Kathryn Wasserman Davis, Head of Investing Family, Dies at 106

Kathryn Wasserman Davis, a globetrotting philanthropist who provided the startup funds that her husband, Shelby Cullom Davis, used to become one of America’s most successful investors, has died. She was 106.

She died today at her home in Hobe Sound, Florida, her family said. No cause was given.

Davis’s father, Joseph Wasserman, was the longtime chairman of the Artloom Corp. of Philadelphia, a maker of Wilton rugs. His fortune survived the market crash of 1929 because he was “part of a canny minority who kept their money in government bonds.” John Rothchild wrote in his 2003 book, “The Davis Dynasty: Fifty Years of Successful Investing on Wall Street.”

In 1947, Davis dipped into her share of that fortune to provide seed capital to her husband, who had quit his post in New York Governor Thomas Dewey’s administration to form Shelby Cullom Davis & Co., investing mostly in insurance stocks.

The family says she gave him $100,000; Rothchild wrote that it was $50,000. Either way, by his death in 1994, Shelby Davis had turned that initial stake into an $800 million fortune, making Forbes magazine’s annual list of 400 richest Americans from 1987 until his death. He served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland from 1969 to 1975.

Davis inherited her husband’s New York Stock Exchange seat and held it for a number of years until it was sold about 12 years ago, according to Christopher C. Davis, her grandson and the chairman of Tucson, Arizona-based Davis Selected Advisers LP.

Invoking Gandhi

On her 100th birthday in 2007, Davis pledged $1 million to carry out the ideas of 100 college students on how to promote peace. She provided additional $1 million grants in 2008, 2009 and 2010 for what became known as the Davis Projects for Peace.

“I think Gandhi was very smart because he said what people need is to talk more not to their friends, but to their enemies, and that will bring about peace,” Davis said in a biographical video on the project’s website. “And that’s what I’m hoping to do.”

Last May, the American Museum of Natural History in New York dedicated the Kathryn W. Davis Science Teaching Classroom in recognition of her donations to its master’s degree program for science teachers. She told the Wall Street Journal that her philanthropy was guided by the notion that it’s more fun “to live in a world that you are helping to get better.”

Kathryn Stix Wasserman was born on Feb. 25, 1907, in Philadelphia, one of five children of Joseph Wasserman and the former Edith Stix. She attended Miss Madeira’s school for girls in Washington, then Wellesley College, graduating in 1928.

Horseback Ride

Her adventurous nature and global view were in evidence a year after she graduated college, when she traveled with her sister to Russia and took a horseback trip into the Caucasus Mountains.

A few years later she met her future husband on a train from Paris to Geneva, where they were both attending summer school. They married after completing their master’s degrees at Columbia University in 1931.

She went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Geneva in 1934, writing her thesis on “The Soviets at Geneva: The USSR and the League of Nations, 1919-1933.” It was in Geneva that she refined her lifelong belief in the need for what she called a global “peace force.”

During their doctoral studies in Geneva, “Shelby and I saw firsthand the workings of the very first world disarmament conference,” she said in 2006 in videotaped remarks to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “We heard all the right words, but what Shelby and I saw was a relentless preparation for war -- by Germany toward its neighbors, by Italy toward Ethiopia, and by Japan, panting to take Manchuria.”

Foreign Relations

Back home, Davis worked briefly at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City before the couple bought a house in Tarrytown, New York, and began raising a family. She became active in the League of Women Voters.

Davis was an honorary trustee of the Heritage Foundation, which runs the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies. The couple’s philanthropic efforts supported the Davis Museum at Wellesley College and the Kathryn W. and Shelby Cullom Davis ’30 International Center at Princeton, among other organizations.

Survivors include her daughter, Diana Davis Spencer of Washington; her son, Shelby M.C. Davis of Jackson, Wyoming, the founder of Davis Selected Advisors; eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.