Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Who is that woman and what is she doing?

I got to meet this Puerto Rican woman someday!
Talk about breaking sterotypes!
Her style, looks and drive for causes...bravo!

Please NY Times article by Robin Progrebin

Philanthropist With a Sense of Timing Raises Her Profile

Published: June 29, 2009

Who is that woman and what is she doing?

Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

Lisa Maria Falcone at her home on the Upper East Side.
Neil Rasmus/Patrickmcmullan.com

That is what seemed to be going through the minds of many guests at a gala dinner in early June atop the High Line, the elevated downtown railway that has been transformed into a landscaped esplanade.

The long, elegantly decorated tables were packed with luminaries of the New York social circuit, including Oscar de la Renta, Martha Stewart, Harvey Weinstein and Jerry Seinfeld.

Joshua David, a founder of Friends of the High Line, which had saved the structure from demolition and spearheaded its revival, had just announced a $10 million challenge grant to the project from the media mogul Barry Diller and his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, prompting a standing ovation. Suddenly, a leggy brunette in a cropped bob, flouncy Roberto Cavalli minidress and slingback, peep-toe heels by Christian Louboutin (who was in attendance) rose from her seat, approached Mr. David in the middle of his remarks, whispered in his ear and took over the microphone.

She was Lisa Maria Falcone, she said, and she and her husband, Philip A. Falcone, were so excited about the High Line and so moved by Mr. Diller and Ms. von Furstenberg’s gift that they decided to match it.

This unscripted, somewhat messy moment may go down in the annals of cultural philanthropy as the debut of a major new donor on the New York scene. Although the Falcones have given money before to the High Line and other organizations, they have usually done it less conspicuously. But little by little Ms. Falcone — along with her husband, No. 296 on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires — is stepping into the spotlight, beginning the transition from one wealthy patron among many to the kind of highly visible player sought after by the city’s leading arts organizations.

In the last two years she has been a chairwoman of several galas at the American Museum of Natural History. Last year New York City Ballet recruited her for its board, and she was a chairwoman of the dance company’s spring gala last month.

Ms. Falcone said that she and her husband had decided to be more public about their High Line contribution to demonstrate that people don’t have to live near the elevated track — the Falcones live on the Upper East Side — to be invested in its success.

“No matter where you come from, you’re still a New Yorker, and you can give,” she said in a recent interview at her town house.

Ms. Falcone does not fit the usual image of the society arts patron. She said that she was Puerto Rican and that she was raised in Spanish Harlem by a single, alcoholic mother on welfare. Her mother died eight years ago. Growing up, she saw her father — a busboy who paid for her Catholic school — once a week. “I’ve never seen anyone clear tables like him,” Ms. Falcone said of her father, who is now 92. “He never complained about it.”

She studied art history at Pace University, earning an associate’s degree. She was in her early 20s, working as a fashion model, when she met her husband at a restaurant — they have been together for 17 years and married for 12. When they met Mr. Falcone, now 46, was a young businessman who had worked in junk bonds; in 2001 he founded Harbinger Capital, a private investment firm. Just two years ago he became a billionaire, by betting against subprime credit. His firm, which started with $25 million, now manages two funds with roughly $9 billion in assets and owns about 20 percent of The New York Times Company.

She was careful in answering questions about her husband, stopping herself from discussing his business in any detail or allowing Matthew Hiltzik, a publicist who was present throughout the interview, to stop her. She alluded to a time when she and Mr. Falcone didn’t have it so easy, saying, “When they turned the lights off on us, we lit candles.” Mr. Hiltzik advised her against saying anything further. (In a telephone interview later Mr. Falcone acknowledged that the early to mid-1990s was a difficult time for them.)

Ms. Falcone was also reluctant to reveal her age, 40, saying she wanted to be a role model for young people.

Otherwise she seemed surprisingly unguarded. She talks about the causes she cares about with the kind of wide-eyed idealism that makes you wonder how a New Yorker toughened by her share of adversity can seem so cheery. “They say people who have had a hard childhood are optimistic,” she said.

Ms. Falcone seems to have a quirky, independent streak. She collects crosses, large glittering examples of which she usually wears around her neck, and does her own hair and makeup. She pairs her couture clothing with thrift shop finds — at this interview, she wore a second-hand fur-lined sweater over a Lanvin dress.

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