Sidney Frank, the billionaire entrepreneur who kickstarted liquor marketing, died Tuesday at the age of 86. When I interviewed him last May, I was alternately shouting (he was a little hard of hearing) and laughing--he was cracking jokes and doling out advice in between detailing business strategies. His big achievements were bringing Jagermeister to the States and creating Grey Goose vodka; his big innovation was using promotions--scantily-clad girls, rock concerts--to sell liquor. (For his life, in his words, see How I Did It: Sidney Frank, Everything in Good Time, from our September issue.) In 2004, he sold Grey Goose to Bacardi for $2 billion. "I wanted to be a billionaire," he explained.
He seemed to enjoy those billions immensely. By the time I talked to him, he spent most of his time in a wheelchair or conducting business from his bed--always with a cigar poking from his mouth--but didn't seem hindered by the lack of mobility. He bought two Maybachs and a Bentley; "little toys," he called them. Though he couldn't golf anymore, he paid golf pros and amateurs to hang around him, and tracked them down the course, playing vicariously ("I go out in the morning at 7:30 and watch the amateurs play. I correct them. They ask me what kind of shot and what to use, and I might say, a three-quarter seven-iron with a cut. It's a lot of fun," he said). He hired chefs--he had four last spring--who FedExed in asparagus from Holland, New Orleans oysters, and Vidalia onions from Georgia to keep him fed.
It wasn't all indulgence, though. He donated $100 million to Brown University, where he dropped out after his freshman year, too poor to pay tuition; the money, which is the school's biggest donation, will fund scholarships. He gave another $20 million to Brown for a new building. He gave millions to hospitals and schools around his New Rochelle, N.Y. residence, including money for a downtown skateboard park. And after seeing a film based on a 1943 revolt of Jewish prisoners at a concentration camp, he found the survivors and gave them $11,000 each, as this New York Times obituary notes. "I'm 85 years old. I wanted to count the money while I was on this side of the ground," he told me, eight months before he died. Which he achieved. A good life, indeed.