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As We See It

For Elaine Wynn, $5 million is just a start

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Elaine Wynn, right, and daughter Gillian on the Andre Agassi Grand Slam red carpet at the Wynn on Oct. 9, 2010
Photo: Glenn Pinkerton/Las Vegas News Bureau

Warren Buffett gets in Elaine Wynn’s ear every so often about this little project he and Bill Gates want her to consider. It’s called the Giving Pledge, a vow from American billionaires to give away half their wealth either during their lifetimes or upon their deaths.

Elaine says she’s certainly considering it. Already, 57 billionaires have agreed, including George Lucas, Carl Icahn and such longtime Wynn friends as Michael Milken and Barry Diller.

It would really be easy to do. You have the rest of your life and a little in the hereafter to do it and, really, nobody’s going to shame you if you don’t give up precisely half. In fact, how half is defined is a mystery, seeing how a person’s monetary value changes daily.

Yet Elaine Wynn is still deliberating.

“I am not in that group, I am aspiring to be in that group,” said Ms. Wynn, resplendent in a sequined vest and taking a short break while reading books to classes at Elaine Wynn Elementary School on Tuesday. “It’s not a binding commitment, but when you make it and you make it in the group of people who have made it, you want to make sure you intend to keep your commitment. I am a thoughtful philanthropist and I do my research and I make sure that all the other things that I want to take care of are taken care of before I would agree to give away half of my net worth.”

For those of us who cannot comprehend having a billion dollars, that sounds odd. Just how much money does any person—or her progeny—need after she’s gone?

And yet it is worth noting that at age 67, Elaine Wynn is still getting her sea legs as a philanthropic force of her own. She is less than a year past her divorce from Steve Wynn, believed by Mr. Wynn to have featured one of history’s largest settlements.

The reason we’re even talking about this is that this week she made her first really gasp-worthy solo gift, $5 million for the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. The money will help build facilities, hire staff and endow the Elaine Wynn Studio For Arts Education, aimed at giving Las Vegas kids exposure to the performance arts.

As national chairwoman for the anti-dropout cause Communities in Schools and a board member of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, she can talk wonkishly about education theory and about studies showing how the arts help kids learn other disciplines. She got prickly on Tuesday with a TV reporter demanding a quick explanation of how to remedy the disastrous local and national public education system. “That’s not an answer I can give you in a sound bite,” Elaine sniffed.

She sniffed at me, too, but only because I inquired about her ex’s recent engagement to his girlfriend. She wouldn’t oblige, but another thing she said inadvertently may have shed new light on why the Wynns went separate ways.

“I always wanted to have this period of my life be dedicated to exactly what it is I’m doing now,” she said, referring to her constant meetings, studying, fundraising and travel on behalf of education and arts causes.

That is, as much of a match as she and Steve Wynn have seemed to be for all these years, at this stage of their lives, they have different interests and lifestyles. Mr. Wynn seems intent on finding new canvases upon which to spray creative genius in the hospitality universe while gallivanting around the world enjoying the fruits of his success. He gives his share to charity, to be sure, but for Elaine to remain at his side as much as I suspect he would have liked, she couldn’t also pursue the important, brainy tasks that sate her myriad interests.

Odds are we’ll be seeing many more substantial gifts from Elaine in coming years. She’ll sign Buffett’s pledge sooner or later, no doubt. There’s plenty of time. Clearly, she’s not going anywhere any time soon.

Follow Steve on Twitter at TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. E-mail him at SteveFriess@aol.com.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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