NEW YORK — David Mahoney, a renowned philanthropist and a corporate giant of the Seventies who was at the helm of Norton Simon Inc. during its acquisition of the Halston company, died on Monday at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 76.
The cause of death was congestive heart failure during his sleep, according to a family secretary.
Mahoney was often described as a marketing genius who turned an early career in advertising into a string of leadership roles at consumer brand companies like Good Humor, Colgate Palmolive and Canada Dry.
He became chairman and chief executive officer of Norton Simon in 1970 and led its acquisitions of Max Factor and Halston in 1973, adding to its diverse portfolio of brands, including Hunt Foods, the McCall Corp. and Avis Rental Co., making Norton Simon one of America’s premier conglomerates of the Seventies, at a level comparable to Gulf & Western.
He was also a great philanthropist and a commonly lauded figure in the global society press, along with his second wife, Hildegarde (Hillie) Ercklentz Merrill, even recently hosting annual benefits for various causes that regularly attracted the First Ladies. One of his biggest social coups was staging a party at Maxime’s for Halston and Liza Minnelli during the 1973 grand divertissement a Versailles — the famous fashion show that brought together five great French designers and five American houses.
Mahoney, who was forced to retire from Norton Simon in 1983 during a hostile takeover, wrote two books, “Confessions of a Street-Smart Manager,” with Richard Conarroe, and “The Longevity Strategy: How to Live to 100 Using the Brain-Body Connection,” with Richard Restak.
He was most recently ceo of the Charles A. Dana Foundation, a New York philanthropic organization, and was to receive its first Mary Woodward Lasker Leadership in Philanthropy Award this month for his contributions to brain research, according to the organization.
His creation of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives is credited with helping build a communications network among 200 of the leading brain scientists in the world.
After serving in World War II as an infantry captain, Mahoney, a native of New York City, took his first job in the mail room of Ruthrauff & Ryan, a prominent advertising agency at the time. He also commuted 90 miles every night to attend night classes at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was graduated in 1945.
Mahoney had become a vice president at the agency by the age of 25 and started his own advertising firm three years later in 1951, a business he later sold to become president of ice cream maker Good Humor, a client, in 1956.
Five years later, he was named executive vice president of Colgate Palmolive and in 1966, president of Canada Dry, which along with Hunt Foods and the McCall Corp., publisher of Redbook and McCall’s, became Norton Simon in 1968.
When Norton Simon, a West Coast industrialist who was married to the actress Jennifer Jones, retired in 1970, Mahoney was named president, and later added the chairman and ceo titles, building the company from $900 million in sales to more than $3.5 billion during his tenure.
The Halston acquisition in November 1973 was major news in the fashion industry. The deal was for roughly $8.5 million, which at the time was considered a huge sum for an apparel company, but was easily offset with the success of Halston fragrance and cosmetics that were introduced through a venture with Max Factor. It was also on Mahoney’s watch that Halston’s name was licensed to J.C. Penney, a deal made to popularize the label, but one that ultimately caused its defeat.
Mahoney had a keen eye for corporate talent, and gave Linda Wachner, chairman and ceo of Warnaco Group, her first role as president of a fashion company, placing her first as the president of U.S. division of Max Factor and eventually ceo of that division of Norton Simon.
“David was the best,” Wachner said Monday. “There are two people responsible for my career. One is David and the other one was Mary Wells, [chairman of advertising agency Wells Rich Greene], who introduced me to David.”
Wachner said she was working in a yarn company as a marketing vice president after working as a buyer for Macy’s.
“I’ll miss him,” Wachner said. “You don’t find people who are decent to young, aspiring executives, and he was certainly all these things to me.”
Mahoney ran Norton Simon until 1983, when he sought to take the company private, but was outbid by Esmark, another conglomerate, and given a multimillion-dollar buyout package.
“Norton Simon was one of the original conglomerates,” said fashion event producer Paul Wilmot, who was vice president of sales development at Halston Fragrance in the Seventies and early Eighties.
“The idea of owning Avis and Halston, such disparate businesses, was an idea that was way ahead of itself,” Wilmot said.
But Mahoney found some profitable correlations between the companies, having formed the Halston Perfume company from Norton Simon’s ownership of Halston and Max Factor, creating one of the first major designer perfume businesses that, at one point, was making a 25 percent profit, Wilmot said. It was the best-selling prestige fragrance in America at the time.
Wilmot remembered Mahoney’s wit and reparte, his social grace and his marketing prowess as characteristic of ceos of the day.
“He fit well the role of ceo,” Wilmot said. “He enjoyed it. He was the man with the corporate plane. I think of him with tan suits and blue shirts and the silver fox haircut. He cut quite a figure.” “He was on the cover of every business publication you can imagine,” added Daniel Moriarity, an industry consultant who was Mahoney’s assistant in the early Seventies before taking on roles at Revlon and Christian Dior.
“He was sort of a model handsome man, who was photogenic and whose style always made him very visible in business and in life,” Moriarity said. “He always had a very glamorous persona.”
Mahoney married Barbara Moore in 1951 and had two children. In 1978, several years after Barbara’s death, he married Hillie Ercklentz Merrill. It was also her second marriage. The couple was introduced several times in the course of only a few days, notably by Dr. Ernst Wynder, who was then head of the American Health Foundation.
In addition to his wife, Mahoney is survived by a son, David Joseph 3rd, a daughter, Barbara; two stepsons, Arthur and Robert Merrill, and seven grandchildren.
A funeral mass will take place on Friday at 11 a.m. at St. Edwards Church in Palm Beach, followed by a service in New York this month. The date has not yet been determined.