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In January of 1997 a mystery was solved that had baffled people for nearly a decade. Someone was giving away millions of dollars! The recipients didn’t know why the gifts came or how to ask for more. But still the money drizzled in, to universities, hospitals and service groups around the globe, paid in cashier’s checks and accompanied by word that the giver wished to remain anonymous.

The giver, it turns out, was Charles Feeney, a 66 year-old businessman from New Jersey. Forbes magazine had listed Feeney, the owner of a duty-free shop conglomerate, as one of the 400 richest Americans. But then it was discovered that Feeney’s wealth was only 1% of what Forbes thought it was. How could they be so far off in their projections? For years, Feeney had quietly been giving it away. Over $4 billion in all. Feeney is known as a “shabby:” dresser who flies coach, wears a $5 watch and doesn’t even own a house or a car.

The richest 1% of Americans give only 2% of their...

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