Editor’s Note: Bruce and Suzie Kovner have won the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. It is given by the Philanthropy Roundtable. The Kovners are celebrated in the current issue of Philanthropy magazine. The article about them is based on reporting by our Jay Nordlinger. In a series starting today, he writes about the Kovners himself, in a kind of amplification. The series will be in five parts, ending Friday.
Bruce Kovner met William E. Simon once. He thinks it was probably when Simon was Treasury secretary, under President Ford. “The impression he left on me was the same as he left on the public. I remember his grasp and defense of principle, which struck me as unusual and powerful.” I say to Kovner, “He had a certain stubbornness, didn’t he?” “Yes,” says Kovner, “but it was not a stubbornness of personal pique. It was a stubbornness in behalf of principle.”
Furthermore, says Kovner, “his post-Treasury life was fascinating. He was a great businessman and did thoughtful philanthropy, and he always impressed me as an entirely interesting and accomplished human being.”
The same can be said of Kovner himself. And his wife, Suzie. Together, they are the recipients of the Simon prize.
Bruce has had a successful — indeed, legendary — trading career. He is also a true-blue intellectual. Suzie claims not to be an intellectual. But she does tell a story.
One night, she was seated between William F. Buckley Jr. and Bernard Lewis. She found it necessary to protest to Lewis, “I’m not an intellectual, you know.” He answered, “You could have fooled me.”
Suzie maintains that Lewis was simply flirting (which is one of his specialties, along with Middle East history). I think he meant it, thoroughly.
Through their Kovner Foundation, the Kovners concentrate their giving on three areas: ideas, particularly of a conservative or classical-liberal bent; one specific, shining idea, namely school choice; and the arts, especially music, though with a heavy dose of theater. Of course, they do a lot of private giving too, which is to say, giving of various types that no one really knows about.
They were married in 2007. They obviously get a kick out of each other, and they work closely together: conferring and plotting through the day. They are an attractive couple. He is tall — 6 foot 2 — and has a full head of hair. Recently, he attended his 50th college reunion. “Did he have the most hair?” I ask Suzie. “Yes!” she says. “And they all commented on it.” She has a relaxed glamour, reminiscent of Candice Bergen. The couple has three dogs: two golden retrievers and a chocolate lab.
Their main home is in Florida, and they have others, including one in Manhattan, on the “Museum Mile.” It once housed the National Audubon Society. Then the International Center of Photography. When she was a young teen, Suzie took lessons there (in photography).
In the press, Bruce has been described as “secretive.” He gives hundreds of millions, but his name is on very little. In 2005, New York magazine described him as “the most powerful New Yorker you’ve never heard of.” Earlier, an admiring writer in Fortune magazine ended his article, “I wish Kovner weren’t so intent on hiding his light under a bushel.”
Kovner is not secretive. Nor is he shy, in my observation. He’s just private. He likes to read, think, listen to music, and conspire with Suzie. He is a natural, expansive conversationalist, and he laughs readily. (Same with her.) It’s true that he is self-effacing. In fact, he’s one of the least show-offy people you’ll ever meet, though he has a great deal to show off about.
Let me address an important question: How do you pronounce his name? “Kove-ner,” “Kahv-ner,” or “Kuv-ner” (to rhyme with “Glove-ner”)? Bruce says “Kahv-ner.” So did his dad. Different people in the family pronounced their name in different ways. “Once,” Bruce recalls, “several of us went to our grandmother. We all had different ways of pronouncing our name. Sitting at her feet, we said, ‘Tell us, once and for all, how do you say it?’ When she had spoken, each of us said, ‘See? I’m right!’” The lady did not speak English. And she pronounced the name in a way subject to multiple interpretations.
All four of Bruce’s grandparents were immigrants from the Old World — Russia and Poland. They came to America with virtually nothing. They were Jewish, and three were conventionally so, if you will: lightly religious. The fourth, Bruce’s paternal grandfather, was a militant atheist communist — indeed, a Stalinist. But he was also something else, his grandson notes: a man of the book. He was the type who believed that the wife should earn the bread and the man should read books, learning. Bruce’s politics could not be more different. And he is a very hard worker. But he is certainly a man of the book. “I sometimes wonder how these values get transmitted,” he says.
Bruce named his trading company Caxton, after William Caxton, who lived in the 15th century and is believed to be the first Englishman to work as a printer and to sell books. Bruce has always inhaled books. He collects them, too, rare ones. His collection is one of the rarest you will ever encounter. In his library — a beautiful, tasteful room in his Manhattan home — he pulls out some volumes he thinks I will be especially interested in. He’s right. These are first editions: the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), whose cover is in pigskin and wood; More’s Utopia (1516); Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776); and more. Let me stress that Kovner does not merely own these books, as prizes or baubles. He knows them, intimately, and cherishes them.
Also, he commissioned the only illustrated Bible of the whole 20th century. Let me put this more precisely: the only Bible illustrated, from Genesis to Revelation, by one artist. That artist is Barry Moser. The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, as it’s called, is a monumental achievement, and product.
Kovner’s parents, Isidore and Sophie, were born in America. Bruce was born in 1945, in Brooklyn. Both of his parents graduated from high school, but only his father had the opportunity to go to college — and for just a short while. He went to Lehigh, in Pennsylvania, on an athletic scholarship, but had to quit and work, to help support the family.
“Izzy,” or “Kov,” was an outstanding athlete. He tried out for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, and he was recruited onto a pro football team: the Brooklyn Dodgers, not to be confused with the (more famous) baseball team of the same name. Later, he was a coach, who loved coaching, and who was loved by his charges in turn. “Probably my warmest memories of my father relate to his coaching,” says Bruce.
The senior Kovner took off work every time Bruce had a high-school basketball game. “My teammates adored him, because he was absolutely without a trace of objectivity. Any foul that was called against us was an outrage, and, from the stands, he called down imprecations on the officials.” Was Bruce embarrassed by this? “No, I loved it.”
Izzy Kovner did a variety of jobs. He worked in construction for a time, and was a union leader: the head of the sheet-metal workers’ local. He then taught himself to be a mechanical engineer. “He was a clever guy and a wonderful interlocutor,” says Bruce, “and we debated politics all the time.” Where Izzy’s father was a Stalinist, he himself was an FDR Democrat.
The family moved to California — the Los Angeles area — when Bruce was eight. He went to Van Nuys High, whose other illustrious alumni include Marilyn Monroe and Don Drysdale (the Hall of Fame pitcher). Bruce was a good athlete, but he was even better on the Knowledge Bowl team. One of his adversaries, out of North Hollywood High, was Michael Tilson Thomas, who became one of the most famous conductors of his time. “He has been a lifelong friend,” says Bruce, “but we have slightly different memories of the Knowledge Bowl: who won what and who did what.” Bruce was also student-body president, and had a tremendous appetite for public affairs, be they local, national, or global.
This was the civil-rights period, and the Kovners — all of them — were attuned to it. They joined the cause, “in the Jewish tradition,” as Bruce says. His sister Lynn and her friends picketed Woolworth’s (in protest of segregation). Bruce picketed along with them.
As student-body president, he spearheaded a book drive for a school in Kenya. Such projects were exotic at the time. The Peace Corps had just been established. “Now flash-forward to 2011,” says Suzie Kovner. “We’re in Kenya, in a slum outside Nairobi, and we are brought to a compound run by a church, which has taken in AIDS orphans. They have a dilapidated library. And I want to do something about it, badly.” She was nervous about broaching the subject with Bruce, however, because a project in Kenya was not in their bailiwick: Oversight is important to their giving, and they would not be able to oversee the project from afar. But Bruce quickly embraced the idea, telling his wife about his high-school connection to Kenya.
The library was rebuilt, and is now a haven for young people who sorely need one. The Kovners are convinced of the success of this project, by eyewitnesses and emissaries.
Back to Van Nuys — where Bruce wanted to go to Harvard. Why? A couple of reasons, he says. “First, my brother had gone to Stanford, and I wanted to outdo him” (no offense to Stanford). “Second, I was tremendously enamored of John F. Kennedy,” who was of course a product of Harvard. “In fact, when I was 15, I snuck into the Democratic National Convention,” which was held in L.A.’s Exposition Park. “I stood there waiting until midnight, when Kennedy was nominated, and heard him give his acceptance speech. It was heady stuff for a 15-year-old.”
But Bruce was a convert. An intellectual kid, he had been an Adlai Stevenson Democrat, and the Stevensonians looked down on the Kennedys and their tawdry ways. “Joe Kennedy was our villain, because he had corrupted the system, he was buying the presidency, he had been defeatist on England, and all the rest of it.”
In any event, young Kovner was won over by JFK and indeed went to Harvard, on a scholarship. Before we continue with him, we should turn to Suzie — and we’ll do that tomorrow, in Part II.