Philanthropist Edward D. Mitchell Dies : Amassed 3 Fortunes in Long Life; Was Major Benefactor of Israel

Times Staff Writer

Edward D. Mitchell, an immigrant who amassed three fortunes in America and with them constructed medical centers and training schools in Israel, died Tuesday.

The founder of Beneficial Standard Life Insurance Co. was 95 and died in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of the infirmities of age.

A scrappy, enthusiastic man who as a boy once confronted J. P. Morgan to demand payment of a $1 bill for newspapers he had delivered, Mitchell moved to this country when he was only 2. He had been born in an area of Austria-Hungary that now is part of Poland.

Joined the Circus

Mitchell's schooling, if any, was sporadic and he went to work in New York's Lower East Side when he was only 10. At 12, he joined the Barnum & Bailey circus as an elephant attendant and soon after learned to sing for vaudeville and to be a barker for carnivals.

His first business venture was when he was 15--discount stores in Massachusetts and New York--and his first fortune followed three years later, after he had moved to Canada and sold real estate to fellow European immigrants. He was credited with developing the town of Edson in Alberta.

"Then World War I broke out," Mitchell said in an interview with The Times last year. "And I went broke." The Canadian government had placed a hold on real estate loan payments.

Next, Mitchell organized Canadian farmers into selling cooperatives. By 1929, at age 39, he had amassed a second fortune--this one in grain investments. He lost it the same year in the stock market crash that presaged the Great Depression.

Moved Into Insurance

It was during the Depression that he moved to California, founding and operating finance companies with the funds he had accrued selling and financing automobiles. One of the most lucrative aspects of his companies was fire and theft insurance for cars.

"The first thing I knew we had thousands of policies and we'd never pay any money out," he said in 1984. "I thought, 'This is a helluva business.' "

In 1940, he founded Beneficial Standard Life and, by offering low-cost disability insurance to poor families, built it into Beneficial Standard Corp. That firm became a Los Angeles-based financial services holding company active in life and casualty insurance, marketing, real estate and mortgage loans. Beneficial Standard was sold last June to CalFed Inc., and Mitchell remained as chairman until shortly before his death.

Donated to Israel

Much of that third and final fortune went to Israel, where he founded a hospital, a vocational training high school, a library, adult education and day-care centers and a 1,200-seat auditorium and symphony hall.

He and his wife, Anna, who died in 1981, were the first Americans to have a city square in Jerusalem named in their honor.

In the Los Angeles area, his philanthropies included the Music Center, St. John's Hospital, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, United Way, United Jewish Fund, the Jewish Home for the Aged, the Boy Scouts of America and the Salvation Army. He was the recipient of the Urban League's American Teamwork Award, the Freedom Foundation Award and honors from Israel for bond sales.

Crony of George Burns

Most recently, he had filled his days by reading and playing gin rummy at Hillcrest Country Club with such cronies as George Burns.

"I've had great adventures in my life," he said in his last interview, in September. "I was very ambitious. Lucky for all concerned that I was."

Mitchell is survived by a son, Joseph; three daughters, Kayla Mitchell of Los Angeles, Edith Lando of Vancouver, Canada, and Elaine Attias of Los Angeles. Services will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at Hillside Memorial Park, Los Angeles.

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