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Lunch at Lever House with: Martin E. Segal

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-14

Martin Eli Segal has a new project.

"I'm calling it '91,'" the chairman emeritus of Lincoln Center said yesterday. "I'm about to turn 90, I've seen the future - and it is '91.' So my 91st year in the business of living is my next project."

That was said with an avuncular chuckle which subsided only when Mr. Segal gingerly bit into a club sandwich. The sandwich had followed a salmagundi, which he chased down with a Virgin Mary while nibbling on fleshy green olives. Mr. Segal has a robust appetite, reinforced, no doubt, by an exercise regimen that has him working on treadmills and weights in a gym at least three times a week.

It is impossible to lunch with him and not be aware of his aura, although Mr. Segal frequently jokes about his height - 5-foot-4-inches. His light tan, his tailored English suits and shirts, his John Lobb custom-made shoes, and the garnet rose perched just right on his lapel - all these project a pitch-perfect portrait of affluence steadily accumulated and influence subtly dispensed.

"Marty is an authentic New York institution," said the founder of the Rubin Museum of Art, Donald Rubin, who has known Mr. Segal for six decades and has a picture in his office of his parents, Jay and Molly, with a young Martin. "His imprint is everywhere on the cultural life of our city."

The imprint is on Lincoln Center, whose board he chaired for long years and expanded to reflect the economic and ethnic diversity of New York. The imprint is on museums - Mr. Segal is an avid painter of landscapes. The imprint is on a staggering list of charities and philanthropies that Mr. Segal and his wife of 69 years, Edith Levy, support year after year. The imprint is on dozens of institutions where the Segals have set up scholarships and fellowships in support of a cause that Mr. Segal said was at least as dear to him as culture -- education.

While it would be imprudent to call him the New York's cultural tsar, etymologically that wouldn't be an inappropriate term to use at all.

Indeed, Mr. Segal hails from Vitevsk, now in Belarus but formerly in the erstwhile Soviet Union -- a town made famous by Charles XII and Napoleon as they invaded Russia on the Vitevsk-Smolensk route. He was 2 years old when his parents, Isadore and Anna, fled the advancing Communists of Lenin in 1918, and headed to Poland. From there it was on to Brussels, and then to America.

There's another cultural connection that Mr. Segal retains to his ancient motherland.

"Since I was a Russian boy growing up in America, it was assumed that I would be into ballet," he said. "So I was required to take ballet lessons. But after my third lesson, a kind teacher took me aside and said, 'You will never be a ballet dancer.' Ever since, I've been enormously enthusiastic about ballet -- but only as a spectator."

Mr. Segal issued another chuckle, as if at another amusing memory.

"I was a very poor student at school," he said. "I was invited to leave -- and I never went back. People assume that because I have lots of honorary degrees, I must have real ones, too. All my education has been in the school of life."

It was a hard life. Mr. Segal went to work when he was 11 years old. His older brother Robert and he would deliver newspapers. There were assignments involving heavy manual labor. Tipped by a friend, Mr. Segal got a job soliciting life-insurance brokers. By 16, he was for all practical purposes an adult, embarked on a promising career.

His ambition and energy did not go unnoticed by friends and family members.

"Marty -- you were always an adult," Doris Milman, a friend from Mr. Segal's days at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn's Flatbush section, said to him years later.

"You were never a kid," Esther Segal, Mr. Segal's younger sister, said to him at a family gathering.

And not long ago, one of his four grandchildren, Dr. Samantha Rai, said: "Grandpa, you were never a child."

If he's bitter about a lost childhood, Mr. Segal certainly doesn't show it. He is, by his own admission, unashamedly cheerful.

"Yes, I feel cheerful because I am cheerful. I've always thought that being an optimist enabled you to better figure out how to solve life's problems," Mr. Segal said.

A huge problem that he faced early in life was how to persuade Edith Levy's parents to accept his candidacy for her hand in matrimony.

Her father, Meyer Levy, was an established dentist, and her mother, Gussie, was a school teacher. Many decades later, Dr. Levy and his son-in-law had an intriguing exchange.

"Supposing you were in my place -- and some short, skinny kid who couldn't stop moving around was pursuing my beautiful daughter, a college graduate who's majored in music, what would you have done, Marty?" Dr. Levy said.

Mr. Segal's quick-witted response was: "Pop, I'd have killed him."

His own parents were far more accepting of Mr. Segal's shortcomings.

"They knew they hadn't raised a race horse -- they'd raised a child," Mr. Segal said. "My mother was somewhat stricter than my father, but both gave me total acceptance. Even when I was thrown out of school, they did not scold me. They left me to lead my life as I saw best."

In the course of leading what was to prove an immensely successful life in business -- he practically invented the sector of the actuarial industry that deals with pensions and health benefits -- and philanthropy, Mr. Segal developed several tenets.

"One was to always treat people well," he said. "Another was to always hire smart people, and pay them well. Still another was to be careful not to abuse people's trust. Never take people for granted. Respect them for who they are. And while I always valued my friendships, I also did not hesitate to speak my mind when I thought it necessary."

But, the reporter said, what about such matters as business practices?

"You have to have a reasonable clarity about what you want to get done -- and then you must apply yourself fully to that task," Mr. Segal said. "I was always a tough customer. I gave very little ground to my competition. And I must admit that if my competitors failed, there were very few tears in my eyes. I earned my rewards. I was very energetic, I traveled relentlessly to build my business. What drove me was me -- the need to gain financial security for my family, the need to properly educate my two children, Paul Segal and Susan Rai, the need to be recognized as an authority in my field.

"There was also the need within me to give back to society," Mr. Segal said. "Perhaps it's a Jewish tradition. But as far back as I can remember, I never romanticized poverty. My interest lay in the consequences of one's action. I realized, however, that one has an obligation to extend a helping hand. And I like to think that I've done that."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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