James Lebenthal ’49, America’s beloved municipal bond salesman known for phrases such as “bonds are my babies,” died in New York last weekend. He was 86 years old.
The cause of death was a heart attack, his daughter Alexandra Lebenthal ’86 said.
Best known for his quirky television and radio appearances, the chairman emeritus of Lebenthal & Co.encouraged low- and middle-income Americans in the 1970s to buy bonds because of their stability and tax exemption. He also lobbied in favor of keeping bonds tax-free.
“He never stopped thinking, and that was the most amazing thing about him,” Alexandra Lebenthal, who succeeded her father as spokeswoman for Lebenthal & Co. in 1995, said in a phone interview. She added that he was a very passionate man and that he passed on his work ethic to her and her siblings, Jim and Claudia.
“He was a great leader and a great American. I was very proud of him as a classmate,” said Lebenthal’s close friend Brendan Byrne ’49, former governor of New Jersey and an attorney atCarella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello P.C. “He was brilliant.”
In his popular advertisements, Lebenthal climbs into a sewer hole, rides the subway and lounges in public parks, explaining that bonds provide funds for public amenities while preventing asset depreciation.
“[I] started putting municipal bonds within the reach and comprehension of the average, individual investor,” Lebenthal said in a 2011 throwback tribute to his television commercials. He was recently working on animated cartoons, an innovation that his daughter noted demonstrated his continuous drive to communicate in a way that made people stop and listen.
“He was a dynamic speaker, a thoughtful leader and he made a positive impression on everyone he came in contact with,” New Jersey bond lawyer John Kraft said. Kraft founded New Jersey’s first bond council and said Lebenthal was aprominent spokesman for the Public Securities Association, anorganization of municipal bond dealers.
“Built by bonds” was one of Lebenthal’s signature advertising campaigns, Kraft said, adding that Lebenthal spoke at several of Kraft’s municipal bond events on theimportance of bond tax exemption.
Before joining the brokerage firm established by his parents, Louis and Sayra, Lebenthal worked as a journalist, film writer and copywriter, starting as a film reporter for LIFE magazine. He went on to produce a Walt Disney movie and earned an Academy Award nomination for his short film, “T is for Tumbleweed,” in 1958.
Alexandra said that her father always had an interest in photography and filmmaking, starting with the Princeton Photo Agency, through which he sold photos on a local and a national scale as an undergraduate.
He continued to pursue film after his retirement, creating a series of New York City-themed vignettes. Alexandra recalled a particularly poignant film showing passersby stopping to look at a poster of a missing woman following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Another piece showed him reciting a poem while using his cell phone around other people who were also using their phones but who ended up listening to him rather than their conversation partners.
“It was a satire of the ridiculousness of people constantly being on their on cell phones,” Alexandra said, adding that her father’s pieces were often quirky and covered a wide range of subjects.
Lebenthal had a great sense of humor, Alexandra said, a character trait that came through in his advertisements but also during social gatherings, where he would give toasts that made everyone’s stomachs hurt with laughter.
“The next morning he wouldn’t remember what he had said. It was just this moment in time,” Alexandra said. “He would make up these great moments, and then they were gone.”
Alexandra recalled a story about her father when he was in the Army and polished the soles of his shoes around a group of tough, young soldiers. When one of the guys asked him about it, he said he planned on spending a lot of time with his shoes on the desk.
“He had this ability to come right back at people,” Alexandra said.
After taking over Lebenthal & Co. in 1995, Alexandra eventually founded Lebenthal Holdings LLC, a wealth management firm, and Lebenthal Asset Management with her father in 2007. Alexandra said her father strongly influenced her career path and taught her to be honest, speak up for her beliefs and do right by investors, especially given Wall Street’s recent decline in public reputation.
Lebenthal was a politics major at the University and was very involved in WPRB, the University’s nonprofit radio station. He also continued to raise funds for the University over the course of his life, and Alexandra said that new class agents receive copies of his fundraising letters.
“He loved Princeton so much,” Alexandra said, adding that he often appeared at the P-rade. “I thought he was going to be one of the oldest living Princetonians.”
Although greatly saddened by her father’s death, Alexandra said she is grateful that her son Benjamin Diamond ’16 was able to drive him during the P-rade last year at his 65th reunion.