Lives of the fellows

Leonard Gordon, Lord Wolfson of Marylebone Wolfson

b.11 November 1927 d.20 May 2010
Hon FRCP(1977)

Leonard Gordon, Lord Wolfson of Marylebone, was a businessman, a philanthropist and a Friend of the College. Born in London, he was the only son of Sir Isaac Wolfson, first baronet, who was also a businessman and philanthropist and his wife, Edith née Spectorman, whose father, Ralph, was a London cinema proprietor. Sir Isaac was a charismatic figure who had been born in Glasgow to a poor Russian Jewish immigrant family and, during the years following the First World War, he became one of the most successful and flamboyant entrepreneurs. He took over the chairmanship of a small company which he renamed Great Universal Stores (GUS) in 1930 and made a fortune in the 1950s by buying up high street businesses with unappreciated assets and valuable property portfolios.

Leonard spent six months at Clifton College and then switched to the King’s School, Worcester as the family moved to live there during the war. He hated school and, not intending to go to university, joined GUS as a joint merchandising director in 1946 or 1947. Fairly rapidly he was made a director of the firm in 1952, managing director in 1962 and joint chairman in 1981. When his father developed Alzheimer’s disease he took over the running of the company entirely and he took the company on to great things. It earned the nickname of ‘Gorgeous Gussies’ for more than 40 years of unbroken profits, and was to own, among many other successful brands, the Scotch House in Knightsbridge, Times Furnishing, Willerby Menswear and Burberry.

In the 1980s he ‘swam against the commercial tide’ by selling more than 2,000 shops – a move which bewildered the business community at first but stood him in good stead when the recession hit. He was a secretive and autocratic employer and a cautious businessman. Thinking of himself as the steward of the business for its shareholders, he was highly risk averse and analysts regarded the GUS as boring and predictable. Apart from short annual reports which often repeated what had been said the previous year, he gave little information away about the company. The directors normally addressed him as ‘sir’ and the managers, very overawed by him, usually received orders in the form of ‘terse phone calls or acid memos.’ All were used to his mercurial changes of temperament – his demeanour could be stunningly rude or charming and caring. As an example of his managerial style it was said that, at a meeting relating to the choice of new technology for GUS, Wolfson overruled the 12 others present, by remarking that he had 12 casting votes. He retired as chairman of the business in 1996 which gave him more time to pursue his charitable interests.

With his parents, he set up the Isacc Wolfson Foundation (later the Wolfson Foundation) in 1955. Its main objectives were to nurture the advancement of medical and surgical science, health, education, and the arts and humanities. The documents setting it up were signed by the family in his magnificent London apartment surrounded by priceless works of art. Said to be ‘no ordinary philanthropist’ he enjoyed challenging the intelligentsia who approached him for funding and many a vice-chancellor was known to have left the interview visibly shaken. Nevertheless the foundation developed a considerable reputation and, by the time he died, it had awarded more than £600 million in grants to 8,000 projects, including Wolfson colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge University, substantial funds to University College, London and also to Birkbeck College, London.

Passionate about history, he established the annual Wolfson history prizes in 1972 and gladly took on a trusteeship of the Imperial War Museum. Other abiding interests were classic films, cricket, Churchill and the fate and destiny of the Jews. He observed the Jewish religion, taking an active role in the community. Friendly with many of Israel’s leaders he apparently donated $300 million to the country, and, in the UK, was president of the Jewish Welfare Board from 1972 to 1982.

A Tory party supporter, he was not a Thatcherite, preferring to support Michael Hesaltine in the leadership contest. Knighted in 1977, he was made a life peer in 1985 and proceeded to sit on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords. He was awarded numerous honorary degrees and honours in recognition of his philanthropy, and was on a large number of committees.

In 1949 he married Ruth Shirley née Sterling, who was the daughter of Ernest, a merchant. They had four daughters. The marriage broke up 41 years later after an argument on a Caribbean beach about a suitable lunch spot. The following year he married Estelle Marylin Jackson, the daughter of Nathan Feldman and widow of Michael R A Jackson. She survived him, together with his two stepchildren and daughters, Janet, later Dame Janet Wolfson de Botton, Laura, Deborah and Elizabeth.

RCP editor

[The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; The Guardian; The Independent]

(Volume XII, page web)

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