Opinion: The philanthropist

Eli Broad’s new book is called “The Art of Being Unreasonable.”

When I met the billionaire philanthropist and civic leader at his office recently, I mentioned to him

that in 2007 The Jewish Journal published a story on him with the headline “An ‘Unreasonable’ Man on an Urgent Mission.” 

“This is clearly not a new thing for you,” I said. 

Any number of articles about Broad paint him as demanding, driven, controlling. But as the book makes clear, Broad sees those attributes as essential to his enormous success. 

Written with former Los Angeles Times reporter Swati Pandey, the book follows a popular formula, using Broad’s biography to offer a combination of business advice and self-help tips. Anyone starting or running a business or philanthropy should pay attention to Broad’s five-fold path to unreasonableness: Pursue the untried; do your research; revise expectations upward; take smart risks; and give back.  

One of just a handful of wealthy philanthropists dedicated to his hometown of Los Angeles, Broad has made an enormous mark on culture, philanthropy and education here.  

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad Stage, the upcoming Broad Foundation museum and the entire Grand Avenue project downtown are the most visible examples of his city-building. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is also deeply involved in improving K-12 education throughout the United States.

So when we sit down in his large, modern art-filled office on the 12th floor of a Westwood high-rise, I have two main questions for Broad: Why don’t more of L.A.’s wealthy contribute to the life of their city? And, how did he become the kind of man who does? 

As to the first, Broad said, “There’s not the same sense of place here as there are in other cities, like New York or San Francisco.”

Added to that, people in L.A.’s highest-profile industry — entertainment — don’t get involved in city-building as he believes they should.  

When Broad tells me that part of L.A.’s problem is that it has no center, I ask him if companies like his own KB Home, which brought suburban homeownership to the masses, aren’t partly to blame.

“Other cities have suburbs,” he responds. “They still have a core.”

For well over a decade, Broad has dedicated himself to developing a new cultural core along downtown’s Grand Avenue; he is also interested in taking over another core: the city’s main daily newspaper.  

Broad said a partnership could take the Los Angeles Times out of the bankruptcy wrought by the “foolishness” of Sam Zell and give the city the newspaper it deserves, one whose owners, editors and writers are “passionate about L.A.”

As for where his philanthropic impulse comes from, Broad, in his book at least, traces it back to his parents.

I say “at least” because in person Broad made clear through clipped, monosyllabic answers which questions he’s most comfortable with. The Jewish ones weren’t among them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Broad is often referred to as “the son of Lithuanian immigrants.”

Not quite.

The Brod, as their name was originally spelled, and Jacobson families lived in the towns of Pren and Vilnius. His parents immigrated first to the Bronx, where Eli was born in 1933, and later Detroit, where he was raised. Their lives revolved around their small five-and-dime store and the Workmen’s Circle, the leftist Jewish organization. They spoke Yiddish and English at home — Broad told me he still speaks some Yiddish — and sent their son to Hebrew school.

He said his charitable roots stem from the fact that his parents, though far from wealthy, were generous with what they could spare: “time and passion.”

Broad spoke of his maternal uncle Joseph Jacobson, who helped found The Ben Shemen Youth Village in Palestine, a refuge for children from Eastern Europe whose graduates include President Shimon Peres and Haim Saban.

Broad himself, a longtime member of University Synagogue, only gives a fraction of his philanthropy to Jewish causes.

“It’s not my focus,” he said tersely. “There are other people with a passion for that.”

Broad’s clear passion, as is evident from the 10-by-8-foot Sean Scully abstract hanging outside his office, is modern art.

And when Broad talks about policy, he is positively animated. 

We talked about the awful state of California education. He’s not anti-union, he said — he was once a United Auto Workers member — but he handed me an article showing the teachers’ union as a clear impediment to positive change. 

What one thing would he advise L.A.’s next mayor to do to better education?

“You have to take control of the system,” he said. “That’s what happened in New York, in Chicago. The mayor takes charge.”

Didn’t our mayor try that? I asked.

Broad sighed, allowing himself a look between disappointment and disdain.

“That’s a long story,” he said.

I wanted to return to the reasons why he seemed to put such a distance between himself and the Jewish community, to ask him if it was unreasonable to see that just as the art he loves stems from a historical context, a Jew comes from a Jewish history — he comes from something — and that something needs to be valued, preserved, funded, passed down. I wanted to say that, but frankly I didn’t think I’d get anywhere.

So instead I asked him which politician he believed could get us out of our economic doldrums and political stalemate.

“Mike Bloomberg,” Broad said, “but he couldn’t get elected. He’s a 5-foot-7-inch Jew and a social liberal.”

Why don’t you run? I ask.

“I’m a 5-foot-9-inch Jew,” Broad said.

And then Eli Broad laughed.