U. benefactor Sidney Frank ’42 dead at 86

Liquor tycoon and philanthropist Sidney Frank ’42, a self-made billionaire who lacked the money to complete his studies at Brown but later became the University’s greatest benefactor, died of heart failure while flying from San Diego to Vancouver on Jan. 10. He was 86.

President Ruth Simmons notified the Brown community of Frank’s death in an e-mail sent Jan. 11.

“Through hard work and determination, Mr. Frank led a full life that embodied the American dream and serves as an inspiration to all of us,” Simmons wrote. “His extraordinary generosity lifted the aspirations of many people, and his legacy at Brown will be felt for generations to come through the Sidney E. Frank Scholars and Sidney E. Frank Hall.”

Frank – ranked by Forbes Magazine in 2005 as the 164th richest American – first became prominent at Brown when he donated $20 million to the University in mid-2004 to fund a new building to house the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences and the administrative offices of the Brain Science Program. Sidney E. Frank Hall, which will be located west of the Brown Office Building on Angell Street, will anchor the proposed Walk connecting Lincoln Field to the Pembroke campus.

In October 2004, Frank made the largest contribution in the University’s history – $100 million – to support undergraduate financial aid. The Sidney E. Frank Endowed Scholarship Fund eliminated loans for the University’s neediest students. In the fall of 2005, 60 students began their studies at Brown as the first class of Sidney E. Frank Scholars.

Frank gained further admiration when he gave an unsolicited $5 million donation to fund the University’s relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The funds helped Brown take in 91 displaced students and professors from Tulane, Xavier and Dillard universities in the fall of 2005. His gift also allowed the University to pledge, along with Princeton University, to rebuild Dillard – Simmons’ alma mater – as well as fund $1.1 million in “recovery semester” scholarships for Gulf Coast students.

Simmons told the Brown Alumni Magazine that she was brought to tears by the news of Frank’s gift.

“I was literally speechless,” she said.

Frank, the chairman of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, had also recently made large donations to the White Plains Hospital Center in White Plains, N.Y., a science center dedicated to mathematician Alan Turing in England’s Bletchley Park and his high school, the Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut. The Chronicle of Philanthropy named Frank the ninth most generous American of 2004.

Sidney Edward Frank was born on Oct. 2, 1919, in Montville, Conn., the son of Abraham and Sarah Frank, farmers of modest means. He grew up in Norwich, Conn.

Frank told The Herald in a 2004 interview that he “always wanted to go to an Ivy League school,” saying that he was admitted to the Class of 1942 as a “borderline case.” His strong handshake convinced the director of admission to accept him, he said. He had saved $1,000 from various jobs – including waiting tables and hauling lumber 12 hours a day for 50 cents an hour – to pay for his education, but after one year he was forced to drop out for lack of funds.

He soon found work at Pratt & Whitney Motors, a developer of flight technology, and during World War II was sent to India and China, where he worked on airplane engines and alcohol fuels. After the war, he married Louise “Skippy” Rosenstiel, the daughter of Lewis Rosenstiel, who owned Schenley Distillers, then the largest liquor distiller in the United States. Frank then went to work for his father-in-law.

After being fired and rehired several times by Rosenstiel, Frank set out on his own in the late 1960s, first working as an art dealer and then, in 1972, founding Sidney Frank Importing Co. with his brother. That same year also saw the death of his first wife.

Frank’s company started out selling Gekkeikan Sake to sushi restaurants and failed to turn a profit during its first six years. But in 1984, Frank shrewdly bought up the rights to import Jägermeister, a German liquor, into the United States. Jägermeister became a huge success, thanks in part to Frank’s “Jägerettes,” scantily-clad women sent into bars and parties to promote the drink. Frank used a similar tactic – the “Grey Goose Girls” – to promote the super premium vodka he developed in the 1990s and sold to Bacardi for over $2 billion in 2004.

Frank was known as a “marketing genius,” he said in 2004. “I’ve taken brands with no advertising and built them up to the leader in the area,” he explained.

But Frank’s advertising methods were not without controversy: Sidney Frank Importing Co. was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1997 for the alleged sexual harassment of 104 women, including several Jägerettes. In 1999, Frank settled with the women for a $2.6 million payout without admitting guilt.

Rarely photographed without a cigar clenched in his teeth, Frank, who made his home in New Rochelle, N.Y., had expanded into publishing as well as premium tequilas, wines and energy drinks in recent years.

Sixty-three years after his expected graduation date, Frank finally received a Brown diploma – an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters – in May 2005. The citation on the degree noted, “Your success in the face of hardship, your consistent largess and forward-looking ideals, make you not only an embodiment of the American dream but also a philanthropic role model. Your generosity to Brown will ameliorate for future students the fiscal hardships you suffered as a young freshman.”

When he accepted the degree, Frank tearfully told the crowd that it was “the happiest day of my life.”

Frank is survived by his wife Marian, his sister, two children – including Corporation Trustee Cathy Frank Halstead – five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A funeral service was held on Friday, Jan. 13 at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan.