Russell D’Oench, Skadden Partner of Mayoral Lineage, Dies at 58

Russell "Toby" D'Oench, a partner at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, has died at 58, according to the firm. Photo: Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP via Bloomberg

Russell G. D’Oench III, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and a great-great-grandson of William Russell Grace, the founder of W.R. Grace & Co. and a mayor of New York City in the 19th century, has died. He was 58.

He died Jan. 23, according to a death notice from Skadden. The cause was complications related to treatment for cancer. A colleague and friend, Ralph Arditi, said D’Oench resided in Manhattan and died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Known as Toby, D’Oench in 1979 joined other young people with inherited wealth to create the North Star Fund, a New York City community foundation that supports “grassroots groups leading the movement for equality, economic justice and peace,” according to its website. He served as the foundation’s executive director until 1983.

“I was thinking about what to do with the money I had,” D’Oench told the New York Times in 1979. “I was in a position to give it away, and I didn’t want to give it to those things that I just happened to run into.”

His inherited wealth came at least in part through William Grace, his father’s great-grandfather, who was elected New York City’s first Catholic mayor in 1880 and re-elected in 1884 to a second term, during which he accepted the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France.

Grace’s Estate

The company that Grace, an Irish emigre, founded in 1854 in Peru and later moved to New York became a leading international merchant, shipping and finance business. At his death in 1904, according to a Times story, he left an estate estimated at $25 million, or about $600 million today. (Besieged by asbestos-related lawsuits, W.R. Grace, which left shipping in 1969 and now focuses on specialty chemicals, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001.)

On D’Oench’s maternal side, he was descended from Henry Alexander Wise, Virginia’s governor from 1856 to 1860 and a general in the Confederate army, and Jonathan Dickinson, who in 1746 co-founded and then became the first president of the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University, according to his mother’s 1949 engagement announcement in the Times.

Arditi, a Skadden partner and co-head of the firm’s Financial Institutions Group, said D’Oench “never in any way advertised” his elite lineage.

“I doubt even a handful of people here knew about it,” Arditi said. “He was a very reserved and modest person, in the best sense.”

M&A Lawyer

At Skadden, the sixth-largest U.S. law firm, D’Oench was a partner in the Financial Institutions Group, handling matters including mergers, acquisitions and equity offerings, according to the New York-based firm, which called him “an extraordinary lawyer whose breadth of skills enabled him to do most anything.” He retired this month.

D’Oench remained committed to helping New York City’s have-nots even as he found a home at one of Wall Street’s most powerful law firms, his older brother said in an interview.

“He probably needed to find a better way to earn a living, and he fell in love with the law,” said the brother, Peter D’Oench, a television reporter for CBS4 News in Miami.

Russell Grace D’Oench III was born on Nov. 16, 1953. He was one of four children of Russell “Derry” D’Oench, editor and co-owner of The Middletown Press newspaper in Connecticut from 1959 to 1991, and the former Ellen Gates, known as “Puffin,” who taught at Wesleyan University in Middletown and was curator of its Davison Art Center.

Honoring Abolitionist

After graduating from Wesleyan in 1977, D’Oench lived in a black township in South Africa and raised money for a library there, according to the 1979 Times story. Back in the U.S., he studied the workings of the Haymarket People’s Fund, one of the early charitable outlets for what the Times called the “reluctant wealthy” to pool their money for social change.

D’Oench then teamed with a few other people to create the North Star Fund -- named for the antislavery newspaper founded in 1847 by abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass.

After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1992, he was a clerk for U.S. District Judge Eugene Nickerson before going into private practice. He joined Skadden’s New York office from Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in March 2000.

He is survived by his wife, Tani, daughter, Miye, and son, Robin, according to the firm.

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