Steven E.F. Brown Dec 19, 2011 San Francisco Business Times

In August, I got into an elevator in downtown San Francisco and Warren Hellman got in, too. I’d never met the billionaire philanthropist, who died this Sunday at age 77. He didn’t ask my name during our short elevator ride, but he looked at the enormous copy of War and Peace in my hand.

“That’s some serious reading,” he said.

“It’s my sixth time reading it. I always read it when the stockmarket crashes — it helps remind me to take the long view, that the world isn’t all about me,” I told him. I’d just written a piece about how I picked it up the first time for a class at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1987, and about how I’d been reading it when the market crashed that October.

Hellman grinned at me. “I was just reading Ecclesiastes for the same reason. Everything is vanity.” The elevator dinged, the doors rolled open, and we left. He said goodbye and went on his way. I don’t know if he picked up War and Peace after our conversation — he would hardly have had time to read it in the four months since then. But I picked up Ecclesiastes, and wondered what he saw in there. It isn’t an easy book to read, not because the words are hard, but because the message is. At only 8 pages, it is about one half of one percent as long as my copy of War and Peace. But it is just as heavy. “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” Hellman sure had a lot of profit. Probably he had a lot of wisdom, too, and though Ecclesiastes praises wisdom as a good thing, it also says with greater wisdom comes greater unhappiness. “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

Just as Tolstoy teaches the impotence of powerful people — a king is the slave of history — so does Ecclesiastes. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” I hope Hellman got something positive out of his reading, though — there is such a message in there, if you look. “There is nothing better for a man, than he should eat and drink and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.” Hellman certainly knew how to throw a party, as his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, a gift to San Francisco and paid for for the next 20 years, attests. I’ve never been to the festival before, but I sure plan to go next year.

Photo by: Spencer Brown

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