Billionaire Thomas H. Lee leaves legacy of philanthropy

Billionaire financier Thomas H. Lee cultivated a reputation as a prolific philanthropist beloved for his “quiet, generous” presence at universities, museums and Jewish charities, acquaintances told The Post on Friday.

Lee, 78 — who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Manhattan office Thursday morning — built his fortune pioneering the leveraged buyout industry and ended up using a large portion of it to support various causes.

“Tom gave [and] raised millions of dollars for the Intrepid Museum and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund,” said Bill White, the former president of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.

White, who worked with Lee and his wife, Ann Tenenbaum, for several years to raise funds for the museum, called the moneyman a “quiet, generous” contributor who was “always there when called upon.

Thomas H. Lee died by suicide Feb. 23.

“I’d thank him at a meeting, and he’d go ‘Stop that, that’s not what this is about,’ ” White recalled.

White said that one time, Lee prepared him for a meeting with a potential donor. At the end of the interaction, the donor wrote White a check for $1 million.

“[Lee] said, ‘You must have followed the script exactly!’ ” White said, laughing at the memory.

Beyond his work with the Intrepid Museum, Lee’s philanthropic interests extended to higher education, the arts and medicine.

In 1996, two years after his eponymous firm made headlines with its immensely lucrative $1.7 billion sale of Snapple to Quaker Oats, he donated $22 million to Harvard University, his alma mater.

At the time, Lee’s gift was the sixth-largest donation in the university’s history, the Harvard Crimson said.

Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee
Thomas H. Lee and his wife Ann Tenenbaum were honored by Lincoln Center in 2015.

“Lee gave Harvard unprecedented freedom in allocating the donation, classing $19 million of it as unrestricted funds,” The Crimson reported.

Lee, of Massachusetts, also donated to Brandeis University and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, the Boston Globe reported.

The son of Jewish parents – his father, Herbert Lee, shortened the family’s name from “Leibowitz”– Lee was active in the New York Jewish community. In 2006, he was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

At the time of his death, Lee was also an honorary overseer for Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Lee also was an avid art collector and patron.

At the time of his death, he was listed as a Director Emeritus of the Lincoln Center.

“Mr. Lee was a member of the Lincoln Center Board of Directors since 1995 and served as Director Emeritus beginning in 2018,” a rep told The Post in an e-mail Friday.

“We … are of course saddened to hear of his passing and very grateful for his dedication to the impact of our work.” 

Thomas H. Lee at the New York Stock Exchange.
Thomas H. Lee, pictured in 2005 alongside other Manhattan bigwigs, was a noted philanthropist.
via Bloomberg News

Lee and Tenenbaum were honored at the organization’s 2015 gala.

Lee was also an honorary trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and, according to the Harvard Gazette, was previously linked to the Museum of Modern Art.

Lee and his wife are listed as Leadership Circle donors for James Turrell’s Roden Crater.

The large-scale artwork, located within a volcanic cinder cone in Arizona, has other supporters including big names such as Kanye West and the Tisch family.

As of 2023, Lee was a trustee of NYU Langone Health.

Speaking to The Post by phone on Friday, White worried that the news of Lee’s untimely death would overshadow his many contributions.

“The tragedy of [his suicide] is so shocking,” White lamented.

White last spoke to Lee a year and a half ago, he said, when he called him for advice about a new project in Atlanta.

“He had some great advice and made introductions. People knew him all around that world,” White said.

“My heart goes out to Ann and their amazing children.”