Thomas H. Lee began his senior year of Harvard setting up a table with a sign: “Meet Tom Lee.”
That was his novel presence at registration day for extracurricular clubs like chess, Shakespeare and astrophysics. Lee, according to family lore, was looking for a girlfriend (and, the story goes, found one). Inevitably, he also put himself out there to gather interesting and interested people — the kind who’d approach such a booth with optimistic curiosity — into his orbit.
It all came to a startling end last week when he shot himself in the bathroom of his family office. Lee, as open as he was throughout his life, didn’t leave a note.
Friends, family, colleagues and peers, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Izzy Englander and Edgar Bronfman, gathered Monday for a service in Manhattan at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to pay tribute to the private equity pioneer. They, and others from afar, are left to wonder what would drive someone who was wealthy, had a family and, by all accounts, always enjoyed life, to end it in such a shocking way at age 78.
The stories pour out during interviews ahead of the service with more than a dozen people in his universe. They tell of the ways Lee shared the fortune he built and made others feel important in his eyes.
Lee often said he started life on third base, growing up in Boston in the 1950s with well-to-do parents. He worked hard, and appreciated others who did the same. Among the most recurring memories of those close to him: He wasn’t stingy with his money or his time.
He almost compulsively handed out tips, even when circumstances fell far outside conventional rituals — to a neighbor’s lawn crew for a yard he enjoyed, or to the peanut peddler in Central Park, where he’d walk on a sunny afternoon.
Lee became a well-regarded philanthropist, following in the footsteps of his parents and others in Boston. He served on boards of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Lincoln Center, NYU Langone Health and Brandeis University. He developed into an avid art collector, owning works by artists including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
But flaunting his vast wealth for personal gain was never much his style.
“He was never a guy who seemed that interested in money for money’s sake,” said Peter Solomon, founder of investment bank Solomon Partners.
This stance partially reflects how he maneuvered throughout his career; he liked the ideas, the learning, the people. It also reveals how his Boston roots made him different from his Wall Street counterparts.
In his 30s, after starting his own company, Lee bought a Rolex watch. But he determined it was too showy for Boston, so he sold it to his best friend, Lewis Henkind, who was living in New York at the time. That kind of social intelligence, evident throughout his life, led him to once joke a few years ago that people come to him for “rich lessons.”
Lee schmoozed with tailors and bartenders, his tennis pro and chef, and, of course, those on Wall Street. Some were richer with bigger firms, some much less so. Either way, the bond from being pioneers in the industry was strong.
Lee embraced the role of host with gusto, whether in his Manhattan apartment, showcasing his pal, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, or on the porch of his East Hampton home for the Milken Institute’s annual late-summer events.
“He was the one that brought the chairs out, he wanted to make sure everyone could hear,” said Michael Milken, the billionaire junk bond king and philanthropist. He’d also spend time at his tennis court beaming as he watched his son Jesse play in Milken’s Prostate Cancer Foundation tournament.
Milken, who knew Lee for some 40 years, and Henkind, who knew him for 63 years since meeting on a teen trip to Israel, have no answer for why Lee would take his life. They had talked with him earlier this month, frustrated they’d be missing each other in their travels. Lee went to Los Angeles for the Grammys weekend, while Milken headed to Palm Beach and Miami for the Florida version of his dialogues.
“I’m having a hard time understanding this,” Milken said. “It’s hard to reconcile. He was successful at business because he was successful at life.”
Bob Kraft, whose late wife Myra was a childhood friend of Lee’s, was equally as perplexed, given his upbeat demeanor.
“I’ve got to tell you this: my full knowledge of Tommy was always smiling or saying something nice, or trying to do something nice, and bringing people together,” he said. “I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.”
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t facing the reality of aging, of slowing down, of seeing his children have children. He went on diets throughout his life, including losing roughly 30 pounds over the past few years.
Yet he was always looking forward: he had tee times set on his calendar for the coming days. Just a few weeks ago, he met with an architect to go over the details of a renovation in East Hampton. Kraft and others had spotted Lee on his long walks around Palm Beach.
Lee was also someone who would form lifelong bonds with those close to him.
Almost 10 years ago, Lee Equity partner Doug Schreiber had a stroke at age 39. Lee and the whole firm immediately rallied around Doug, his wife Amy and their kids.
With their dad still in a hospital bed after 10 months, Amy said she was determined to set up something fun for Jordan and Jackson, ages 4 and 7, in New York. Lee summoned them to meet at his helicopter. He rode with the kids, showing them the Statue of Liberty and the rest of the city from above.
Lee eventually convinced Amy, her parents and the kids to take a vacation he arranged at his home at the Breakers in Palm Beach. When it became an annual spring break ritual, he spent time with them daily in the cabana he’d reserved, which he made sure was filled with toys, kid-friendly food and cartoons playing on TV. He’d offer Amy a break, watching the children himself.
As the kids got taller, their friendship with Lee grew. He insisted on giving Jackson his first driving lessons — on a golf cart — and walked around the Breakers holding Jordan’s hand. She ultimately got a driving lesson, too.
Last year, Jackson had turned 15, and Jordan 12. Lee decided the crew was ready for a new adventure.
“Tom said: ‘Amy, the kids are going to be bored at the Breakers sitting by the pool,” Amy Schreiber said. “Take them someplace new.”
This article was provided by Bloomberg News.