In May 2011, Ruth Perelman, with her husband Raymond, donated $225 million to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, making it the largest gift to a U.S. medical school in history. Two months later, she passed away in the hospital that now bears her family name.
Today, the Perelman legacy lives, stretching over Penn’s grounds and across Philadelphia. The Medical School, the Institute for Contemporary Art and the new Center for Political Science and Economics all bear the family name.
But while most students understand “Perelman” as merely the all-consuming title of an influential and charitable family, the Perelman family has been consumed by drama and conflict.
The patriarch of the family
After graduating in 1940 with a degree from Wharton, Raymond Perelman made his fortune in mining and manufacturing, ultimately founding RGP Holdings, a company that made him billions. The son of Lithuanian immigrant parents who lived through the Great Depression, Raymond set his sights high. After meeting Ruth Caplan, the couple moved back to a Philadelphia suburb — setting the stage for generations of notoriety and charity both at Penn and beyond. His marriage to Ruth and move back to Philadelphia established him as the patriarch of one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest and most influential families.
After establishing his fortune, Raymond started what has become a long list of recipients of his charitable donations. Since 1998, Raymond has personally spent almost $70,000 on campaigns and political fundraising, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Beneficiaries have included the 2012 Mitt Romney presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Throughout Philadelphia, the Perelmans helped support the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Kimmel Center and a Jewish day school. In October, the Perelman Center for Jewish Life broke ground, which will be housed at Drexel University.
But of all of Raymond’s beneficiaries, Penn has been the largest. On top of his record-breaking $225 million donation, Raymond also pledged $25 million to the Center for Advanced Medicine in 2008 and established an endowed professorship in the School of Medicine.
Continuing the legacy
The couple’s two sons both attended Wharton. After graduation, they each went into business.
Ronald, the eldest Perelman brother, has been called a mix of “tabloid headlines and Chabad charity.” A successful businessman, Ronald has been named the 80th richest person in the world while his marriages have earned New York Magazine features.
Jeffrey Perelman, while quieter than his brother, has also made a name for himself as the CEO and founder of the JEP Management holding company. His wife, Marsha, also has a degree from Penn.
Both Perelman sons have continued their connections to Penn after graduation, with both following in their father’s footsteps of offering donations to the university. Also like their father, their names are scattered around campus buildings to this day. But, drawing a distinct line from the patriarch of the family, many of Ronald’s and Jeffrey’s donations to Penn have been intertwined with family feud.
In 1995, Ronald donated $20 million to renovate the Perelman Quadrangle, gaining naming rights for Logan Hall. The donation then constituted the largest campus life donation in the University’s history.
Ronald’s most recent contribution to Penn will fund the long-awaited Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics, which will house the economics and political science departments, in addition to the Center for the Advanced Study of India, the Browne Center and the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism. Ronald also currently serves on Wharton’s Board of Overseers.
Not to be outdone, Jeffrey has his own list of charitable donations to the university. His past contributions have supported the School of Medicine, the School of Design and the Institute for Contemporary Art. Jeffrey also currently serves as the treasurer on the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Board of Directors.
The feuds behind the scenes
But underneath the exterior of charity, the Perelman family was consumed by feud. In the 1980s, Jeffrey was finally overwhelmed by personal and professional conflict with his brother, and he moved to Colorado. Distressed by familial animosity, Ruth ensured that Jeffrey could have his own company through selling various family assets. For the time being, she had secured peace.
But family conflict reached a high point when she died. In August 2012, when Raymond accused Jeffrey of illegally changing his wife Ruth’s death certificate in 2011.
Raymond said that Jeffrey and his attorney had convinced a funeral home director to change Ruth’s primary residence to her home in Rittenhouse Square, instead of the original address listed in Palm Beach, Fla., according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A spokeswoman for Jeffery then said, "Raymond is upset that Ruth named Jeffrey as executor and personal representative of her will."
As recently as last year, the two were embroiled in legal battles over a separate issue regarding Raymond’s investing of the assets of an employee pension benefit plan to which Jeffrey was the beneficiary. Last summer, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Jeffrey’s claims that Raymond had consistently misreported his investments.
According to Forbes, Ronald and Raymond share their own tensions as a result of their business relationship. Raymond’s refusal to promote Ronald to president of his division of his company strained the father-son relationship for years, despite the fact that Ronald took his father’s side in feuds with his brother.
Ronald is also more religious than his father. In a 2011 interview with Forbes, he commented: “I am placed in situations with opportunities in those situations that others are not. I don’t believe that that is happenstance. I believe that there is a God that has a plan for me.”
The same Forbes interview with Ronald and Raymond did not include Jeffrey.
“Well, we’re alike,” Raymond said, regarding his father. “We both have fires in our belly.”
Photo by Melissa Tustin-Gore
Buildings can be bought
For Ronald, the fire in his belly more recently embroiled him in a separate conflict — one that unfolded on Penn’s campus.
In 2008, the University announced plans to rename the building after his ex-wife and 1972 College and Wharton graduate Claudia Cohen. His decision to rename the building came a year after Cohen’s death from ovarian cancer. Ronald first acquired naming rights to the building after a $20 million donation to the university in 1995, and he chose to name the building after Cohen despite their divorce in 1994.
At Penn, Cohen was the first female managing editor at The Daily Pennsylvanian. After graduating from Penn, she helped bring the notorious New York Post “Page Six” gossip column to prominence. Cohen was known for frequenting the Hamptons and Manhattan social scenes.
Penn had mixed, if not negative, reactions and made national news for the name change.
“I, as an academic, am accustomed to seeing buildings with names like Newton, Copernicus, Darwin,” chemistry professor Ponzy Lu told The New York Times in a 2008 article. “Then to see the name of this person, who is very fresh in our memory, who is not associated with a pursuit of knowledge — a gossip columnist: it strikes me as being totally idiotic.”
David Lei, then a junior and editor for the DP, told the Times, “People were pretty unhappy about it, mainly because the name is quite old and it’s been Logan Hall for a long time. Many students and people in the community were unhappy that the name of a historical building could be ‘bought.’ ”
The building, originally named Logan Hall after James Logan, who served as secretary to William Penn and as one of the first trustees of the university, still bears Cohen’s name today.
Photo by Remy Haber
A lasting legacy
Over the years, several of Ronald’s children have attended Penn.
At Penn, the family lives and breaths. There are professorships, portraits and even students that share the Perelman name. In 1994, The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with Hope Perelman, Ronald’s daughter and then-student.
When asked about her father’s legacy at Penn, she steered away from stereotypes of privilege and entitlement.
“It was a give-and-take relationship,” she said. “We always earned things. We weren’t just given things …. Sometimes people are just given things. If you’re taught that you have to fight for things, it builds character in a person.”
“My father always says you can’t take the easy way out, because it may not get you anywhere,” she added.
A previous version of this article listed the original namesake of Claudia Cohen Hall as John Logan, not James Logan. The DP regrets the error.
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