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Benefactor’s final gift shakes a foundation

Times Staff Writer

The late philanthropist Joan Palevsky lived in a modest two-bedroom house in Westwood, tooled around in an aging beige Toyota Corolla and dressed in drab blazers, button-down shirts and slacks. When she did indulge herself, it was likely to be on chocolates from See’s.

Over the years, Palevsky gave regularly and generously to a broad spectrum of causes important to her -- including UCLA, the Rape Foundation, TreePeople and Amnesty International -- but also to those dear to her friends, such as her housekeeper’s South Los Angeles church or for research on Parkinson’s disease, which affected her late accountant. She also helped those she barely knew, such as the grocery clerk who couldn’t afford college textbooks.

But not even her daughter suspected the extent of Palevsky’s wealth -- built from savvy investments after a long-ago divorce settlement -- or which organization would get most of it after her death in late March at age 80. Or how a newspaper article about the group nearly a dec-ade earlier would spur the windfall.

Today, her gift of $200 million will be publicly revealed by its astonished recipient: the California Community Foundation, which supports a variety of civic and social causes by pooling several funds into one organization to maximize efficiencies.

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Foundation President Antonia Hernandez said Sunday that she screamed when she first got news of Palevsky’s gift by cellphone while outside church. “People must have thought, this lady’s gone crazy,” she said.

“It’s a wonderful blessing, manna from heaven,” Hernandez said. “All the issues she cared deeply about fit so well with our future strategy. It was absolute synergy.”

It’s among the largest bequests to a U.S. public charity, said Jim Ferris, director of USC’s Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. Most wealthy donors create their own private family foundations. Moreover, Palevsky left the decision on how to use the money up to the California Community Foundation, rather than specifying a particular purpose as is typical.

The foundation says it will create an endowment to support the causes Palevsky championed: civil liberties and civic participation, arts and culture, public education and empowering the disadvantaged, such as the working poor, seniors and the homeless.

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Palevsky’s gift comes at a time when charitable bequests have fallen nationally -- declining an estimated 5.5% in 2005, to $17.44 billion, according to Giving USA Foundation in Glenview, Ill. (Among the reasons: Fewer Americans are dying each year.)

Palevsky’s contribution will boost the California Community Foundation’s assets to more than $1 billion. Started in 1915, the foundation last year gave about $94 million to diverse groups, including those tackling neighborhood rehabilitation, literacy efforts and animal neutering.

But it was one particular effort that caught Palevsky’s attention in 1997 when she read about it in The Times, recalled David D. Watts, then her estate planner. The foundation had created a fund to address chronic textbook shortages in Los Angeles-area public schools, giving $200,000 and raising thousands more to purchase texts while also helping negotiate better prices and inventory controls.

The public-private partnership impressed Palevsky, and she donated $2,200, her single contribution to the foundation while alive.

She was revising her will at the time to give more to charity.

She left generous amounts for family and friends, and specific bequests of $10,000 to $250,000 to numerous charities. UCLA would receive $4.7 million for endowed professorships in classics and French, among other things.

And whatever was left would go to nonprofit California Community Foundation.

Over the years, her stock portfolio soared, thanks to shrewd investments, Watts said. She probably started with about $40 million, Watts estimates, after her 1968 divorce from Max Palevsky, who co-founded Scientific Data Systems and sold it to Xerox for nearly $1 billion in 1969.

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Madeleine Moskowitz said her mother wasn’t comfortable with her newfound wealth and probably felt burdened by it.

Born in Omaha in 1926 and raised by a single mother during the Depression, Palevsky moved to L.A. at age 10. Her mother worked as an office manager at a Culver City dairy to support her and her sister. They lived with Palevsky’s aunts and uncles in one side of a duplex at 16th Place near Venice and Crenshaw boulevards. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Palevsky -- the first in her family to graduate from college -- honed her love of languages, classics and history at UCLA.

After earning a master’s in French at the University of Wisconsin, she returned to UCLA as a teaching assistant from 1949 to 1956, a job she loved, Moskowitz said. She and her French department pals would drink beer, smoke cigarettes and discuss books. She broke with her conservative family to become a Democrat, beginning her lifelong support for the party. And she met her future husband, a graduate student in philosophy, whom she married at age 26.

She stopped working about the time the first of their two children were born.

“Maybe that wasn’t the best choice,” Moskowitz said. “She said she wished she’d gone back to teaching.”

The divorce was difficult, Moskowitz said, and Palevsky became more involved in politics and women’s rights issues.

“I think she felt a lot of responsibility because she had this money, and she got really involved in changing things -- and changing things for women,” Moskowitz said.

She went back to work at age 57 in 1983 for a few years, coordinating research at Immaculate Heart Center.

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She regularly hosted Democratic and other fundraising receptions at the big house on Beverly Glen that she kept while her children grew up. Visitors included Cesar Chavez, Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou and Jimmy Carter.

But she never liked the spotlight, and more than a decade ago she moved to the small Westwood home and stopped attending social events and fundraisers. She lunched twice a week with female friends, had a Saturday book club and tended her orchids and bromeliads.

Over the years, she probably gave away up to $50 million, her accountant said. She helped build the Islamic art collection at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and endowed several professorships at UCLA, which she named -- much to their surprise -- for people she knew and respected, such as Eugen Weber, whom she lunched with while he was provost of the college.

Her longtime housekeeper and close friend, Liz Horton, was another beneficiary.

“When my mother couldn’t pay her bills, she took care of that,” Horton said. “When I couldn’t pay my bills, she’d take care of that.”

Palevsky helped pay off the $167,000 mortgage of Horton’s church, Price Chapel African Methodist Episcopal. “It wouldn’t be a church if it weren’t for her; it would be a parking lot,” Horton said.

Palevsky knew the names of many of the workers at the places she frequented.

“You’d go out with her for lunch, and she’d start talking to the busboy in Spanish,” Moskowitz said. “She knew his name and all his kids’ names.”

While shopping one day, Palevsky asked the clerk bagging her groceries why he wasn’t in college that day. When he told her he’d taken the semester off because he couldn’t afford books, she wrote him a check for $2,000, recalled Horton.

This morning, Palevsky will be honored by the California Community Foundation in a ceremony at the downtown Central Library, another regular beneficiary of her charity. Moskowitz, who will be there, said her self-deprecating mother probably would have been embarrassed.

“It isn’t the life she had come from,” said Moskowitz. “I think she wanted to live a more quiet life, but having that much made it impossible.”

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valerie.reitman@latimes.com


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