Who were the Marcuses? A dentist and his wife who escaped the Holocaust just barely, came to America to start their lives, and lived in Great Neck, New York. Howard and Lottie Marcus are the subject of an unusual documentary that connects them to billionaire investment adviser Warren Buffett, to Israel, and climate activism.
The large part of “Who Are the Marcuses?” is not about them, per se, but why they left a stunning $400 million to Ben Gurion University for research about water science when no one knew who they were or that they had any money at all. The donation doubled the size of the university’s endowment.
Howard died at 104 years old in 2014 and Lottie shortly after in 2015 at age 99. Their lovely, and unassuming daughter does a lot of the talking for her parents, and there are clips of interviews with Howard talking about growing up in Germany and seeing the Nazi tide rise toward him. He was smart to leave, although his trip to America and under the radar financial success was not a straight line.
But who does remember the Marcuses? Of all people, Warren Buffett, who is not Jewish but came to meet them through a mutual college friend in 1962. He was just starting to advise investors when the Marcuses put their lives in his hands. To say they had a successful relationship is an understatement. His small firm blossomed into Berkshire Hathaway, bringing the Marcsus along for the ride of their lives.
Buffett was devoted to the Marcus family and still is: He’s not only interviewed quite thoroughly in the film, but Buffett has been turning up at screenings about the couple and their extraordinary donation. From the beginning he was on the same wavelength as them. It’s interesting that he says their quiet collaboration could “only have happened in America” and that a lot of it was just luck. It also feels like some kind of divine intervention.
An Israeli professor interviewed in the film says, “Howard felt the next World War could be fought over water.” It was a visionary thing to say considering issues the US itself has had in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi over access to clean water for everyone. Israel’s David Ben Gurion also saw this as the country began to populate, and turned his attention to finding revolutionary new ways to make that happen through science and education.
So “Who Are the Marcuses?” is kind of brilliant as it shows how this couple, after surviving near death and coming to America, set their sights on the future of the Earth. No one had heard of them when they died and that they made the single biggest donation ever in Israel, revealed in 2016. They didn’t have a mansion — their last few years were spent in a two bedroom apartment in San Diego. They didn’t have fast cars, or a vast collection of jewelry or art. They were the anti-Kardashians.
It’s a fascinating doc, making the festival rounds right now. It belongs on PBS, where I think an audience will be thrilled to see it.