Anyone who loves jazz, opera and cats was sad to hear that philanthropist and chemist Agnes Varis died on Friday at her home in New York.
Varis, who was 81, also had a soft spot for old people and poor people -- often the same -- and spread happiness by using the vast wealth she piled up making generic drugs.
“I like things. But once you have the stuff, it is time to start doing good,” she told me last February.
With us at lunch that day was conductor Eve Queler, a beloved music fixture in New York for her opera concerts showcasing big names in amusingly off-beat repertoire, works like “Rienzi,” Wagner’s hideous piece about a deranged medieval Roman who loves his sister.
Varis had saved Queler’s scrappy outfit with a $250,000 check. Since she’d never applied for a grant, Queler said she was still recovering from the shock several months later.
That was so refreshing about Varis. She didn’t bother with a foundation and those lengthy grant proposals that turn applicants into raging alcoholics. She just wrote checks for causes important to her heart.
Unbeknownst to Queler, Varis and her husband, Karl Leichtman, had enjoyed a few Opera Orchestra concerts before his death in 2009. She was saying thanks for the memories.
Varis so missed Leichtman, an audiophile with a set of $80,000 speakers, that she buried his ashes within a replica.
We also talked a lot about Beverly Sills, the American soprano, manager and talk show deity. Varis “blamed” Sills for getting her interested in the Metropolitan Opera, where the diva presided in her last years as chairman of the board.
Both were Brooklyn girls who never bothered to high style their English. Both had big brains. “Boy, was she smart!” said Varis. “I never saw anyone read a financial statement the way she could.”
Starting in 2007, Varis underwrote cheap orchestra seats at the Met for certain shows and made sure that seniors didn’t have to line up for them. She wanted everyone to enter the palace.
“What is it about our society that makes us so uncaring about older people?” was a refrain throughout lunch, which continued over several hours.
Varis said she wasn’t all that interested in the “fancy folk” who tended to drift to cultural boards, but she thought it was good to set an example.
That was another luncheon leitmotif -- being a role model for women. “‘You gotta get yourself noticed!”
“You gotta stand out,” she continued. “Women need to see other women who have money, and realize they, too, can have money and then give it away.”
She grumped at the memory of a male colleague who had doubted she would triumph in the pill business on her own.
“I made my first million within two years and bought a red Mercedes. And I made sure he saw me when I drove up to a conference,” she remembered some 40 years later.
Varis was 39 years old when she started building Agvar Chemicals Inc., which remained privately held with her as president and founder. Eventually, she dropped the Mercedes and ascended into a $300,000 Bentley (“nicer than the Queen’s”) for daily tours of her drug kingdom in Little Falls, New Jersey.
Her success gave her great pleasure. The daughter of Greek immigrants, Agnes was the only one of eight children to go to college. Her father scraped by as a greengrocer in Brooklyn; her mother was illiterate.
After a chemistry degree at Brooklyn College, she went on to New York University’s Stern School of Business. Tufts University gave her an honorary doctorate, and, thanks to her, veterinary students there relax in the Agnes Varis Campus Center.
“It is important to have your name up,” she adds. “Not for ego. But so others know we women can do it.”
Every check was written with thought and compassion. “I just reached for a credit card when my cat got cancer and four days cost me $10,000. Others can’t do that.” She set up two funds named after cats Zeus and Kallee to assist humans facing catastrophic vet bills.
Varis was recovering from brain cancer when we lunched. That, too, inspired her to help others. She sponsored a weekly “beauty day” to lift the spirits of less fortunate women who could not afford her stylist and grand assortment of wigs.
Eve Queler informed me of her death. She will be one of so many to mourn her as life goes on. For Jazz at Lincoln Center, her $3 million dollar gift in 2010 provided a wondrous boost at a time when fickle corporate sponsors had dropped out. Varis loved jazz and supported a program to help older musicians through the Jazz Foundation.
And from her apartment on Central Park South, she welcomed a steady flow of women entering the corporate world. They asked the pharma queen for ‘Agvice’ and she was happy to give it.
To read the March interview, click here.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. All opinions are her own.)
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