The AAA mourns the passing of our long-time friend and supporter, Australian-American philanthropist and two-term President of the World Bank, James D. Wolfensohn. We send our deepest condolences to his loved ones.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.
James D. Wolfensohn, who escaped a financially pinched Australian childhood to become a top Wall Street deal maker and a two-term president of the World Bank, died on November 25, 2020, at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
Mr. Wolfensohn was a force on Wall Street for years, helping to rescue the Chrysler Corporation while working for Salomon Brothers and running his own thriving boutique firm, before President Bill Clinton nominated him to lead the World Bank, the world’s largest economic development institution.
But he was more than a financier. He led fund-raising efforts as chairman of Carnegie Hall and headed a revival of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. An accomplished cellist under the tutelage of the renowned Jacqueline du Pré, he performed at Carnegie Hall on his milestone birthdays. And as a university fencing champion, he was part of Australia’s 1956 Olympic team, competing in front of his fellow Australians in Melbourne.
But his main legacy was his stewardship of the World Bank, to which President Clinton nominated him in 1995 after he had given up his Australian citizenship 14 years earlier to qualify for the job, only to be passed over.
Arriving at the bank’s Washington headquarters to begin his first five-year term, he found life there too comfortable and its staff members demoralized — a professional malaise, he said, that had them denigrating the bank to their families and even to the news media.
He immediately attacked the bank’s “complacency and insularity,” as he put it. He found that the bank’s emphasis on technocratic, market-based reforms was inhibiting its central mission: aiding the world’s poorest countries.
“I was throwing a grenade into an entrenched culture,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “A Global Life: My Journey Among Rich and Poor, From Sydney to Wall Street to the World Bank.”
A priority for Mr. Wolfensohn was to make field visits to poor nations less ceremonial than his predecessors had, and to listen to poor people themselves describe their governance, history and culture. He mounted a campaign against corruption in World Bank projects, breaking what he called “a wall of silence” on the subject. His efforts led to stepped-up audits and put the issue higher on the agendas of developing countries.
A Carnegie Hall Debut
At a dinner party one evening, Mr. Wolfensohn, who was 42 at the time, impulsively said that he had always wanted to learn to play the cello. Ms. du Pré had one delivered the next day and agreed to give him lessons on the condition that he would play a concert on his 50th birthday.
Seven years later, Daniel Barenboim, the pianist and conductor (and Ms. du Pré’s husband), reminded him of his pledge and told him that a private performance would not suffice. The concert would be chamber music at Carnegie Hall, Mr. Barenboim said, insisting that Mr. Wolfensohn, who had never played chamber music and never played in public, perform there. The hall was reserved; the date would be Dec. 1, 1983, his birthday.
A year of intense practice ensued, sometimes in hotel rooms around the world — all leading to a Walter Mitty-like performance before an audience of hundreds. Onstage with him were the violinist Isaac Stern, the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and other music royalty; the program consisted of works by Haydn and Schumann.
Similar concerts followed on Mr. Wolfensohn’s 60th and 70th birthdays, at the Library of Congress as well as at Carnegie Hall.
While studying [at Harvard Business School] he met Elaine Botwinick, a Wellesley senior who had grown up in Manhattan and New Rochelle, N.Y. They married in 1961 and had three children, Sara, Naomi and Adam. Ms. Wolfensohn died in August at 83. Mr. Wolfensohn is survived by his children and by seven grandchildren.
Mr. Wolfensohn was made an honorary officer of the Order of Australia in 1987 and received an honorary knighthood of the Order of the British Empire in 1995.