NEW YORK — Warren Hellman, a Wall Street investor who was president of Lehman Brothers and whose passion for bluegrass inspired him to create a San Francisco music festival that draws hundreds of thousands of people a year, died Sunday in San Francisco. He was 77.
The cause was complications of leukemia, according to a spokeswoman for Hellman & Freidman, the investment firm he cofounded.
Mr. Hellman, whose parents came from prominent San Francisco families, had a finance career on both coasts. After nearly 20 years at Lehman in New York, he started several money management firms, including Hellman & Friedman in San Francisco, one of the nation’s most successful private equity funds.
The three-day concert he founded, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, held each year in Golden Gate Park, has been financed entirely by him.
Mr. Hellman was something of a free spirit. He traveled around the country with the Wronglers, his bluegrass band, performing with them as recently as October. An accomplished endurance athlete, he twice completed a 100-mile running race through the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Frederick Warren Hellman was born in New York. He was not, as many assumed, a heir to the Hellmann’s mayonnaise fortune; his pedigree was in the finance and rag trades. His father was Marco F. Hellman, an investment banker. His mother was the former Ruth Koshland, whose relatives were prosperous wool merchants in California.
Mr. Hellman grew up in San Francisco and graduated from the University of California Berkeley, where he played varsity water polo. After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1959, he joined Lehman Brothers, where his uncle, Frederick L. Ehrman, was a senior executive and later chairman.
An aggressive dealmaker at Lehman, Mr. Hellman earned the nickname Hurricane Hellman. At 26, he became the youngest partner in the firm’s history, and in 1973, at 39, president. The firm’s partners ousted Ehrman that year, and Mr. Hellman had to deliver the news to his uncle.
In Ken Auletta’s 1985 book, “Greed and Glory on Wall Street: The Fall of the House of Lehman,’’ Mr. Hellman is quoted as saying he could not recall the expression on Ehrman’s face because he had stared at his uncle’s feet for the entire conversation. (He remembered that Ehrman’s socks were gray and bunched around his ankles, however.)
After leaving Lehman in 1977, Mr. Hellman moved to Boston, where he helped start two investment firms: Hellman, Jordan, a manager of stock portfolios; and a venture capital fund that invested in startup technology companies. That fund, now called Matrix Partners, was an early backer of Apple Computer.
After moving back to San Francisco, Mr. Hellman and Tully Friedman, an investment banker at Salomon Brothers, started Hellman & Friedman in 1984. He said he had set out to build a firm that did the exact opposite of Lehman, which he described as nasty and corrosive.
With Hellman & Friedman he orchestrated its buyout of Levi Strauss, as well as its investments in the Nasdaq and the advertising company Young & Rubicam. Today the firm’s holdings include the media companies Getty Images and Nielsen.
Until recently, Mr. Hellman arose daily at 4:30 a.m. for a 16-mile run through the Presidio before heading into the office. He was a five-time age group national champion in ride and tie, a combination of cross-country running and horseback riding. In the 1970s he cofounded the Stratton Mountain School in Vermont for competitive junior skiers and later served as president of the US ski team.
He gradually turned over the management of Hellman & Friedman to his partners and concentrated on civic pursuits, among them the construction of an underground parking garage in Golden Gate Park and providing the financial backing for The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit local news organization that provides content to The New York Times.
Banjo picking and bluegrass were his longtime loves, and in 2001 he hosted a one-day free concert featuring Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is now a three-day event that draws more than 750,000 people a year.
And it offers more than bluegrass; rock stars Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and John Mellencamp have been among the performers. It has also featured the Wronglers, Mr. Hellman’s band, which released an album this year, “Heirloom Music,’’ with Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
Last week, city officials renamed Speedway Meadow, the site of the festival, Hellman’s Hollow.
He leaves his wife of 56 years, Chris, and four children: Mick, Tricia Gibbs, Frances Hellman, and Judith Hellman; 12 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
In 2009, he and his daughter Tricia, a doctor, celebrated a joint bar and bat mitzvah, ceremonies typically held for 13-year-olds. Though he began studying the Torah in the 1980s, Mr. Hellman grew up secular, and neither he nor his children or grandchildren had had a bar mitzvah.
Mr. Hellman told a local Jewish weekly newspaper that the ritual - during which he wore a yarmulke bearing a “Cal’’ logo, an homage to his alma mater - had connected him to his past.
“After 75 years, I have come home,’’ he said.