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Gérard Louis-Dreyfus


1932 - 2016 Obituary Condolences
Gérard Louis-Dreyfus Obituary
June 21, 1932 - September 16, 2016 Gérard Louis-Dreyfus, a philanthropist, lawyer, poet, art collector and a businessman who led the revival of his family's commodities trading company, died Sept. 16 at his home in Mount Kisco, N.Y. William, as he was known for most of his life, was 84. The cause was complications relating to congestive heart failure. Known to many of his grandchildren as Big Pa, William was uniquely charismatic, funny, engaged, and comfortable holding court in the boardroom or at the dinner table. Never concerned with fashion, trend or popularity, he expressed himself in every setting with clarity, insight and singularity. Social justice, particularly for African Americans, was a lifelong pursuit. William was born on June 21, 1932, in Ville-d'Avray, on the outskirts of Paris. His father, Pierre Louis-Dreyfus, who fought for the Free French during the war, was the grandson of the founder of the Louis Dreyfus commodities trading business that William would later lead. William's mother, Dolores Neubauer, was born in the United States. His parents divorced in 1936; both remarried. After escaping the war and moving to the United States, William earned an undergraduate degree in English literature from Duke University (1954) and a law degree from the university's law school (1957.) He worked in the litigation group at Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood, until 1964, when he joined Louis Dreyfus Corporation. During his tenure with the Louis Dreyfus Group, William transformed the company from a moribund and nearly bankrupt business when he joined it in the 1960s into a leading global commodities trading powerhouse when he retired. It wouldn't be inaccurate to say that he singlehandedly accounted for the company's transformation, but he would have strongly objected to that characterization. For William, the key to success in the business was recruiting and retaining talented traders and to that end devised a compensation plan that gave his trading team a large share of the profits, a practice that is now common at trading firms, but that was then novel. William had a modesty and a personal charm that endeared and bound his employees and business partners to him and that created a unique corporate culture at the company. William, who had a lifelong passion for poetry, had poems published in The Hudson Review, The New Criterion and Southwest Review. He studied alongside or collaborated with well-known poets, including Molly Peacock, Charles Martin and Phillis Levin. He left behind an unpublished volume of poetry entitled Letters Written and Not Sent. He was at work on that volume during the last days of his life and completed it just before his death. "Poetry meant a huge amount to William. My guess is that he agonized more over his poems than his business decisions," Ms. Peacock said, "Yet when they were finally finished, they were as surprising and rhythmically persuasive as the many magnificent poems he loved." William served as president of the Poetry Society of America from 1998 until 2008. From 1995 to 1997, he taught poetry at Jackie Robinson High School in Harlem. William's art collection, which he began to put together in the early 1960s, contains works by Wassily Kandinsky, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, and Helen Frankenthaler, but it stands out for the many works by living artists with whom William enjoyed personal relationships and for self-taught, so-called "outsider artists," including Bill Traylor, Thornton Dial, Nellie Mae Rowe and James Castle. "Nothing about these artists' life circumstances -- apart from their own inclinations -- led them to create," William said last year when works of these artists from his collection were exhibited. "Their realities were in many ways very constrained, and yet their work is both sophisticated and genuine." Many of Mr. Traylor's works from the collection will be included in a show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, scheduled for 2018. William has donated the lion's share of his collection to the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation, which has designated the Harlem Children's Zone, an educational nonprofit that runs schools and programs that support children from pre-school through college graduation, as a beneficiary of future sales of the foundation's art. "Generosity of Eye," a documentary about the collection and the Harlem Children's Zone, directed by Brad Hall, one of William's son-in-laws, was released in 2015. William was a committed liberal democrat, always identifying with the disenfranchised. He was pleased to learn that his name was included in what became known as Nixon's second "Enemies List" in 1973. In 2012, William took out a full page advertisement in the New York Times, announcing that he was pledging $1 million to organizations that seek to protect voting rights, and he called on other wealthy people to give as well. Last year, William gave $1 million to the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University. William endowed scholarships for African American students at universities and high schools all across the United States. Another of William's passions was horticulture. He planted hundreds of new trees in the land surrounding his home in Mount Kisco and often opened up the gardens to the public. In the 1990s, he acquired 80 acres of abandoned farm land and reclaimed it. The land was put into a conservation easement that is overseen by the Westchester Land Trust. Trees held spiritual meaning for William, which he articulated in a poem called "Adjusting," published in 2014 in the Southwest Review: "I have a passion for the look of trees, their fixedness, their ecstasy in rising out of ground, arms up in praise of heaven and below, their random symmetry, the light they make that brings the seasons on, their contained thickness that accumulates frail, feckless Time. Where else is Time more materially revealed?" William married Judith LeFever in 1955; they divorced in 1962. In 1965, he married Phyllis Blankenship. He is survived by his sister Dominique Cornwell, his wife; three daughters, the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Phoebe Eavis and Emma Louis-Dreyfus, both social workers; a son, Raphael Penteado, a business executive; and four grandchildren, Henry and Charlie Hall, and Victoria and Isaiah Eavis. His wife and devoted daughters were with this mighty man during his last moments. Information about a memorial for William will be forthcoming.
Published in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 28, 2016
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