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Warren Hellman dies at 77; San Francisco financier, bluegrass fan

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Reporting from San Francisco -- Warren Hellman, a San Francisco financier, philanthropist and bluegrass enthusiast who lavished his city with a free concert that grew into one of the nation's largest music festivals, died Sunday of complications from leukemia, his family said. He was 77.

Hellman, co-founder of the San Francisco private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, built his wealth through fierce professional drive, while nurturing his penchant for ultra-distance marathons, endurance horseback riding and ski racing.

The Harvard Business School graduate became Lehman Brothers' youngest partner at age 26 and president of the investment bank a decade later. But it was his passions for education, dance, politics and music — and his willingness to share his money — that defined Hellman in his Bay Area home.

A Republican in a left-leaning bastion, Hellman excelled at building consensus. His most recent project: a public pension reform measure that earned the hard-won backing of labor and city leaders. Approved by 68% of San Francisco voters last month, it is expected to save $1.3 billion over the next decade.

Hellman made his most visible impact on San Francisco with the annual festival known as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Launched in 2001, it soon included American roots rock and country genres. Regulars included bluegrass great Hazel Dickens, who died earlier this year, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. Among the visiting artists were Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg and Dolly Parton. Hellman paid for it all out of his pocket — a tab he pledged to keep secret from the public.

This year's three-day concert drew more than 750,000 people to Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadows, which city officials recently renamed Hellman Hollow in his honor. The event is expected to continue, thanks to an endowment Hellman set up for that purpose.

"I came to realize over the years what a special person he was," 12-time Grammy winner Harris said after learning of Hellman's death. "He gave so much of himself to so many, and we are all the richer for it."

At the massive yet mellow event, Hellman often blended in with the crowds to enjoy the music. A banjo player, he also took the event's smallest stage with his own group, "The Wronglers."

Hellman, who served on the Levi Strauss & Co. board after his firm took the company private, chose the name as a play on the jeans maker's competitor. Their motto: "Simple tunes played by complicated people." The Wronglers collaborated with country singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore this year to release the CD "Heirloom Music." With an elated Hellman in tow, they made a guest appearance on radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" and toured as recently as October.

Hellman was born in New York City in 1934, though his family had deep California roots. His great-grandfather Isaias Hellman, a Jewish immigrant, arrived from Bavaria in 1859, founding Los Angeles' Farmers and Merchants Bank, helping to transform Wells Fargo into a major institution, and even helping Harrison Gray Otis acquire full ownership of the Los Angeles Times, according to "Towers of Gold," a biography of the elder Hellman written by Warren's cousin, Frances Dinkelspiel.

The young Warren moved with his family to the Bay Area during World War II. He attended UC Berkeley, where he played water polo and later established an endowment to support the sport. After his Lehman stint, Hellman co-founded the venture capital firm now known as Matrix Partners. Hellman & Friedman, formed with Tully Friedman in 1984, has raised over $25 billion of committed capital.

Hellman often said he could buy a Renoir but preferred to give his wealth to causes of the heart.

"Money is like manure. If you hold on to it, it stinks," he told The Times last year, after pumping $5 million into the local Internet journalism enterprise the Bay Citizen. "But if you spread it around, good things grow."

As chairman of the San Francisco Foundation, he helped raise private money for public schools. He gave to both the San Francisco Ballet and a contemporary dance theater, as well as to the San Francisco Free Clinic, founded by his daughter and son-in-law. He was an advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, backed local political candidates and represented the city's often beleaguered business interests in policymaking.

But nothing gave him more joy than his five-string banjo and annual music bash.

"To give something back to the community — and something I really like — it's a mitzvah," he told The Times in 2004.

Hellman is survived by his wife of 56 years, Chris; son Mick; daughters Frances Hellman, Judith Hellman and Patricia Hellman Gibbs; along with 12 grandchildren, one great-grandchild; and his sister, Nancy Hellman Bechtle.

lee.romney@latimes.com

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