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Before Richard Blum faced Mt. Everest, befriended the Dalai Lama and married then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, he bought and sold the circus — literally.
As a young partner at the San Francisco brokerage Sutro & Co., Blum in 1968 spearheaded the company’s $8-million purchase of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Four years later, Blum and his partners sold the circus to Mattel Inc. for $40 million.
The deal solidified Blum's reputation as an investor and businessman — and signaled the kind of extraordinary experience that would shape his life as a philanthropist, UC regent and husband to Feinstein, now a U.S. senator.
Blum died Sunday at the family home in San Francisco after a long battle with cancer, Feinstein's office said Monday. He was 86.
"My heart is broken today," Feinstein said in a statement. "My husband was my partner and best friend for more than 40 years. He was by my side for the good times and for the challenges. I am going to miss him terribly."
Blum's storied career took many forms. He was chairman of equity investment management firm Blum Capital Partners. He also dedicated much of his life to the people of the Himalayas, founding the American Himalayan Foundation in 1981 — something Feinstein described as "one of his proudest achievements."
"As a role model, Dick was second to none, and I think his compassion and devotion to the people of the Himalayan region may prove to be his most enduring legacy," she said.
Feinstein has represented California in the U.S. Senate since 1992. She and Blum married in 1980.
“Dick was incredibly devoted to his family, particularly his daughters and his grandchildren, and my heart is with them and everyone who Dick encountered," Feinstein said. "He was the type of man who really replaced his divot in life, who left things better than he found them."
A longtime friend of the Dalai Lama, Blum was an honorary consul of Nepal. He also served as co-chairman of the World Conference on Religion and Peace and was a founding member of National Geographic’s International Council of Advisors.
For nearly two decades, Blum served as a member of the University of California Board of Regents and was chairman emeritus of the board, and he founded the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, which is focused on addressing global poverty.
On Monday, condolences poured in from both the state's and nation's capitals and beyond.
“Richard Blum lived an extraordinary life, and he left this world better than he found it — lifting up our communities and helping connect people from across the globe," Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.
My heart is heavy for @SenFeinstein who has lost her husband, Richard.
Richard Blum was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather who touched the lives of many.
I will keep the Feinstein family – and all who loved Richard – in my prayers.
May his memory be a blessing.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) February 28, 2022
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said she and her husband, Paul, were "heartbroken."
“A lifelong San Franciscan, Richard was a powerful force for good in our city," Pelosi said in a statement. "Building a successful career in business, he constantly gave back to our city: whether as a patron of our arts, a donor to our food banks or a benefactor to our efforts to end homelessness."
Blum was a longtime donor to Democratic candidates and liberal causes. In 2020, he contributed $1 million to Unite the Country, a super PAC backing Biden’s presidential bid.
"I had the unique pleasure of watching Joe and Dianne tackle the toughest issues in the Senate, and we know Joe's integrity and leadership will be a beacon to lead us forward and restore the soul of our nation," he wrote in an email invitation to a virtual fundraiser for Biden in October 2020.
On Monday, President Biden described Blum as "a successful businessman and proud son of California who dedicated much of his public life to fighting poverty around the globe."
"Above and beyond his many professional and philanthropic accomplishments, Dick was a man of personal decency and generosity — a champion of human rights, driven by genuine care and compassion to make a difference in the world," Biden said in a statement.
A 1990 profile of Blum published in the lead-up to Feinstein's unsuccessful gubernatorial run painted him as a well-connected man of many passions and interests.
He was "a self-made millionaire, investor, money manager, mountain climber, distance runner, philanthropist, human-rights activist and friend of the famous," the profile said.
Friends and associates at the time described him as an "aggressive straight shooter with boundless drive and a disarming 'Lt. Columbo style' that might seem to border on the bumbling but is actually quite effective."
Vice President Kamala Harris, who launched her political career in San Francisco and served in the Senate with Feinstein, said she had long admired Blum's "compassion and boundless energy."
"Dick Blum believed we could build a world that respected the rights and essential dignity of all people," Harris said Monday. "As a businessman, a Regent of the University of California, a philanthropist, and an advocate for human rights, Dick dedicated his life to furthering that vision. Our nation and our world are better for his work."
Born into a family of clothing merchants, Blum graduated from Lowell High School, where he was known among his peers as confident and strong-willed.
He received bachelor's and master’s degrees in business administration at UC Berkeley and joined Sutro & Co. at the age of 23, where he worked as a $300-a-month junior research analyst. Six years later, he became the firm’s youngest partner.
After the circus deal — which he signed, somewhat theatrically, at the Colosseum in Rome — he founded what would later be known as Blum Capital Partners in 1975 and also kept his hand in politics as chair of then-San Francisco Mayor George Moscone’s Fiscal Advisory Committee.
It was that position that would lead him to Feinstein. In 1977, Feinstein, then president of the Board of Supervisors, met with Blum for a briefing on an economic report. At the time, she was preoccupied with the illness of her second husband, neurosurgeon Bertram Feinstein, who later died of colon cancer in 1978.
After Bertram Feinstein's death, Dianne Feinstein again met with Blum for an economic update, and a romance soon blossomed, with Feinstein even accompanying Blum on a 1978 trip to India and Nepal.
Moscone's assassination that same year saw Feinstein propelled into the city’s top job, and when she and Blum married in 1980, many viewed it as a "marriage of the public and private sectors," The Times reported.
Reached Monday by phone, Jerry Roberts, former politics editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and author of "Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry," recalled the strength of the pair's relationship.
“When Moscone got shot, that was the first call she made, to Blum, and he came over to City Hall and he was with her,” Roberts said. “Before Doug Emhoff [Harris' husband and the nation's first gentleman], Dick was sort of the model of the consort, and I think he did a good job. He was extremely supportive of her over the years.”
Prominent San Francisco real estate developer, philanthropist and Democratic donor Mark Buell recalled meeting Blum when he and Feinstein first started dating.
“He enjoyed Dianne for both her beauty and her power. And I have to say, watching them over the years, that they were very good to each other," Buell said. "He always gave Dianne good counsel."
He described Blum as a "schmoozer" who was also eager to give to the right causes.
About five years ago, when Buell was chairing an effort to bring the America's Cup to San Francisco, Blum donated not because of a great attachment to sailing, Buell said, but "because it was civic, and I think that's a good reflection of who he was."
Blum's vast business ties and stock holdings would occasionally dog Feinstein. In the 1984 presidential election, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale interviewed Feinstein to be his running mate but ended up selecting Geraldine Ferraro. Mondale’s co-national chairman later said that Mondale didn’t pick Feinstein because of Blum’s business dealings. Blum vigorously denied this claim.
His dealings in San Francisco and overseas proved nettlesome during her unsuccessful 1990 run for governor and her 2000 senate reelection campaign. A 2020 state audit of UC's admissions process accused him of writing an "inappropriate letter of support" to help a student get into UC Berkeley.
Yet tributes to Blum on Monday crossed party lines.
“For 30 years, Elaine and I have been privileged to cross paths with Dianne and Dick in a number of ways, both professional and personal. It was always a great pleasure to break bread together, compare notes and catch up," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Monday. “Our colleague’s very loving husband was, simply put, a fascinating person. He was highly successful, adventuresome, brave and curious."
Blum was remembered most on Monday for his generosity of spirit and deep devotion to family, including his three daughters from his first marriage — Annette, Heidi and Eileen — his stepdaughter, Katherine, and many grandchildren.
"We have a hole in our hearts that will never be filled," Feinstein said. "Dick, we love you, we’ll miss you and we’ll continue to celebrate everything you accomplished during an amazing life."
Speaking to The Times in 1990, Blum said he believed in "pushing whatever happens to be my agenda to the max."
“Despite the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time with Tibetans [discussing reincarnation] ... no one has convinced me we come this way more than once," he said.
Times staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn and Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.