Melville Straus, Money Manager With Passion for Arts, Dies at 75

Melville “Mickey” Straus, a New York money manager with a passion for the visual and performing arts who helped lead cultural groups in Manhattan and its summer getaway, the Hamptons, for three decades, has died. He was 75.

He died on May 1 at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, according to his son, Scott Straus. The cause was complications from a brain tumor diagnosed in September 2012.

A onetime security analyst at Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, Straus formed Straus Asset Management LLC in 1998 and, as managing principal, oversaw about $200 million as of 2012, according to a biography on the website of his alma mater, Dartmouth College.

He used his professional and personal connections to steer money toward the arts. He was chairman of the American Ballet Theatre from 1982 to 1990, treasurer-secretary of Independent Curators International and a member of the Contemporary Arts Council of the Museum of Modern Art.

“He had thousands of friends,” Byron Wien, vice chairman of Blackstone Advisory Partners LP and a longtime friend, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “He seemed to know everybody in the city and the Hamptons. He loved people. He also loved the good life, but he loved his work too.”

From 1995 to 2013, Straus was chairman of Guild Hall, a cultural center in East Hampton on New York’s Long Island, and led a five-year, $14 million capital campaign to renovate its building and grounds before a grand reopening in 2009. He personally donated about $1 million since joining the board in 1992, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Dinner Honoree

Actor Alec Baldwin, president of the Guild Hall board of trustees, presented Straus with a lifetime achievement award at a 2013 dinner marking his retirement as chairman.

“Mickey has always amazed me with his dedication and generosity to the creative community,” his wife, Leila Straus, wrote as part of a video tribute at the awards event. “He’s had more sleepless nights about financial crises on these boards than he has had on Wall Street.”

Straus also led the creation of the Hamptons Institute, a series of symposiums on topical issues presented by Guild Hall in collaboration with the New York-based Roosevelt Institute.

At a 2006 event marking the 75th anniversary of Guild Hall, Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder of Blackstone Group LP, called Straus “the greatest arm twister on the East End,” according to an account in the New York Sun.

Straus didn’t disagree.

“I’m pretty brazen about collecting money,” he said, according to a Wall Street Journal article in March 2013. What would tip off his intentions? “If they are invited to dinner, then they know,” he said.

Early Life

Straus was born on March 16, 1939, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona, the second child of Milton Straus, who ran an auto service station, and the former Laura Kraus. They divorced when Straus was 15 and both later remarried.

He became interested in the stock market, according to a 2013 interview he gave to the East Hampton Star, after receiving 50 shares of Montgomery Ward from his father when he was in high school.

He graduated from Dartmouth, in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1960 and received an MBA from Harvard Business School in Boston in 1967. He then went to work for Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, the firm co-founded eight years earlier by William Donaldson, Dan Lufkin and Richard Jenrette.

Money Management

Straus joined Standard & Poor’s InterCapital Inc., an asset manager, when it was formed in 1969, serving as vice president and director of research. He moved in 1973 to Weiss Peck & Greer LLC, where he managed $1.5 billion of institutional small-cap accounts, according to his Dartmouth biography. A 1990 New York Times article said Straus was manager of the $200 million WPG Tudor Fund.

Wien, a former chief investment strategist at Morgan Stanley who releases a closely watched annual list of 10 predicted market-moving surprises, was a partner at Weiss Peck & Greer with Straus for 10 years. He said Straus “was very good at identifying small-cap stocks, and he made his reputation that way.”

Sometime around 1980, Wien recalled, Straus bought an important painting by American abstract expressionist Morris Louis, “and he attracted the attention of the art world by doing that.” The purchase spurred Straus’s move from aficionado to patron of the arts, Wien said, and Straus went on to acquire works by artists including Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

Straus’s first marriage, in 1965 to Susan Solomon, and second marriage, to Susan F. Paull in 1979, ended in divorce.

In addition to Scott Straus, his son with Solomon, survivors include his third wife, the former Leila Maw, owner of a New York media-consulting firm; his son and daughter with Maw, Benjamin and Alexandra; and siblings Margie, John and Mary.

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