Even by the dizzying standards of New York City philanthropy, a recent $US6.24 million ($8.37 million) donation to the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side was a whopper – the largest single gift from an individual to the social service group in its 125-year history.
It was not donated by some billionaire benefactor, but by a frugal legal secretary from Brooklyn who toiled for the same law firm for 67 years until she retired at age 96 and died not long afterward in 2016.
Her name was Sylvia Bloom and even her closest friends and relatives had no idea she had amassed a fortune over the decades. She did this by shrewdly observing the investments made by the lawyers she served.
“She was a secretary in an era when they ran their boss’s lives, including their personal investments,” recalled her niece Jane Lockshin.
“So when the boss would buy a stock, she would make the purchase for him, and then buy the same stock for herself, but in a smaller amount because she was on a secretary’s salary.”
Since Ms Bloom never talked about this, even to those closest to her, the fact that she had carefully cultivated more than $US9 million ($12.07 million) among three brokerage houses and 11 banks, emerged only at the end of her life – “an oh my God moment”, said Ms Lockshin, the executor of Ms Bloom’s estate.
“I realised she had millions and she had never mentioned a word,” recalled Ms Lockshin. “I don’t think she thought it was anybody’s business but her own.”
Ms Bloom’s will allowed for some money to be left to relatives and friends, but directed that the bulk of the fortune go toward scholarships of Ms Lockshin’s choice for needy students.
Ms Lockshin, the longstanding treasurer of the settlement’s board, called the group’s executive director, David Garza, and asked him if he was sitting down.
“We were all agape, just blown away,” recalled Mr Garza, who said the money would endow the settlement’s program which helps disadvantaged students prepare for and complete college.
Ms Bloom joins the ranks of unassuming and magnanimous millionaires next door, who have died with fortunes far larger than their lifestyles ever would have suggested. Like Ms Bloom, Leonard Gigowski, a shopkeeper from New Berlin, Wisconsin, who died in 2015, left his secret $US13 million ($17.4 million) fortune to fund scholarships. Grace Groner, who lived in a one-bedroom home in Lake Forest, Illinois, and directed that her $US7 million ($9.39 million) estate go to her alma mater when she died in 2010 at 100, shopped at thrift stores and chose to walk, not drive.
Donald and Mildred Othmer, who settled in Brooklyn Heights, lived relatively simple lives; he was a professor at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn and she was a former teacher and buyer for her mother’s dress stores.
They invested wisely in Berkshire Hathaway, run by a family friend from Omaha, Warren Buffett, and died in their 90s with three-quarters of a billion dollars, most of which they donated.
Ms Bloom, who never had children of her own, was born to eastern European immigrants and grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. She attended public schools and did her degree at night while working days to make ends meet.
In 1947 she joined a fledgling Wall Street law firm as one of its first employees. Over her 67 years with the firm, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, it grew to its current size, with more than 1200 lawyers, as well as hundreds of staff members, of which Ms Bloom was the longest tenured, said Paul Hyams, a human resources executive for the firm who became good friends with Ms Bloom over his 35 years working there.
Ms Bloom’s husband, Raymond Margolies, who died in 2002, was a city firefighter who retired and became a city schoolteacher with a pharmacist career on the side, relatives said.
Nearly all the money was in Ms Bloom’s name alone, Ms Lockshin said, adding that it was “very possible” that even Mr Margolies did not know the size of his wife’s fortune.
The couple lived modestly in a rent-controlled apartment, though “she could have lived on Park Avenue if she wanted to”, Mr Hyams said.
Ms Bloom was known for always taking the subway to work, even on the morning of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center, not far from the firm’s offices.
That day, Ms Bloom, at 84, fled north and took refuge in a building before walking over the Brooklyn Bridge and taking a city bus – not a cab – home.