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Wolfensohn Left Australia For America With Just $300

By Louise Sweeney / June 18, 1990



WASHINGTON

JAMES WOLFENSOHN was born in Sydney, Australia, into a family where ``there wasn't a lot of financial success, but there was a lot of intellectual strength,'' as he puts it. His father was a small-business consultant, his mother a musician. ``I had to be hard-working to try and build a professional career,'' he explains in an interview at his Kennedy Center office. He earned a BA and law degree from the University of Sydney and an MBA from Harvard. To get to his scholarship at Harvard, he hitchhiked from Australia to England on an air force plane, then was given a steerage passage to the US on the Queen Elizabeth by a benevolent uncle. He arrived at Harvard with $300 in his pocket for two years of study. ``I was too stupid to know I was poor.''

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He and an Irishman set up Teddy's Laundry Service, selling clean shirts to the advanced management program at Harvard. With his laundry money, he could occasionally buy a 25-cent ticket to the Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsals, where he met a Wellesley student named Elaine, who became his wife.

Mrs. Wolfensohn, a brunette with uptilted eyes, has a BA from Wellesley and an MA from Columbia University. She has taught literature in both private and public schools and tutored elementary students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She says her husband's ``banking and investment side have permitted him to develop the artistic side. I'm not sure if one would have happened without the other.''

Wolfensohn calls himself a dedicated ``amateur'' cellist, who keeps a Guarnerius by his side. His wife tells a favorite story about the late cellist Jacqueline Du Pr'e:

``He started playing cello when Jacqueline Du Pr'e needed something to do with her life, when she could no longer perform [because of illness]. She said, `What am I going to do?' And he said, `Teach.' She said, `Who would study with me?' He said, `I've always wanted to take cello lessons.' She sent him a cello, and within two days he began playing. He had always played piano as a child.''

Wolfensohn had promised Du Pr'e that he would sometime play the cello in a concert. It happened on his 50th birthday at Carnegie Hall, when he performed with his friends Isaac Stern, Daniel Barenboim (Du Pr'e's husband), and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Also performing was Sarah Wolfensohn, the daughter who is a concert pianist. Another daughter, Naomi, is a lawyer. And a son, Adam, studying at Princeton, hopes to be a composer but has taken a sabbatical for a year to study another love: bio-research.