Max Palevsky, who died Wednesday at 85 at his Beverly Hills home, was, among much else, one of the first major donors (if not the first -- I leave it to Bob and Paul to sort this out) who provided the funds to get a fledgling magazine called The American Prospect up and running 20 years ago. But my own contacts with and knowledge of Max came as a campaign consultant for liberal causes and candidates decades ago in Los Angeles, where Max had already established his turf as one of the biggest, smartest, and most intellectually rigorous liberal funders in the nation.
A gifted mathematician, Palevsky founded and built Scientific Data Systems, an early computer company, which he sold to Xerox in 1969 for a little less than a billion dollars -- real money in those days. (He later helped found Intel.) With the Vietnam War raging, he soon became involved in efforts to end it, and in 1971 and ’72, he plunged his resources into the underdog campaign of the most outspoken peace candidate in the Democratic presidential field -- George McGovern. Palevsky was not only McGovern’s biggest donor, but he actually provided McGovern with roughly $320,000 in early money that carried McGovern until he started winning primaries. (This was back in the day when there were no donation or spending limits in presidential campaigns.)
The following year, Palevsky headed the finance committee and, again, provided the biggest donations, for the L.A. mayoral campaign of Tom Bradley, the liberal councilman who ousted right-wing mayor Sam Yorty to become the first African American mayor of a mega-American city (and one that was only 17 percent black at the time). Palevsky’s assistant on the finance committee, by the way, was a young political novice named Gray Davis, whose rise through the Democratic ranks Palevsky also funded in its early stages.
In conjunction with fellow Los Angeles liberals Norman Lear, Stanley Sheinbaum, and Harold Willens, Palevsky formed what came to be known as the Malibu Mafia -- four wealthy funders, brought together by their liberalism and shared opposition to the Vietnam War, who helped make L.A.’s Westside one of the two leading sources, along with Manhattan, of financial support for liberal and left candidates and causes. In time, each funded and plunged into his own crusades -- Lear founded People for the American Way to combat the religious right; Willens helped conceive and fund the nuclear freeze movement; Sheinbaum, working with Swedish Premier Olof Palme, was largely responsible for the initiatives that led to the ongoing (now 25-year-old) dialogues between Israel and the Palestinians, and has been the leading force behind American Jewish support for a two-state solution in the Mideast. For his part, Palevsky in the 1970s founded the journal Democracy (no relation to the current journal of the same name), edited for a time by Berkeley political scientist Sheldon Wolin, which was one of the first post-'60s endeavors to rethink the liberal project. It was an objective, as his crucial early support for TAP indicated, that he never abandoned. (Nor was TAP the only other magazine he provided seed money for. Another -- perhaps not as well-known as TAP -- was Rolling Stone.)
In 2007, Palevsky co-hosted the first major L.A. fundraiser for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. A few years earlier, he joined with Warren Beatty to fund (if I remember right, to the tune of $1 million) an initiative to place strict limits on contributions to California political campaigns. The measure did not pass.
Palevsky was also a force in the contemporary art world. He helped found and fund L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and the home he built in Palm Springs has been the subject of an architecture photo book. If you seek his memorial, though, don’t just look at the museums and art works he funded, or the global computer industry he did so much to jump-start. Max also built a share of the American liberal infrastructure, to which the existence of this magazine, and much else, attests.