Rich recluse assured his privacy in death

November 06, 1990|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

When his wife, Jeanette, died last winter, reclusive real estate mogul and billionaire Harry Weinberg made sure that she would have her privacy, even in death.

Weinberg bought 72 plots in an open section of Hebrew Friendship Cemetery, near Conkling Street in East Baltimore, and saw to it that Mrs. Weinberg was buried at the center.

Tomorrow, Harry Weinberg will be laid to rest beside his wife in private services scheduled to begin at 11 a.m.

His outsized purchase of cemetery real estate for himself and his wife is perhaps symbolic of Weinberg's lifetime spent building both a billion-dollar fortune in real estate and a broad moat of privacy for himself and his family.

His accumulation of property in Baltimore, Hawaii and elsewhere was a reaction to a childhood of poverty, according to a longtime friend and attorney, Lawrence I. Weisman.

"He was always afraid of losing it [his money]," Weisman said. "Some people are developers. Harry Weinberg was an accumulator. He wasn't a risk-taker."

Virtually all of that vast wealth has been left at Weinberg's request to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, a charitable trust dedicated to aiding the poor.

His only child, Morton Weinberg of Seal Beach, Calif., has already received "a very substantial amount of money," and his four grandchildren have been provided with a total of $3 million, said Shale Stiller, attorney for the Weinberg Foundation.

But the vast bulk of his wealth -- some $600 million -- was transferred to the foundation during the past three years, Stiller said, and the rest -- some $300 million to $400 million -- will be transferred under terms of his will.

Control of the foundation now shifts from Weinberg to its board of five trustees -- brothers William and Nathan, of Pikesville; longtime associate Bernard Siegel of Baltimore; Alvin Awaya, manager of Weinberg's holdings in Hawaii; and accountant Robert T. Kelly Sr., of Scranton, Pa. They will decide how to give away the $45 million in income that Weinberg's property is expected to generate each year, an "awesome challenge," Stiller said.

The bequest makes the Weinberg Foundation Maryland's largest charity by far, and one of the nation's biggest. Its gifts are limited to the poor and organizations that serve them, but are not restricted to Baltimore, Maryland or the United States, Stiller said.

"He wanted to keep the foundation going as a perpetuation of himself," Weisman said. "It was a way of preserving his name and his estate, and preserving his works."

Weinberg's compulsion to accumulate was visible even in his charity, Weisman said.

"I remember we would sit, and he would show me the public records of other foundations in Maryland, like the Meyerhoffs and the Motts, and he would say, 'Mine's going to be bigger.' That's still what motivated him to the end."

Stiller, however, sees it a bit differently. He believes the foundation is the instrument of Weinberg's compassion. Weinberg "understood the agony of what being poor was, and he had great compassion for the problems of the underdog," said Stiller.

"Nobody ever gave him anything," he added. "He knew what poverty was all about, what it was like not to have clothing or adequate housing."


In interviews yesterday in the wake of Weinberg's death from bone cancer Sunday in Honolulu, Weisman, Stiller and Darrell Friedman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore (formerly the Associated Jewish Charities, the largest single beneficiary of Weinberg's charitable giving in recent years), provided rare close-up glimpses of one of Baltimore's most enigmatic figures.

They painted a portrait of a difficult but compassionate man, who fought with his son and drove his wife to distraction, but was deeply moved by the needy; who refused the usual trappings of wealth and ignored critics and bad press, but drew money like a magnet; who dropped out of the sixth grade and spoke with a fractured grammar, but had a photographic memory for business figures, a fierce tenacity and an uncanny instinct for making money.

Weisman, 63, who has been retired for some years and lives now in Florida and Rehoboth Beach, Del., said Weinberg was motivated by a "basic insecurity bred of poverty."

Born in Austria, Weinberg grew up poor in southwest Baltimore. He worked in his father's auto shop, sold newspapers and eventually built a series of successful businesses into enormous wealth.

"He accumulated salvage," Weisman said. He bought up commercial real estate in declining downtown areas like Baltimore's Howard Street corridor, at a time when shoppers were driving to suburban malls. And he bought private mass transit companies as people abandoned them for their autos, thereby acquiring their substantial land holdings for a song.

Said Stiller: "I guess he thought that real estate was the one asset that would only get scarcer and scarcer, and keep going up and up and up. He was a very smart man in foreseeing what the market could be five to 10 years hence."

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