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Lunch at Lever House with: Donald Blinken

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-28

Donald Blinken sees himself as a fox.

"A fox is versatile - and a person who sees himself as a fox can enjoy the world for its variety and complexity," the co-founder of the investment bank E. M. Warburg, Pincus & Company said the other day. "I've had an interesting and varied life. I am definitely a fox."

His metaphor was drawn from Isaiah Berlin's famous 1953 essay on Tolstoy in which Berlin quoted a fragment of Greek poetry by Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Mr. Blinken, who's as familiar with the classics as he's with the arnacum of high finance and the argot of diplomacy - he served as ambassador to Hungary from 1994 to 1998 - comes down on the side of scholars who interpret Archilochus's hedgehog as an inflexible creature and the fox as a nimble one.

It shouldn't be surprising that Mr. Blinken sees himself as a fox, albeit a benign one. His career arc has shot through a variety of fields - economics, marketing, art, high finance, music, education, women's health, Jewish issues, philanthropy, and diplomacy.

To put it another way, the Yonkers-born Mr. Blinken can be legitimately called a Renaissance Man.

It is not a moniker that's he particularly comfortable with, but he accepts it gracefully.

"I know I'll never be an Einstein or a Bill Gates, but I like to think that I've led the engaged life," Mr. Blinken said. "'Renaissance Man'? I've been fortunate to have had many opportunities. I always felt that if I was involved in something, then I should be active in that enterprise."

In espousing such a belief, Mr. Blinken took his cue from his father, Maurice Blinken, a lawyer who served as president of the Yonkers Board of Education, and the Yonkers Public Library, among other things.

"He taught me that it was important not only to earn a living honestly but also to act with responsibility toward society," Mr. Blinken said of his father.

The older Blinken was the American partner of Lord Israel Sieff, one of the potentates of Marks and Spencer, the giant British retail chain. Lord Sieff employed the young Mr. Blinken after his graduation from Harvard University, a stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, and a brief sojourn at Bloomingdale's.

"Lord Sieff was a great model - now there was a real Renaissance Man," Mr. Blinken said. "He was an expert on international affairs, fine wines, orchids, art - and, of course, he was deeply committed to Israel."

Mr. Blinken himself has taken keen interest in Israel. While at Harvard, he wrote an acclaimed editorial for the college newspaper, "The Crimson," about the viability of a Jewish State in Palestine. Mr. Blinken advocated partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs, in effect calling for the creation of two independent states.

Mr. Blinken's early study of Middle East issues led to a life-long involvement with international affairs. Years later, when he was America's ambassador to Hungary, he helped persuade the Hungarian government to accept financial responsibility for Holocaust survivors - the first such arrangement in the former Soviet bloc.

By the time he became ambassador to Hungary - the country of birth of his wife Vera - Mr. Blinken had established a stellar reputation in several areas.
Wall Street was one. In 1959, after 10 years in the retail business - including 2 years with Marks and Spencer - he joined a small investment bank, E. M. Warburg & Company. In 1966, teaming with his friend Lionel Pincus, Mr. Blinken became co-founder of E. M. Warburg, Pincus & Company, which was to soon become a major global venture capital firm.

The art world was another area where Mr. Blinken made his mark. He had been privately collecting paintings by Mark Rothko, de Kooning and Philip Guston, when, in 1976, Mr. Blinken was invited to become president of the Rothko Foundation.

It was a post that he retained for the next decade.

"We established a model for dealing with an artist's legacy," Mr. Blinken said.

Under that model, more than 1,000 drawings, sketches and paintings by Rothko were given to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

In addition, Mr. Blinken said, 28 other American museums and 6 foreign institutions got works by Rothko, a Latvian-born who came to prominence in the 1940s as an abstract impressionist painter whose work was characterized by rigorous attention to formal elements such as color, shape, balance, depth, composition, and scale, according to the literature.

These gifts weren't simply giveaways. By organizing a thoughtful disposal, Mr. Blinken was able to tamp down a raging controversy about Rothko's works, some of which had been subjected to questionable sales.

"Education was next," Mr. Blinken said, walking a reporter through his career time line. "The question I asked myself after I retired from the business world was, 'If one is a fox, what do I do next that would be productive?'"

In 1976, Governor Carey appointed him to the Board of the State University of New York and subsequently named him chairman. (He was reappointed to that office by Governor Mario M. Cuomo.) The State University of New York serves 400,000 students on 64 campuses throughout New York.

It wasn't enough for Mr. Blinken to simply serve as chairman. In cooperation with the SUNY chancellor, Cliff Wharton, he established the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government as a think tank to study governmental issues at the federal, state and local levels.

"I pushed to examine how governments at various levels could work more effectively," Mr. Blinken said. "What happens when a natural disaster strikes? Who should take the responsibility for managing things? After Hurricane Katrina, such questions have become even more important."

To pursue such questions, Mr. Blinken said, the Institute is embarking on a major study. It has received a high-six-figure grant from a foundation whose name Mr. Blinken would not disclose because a formal announcement has yet to be made.

These days Mr. Blinken is giving priority to organizing three concerts at the New York Philharmonic - October 26, 27 and 28 - that will mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against the erstwhile Communist regime. Jonathan Nott will conduct music by Beethoven, and Hungarian composers Bela Bartok and Gyoergy Ligeti.

The concerts are being personally underwritten by Mr. Blinken and his wife.

"I would never have gone to Hungary had it not been for my wife's birth there," Mr. Blinken said. "I like to think that Vera and I made a significant contribution to strengthening US-Hungary relations."

During his four-year term as ambassador, Mr. Blinken is credited with helping Hungary ease its tensions with neighboring Romania and Slovakia - and with establishing the NATO base in Taszar, which was the staging area for the successful Bosnia campaign.

He also helped Hungary emerge as a NATO participant - and as a valued member of the European Union. Mr. Blinken helped Hungary get a loan of $500 million from the World Bank to reorganize its higher education system.

And Vera Blinken started a program to enable Hungarian women to readily obtain mammograms. More than 75,000 women have availed themselves of this free service in the last five years.

That makes her a fox - like her husband.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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