The Lenfests say they will not leave any of their money to their children - who are plenty well-off - or to their grandchildren. They don't believe in foundations that last for generations. It's pointless, they say, to try to control how your money is spent after you die.
So within 20 years of the last one's death, the couple's foundation will have given away every last penny.
"I care about what happens after I die, but I can't control that," Gerry Lenfest, 73, said in a recent interview. "During your lifetime, you can direct how your wealth is spent for the most good. But after your death, it is problematic. You don't have the control."
That type of thinking helps explain why Lenfest has been one of the prime backers of the Barnes Foundation's proposal to move its art gallery from Lower Merion to Center City - a move that would defy the instructions left by Albert C. Barnes, who died in 1951.
Barnes left $10 million to support the gallery and art education program he founded. But the endowment was exhausted by the late 1990s, and the foundation is exploring other ways to survive - ways that could dramatically alter Barnes' intentions.
The Lenfests intend to avoid any similar fate.
Coming to that decision took study, Gerry Lenfest said. He attended conferences on foundations and giving. He studied other philanthropists and what happened to their money after they died. He talked to living donors. He and his wife debated what to do.
In the end, they decided against setting up a perpetual foundation.
"So often they are perpetuated by those who work for them, for the organization. The donor no longer has any control over what the foundations are used for," Gerry Lenfest said.
Also, foundations often are not as productive after the donors die, he said. "[Andrew] Carnegie started the free library system in the United States. What a fantastic achievement," he said. "That was during his lifetime."
By giving his money away now, rather than having someone give it out for many decades after his death, Lenfest said he also can bring his experience as a businessman to bear on the charities he funds.
His gifts to the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for instance, require the organizations to balance their budgets. His gifts to the resident companies of the Kimmel Center require them to increase their ticket sales and their endowments.
"There is a great amount of satisfaction involved in this," Lenfest said. "There is a lot of pleasure in life just to have your funds go the way you feel it will provide the most good."
Gerry Lenfest reads palms as a hobby. He reads people for a living.
"He recognizes phoniness in about 10 seconds," said Lew Klein, a longtime friend of the Lenfests and a former owner of several TV stations. "He can meet someone and within an extremely short period of time read people accurately."
It is a skill that has served Lenfest well. He was already a successful lawyer and accomplished businessman, running Seventeen magazine and cable businesses for Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications, when he decided to take a big gamble on cable: He borrowed $2.3 million to buy a cable system from Triangle in 1974.
That became Suburban Cable. By the time he sold his stake in Suburban in January 2000, it had grown from 7,600 subscribers in Lebanon, Pa., to 1.2 million in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
In a complex transaction, Comcast Corp. bought it for more than $7.6 billion, including debt, and Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, who owned slightly under 25 percent of the company, got about $1.2 billion for their stake. Their three children together owned a little more than 25 percent - a gift from their parents when Suburban was barely worth anything.
Today, Gerry Lenfest still owns or has investments in a number of companies, including a Jaguar/Saab/Land Rover dealership in Willow Grove and a Land Rover dealership in Wayne. Marguerite Lenfest has money in her own right.
The Lenfests have many of the trappings of great wealth: two yachts, condos in Rittenhouse Square and Florida, an art collection, a set of copper pots Gerry Lenfest bought in France on Georges Perrier's recommendation. Their love of the arts is plainly evident in the causes they have chosen to support; Gerry Lenfest is chairman of the Art Museum and is a driving force behind the effort to bring a Calder Museum to Philadelphia.
"Art enriches our lives," Marguerite Lenfest said. "If life were all work and no fun, life would not be as pleasant as it is."
But the couple also are known for their down-to-earth ways (and for their ballroom dancing). They still spend much of their time in the home in Huntingdon Valley that they bought in 1966 for $35,000. They have no servants. Gerry Lenfest still likes a good bologna sandwich (as well as a good Jaguar). As far as Marguerite Lenfest is concerned, flying first class to Florida is a waste of money.
When guests come for dinner, the Lenfests themselves cook and clean up.
"Both of them are so approachable," said Peggy Amsterdam, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. "I love to go to parties with him and see him and Marguerite dance together."
Gerry Lenfest readily concedes he is the more impulsive and liberal giver of the two. He handles all the couple's large charitable gifts.
"I'm like a four-eyed cat in a fish market," he says with a grin about giving their money away.
Marguerite Lenfest is the more practical and conservative giver. "She will ask, 'How does this help a real person now?' " said Bruce Melgary, the Lenfest Foundation's executive director.
Their generosity has made the Lenfests well-known and highly sought after in the Philadelphia charitable world.
People know them best for their multimillion-dollar donations to art institutions such as the Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Most of that money comes out of their private wealth rather than the $150 million foundation they have established. The foundation's accomplishments are not as widely known: For example, it pays for promising public high school students from Franklin County and other rural Pennsylvania areas to attend boarding school and college.
They do this, the Lenfests say, because most rural schools are poorly funded. The towns lack the industry to help pay for schools and the extracurricular activities colleges look for. And colleges do not often recruit in rural areas.
The interest in education dates to Marguerite Lenfest's experience as an elementary school teacher and to Gerry Lenfest's childhood. His mother died when he was 13, and he started getting into trouble and skipping school.
So his father sent him to Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pa., and those two years, he said, turned his life around.
The Lenfests have given $33 million to Mercersburg.
To keep harmony in their own family, the Lenfests chose not to set up a family foundation with their three children. Instead, they encouraged them to set up their own foundations from the money they received from the sale of Suburban Cable - and all three did.
"They say family foundations keep a family together. I think it probably has just the opposite effect," said Gerry Lenfest. "[Family members] lose interest if they cannot do what they particularly want, or there is resentment if they can't."
Eileen Heisman, the president of the National Philanthropic Trust in Jenkintown, said the Lenfests' approach is "very practical."
"All the issues . . . play in the family foundation as they do at the dinner table and sometimes even get magnified," she said.
The Lenfests' beliefs on philanthropy are not typical, but more people are considering them, said Dorothy S. Ridings, chief executive officer of the Council on Foundations in Washington.
"There is a lot more conversation about whether the future should just take care of itself, and I will do what I can do while I am alive," Ridings said.
Still, philanthropists are not all of a same mind, she said. Some worry that future trustees will not hold the same views they did. Others want to give their grandchildren the same chance to donate money they had, or they worry that social problems they care about will get worse with time.
The Lenfests, however, are not entirely comfortable with the wealth they - almost accidentally - passed along to their children.
"Maybe I would not have given the equivalent to what they have, because I think too much money can ruin," Gerry Lenfest said. "There is no challenge in life when you are born rich."
That said, both parents said their children, who did not grow up rich, have handled wealth well.
Even as Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest work to distribute their billion-dollar fortune to worthy causes, they get far more requests than they can possibly fulfill. Does the process ever get overwhelming - or even depressing?
"No," said Gerry Lenfest, grinning. "We are having fun."
Contact staff writer Patricia Horn at 215-854-2560 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are the institutions to which Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest have donated or pledged $1 million or more since 1999.
Philadelphia Museum of Art $17.4 million
Barnes Foundation $15.0 million
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts $6.0 million
James A. Michener Museum $5.0 million
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts $2.0 million
Opera Company of Philadelphia $1.5 million
Arts in Cable $1.3 million
Mercersburg Academy $33.5 million
Washington and Lee University $17.6 million
Wilson College $16.4 million
Columbia University $16.4 million
Ursinus College $5.5 million
Princeton University $2.0 million
Temple University $1.5 million
Gesu School $1.2 million
High Tech High $1.0 million
Lenfest Foundation $150.0 million
Chesapeake Bay Foundation $6.8 million
Abington Memorial Hospital $5.5 million
Capital Visitor Center $5.0 million
Brandywine Conservancy $3.7 million
Library of Congress $2.4 million
WGBH Education Fund $1.2 million
National Liberty Museum $1.1 million
National Constitution Center $1.1 million