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The Intellectual Investor: Charles H. Brunie, 1930–2017

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The Intellectual Investor: Charles H. Brunie, 1930–2017

The chairman who shaped the Manhattan Institute March 11, 2017
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The Manhattan Institute has been magnificently blessed in the Wall Street tycoons who have served as its chairmen, and perhaps the most magnificent of them all was Charles H. Brunie, Jr., chairman from 1980 to 1990, who died at age 86 on February 23. A securities analyst whose research department at the Oppenheimer brokerage firm ranked first in the league during the four years he ran it, he went on to found the investment-advisory firm Oppenheimer Capital in 1969 and served as its chairman for more than a quarter of a century. There, he made many clients rich, including his cherished friends, Milton and Rose Friedman, who welcomed him to their grand new apartment overlooking San Francisco in 1988 by singing a patter song, “Welcome to the House that Chuck Built.”

There are as many kinds of investors as there are ice cream flavors. Chuck was the highest and rarest kind of all: the intellectual investor. That’s why he so revered Milton Friedman, who could explain economic and financial cycles not as some occult magic but as the rational outcomes of describable forces, which Chuck analyzed subtly in a fascinating 2007 City Journal article celebrating Friedman but also displaying dazzlingly Chuck’s own deep understanding of economics, history, and politics. You knew that Chuck was about to utter some proposition that would brook no disagreement when he began a sentence with, “Milton says . . . .” But those Delphic utterances explain no small part of the Manhattan Institute’s success. “Milton says that a think tank should not draw up a list of policies it wants to advance and then find scholars to expound them,” Chuck pronounced. “Instead, find very smart people who share your worldview, and let them choose their own issues. Then you’ll come up with new and creative ideas, not dogma.” Or: “Milton says that the information revolution allows organizations to be flatter and leaner, with fewer layers of costly and change-inhibiting bureaucrats. We should be like that.” Well, it worked.

As a youth, Chuck had sat with Alan Greenspan at the feet of guru Ayn Rand and had imbibed some of her views, not all of them equally salubrious. But what was certainly correct, as Chuck knew, was her view that entrepreneurialism allowed the greatest development both of the human potentialities of the entrepreneur and the benefits to society. He championed a creative capitalism, not a bureaucratic one. When he said the Manhattan Institute stood for free markets, he meant that it stood for human freedom. We were driving into Manhattan from the airport one evening, and, as the skyscrapers came into view, he remarked, “Ayn Rand once said how remarkable it was that this island, without any natural resources, had produced so much wealth.” I looked at him with a certain challenging skepticism, and he grasped my thought immediately. “Ah,” he said, “the mind of man: the greatest natural resource of them all.”

Only his modesty exceeded his generosity. Back in the late 1980s, the institute’s then-president hired me to write a book, at a substantial salary (for a writer). Not a nickel was in the young institute’s kitty to pay it. When the board of directors heard of this commitment, its members clamored that it was impossible to keep. Chuck mildly declared that he thought he could raise the necessary funds—secretly admiring the president’s entrepreneurial audacity, I expect. But he never told me how he had saved my career until at least a decade later, and then in the most self-effacing terms.

For that was Chuck: one of the last of the great American gentlemen, proud of having been an Eagle Scout and the soul of truth and honor all his life; proud of his father, broader-chested than tall, handsome, and impeccably tailored Chuck, and whose eminence as a banker and a man Chuck strove to live up to; proud of his country, whose freedoms Chuck felt it his responsibility to defend and advance. I loved and admired him, as did so many others.

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