setback at Paul Smith’s, and the damage it seemingly has done to the couple’s reputation, is largely undeserved, friends say.

The theater producer Daryl Roth, who has gotten to know Mrs. Weill at Alvin Ailey, cautioned that one possible misstep in a lifetime of charitable giving should not cement a reputation that took more than 60 years to build.

“They’re really good people,” she said of the couple. “It upsets me when there’s this kind of finger-pointing.”

“They have been basically excellent examples of people who were fortunate enough to succeed and used it for the betterment of society,” said Kenneth J. Bialkin, who is on the board of directors at Carnegie Hall, and was Mr. Weill’s legal counsel for much of his 50-year career in the financial services industry.

Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Weill would respond to several requests for comment, nor did most of the people associated with the institutions they have contributed to over the years.

If Mr. and Mrs. Weill have given back an enormous amount, it is partly because they know what it is like not to have the world handed over on a silver platter.

Mr. Weill grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s. His father, Max, ran a dressmaking business and then a steel importing company. His mother, Etta, was a housewife. Max’s successes were overshadowed by financial setbacks. The marriage to Etta frayed, before resulting in divorce. Max was constantly spending too much money on clothes and cars.

As a teenager, Mr. Weill was determined not to be like his father, but he also shared with him a propensity to get too close to the sun, alternating between tremendous self-discipline and moments of sloppiness.

 Weill Cornell Medical College, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Credit Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times

Weill Cornell Medical College, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Credit Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times

Faced with dropping grades as a teenager, he was shipped off to military school, where he shaped up and got into Cornell University, according to his 2006 memoir, “The Real Deal: My Life in Business and Philanthropy.” At Cornell, he joined a fraternity, began driving around in a yellow convertible and nearly flunked out during his freshman year.

While on spring break two years later, Mr. Weill received a phone call from his aunt. There was a new girl in the neighborhood who had recently come East from California. Her name was Joan Mosher. She was studying at Brooklyn College and living nearby with her parents.

As he recalled in his autobiography, when he showed up at her doorstep on April 1, 1954, for their first date, her mother looked him up and down, and then walked off to tell her daughter that perhaps she should wear flats instead of heels, so as not to loom over her date.

But the evening went well, and the following year the couple married at a ceremony at the Essex House before 50 friends and family members. Mr. Weill’s father didn’t show up.

At this point, Mr. Weill didn’t exactly have a career plan. But one day, he passed a stock brokerage where the sputtering ticker tape and clanging phones immediately attracted him. So he got a $150-a-month job as a runner at Bear Stearns and began studying to get his brokerage license, which he obtained in 1956.

In the 1960s, Mr. Weill formed the securities firm Carter, Berlind, Potoma & Weill with his friends Arthur Carter, Roger Berlind and Peter Potoma.

As it grew over the next two decades, gobbling up other brokerages and ultimately becoming Shearson Loeb Rhoades, Mr. Weill had a fireplace installed in his office on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center, smoking cigars between meals at the company’s lavish dining room, where, according to Monica Langley’s biography “Tearing Down the Walls,” there was a painting featuring Mr. Weill shaking hands with Gerald Ford.

Mrs. Weill, meanwhile, became a trusted adviser to her husband, one his employees came to respect. “It was clear Sandy shared all his concerns and plans and problems with her,” Mr. Bialkin said. “He would never make an important decision without talking it over with her.”

In 1982, Mr. Weill joined the board of Carnegie Hall shortly after selling his company to American Express for close to $1 billion.

With the merger complete, he was due to become the new company’s president. But it didn’t go well, and he wound up being pushed out, gradually stripped of power with nothing but an empty office and a lone assistant.

During his next year of unemployment – before he started building another securities firm into the colossus that became Citigroup – Carnegie Hall served as his unofficial clubhouse.

There, he led the steering committee for the organization that went on to raise $60 million for the restoration of Carnegie Hall, $2.5 million of which came from the Weills’ own pocket. When the renovation was complete, the name on its smaller 268-seat theater became the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Recital Hall.

At a fall gala in 1986, Mr. and Mrs. Weill beamed as they were name-checked from the stage in between performances by Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Vladimir Horowitz and Leonard Bernstein.

“Somehow,” Mr. Weill later wrote in his memoir, “it felt even better to give money away than it had to earn it in the first place.”

So they did more of it.

“They’re spectacular,” said Herbert Pardes, the former chief executive of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “They’re smart as can be, they’re generous as can be, and they’ve been involved. What they did there was not from a distance.”

Still, there were detractors, particularly during the aughts, when the couple received a torrent of negative press for what occasionally seemed like self-serving behavior on the boards on which they served, and when Citigroup nearly collapsed during the financial crisis of 2008.

For Mrs. Weill, the association with Paul Smith’s College – one that had grown over 20 years, during which the couple contributed $10 million for a new library and a student center (both of which were named for her) and raised millions more from other donors – was seen by many as a measure to cement a legacy of her own, one on par with  that of her more flamboyant, better-known husband.

But it was not to be.

“The Weills are really wonderful people, and I know they’re disappointed.” said Dr. Dove, the college’s president. “I’m disappointed. Honestly, in every conversation I’ve had with them they’ve continued to say we care about the students, and I don’t think that will ever change.”



Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released an updated version of her successful book, Women and Money: A Practical Guide to Estate Planning to include recent changes in the laws that govern how we protect our assets during and beyond our lifetime. To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit,

Judge Rejects Request by Paul Smith’s College to Change Its Name


In the rarefied world of multimillion dollar gift-giving, Paul Smith’s College, named for a 19th-century hotelier and tucked in the forests of northern New York State, carried little cachet. So when Joan Weill, the wife of the Wall Street

Paul Smith College Entrance

Joan Weill, the wealthiest benefactor of Paul Smith’s College, made an offer of $20 million with the requirement that the school change its name to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. Credit Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times

billionaire Sanford I. Weill, proposed a $20 million gift that would lift the struggling college’s fortunes, its officials saw national prestige on the horizon.

Mrs. Weill’s only condition — one that experts say is becoming more common among major donors — was that the institution become Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College.

But a state judge rejected that change, ruling in a decision released on Wednesday that Mrs. Weill’s money did not give the college license to violate a provision in its founder’s will that enshrined his father’s name on the college in perpetuity.

The dispute over the name is one of several such controversies that have reverberated through philanthropic circles in recent years, including the transformation of Avery Fisher Hall in New York into David Geffen Hall and the recasting of the Miami Art Museum as the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum of Miami-Dade.

 The Joan Weill Adirondack Library at Paul Smith’s College. Mrs. Weill sought a bigger role at the school by donating $20 million. Credit Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times

The Joan Weill Adirondack Library at Paul Smith’s College. Mrs. Weill sought a bigger role at the school by donating $20 million. Credit Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times

The Joan Weill Adirondack Library at Paul Smith’s College. Mrs. Weill sought a bigger role at the school by donating $20 million. Credit Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times

And yet it is one of the few cases of its kind to yield a judicial ruling, experts said, putting the college at the center of a nascent legal debate over how long institutions must adhere to restrictions set at their founding. Uncertainty about such rules looms ever larger over groups that have grown reliant on big gifts that often come with strings attached.

The decision sent a strong message to other organizations that perpetual naming agreements would not be lifted easily, and it left the fate of Mrs. Weill’s gift in doubt. It also brought an end to months of sometimes vitriolic debate at the college, in Paul Smiths, N.Y., as the case provoked class resentments and clashing expectations about the very purpose of philanthropy.

“This decision is a big, big deal,” said Doug White, an adviser to philanthropists and nonprofits who teaches at Columbia University. “It’ll help define what the court system thinks of the idea of changing the name of an organization like this.”

The college, the only four-year institution in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park, was created in 1937 with a bequest from Phelps Smith, which required that it “be forever known” as Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences, in honor of his father. Its student body of about 1,000 doubles the area’s population.

It also attracted the notice of Mrs. Weill. She and her husband owned a home nearby, and she fell in love with the idea of a school that helped students who were the first in their families to attend college “change their lifestyle”, she said in an interview around the time her gift was announced. The college is best known for its hospitality and forestry programs, and nearly all of its students receive some form of financial aid. “I felt, ‘O.K., I can make a difference here,’ ” she said in the interview.

Like many schools in remote locales that charge high tuition, Paul Smith’s has struggled with declines in enrollment and revenues, trends driven by shifting student demographics, the college argued in court papers.

The college operated at a loss in 2013, and over the last two decades, more than 85 percent of its donations were from fewer than 150 people, almost all of whom were not alumni. It came to lean in no small part on the largess of Mrs. Weill and her husband, who donated almost $10 million to help pay for a new library and student center, both of which were named for her, and also raised nearly $30 million from other donors. (The Weill name also adorns a medical college and a recital hall in New York City.)

Mrs. Weill sought to extend her reach with the $20 million gift, announced in July, which college officials cast as a lifeline that could allow them to recruit students nationally and draw more donations from the couple’s wealthy friends. The college argued in court papers that it in order to consummate the gift, it needed to undo the century-old naming restriction, which it said “nearly fatally impedes the ability of Paul Smith’s to seek large gifts from a single donor in order to make the investments it needs to remain viable.”

 Joan Weill in 2012. Credit Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Joan Weill in 2012. Credit Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Justice John T. Ellis of State Supreme Court in Franklin County disagreed. State law says a court can change the rules attached to a charitable gift only if complying with them has become “impossible or impracticable.” After reviewing years of financial records as well as the college’s $30 million revitalization plan, he concluded that the college had not offered enough evidence to prove it would not survive without a name change.

“The petitioner falls far short of showing that its name is holding the college back from being a shining success both in enrollment and in producing successful college graduates,” Justice Ellis wrote. “Significantly, Paul Smith’s has failed to demonstrate the college cannot operate effectively within that changing demographic absent the requested relief.”

The ruling appears to complicate the college’s path to financial stability, jeopardizing its role both as an economic driver and a source of pride and identity in the rural northern part of the state.

The college’s president, Cathy S. Dove, who pushed for the change alongside the board of trustees, said the college was considering its options.

“While we are disappointed in the court’s decision, the board of trustees and I truly appreciate the enduring connection our people feel to the college and our traditions,” she said, apparently referring to alumni reaction.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Mrs. Weill declined to comment on the decision. It was not clear whether she would go forward with her donation. A spokeswoman for the college, Shannon Oborne, said, “That’s an area that we’re really not fully prepared to talk about right now.”

Some students cheered the decision; others had recently expressed concern that the college needed money to educate students from low-income families.

“The name means a lot to people who come here,” Anthony Pernisi, a senior who collected 300 signatures from students opposed to the change, said on Wednesday. He and others said the resistance was to the name change alone, not to the college’s largest donor. “I don’t feel like it was a fight or a war against one side or another,” he said.

 A display at the college bookstore in the Joan Weill Student Center, another campus building paid for by the Weills. Credit Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times

A display at the college bookstore in the Joan Weill Student Center, another campus building paid for by the Weills. Credit Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times

A display at the college bookstore in the Joan Weill Student Center, another campus building paid for by the Weills. Credit Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times

The reaction had been somewhat stronger among alumni, who had said in scores of online posts and public comments that the proposed change undermined the college’s integrity and called into question Mrs. Weill’s motives as a philanthropist.

In comments submitted to the state attorney general’s office, which oversees nonprofit organizations and had to approve the college’s request for a name change, graduates described themselves as a scrappy lot who tended to dirty their hands in the course of their work. They said they did not understand why Mrs. Weill felt she had to attach her name to the gift.

“The petition not only fails the truth test, the philanthropists fail the good-will test,” a 1980 alumna, Sheila Strachan, said in an Aug. 12 email to the attorney general’s office.

Philanthropic experts and advisers said Mrs. Weill’s stipulation reflected the increasingly transactional nature of philanthropy, as institutions once named for people accomplished in their fields accepted that using a donor’s name was the only way to guarantee financial solidity.

While many attribute such requirements to ego, “I think that’s too simplistic,” said Charlie Brown, who has raised money for Johns Hopkins and Stanford’s medical school.

“There’s a natural human desire to leave behind some trace that we’ve had an existence here and that it mattered,” he continued.

Others said the anger expressed by those connected to Paul Smith’s was a sign of things to come, as development officers turn more and more attention to very wealthy donors, at the expense of more modest gifts.

“Philanthropy is becoming de-democratized in the sense that there are more and more large gifts,” said Mr. White, director of a master’s program in fund-raising management at Columbia. “That demand is going to become more and more prevalent.”

The judge’s decision about Paul Smith’s, he added, offered something of a road map as institutions tried to undo perpetual name agreements for the first time. It also, he said, served as a warning about making new naming promises, as the leaders of Lincoln Center did this year in pledging to preserve their concert hall’s new name, David Geffen Hall, forever.

“We’re treading on fairly fertile ground,” Mr. White said, “and this decision will start the process.”




Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released her new book, “It’s More Than Money, Protect Your Legacy” available at To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit,