On a searingly bright but breezy mid-spring day, Melville (Mickey) Straus stood on his patio wearing a purple sweater over a plaid shirt and cords with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye. “My wife will be angry that I suggested we sit out here in the cold, but I just love being outside,” he said, grinning as he offered a warming cup of coffee. He seemed to appreciate that the panoramic view from the patio, overlooking his pool, Hook Pond, and the late afternoon golfers at the Maidstone Club, was worth a little chill in the air.
After a two-decade tenure on Guild Hall’s board and 18 years as its chairman, Mr. Straus announced his retirement in March at a star-studded event where he was given a lifetime achievement award and lauded by leaders in the arts, business, and academia, both in the room and in taped messages. This year’s event can be seen in its entirety on LTV’s Web site, or on the Guild Hall Web site in an excerpt featuring Mr. Straus’s tribute.
He joined Guild Hall’s board in 1992 and became chairman three years later. The founder and chief programmer of the cultural center’s Hamptons Institute, he led Guild Hall’s $14 million capital campaign for the renovation of its building and grounds, which was completed in 2009. Over the years he has served as a director of many other arts-related institutions as well.
Always an energetic presence at any event, Mr. Straus decided to curtail his activities after being diagnosed and treated for a brain tumor last September. The effect on his speech and facial expressions is noticeable, but his mental acuity and physical vigor have not suffered. The tumor has shrunk and he has had six months of clean follow-up tests. “I had no reaction to chemo and have been really pleased with the results,” he said. He still works out every day and keeps up with his wife, Leila, on her regular excursions to exotic destinations, including a recent trip to Laos and Burma.
Mr. Straus has come a long way from Tucson, where he grew up. When he was in high school in the 1950s, his father gave him 50 shares of stock in Montgomery Ward and he eagerly followed the drama of a proxy fight soon after. “It got me interested in the stock market and interested in finance.”
After a pivotal decision to follow a friend east to study at Dartmouth College, he went on to earn an M.B.A. at Harvard Business School, where he took to leveraged buyouts (“It was still so early in the game, we didn’t know what to call it”). His first job, in 1967, was as an analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.
He stayed in research for a time, but “I was most intrigued by the market itself, so I moved to money management.” In an association that lasted more than two decades, he managed more than $1.5 billion for Weiss, Peck & Greer, before forming his own firm in 1998.
“The great thing about finance and the stock market is, every day you have to react to something new that has happened and is relevant to what you are doing. There are always new parameters. After 40 years, I still love it,” said Mr. Straus. “I’m never bored.”
His work can be all-consuming, but as he became more successful he found time for other interests. The board of the American Ballet Theatre, when Mikhail Baryshnikov was its artistic director in the 1980s, came first, followed by the Contemporary Arts Council of the Museum of Modern Art, Independent Curators Inc., and American Friends of the Royal Ballet School. He is very active at Dartmouth, having served on several boards and committees and as a past chairman of the board of the school’s Hopkins Center/Hood Museum.
Mr. Straus bought his art-filled house 25 years ago, having rented here for a decade prior. He’d never planned to take an active role in East Hampton’s cultural community, he said. “When we came out here, I vowed not to get involved, because I was so involved in the city. Then I started going to both art and performance shows at Guild Hall.” In 1981, he hosted a dinner for the opening of a de Kooning exhibition and met the artist. Before he knew it, he was hooked.
In addition to bringing the capital campaign to within $200,000 of its goal and establishing an endowment in his name that has raised more than $1 million, Mr. Straus was instrumental in helping Ruth Appelhof, Guild Hall’s director, to broaden year-round community participation in the institution as artists, performers, and audience. He is an active supporter of the clothesline art fair in the summer, with a wall in his house devoted to South Fork seascapes by local artists.
Mr. Straus takes pardonable pride in his role in the creation and continued programming of the Hamptons Institute, a series of panel discussions on challenges facing the region and the world that attracts some of the most accomplished figures in their fields. At the first event, in 2010, Joe Nocera of The New York Times moderated a panel of George Soros, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Greenberger on financial-reform proposals; the event attracted news coverage from all over the world. The institute’s annual summer conferences, held in conjunction with the Roosevelt Institute in New York City, also cover topics in the arts, sciences, and social sciences. If the series became known as a “junior Aspen Institute, that would be my ideal,” said its founder.
Asked to name his most memorable John Drew Theater experiences, Mr. Straus said a benefit concert by Billy Joel in the late ’90s “definitely blew me away.” More recently, Steve Martin’s performance with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, was a highlight. Mr. Straus pretty much attends everything he can: art shows, summer documentary screenings, plays, readings, talks, and the popular Saturday-afternoon Metropolitan Opera simulcasts.
He praised the Guild Hall staff for all their efforts and singled out a fellow board member, Alec Baldwin, who has taken an active role in the activities of the cultural center. At the March dinner, Mr. Baldwin gave Mr. Straus his own tribute. “Alec’s introduction could have been pro forma, but it was very personal,” he said. “He made the effort, as always, and I think the world of him.”
Mr. Straus’s goal in 2006, when the capital campaign got under way, was to help Guild Hall complete it and move on. Then came the recession.
“It took another seven to eight years to complete. We raised a decent amount of money — maybe not by New York City standards — but we were able to complete the project we wanted to do. The village put a damper on a bigger project, but that was the best thing that happened to us, in a way. We kept the thread of Guild Hall, preserved what it was, and then modernized it. I think it turned out really well.”