Melville Straus, a longtime champion of Guild Hall as its chairman and a distinguished and successful businessman, died after a long illness with brain cancer on Thursday in New York City. Mr. Straus, who was known as Mickey, was 75.
For many years, he and his wife, Leila, spent summers and weekends in a house filled with paintings by local artists, both great and unknown, set on Hook Pond in East Hampton. 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 renovations of its building and grounds, which were completed in 2009.
“Since my first meeting with Mickey Straus 15 years ago, he was my best friend,” Ruth Appelhof, Guild Hall’s director, said on Monday. “He was mentor, sage, magician, pied piper, and visionary. He made Guild Hall the vibrant institution it is today.”
Barbara Jo Howard, the director of marketing and public relations, recalled his “joyful love of the arts, a kind and sincerely generous heart, and a genuine respect for all people. He was a very rare and special person.”
After graduating from Dartmouth College he served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy then attended Harvard University, where he received an M.B.A. in 1967 and was a Baker Scholar. He then went to work as a securities analyst at Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette. Two years later he took a position at Standard & Poor’s InterCapital, where he was a vice president and director of research. In 1972, he became a member of its board of directors and executive committee. The following year he joined Weiss, Peck, and Greer as member of its executive committee and head of its small cap growth products and management. In 1998, he went out on his own to form Straus Asset Management, where he was managing principal.
In addition to Guild Hall, he served as a board or committee member of many other arts institutions including the American Ballet Theatre, the Museum of Modern Art, Independent Curators, Inc., and American Friends of the Royal Ballet School. He was also a member of the Dartmouth President’s Leadership Council and a member of the Board of Visitors at the John Sloan Dickey Center. He served previously on the Board of Overseers of the Hopkins Center/Hood Museum at Dartmouth and the Dartmouth Alumni Council.
After he was diagnosed and treated for a brain tumor in September of 2012, he curtailed some of his activities but remained active with work, travel, and his involvement in the arts. He stepped down as chairman of Guild Hall last year, announcing his retirement at that year’s Academy of the Arts event, held annually in March in New York City.
Born in Pittsburgh on March 16, 1939, to Milton and Laura Kraus Straus, he grew up in Tucson and decided to follow a friend east to Dartmouth College. Having already been given 50 shares of Montgomery Ward stock and having followed a proxy fight at the company, he knew from the beginning he wanted to study finance and then in graduate school what became known as leveraged buyouts. “It was still so early in the game, we didn’t know what to call it,” he told The Star last year.
He said “the great thing about finance and the stock market is that every day you have to react to something new that has happened and is relevant to what you are doing.” He added that after 40 years, he was never bored.
The Strauses bought their house in East Hampton 25 years ago after renting for a decade before that. He had not intended to become involved in the community, but after hosting a dinner for a Willem de Kooning exhibition in 1981 he was hooked. He said in addition to bringing Guild Hall’s capital campaign within $200,000 of his goal, he was particularly proud of the endowment he had established for the institution, the Hamptons Institute, and its increased efforts to bring more of the community into the institution.
When he was not attending events at Guild Hall, one of his favorite things to do here, no matter the time of year, was to enjoy the view from his back deck, overlooking the pool and the panoramic view of Hook Pond and the Maidstone Club.
He leaves behind his wife, three children, Scott Straus of Madison, Wisc., Alexandra Straus of Los Angeles, and Ben Straus of New York City, and two grandchildren. Two sisters, Margie Stein of San Diego and Mary Straus of Tuscon, and a brother, John Straus of Denver, also survive him.
A private memorial service will be held on today.