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Greenberg Gets Magic Wand as Wish for Cheap Casket Denied

Greenberg pauses during an interview in New York on June 2, 2010. Photographer: Jonathan Fickies/Bloomberg
Greenberg pauses during an interview in New York on June 2, 2010. Photographer: Jonathan Fickies/Bloomberg

Before Alan C. “Ace” Greenberg died last week at 86, the former Bear Stearns Cos. chairman and chief executive officer offered his family a few pointers for his own memorial.

He told his wife Kathryn in a letter that it should include a magician breaking a magic wand, which was how today’s service opened. He wanted it held in New York’s Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue because it “should be big enough.” Among almost 2,000 mourners were his former colleague Alan Schwartz and real estate developers William C. Rudin and Donald Trump.

Greenberg’s family didn’t follow all of his wishes.

“Spending money on an expensive casket is a waste of money,” he wrote in the letter, which his son Ted read aloud. “If you can’t find one cheap enough, let me know. I will build one in my workshop in the Hamptons.”

The son apologized for the family’s choice of “a very tasteful finished nutmeg.”

He did get his wish for eulogies from best friend John Rosenwald and Ronald B. Sobel, senior rabbi emeritus.

“‘Be on time, get to the point, and make it short’ -- so spoke the chairman,” Sobel said. “And even now, I dare say none of us, and surely not I, would want to counter that admonition and possibly incur his displeasure.” He went on to compare Greenberg to Ernest Hemingway, saying the banker and novelist shared towering ambition, admiration for tough people and a fascination with big-game hunting in Africa.

‘Have Fun’

Greenberg took over Bear Stearns in 1978, handed power to Jimmy Cayne in 1993 and remained chairman of the executive committee until 2008, when a run on the company led to its purchase by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

There were more references in the service to Greenberg’s fervor for thrift than to the financial crisis. His son Ted, a comedian, said the banker let his kids try to throw change into tollbooth baskets as they drove, and would retrieve the coins when they missed.

“Have fun, kids,” he told them, “but control costs.”

Rosenwald said he became friends with “this magician, dog trainer, bow-and-arrow big-game hunter, wood whittler, bridge player” in the 1950s, and that they carpooled with fellow banker John H. Gutfreund, who asked them not to talk in his green Oldsmobile convertible because he wasn’t a morning person.

“Everybody in this sanctuary can hear him saying, ‘Thanks for coming, now get back to work,’’ Rosenwald said. ‘‘‘This is not a holiday.’’’

Two drivers stood outside the temple after the service with handwritten signs for JPMorgan’s Park Avenue office.

‘‘He was a great man,’’ Trump, a client of Greenberg’s for three decades, said. ‘‘There’s simply nobody like him.”

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