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A. Alfred Taubman's "epic American life" comes to a close

A. Alfred Taubman has donated millions to the University of Michigan
The University of Michigan
A. Alfred Taubman has donated millions to the University of Michigan

Billionaire A. Alfred Taubman died Friday at home from a heart attack, according to the Associated Press. He was 91.

He led “an epic American life,” growing up a poor Jewish kid in Detroit, and going on to make a massive fortune by creating the modern shopping mall.

He also survived a major scandal in his later years, when he went to prison for price-fixing.

What’s more, Alfred Taubman was the second-largest donor ever to the University of Michigan.

The creator of the American shopping experience 

Every time you walk into a mall, you're walking this world that Alfred Taubman created.

The whole idea was that shopping in suburbia should be this sort of glamorous experience, with fountains, marble flooring, and movie theaters.

And while he went on to build a fortune estimated at $3 billion, the guy had a rough early life.

Growing up a dyslexic, overweight kid in the Depression 

"He grew up in Pontiac, Michigan during the Depression,” says author Christoper Mason, who’s written about Taubman. “They had no money. He was profoundly dyslexic. He was also overweight. And he was Jewish at a time when there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Michigan and in the country."

But even when he was a kid, Taubman had this brilliance for design and retail.

Taubman saw all these post-war families moving out of Detroit and into the suburbs.

And he thought, "Hey, these people are going to need a place to shop."

So he built giant shopping centers across the country, making a huge fortune.

He married Judith Mazor, a savvy, stylish beauty queen from Tel Aviv.

High society, Sotheby's, and prison 

And by this point he was one of the richest men in America.

So rich, he could afford to drop $40 million to buy Sotheby's auction house during the big-hair-and-big-money 1980s. 

"That was great while the market was booming. But when the market crashed, suddenly there were no profits left,” says Mason.

And this is when things get scandalous.

Taubman was holding secret meetings with the head of Christie's auction house – which is of course, Sotheby's bitter rival.

Taubman always maintained that those meetings were totally innocent.

But prosecutors charged him with price fixing. The very public trial was splashed all over the headlines.

"He was the big rich guy, and he was the ultimate target for the justice department and wound up getting convicted and sent to jail," Mason says.

Taubman was almost 80 at the time. He served 10 months in prison.

Giving millions to Michigan

And when he got out, he threw himself into philanthropy.

He's given the University of Michigan more than $155 million dollars. Some of it created the Taubman Medical Research Institute.

It's run by Dr. Eva Feldman, a world-renowned neurologist, who says she's come to see Taubman as kind of a dad.

"He calls me every morning at 7 a.m. We check in every day, we've checked in every day for, I don't know, maybe 15 years. I've lost track."

Taubman gave millions of dollars directly to doctors who are doing stem cell research and trying to find cures for diseases, like ALS.

"Because of Al Taubman, we now have new clinical trials in adult and pediatric cancer, diabetes, in metabolism,” says Feldman. “We have new clinical trials in cardiovascular disease."

For author Christopher Mason, Taubman's legacy can be summed like this:

"I think it's of an epic American life. A self-starter who beat the odds, became tremendously wealthy, became extremely philanthropic and altogether remarkable on many, many fronts."

He is survived by his wife, his three children and nine grandchildren. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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