By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON (Reuters) - Billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson pledged $100 million to New York's Central Park Conservancy, making the largest gift ever in the history of the city's 155-year-old urban icon.
Paulson, whose personal net worth is estimated at $12.3 billion by Forbes, invests $20 billion for wealthy clients, pension funds and endowments at Paulson & Co.
At a news conference held at the park's Bethesda Terrace, the soft-spoken fund manager detailed his life-long connection to the park, noting that his grandparents had their first date there and that he roller-bladed there as a young man.
For the park, whose annual operating budget is $46 million, Paulson's gift is nearly six times bigger than the previous record donation of $17 million made in 1993. "It is an enormous amount and we are in shock," said Dena Libner, associate director of public relations at the conservancy, a group which restores and maintains the park.
Paulson sailed to fame and fortune on a bet against the overheated housing market in 2007, but last year his main funds had double-digit percent losses from premature bets on a strong economic recovery.
In the $2 trillion hedge fund industry, the 56-year old Paulson, who lives and works near the park, keeps a relatively low profile, attending only a handful of industry conferences and rarely surfacing in the social pages that celebrate his rivals' donations to cultural institutions and civic causes. Even his support of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for whom he has hosted fund raisers at his Long Island summer home, have not generated much press.
Until now, Paulson's charity donations were directed mainly toward education and medicine. He made large gifts to his alma mater, New York University, to Harvard Business School where he earned a master's of business administration and to Southampton Hospital on Long Island, New York.
(Reporting By Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Kenneth Barry)