Widow of first black billionaire keeps his memory alive
By Irene Silverman
Here in the star-spangled Hamptons, where the same celebrities ricochet from one fund-raiser to another to rub elbows with the same moneyed partygoers every weekend, last Sunday’s oceanside barbecue to benefit the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture was something of a phenomenon.
The event, a heartfelt celebration of the life of the nation’s first black billionaire, was conceived and planned by his widow, Loida Lewis of Lily Pond Lane, East Hampton, and Manhattan, who has kept her husband’s memory alive since his death through interviews, speeches, books, and, most recently, the building of the museum, the largest of its kind on the East Coast.
Sunday’s event raised about $1 million for the Lewis Museum.
Mrs. Lewis said the benefit, which was very much a family affair with her mother, daughters, grandchildren, and assorted cousins on hand, would be an annual event for the museum, which houses a permanent exhibition on the experiences of African-Americans in Maryland from their arrival in 1619 to the present. In conjunction with the Maryland school system, the Lewis Museum has helped to develop a statewide curriculum on African-American history and culture; it is believed to be the first such educational partnership in the nation.
Reginald Lewis, born to a working-class Baltimore family, was a Harvard-educated lawyer, a tough-minded entrepreneur, and a financial genius who, in the late-’80s era of leveraged buyouts, acquired control of TLC Beatrice International Holdings, Inc., the manufacturer and distributor of foods in 31 foreign countries. By 1990, after selling off assets in Latin America and Asia, he had turned the floundering company around, tripling its previous year’s net income and making TLC Beatrice the biggest black-owned company in the U.S.
“I’m often disturbed by the notion of the so-called glass ceiling,” he once told an interviewer for Black Enterprise magazine, “but, you know, glass can be broken.”
During those high-flying years, Mr. Lewis and his wife fell in love with Broadview, the storied 1916 mansion at the heart of the Bell Estate in Amagansett, and bought it for $3.6 million. With a number of outbuildings and guest cottages, the 21-room house, overlooking Gardiners Bay from a bluff 75 feet up and approached by a private road almost a mile long, became the summer getaway for the couple and their two young daughters.
Not for long, though. On the night of November 6, 1991, Broadview went up in flames. The Lewises were at their Paris apartment at the time, and their butler/caretaker, who normally would have been sleeping at the house, had stayed over at his girlfriend’s. By the time a woman out for an early-morning beach walk saw the flames and called 911, it was too late to save the mansion, though some 50 volunteer firefighters from several local departments tried valiantly.
The Lewises’ Mercedes sedan and Mercedes convertible were recovered undamaged from an attached garage, along with some family photo albums from an undamaged part of the library, but that was about all. During the week of Thanksgiving, Mr. Lewis sent individual turkeys to all the firefighters who had tried to save Broadview. The fire’s cause was never determined.
Just two years later, nearing the height of his career at the age of 50, Reginald Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was dead within six weeks.
Loida Lewis, also a lawyer and a powerhouse in her own right, was devastated. For a year, she retreated with her children to the Philippines, where she was born, to mourn, as is tradition there, while a half-brother of her husband ran the business.
At the end of the year she emerged and took the helm of the company. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 1996, Mrs. Lewis, who speaks English, French, Spanish, and Tagalog, explained that she had decided to take the helm at the company after interviewing headhunters about what they would be looking for in candidates for the job.
“I had to set things right,” she said in the TV talk, “out of a sense of love, a sense of duty ... I asked a lot of questions and I listened, and I did what my husband always said: Increase the volume of the company.”
For four years, Mrs. Lewis built up TLC Beatrice (the “TLC” was for “The Lewis Company,” but she confessed to Charlie Rose that she thought of it as “Tender Loving Care”). In the fifth year, she sold off its supermarkets in France, the first step toward what turned out to be total liquidation. By the year 2000, she had sold everything and distributed the proceeds to Beatrice’s elated shareholders.
Well known since then as one of the Philippines’ leading philanthropists, Loida Lewis has never stopped talking about her tenacious husband (“He never allowed anyone to say no to him if that’s what he wanted,” she told Charlie Rose). She has traveled all over the world to promote his biography, “Why Should White Guys Have all the Fun?: How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion Dollar Business Empire.”
“My husband was the Jackie Robinson of finance. He broke the ceiling. Now he’s an inspiration to contemporary black businessmen, and this event will bring awareness to his legacy,” she said on Sunday in introducing Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, the day’s honored guest and recipient of the first Reginald F. Lewis award. Mr. Combs, she said, “like my husband, came from humble beginnings and has become internationally successful.”
In response, Diddy told the largely African-American crowd of over 200, who had paid $1,000 per couple—not including any additional donations they might have made—to attend and to support the new museum named for Mr. Lewis, that “it is not about money. It is about the legacy you leave behind.” He himself, he added, lives by the maxim “can’t stop, won’t stop.”
“That’s what you have to do,” he said. “There are so many obstacles that come your way. See beyond your reality.”
With reporting by Shina Neo