Carl J. Shapiro, whose early success helping to run a women’s clothing company allowed him to become one of Greater Boston’s most significant philanthropists, died Sunday at his Boston home. He was 108.
Once known as the “cotton king” for the popular dresses sold by his Kay Windsor Inc. garment company from the 1940s through the 1960s, Mr. Shapiro initially ran the business with his father, expanding it from a Boston plant with 120 sewing machines in the early days to a national enterprise selling 50,000 dresses a day from a showroom in New York City’s Garment District.
In 1971, Mr. Shapiro sold the business for $21 million, and through disgraced financier Bernard Madoff turned that sum into a fortune exceeding $1 billion, making the Shapiros among the region’s wealthiest families. Through their philanthropy, the names of Mr. Shapiro and his late wife, Ruth, adorn hospitals, universities, cultural institutions, and Jewish and health-and-welfare causes.
More than 30 years after Mr. Shapiro sold his family’s business, Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was uncovered. In 2010, Mr. Shapiro agreed to repay $625 million from his investment profits to federal authorities who were recovering money for Madoff’s victims. Mr. Shapiro, then 97, admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
By then, the Shapiro name could be found on edifices from the cardiovascular center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to the glass courtyard in the new wing at the Museum of Fine Arts to a science center at Brandeis University.
The Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, which reported assets as high as $324 million in 2007, gave large gifts to Beth Israel, Boston Medical Center, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies, among many other charities. The foundation has provided tens of millions of dollars for Boston projects.
Paul Levy, a former chief executive of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said of Mr. Shapiro: “In his relations with us, he was exceptionally thoughtful and generous and caring about the hospital.” He added: “He felt that philanthropy was a moral obligation, that if you were fortunate enough to make money, you had a moral responsibility to give it away for important societal causes.”
Born in Boston on Feb. 15, 1913, Mr. Shapiro was one of three children and the only son of Annie Skurnick and Aaron Shapiro.
He attended Boston University, but left during the Great Depression, his family said, to help his father’s coat manufacturing company. Mr. Shapiro turned that business into what would later be known as Kay Windsor.
He and Ruth Gordon met on a blind date and married in 1939, at first living with her parents in Newton. After joining his father in the dress business, Mr. Shapiro would spend Mondays through Wednesdays in Manhattan and the rest of the week with the family in Newton, working at Kay Windsor’s New Bedford plant.
He was a hard worker who built his company on simple cotton dresses that cost about $10 each. “We had to convince the stores that we were in a style business rather than in house dresses,’’ he told The New York Times in a 1957 story about the company.
Mr. Shapiro sold the company in 1971 to clothier Vanity Fair Corp. for $21 million — a portion of which he placed with Madoff, a friend he had already invested with successfully for about a decade and who would turn out to be one of the greatest swindlers of all time.
Mr. Shapiro was known as an exacting man who would weigh in on the decor of the hospital facilities he financed, review architectural plans, and don a hard hat to visit construction sites. While his daughters have long been trustees of the family foundation, Mr. Shapiro, a traditional patriarch, had long kept a firm hand on family and foundation finances, as well as the gifts to nonprofits, even into his later years, family members have said.
In the foundation’s early years, Carl and Ruth, a Wellesley College graduate, would talk over grants at the dining room table. He would later convince his daughter Rhonda Zinner, who was known as Ronny, to oversee the foundation in the early 2000s. Zinner, who died in 2014, had said in an interview that working with her father on the family giving was among the most rewarding experiences of her life.
Zinner, whom Mr. Shapiro would treat to lunch at New York’s 21 Club during her college summers, also spoke about his decision to put his name on the buildings he funded. She said her father once told her: “When I’m dead and gone, my grandchildren will know that they come from a good family.”
It was his attention to detail and to finances that made many people wonder how Carl Shapiro did not know, for decades, that something was amiss with Madoff. The financier would ultimately admit to running the largest Ponzi scheme, taking in new investors’ money in order to pay others the fabricated, double-digit returns they had grown used to, and that somehow came without ever missing a beat.
Mr. Shapiro, ever the glass-half-full man, tended to see the best in people, according to friends and family. He gave the young Madoff a chance when he was starting out, on a tip from a friend that the investor was an up-and-coming talent. Over the years, the two would fish together, the families would occasionally visit, and Mr. Shapiro would entrust a vast portion of his fortune to a man he thought of as a son.
“He was 22 years old, a smart young guy,” Mr. Shapiro once recalled, in a Palm Beach Daily News interview, of meeting Madoff.
The Shapiros have said that all told, the family lost at least $545 million to Madoff, including about $145 million from the family foundation and $250 million that Mr. Shapiro had invested — at Madoff’s request — just weeks before the scandal was exposed in December 2008.
To say that Mr. Shapiro was stunned and betrayed by Madoff’s vast swindle, family members said, was an understatement.
Even with his life’s work and legacy in jeopardy, Mr. Shapiro tried to stay above the fray. He and Ruth toasted their 70th wedding anniversary in 2009 with the family at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, where they dined regularly. Even late into his life, he still held court at the Palm Beach Country Club in Florida, at his favorite corner table, hosting friends at lunch and urging them to order the chopped salad, and to try the macaroons. The entire family would travel to Palm Beach, where he had a second home, in February 2010 to celebrate his 97th birthday.
Ruth Shapiro, who died in 2012, was a key part of the family foundation’s efforts.
“The kitchen table in our home became the family foundation’s boardroom,” Zinner said for her mother’s obituary, adding that “my sisters and I were blessed to be raised by a father and mother whose values taught us the importance of doing all you can to try and make a difference.”
Memorial services will be private for Mr. Shapiro, who leaves two daughters, Ellen Jaffe of Palm Beach, Fla., and Linda Waintrup of Brookline; seven grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.
In spring 2009, while still in the thick of the Madoff ordeal, Mr. Shapiro told a guest that he only wished he were younger. “I have so much left that I want to do,’’ he said.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.