B. Lewis: This lone ranger has nothing to hide
from the Plain Dealer, September 29, 2002
Plain Dealer Reporter
As a boy growing up in
Cleveland Heights during World War II, Peter B. Lewis loved listening to "The Lone
Ranger" on the small plastic radio in his bedroom.
Much later, when he faced adversity as the head of
Mayfield-based Progressive Corp., the nation's fourth-largest auto insurer, he began to
think of himself as the Masked Man.
"I developed an image over the years," he said.
"I'd be in a canyon with rocks behind me and some big boulders in front of me, and
I'd be down, crouched, squatted, with both guns out, thinking to myself, They don't want
to f- with the Lone Ranger.' That was my own, and still is my own, internal battle
Lewis' guns are out again, and they're blazing.
Last June, he opened fire, figuratively speaking, on Case
Western Reserve University, calling it "a diseased university that is collapsing and
sucking Cleveland into a hole with it."
It was a moment of stunning candor in a Midwestern
industrial city where civic and business leaders adopt a code of silence about anything
But it was typical of the 68-year-old chairman of
He believes fiercely that good things come from honesty,
and speaks openly about his emotions, his divorce, his use of marijuana and his belief
that Cleveland is in decline because it has too many lawyers in civic leadership.
"Lawyers are functionaries hired by the people who do
something," he said, "but we've got a situation where they're running the town.
It's absurd. Those aren't the people who drive creativity. Their whole job is to keep
people from doing things."
The immediate focus of Lewis' tirade is the university's
new home for the Weatherhead School of Management, a shiny, curvy, steel-clad statement by
the internationally renowned architect, Frank Gehry, whose work Lewis has supported for
Lewis, who donated $36.9 million for the business school
building named for him, said the project has been mismanaged, and that he sees it as a
sign of deeper troubles at CWRU. To drive this home, he announced in June that he would
boycott all Cleveland charities until the university's board of trustees is restructured.
Later, he said he wanted the size of the board cut in half and its membership infused with
The boycott is Lewis' way of showing how crucial the
university is to the city's future - and how poorly he thinks it's doing after four years
of high turnover in administrators, turmoil among trustees and declining academic
CWRU officials dispute Lewis' claims about the building,
although they applaud his concern, and say they are working on changes in the university's
governance that they hope he will appreciate.
Lewis, meanwhile, remains open to a reconciliation, and
plans to participate in the Oct. 9 dedication of the building. But he hasn't budged from
The boycott is typical of Lewis' style - a mix of
controlled aggression, startling honesty, and a relentless desire to embrace risk and
change. It's also the latest expression of his alienation from entrenched power in
Cleveland, a club he has never been able to join, despite being one of the most successful
businessmen in the city's history.
"I have felt marginalized, disdained, excluded,
laughed at," he said.
Lewis believes Cleveland shuns entrepreneurs like himself,
and he thinks that's one reason the city is in decline. Growing up as a proud Jew in a
city he saw as suffused with a genteel anti-Semitism has added to his sense of otherness.
"I have this theory that Jews are put on this earth as
a societal irritant," he said, "which is why everybody tries to squash us all
over the place. Which connects with my wanting to do things differently."
In search of superlatives
For Lewis, doing things differently means constantly
raising the ante in a quest for excellence and superlatives.
"I've always thought Peter was a visionary," said
his former wife, Toby Lewis. "I'm not sure I'd call him an intellectual, but a
business visionary, yes. Peter has this attitude that it can always be better, and it
could be bigger."
When Lewis led Progressive as its president and CEO, he
wanted it to be the best company in the world. That desire was so deeply rooted in his
self-image that he even related it to his own virility. At one company gathering, he said
that he planned to keep working until the "Rockefeller event," a reference to
reports of Nelson Rockefeller dying in the arms of a 25-year-old lover.
But a severe health problem forced Lewis into
semi-retirement. In 1998, after suffering for years from a congenital vascular problem, he
had his left leg amputated below the knee. He has learned to walk with a prosthesis, which
he calls less of an inconvenience than wearing glasses.
Now that Lewis has handed over the reins at Progressive to
Glenn Renwick, his hand-picked successor, he is focusing his energy elsewhere. He is
writing a memoir, giving away his money and overseeing the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in
New York, which he serves as chairman.
The Guggenheim has a collection and an endowment smaller
than the Cleveland Museum of Art's. But under Director Tom Krens, it has turned itself
into a global franchise, circulating blockbuster shows among five branches in four
Lewis dreams of building yet another branch, a $1 billion
museum on piers in the East River in Manhattan, next to the Brooklyn Bridge, to be encased
in a swirling cloud of steel ribbons designed by Gehry. He has pledged up to $250 million
for what he calls "the ultimate quixotic project."
Such dreams would be easy to dismiss as mere grandiosity if
not for Lewis' track record.
Progressive, an insurance company co-founded by his father,
Joseph Lewis, had 40 employees when Lewis started working there full time in 1955. Today,
it has 13,500 employees in 375 offices nationwide, with another 8,000 workers in 14
buildings on either side of Interstate 271 east of Cleveland.
That growth occurred while other local corporations went
bankrupt, merged out of existence, or moved headquarters out of state. And it meant that
Lewis, who had trouble paying his bills at age 35, became wealthy beyond his wildest
His achievements confirm his conviction that he has been
supremely rewarded for being an iconoclast and that he has something to contribute to the
hometown he loves, even if it means closing his wallet.
Those feelings have coalesced around CWRU.
"It's become the only focus, the only thing in
Cleveland I think about, basically," he said.
A complicated life
Given the small amount of time Lewis spends in Cleveland -
fewer than 50 days last year - it can be hard to catch up with him.
But on a sunny morning in June, he made time for a
conversation at his Beachwood penthouse, seating himself at the glass dining table, next
to windows overlooking a sweep of sky and trees.
On the walls were paintings by blue-chip artists including
Larry Rivers, Joan Mitchell and Alex Katz.
Dressed in a collarless black shirt and black slacks, he
wore a bohemian uniform that would make him look at home anywhere in the art world.
Lewis, a weightlifter and swimmer who keeps his thinning
white hair cut short, is 6 feet 1, lanky and muscular.
"Two hundred pounds of coiled steel," as he put
At 68, he said he's never been in better shape, despite the
amputation. As he often does, he slipped his prosthesis off for comfort and propped his
leg against the table.
He joked that the remaining inches below the knee "are
the most important 7 inches in my life."
The amputation hasn't slowed him down. He zips from his
penthouse in Beachwood to his apartment in New York and to a house in Aspen, Colo., in his
private jet, a nine-seat Challenger.
Nearly half the year he cruises the Mediterranean or the
Caribbean aboard the aptly named Lone Ranger, a 255-foot motor yacht built in Germany in
1973 as an oceangoing tug.
The boat, which he bought in 1997 for $16.5 million, sports
a luxurious master suite, four guest cabins, a swimming pool and other accouterments. It
symbolizes Lewis' love of freedom and his belief that it would be idiotic not to enjoy his
On board the Lone Ranger, Lewis works out, scuba-dives,
reads, e-mails associates, watches movies and spends time with family members or friends
including Gehry and former U.S. Sen. Robert Kerrey, now president of the New School
University in New York.
A crew of 18 is on hand to set up parties, provide
rubdowns, prepare meals, anything Lewis desires.
"You have no idea how easy and luxurious it is,
because these 18 people on the boat have only one objective: To make me happy."
A life on the rise
Lewis lives a life he never could have imagined growing up
in a middle-class family in the suburbs east of Cleveland.
As the oldest of four children, Lewis was the dutiful son
who did his homework, got good grades and tried to please his parents.
He calls his childhood "idyllic." But he
remembers the combative spirit his father developed in response to limits once set by
Cleveland's WASP hierarchy, such as being barred from joining the prestigious Union Club.
"His attitude about being discriminated against was,
f- 'em. Let's fight 'em. Beat 'em," Lewis said.
Lewis started working in Progressive's office at East 36th
Street and Euclid Avenue at age 12, filing papers and stuffing envelopes. Even then, he
dreamed of making his future at the company.
After graduating from Cleveland Heights High School, he got
into Princeton University, where he awakened to standards of achievement that far exceeded
any he had known in high school.
He loved college, and did well. But his happiness was
shattered a year later when his younger brother, Jonathan, was killed at age 16 in a car
Peter's relationship to Jonathan was complicated. Jealous
of his younger brother's good looks and his close relationship with their mother, Peter
bullied him mercilessly.
But he was tortured by guilt over not having hugged
Jonathan the August morning he departed on a fatal fishing trip to Canada. In a draft of
his memoir, Peter wrote that if he had delayed his brother's departure, even for a few
seconds, his car might not have collided that night with a truck.
The trauma of Jonathan's death was compounded two years
later when Lewis' father was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and told he had weeks
After returning from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Joseph
Lewis summoned Peter to his bedroom and told him he would soon become head of the family.
Moreover, he could no longer guarantee Peter's future at Progressive.
"I had gone up those stairs a dependent young
man," Lewis said. "I grew up in 10 minutes."
A year later, when Lewis graduated from college, his
father's partner, Jack Green, gave him an accounting job. But it was unclear whether it
would lead anywhere.
That changed a decade later, when Green scaled back his
involvement in Progressive. Lewis and his mother, Helen, borrowed $2.5 million to buy the
company, pledging their majority stake as collateral.
Lewis revved up Progressive by capitalizing on insuring
high-risk drivers. He created an innovative pricing system, and came up with
consumer-friendly ideas such as free quotes on competitors' rates and instant claims
service. Lewis hired young, energetic workers, gave them enormous leeway in
decision-making, and established a dress-down culture based on creativity, hard work and
endless quantitative measurement.
"We're here to perform," he said. "And
people who don't, go."
Lewis feels his success was based on core principles,
honesty being the most important.
As a young executive, Lewis had tried what he calls
"chiseling." When customers canceled their policies, he didn't repay their
premiums until they asked.
He quickly decided it was immoral and unethical, and he
stopped the practice. Later he became fanatical about creating objective standards for
gauging Progressive's performance.
He contrasts the company's record of disclosure to those of
corporations - Tyco, WorldCom, Enron - that recently imploded in accounting scandals. And
he's proud that in 2001, Progressive laid claim to being the first corporation in America
to report results not just quarterly, but monthly.
Honesty has been just as central in Lewis' personal life.
But as in business, he first allowed himself a taste of deceit.
After cheating on his wife and living what he called the
"big lie," he told her: "I can't sneak around. I've discovered I cannot do
this. It's killing me."
End of a marriage
The two had met in 1953. Lewis, who had just finished his
sophomore year at Princeton, immediately fell for Toby Devan, the smart, beautiful
daughter of the owner of a a leather-goods business from Gloversville in upstate New York.
They married soon after he graduated from Princeton, and
raised three children: Jonathan, Ivy and Adam Joseph.
In three interviews during the past year, he declined to
discuss the children, out of concern for their privacy. But in a draft of his memoir, he
wrote that his workaholic lifestyle turned Progressive into the family's fourth child, and
that "if you ask Ivy, Jonathan and Adam, they might say they got short shrift."
Lewis expected married life to be blissful. But by age 48,
he neither wanted to be monogamous nor to hide the fact.
"When he took over Progressive, he was so successful,
and it was pretty heady stuff, and he thought, 'My God, I can have any woman I want,'
" Toby said.
After their divorce in 1981, Peter worked to maintain a
friendship, sending Toby lavish gifts, including a double portrait of her by Andy Warhol,
which now hangs in her Shaker Heights home. (Peter retains half-ownership in the
Then, in 1985, Peter asked Toby, who then worked at the
Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, to take over the Progressive art collection, saying
she was the only person he could trust. She has since earned a national reputation for her
sharp eye and advocacy of emerging artists.
"We both recognize today that we have each flourished
as a result [of the divorce] and done things and achieved things and experienced things we
never would have done together," Lewis said.
Toby feels that staying close to Peter has made perfect
"How can you hate somebody you've lived with and had
children with?" she said. "We were together for 25 years."
A sense of exclusion
Lewis repaired his relationship with his ex-wife through
hard work. But he couldn't mesh with Cleveland's conservative civic culture.
In private, Lewis is warm, funny and down to earth -
qualities summed up by the Yiddish word "heymish." He cares deeply about his
friends and frets for years over whether he has hurt other people's feelings.
But in public, his ego and flamboyance tend to dominate,
which may have worked against him in his hometown.
If there's a moment that sums up his sense of exclusion, it
happened in the late 1980s, when Lewis convened a group of civic leaders at his penthouse
apartment to show off his brainchild, a model of the skyscraper headquarters he wanted to
build for Progressive in downtown Cleveland, overlooking Lake Erie.
The 50-story tower would have risen on platforms over the
railroad tracks north of Cleveland's City Hall. It would have connected downtown to the
lakefront and pumped 2,000 to 3,000 skilled workers into downtown.
Led by Gehry, the design team included the leading
contemporary artists Donald Judd and Richard Serra. Nothing as bold had ever been proposed
But as the other power brokers mingled at the party, Lewis
said that Richard Pogue, managing partner at the influential law firm Jones Day Reavis and
Pogue, turned to him and asked, "Where do you work?"
Lewis was infuriated. "I wanted to throw him down
there," Lewis said, pointing from the balcony to the steel-tiled floor of the living
room below. "I almost did."
Pogue doesn't remember the incident and can't imagine why
he would have asked such a question. He said he tried to mediate an agreement between
Lewis and City Hall over the project. Lewis remembers no meetings with Pogue.
The project died, Lewis said, for lack of support from
former Mayors George Voinovich and Michael White and former Gov. Richard Celeste. Lewis
has no regrets and harbors no ill feelings toward the politicians. He is happy that
Progressive expanded its headquarters off Wilson Mills Road in Mayfield.
But the alleged snub from Pogue epitomizes how Lewis feels
he has been "cut to my face" in his hometown.
At times, Lewis has contemplated lashing out publicly to
vent his emotions. In the early 1990s, after the demise of the skyscraper, Lewis asked
Gehry to continue working for him on plans for a sprawling, wildly innovative house on a
wooded, nine-acre site in Lyndhurst.
Lewis pulled the plug on the project after 10 years of work
and $6 million in design fees when the estimated construction budget had reached $82
But before that point, he had planned to scatter the
landscape around the house with works of art. One was to be a 75-foot-high sculpture of a
golf bag by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, creators of Cleveland's "Free
Lewis viewed this not only as a work of art, but as a way
to extend the middle finger to the Mayfield Country Club next door, where he had suffered
a hurt as a child.
When he was 12, a friend had asked him to the club for a
swim. The next day, the friend told Lewis that his parents had reprimanded him for being
so kind to a Jew.
A Rockefeller-style rift
Critics of Lewis - none of whom would speak for attribution
- say that he can be erratic, dictatorial and hard to work with, and that he comes with
baggage. Some have likened his boycott of Cleveland charities to blackmail.
But friends and admirers say he has a point about the way
he has been treated.
"Peter has had a life of being snubbed and stiff-armed
by the Cleveland establishment, and it's not fair," said Michael Horvitz, a lawyer
who serves on the boards of CWRU and the Cleveland Museum of Art. "Peter wants to be
loved and feels he has a lot to offer this community, and he's right about that. But I
think he feels the city wants him only for his money."
Lewis' rift with Cleveland looks like a reprise of the
chasm that opened a century ago between the city and John D. Rockefeller, the founder of
Standard Oil. After a bitter dispute over taxes, Rockefeller left Cleveland and
established himself in New York.
The loss to Cleveland was incalculable. Rockefeller and his
family lavished millions on universities and museums elsewhere. A fraction of that
investment could have had a huge impact on Cleveland.
Lewis' life is on a similar track.
Over the past decade, he has donated more than $50 million
to causes in Northeast Ohio, including the new building at CWRU.
But he has been more generous elsewhere, donating $115
million to Princeton and $50 million to the Guggenheim, not to mention his $250 million
pledge for the proposed Guggenheim branch in Manhattan.
"The reputation he has in New York is starting to
accrue," said Krens, director of the Guggenheim. "It's something he can grasp
and use or not. And he's got the luxury at this point of doing whatever he wants."
Published estimates have put Lewis' net worth at $1.4
billion. But he said the number is closer to half that amount, because he has given away
so much Progressive stock.
Lewis' wealth has served as a platform for larger ambitions
in politics and art.
His chief political project today is a national effort to
roll back the war on drugs. With billionaires George Soros and John Sperling, he is
funding a series of state initiatives, including Ohio Issue 1, which would replace
mandatory sentences with treatment for some nonviolent drug offenders.
Lewis believes drug laws are racist because they punish
blacks more frequently and severely than whites. And as a libertarian, he feels people
should be free to pursue happiness if they harm no one else. He wants drugs legalized and
regulated, like alcohol.
"As long as you're not hurting somebody else, who the
hell cares?" he said. "Kill yourself. God bless you."
Lewis, a longtime user of marijuana, was called a
"functioning pothead" by Fortune magazine.
This doesn't faze him in the least. "Marijuana is, for
almost everybody who uses it, a positive," he said. "It improves the quality of
life, it improves performance. It improves."
Stockholders and Wall Street analysts have overlooked
Lewis' extracurricular activities because they had no effect on Progressive's stellar
But in the winter of 2000, his affection for cannabis was a
source of personal embarrassment. Exhausted from surgery for a double hernia and from
dealing with Progressive's Y2K preparations, Lewis took a commercial flight to New Zealand
to watch the America's Cup races from his yacht.
Drug-sniffing dogs singled him out when he tried to pass
through customs at the Auckland airport with pot in his briefcase. He spent a night in
jail, but was released after admitting guilt and donating money to a local charity.
In an interview last year, he said the arrest was "a
crisis in my life. I was ashamed of myself, disappointed in myself, and I learned
something about myself, learned that I have the capacity to be stupid and arrogant."
But as with so many experiences, Lewis has also learned to
look back with humor.
He recently regaled a visitor with an account of the
arrest, complete with a strip search, a body-cavity search and the fact that he burst into
tears when a policeman told him he'd have to spend the night in jail.
"I'm 66, I've just had my leg amputated, and I have to
go to jail? I even waved my stump at him," Lewis said.
A patron of creativity
So far, Lewis' push against drug laws has been
inconclusive. But his support of contemporary art and architecture has had considerable
Progressive's annual reports, featuring commissioned
artworks by contemporary artists, have won numerous awards. And the Progressive art
collection, with 5,000 objects, is widely recognized as one of the finest of its kind.
Lewis views the collection as an investment in building a
culture of creativity at Progressive. But when it comes to explaining his personal
reactions to art, Lewis is at a loss for words. He got D's in the two art history courses
he took at Princeton.
Today, Lewis enjoys being surrounded by contemporary art.
But most of all, he likes being close to artists and architects, because he is fascinated
by their creative processes.
"One of the reasons Peter Lewis follows me around so
much is that there's a freedom he envies, and he tells me how famous I am," Gehry
said. "But he wonders, 'How does this guy get to be so famous designing these pishy
little buildings?' "
Lewis met Gehry at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary
Art in 1985, and soon commissioned him to design the house in Lyndhurst.
Over the next decade, as Lewis asked the architect to add
ever more lavish features and experimental forms, the budget grew and grew.
Lewis never seemed to care. He loved visiting Gehry, and
brought along a film crew, thinking it would be important to record every encounter.
Although the house was never built, Lewis' support for
Gehry's experimentations led to breakthroughs on other signature projects, including the
widely acclaimed Guggenheim branch in Bilbao, Spain. Evidence is already piling up in
books and exhibitions that Lewis will be remembered as one of the great architectural
patrons of his time.
After having failed to build either the downtown skyscraper
or the house in Lyndhurst, Lewis was determined to follow through with the building at
CWRU, even though this meant he had to increase his pledge from $15 million to $36.9
million as the project's budget rose from $25 million to $61.7 million.
Although Lewis was angry about cost increases on the
building in Cleveland, his friendship with Gehry is stronger than ever.
The Oct. 9 dedication of the Peter B. Lewis Building could
either be a reconciliation between Lewis and the university or an event of unparalleled
awkwardness, like sitting down to dinner with an estranged couple.
Lewis craves a confrontation with CWRU trustees. He said he
"begged" to meet with the full board, but was turned down, despite having made
the biggest single donation in the university's history. He even suggested privately last
summer that he could turn the university around in six months if he were named chairman
and was given sweeping powers.
Now he calls that idea "an egomaniacal, fat-headed,
arrogant thing to say when people can't stand me."
University trustees say they will soon vote on changes in
governance. But they also make it clear that those proposals were in the works long before
Lewis raised a ruckus.
Lewis has seen a draft of the proposed changes but summed
up his response by making a rude noise with his lips.
"They're trying," he said. "But they don't
So is he open to changing his mind about CWRU and
"I can't predict what I'm going to do in the future.
But I know where my head is at, and I know where I want to make my point."
For now, Lewis thinks it's symbolic that his Beachwood
penthouse and the Progressive headquarters are both about a dozen miles east of downtown,
next to an interstate highway. He's on the edge, not in the center.
But those who know him say he will never be able to sever
ties with his hometown.
"I think he'll die a Clevelander," says former
Sen. Kerrey. "You may not get as much of his money as you'd like. But you won't lose
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