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$10 million new gift from philanthropist Shelby White to endow center for biography
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$10 million new gift from philanthropist Shelby White to endow center for biography

Gift brings Shelby White’s Leon Levy Foundation total giving to $22.8 million; Foundation will also match up to $5 million of additional funds raised through an endowment campaign.

Leon Levy Center for Biography $10M Endowment Gift

Recently published and forthcoming biographies by former Leon Levy Center for Biography Fellows.

The Leon Levy Foundation has donated $10 million to the CUNY Graduate Center to endow the Graduate Center’s Leon Levy Center for Biography, the premiere institute for biography in the U.S. This donation is the second largest in the Graduate Center’s history and brings the Leon Levy Foundation’s total giving to the school to $22.8 million. In addition, the Foundation will match up to $5 million in new gifts to the Leon Levy Center for Biography.

Established with a generous gift from the Leon Levy Foundation in 2007, the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center supports working biographers through its prestigious fellowship program and cultivates important discussions about the art and craft of biography through lectures and events with esteemed biographers. It also supports the Graduate Center’s Biography and Memoir master’s program.

“Since its inception, the Leon Levy Center for Biography has grown to become one of the jewels of CUNY, and we are extremely grateful to the Leon Levy Foundation for its continued commitment to helping the center cement its status as a national treasure as well,” said Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez.

“As a historian, I have great admiration for biographers and the rigorous scholarship and literary craft they bring to telling the stories of the people, famous and obscure, who make history. I am proud that CUNY and the Graduate Center are home to a center that has supported and promoted the work of so many biographers. The Leon Levy Foundation’s generous endowment will sustain the center for many years to come.”

“We thank the Leon Levy Foundation for its generosity and foresight in first establishing and now endowing what has become the foremost center for biography writers and readers in America,” said Graduate Center Interim President Joshua C. Brumberg. “Great biographies merge in-depth research with superb storytelling and illuminate history. We are proud to be the home of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, whose mission to promote the art and craft of biography aligns with the Graduate Center’s aim to bring forth new information and ideas that advance the public good. We are thrilled, too, to kick off a campaign to ensure a strong financial future for this unique center.”

Shelby White, founding trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, said, “We were thrilled 17 years ago to help create this groundbreaking center for biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. We are even more pleased today that the Leon Levy Center for Biography has become the preeminent source for this increasingly popular and important field of study. Our hope is that this new endowment will ensure the center’s success and relevance for many years to come.”

“This wonderful and generous endowment gift means that the Leon Levy Center for Biography is going to transform the lives of so many more working biographers in perpetuity,” said Kai Bird, executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist. “This is a momentous thing in the world of books.”

Earlier this year, Biographers International Organization awarded Bird, who has directed the Leon Levy Center since 2017, its BIO Award for his significant contributions to the art and craft of biography. Among Bird’s many accomplishments, he co-authored American Prometheus, the biography that inspired the blockbuster film Oppenheimer, which won seven Academy Awards. BIO cited Bird’s leadership of the Leon Levy Center, noting that “under Kai’s stewardship, the Levy Center has become the most important institute for biography in America.”

Two former Leon Levy Center Biography Fellows have won National Book Critics Circle Awards for Biography. Rebecca Donner won the 2022 award for All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler, and Ruth Franklin won the 2016 award for Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Franklin also garnered an Edgar Award and a Bram Stoker Award for her biography.

Other former fellows have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and have received prestigious grants and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, and a Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant.

Each year, the Leon Levy Center awards four biography fellowships and one Levy/Sloan fellowship for a biography specifically about a figure in science or technology. To date, 30 biographies by writers who have received Leon Levy Center fellowships are either in print or are forthcoming. The books’ varied subjects — John Lewis, Sonny Rollins, Candy Darling, Frantz Fanon, and George Balanchine — reflect the fellows’ diverse interests and areas of expertise.

In 2022, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation renewed its three-year, $330,000 grant to support the Levy/Sloan fellowship. Five such fellowships have been awarded, and another fellow will be selected for 2025-2026.

Each resident fellow receives a stipend, research assistance, writing space, and library privileges. Fellows participate in monthly seminars and the intellectual life of the Graduate Center.

The center also hosts frequent public events as well as the annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture, an annual conference in the spring, and academic courses at the Graduate Center in the art and craft of biography.

Since 2019, the Graduate Center has offered a master’s degree in Biography and Memoir in collaboration with the Leon Levy Center. The one-of-a-kind program currently enrolls nearly 50 students interested in studying biography and memoir or becoming biographers and memoirists themselves. Eighteen students have graduated, three are in Ph.D. programs, several have signed contracts with literary agents, one has a book contract, and one landed a tenure-track job at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Notably, Biography and Memoir master’s program graudate Michelle Frank was awarded the prestigious Levy/Sloan Fellowship for her biography-in-progress of 20th-century Chinese American particle physicist Chien-Shiung Wu.

“An extraordinary ride,” is how Bird described leading the Leon Levy Center for Biography for the past seven years. And earlier this year he told Biographers International Organization that he thinks biography is the best form of history. “It’s the most probing and intimate vehicle for rigorous scholarship, precisely because it’s about one other person,” Bird said. “And yet through the biography of this one other person’s life, you have a window into all sorts of history that you learn along the way. So it’s also the most accessible form of history, too.”

Shelby White is the Founding Trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, which was created from the estate of her late husband, who died in 2003. Its largest program, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, a center for advanced research and graduate education at New York University, was established in 2007. The Foundation also supports organizations in the arts and humanities, nature and gardens, neuroscience research, human rights and Jewish culture.

In 2017, Ms. White was awarded the  Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in recognition of her far-reaching philanthropic work.  She has been listed as one of the country’s top philanthropists in Business Week’s Annual Review of Top Giver’s and on The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of America’s most generous givers.

Ms. White serves on the boards of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Institute for Advanced Study, The New York Botanical Garden, New York University, Bard Graduate Center, and The Writers Room.  She is Chairman of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority. She also serves as Chairman of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications at Harvard University.

As an author, Ms. White has written financial articles for publications including The New York Times, Town andCountry, Redbook and Forbes. Her book, “What Every Woman Should Know About Her Husband’s Money,” was published by Random House (1992, 1994). She has taught seminar courses on philanthropy at New York University and museum studies at City College of New York and written articles about both philanthropy and art collecting.

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