Amanda Lugg, now advocacy director at New York City’s African Services Committee, remembers the mid-’90s, when she was the night chef at God’s Love We Deliver, the still-running nonprofit that delivers fresh-cooked meals to low-income people living with HIV and other chronic illnesses in the city. She had a Monday afternoon carrot-chopping volunteer, a cultured but self-effacing gay man in his 60s named Henry.
“One day,” she recalls, “I was giving him shit to hurry up. The head chef heard me and called me over. ‘Do you know who that person is?’ they asked me. I said, ‘Yes, it’s Henry.’ They said, ‘No. It’s Henry.’”
Henry, you see, was Henry van Ameringen, the heir to a massive fragrance fortune who, at least since the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s until his Sept. 9 death at age 90, gave away nearly $150 million to a vast array of LGBTQ causes and services, many of them aimed at helping the community’s most vulnerable, such as people living with HIV/AIDS in the Deep South or young New York City–based queers of color who’d been thrown out of their homes.
Upon news of his death, Facebook flooded with memories from dozens of current and former service providers and activists who recalled the many times that van Ameringen, often after little more than a short lunch conversation or a visit to a nonprofit to see them in action, wrote checks into the tens of thousands of dollars—and kept those checks coming for years into an agency’s lifespan.
He was also remembered for being humble, efficient, and no-nonsense in his giving.
“After I found out who he was, we became very close,” says Lugg. “I didn’t change the way I was with him, and I think he appreciated that. He was no-bullshit and straight from the hip. He didn’t like people fawning over him.”
After Lugg left God’s Love—to which van Ameringen donated half a million dollars later in the ’90s to fund the kitchen of their lavish downtown relocation—she reached out to van Ameringen to ask for help with the Harlem relocation of African Services Committee, which supports African, Caribbean, and Latin American immigrants and asylum seekers including LGBTQ ones in New York City.
“We said we’d send a car for him to see the site, an old brewery,” recalls Lugg. “He said, ‘Don’t you dare—just tell me what subway stop it is.’ He came up, we showed him around, he thanked us for the tour—and he gave us a $25,000 check and said, ‘Spend it well.’”
He continued to support the agency up until his death, says Lugg—including writing a $100,000 check for the agency to open a center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that is named after him, but only informally, because he didn’t want the credit.
His impulse to fund causes for the most vulnerable stems, Lugg thinks, from “his own story about being gay—he had a very hard time with it.” Yet, she says, despite his enormous privilege, “he was able to bridge his own experience empathically to other queer people not like him at all.”
As Carl Siciliano, the founder of New York City’s nearly 20-year-old Ali Forney Center, which provides residences and an array of other services for homeless LGBTQ youth, has often recounted, it was van Ameringen who, over a lunch during which Siciliano outlined the challenges facing such youth, wrote him a check for $35,000 that sustained the organization in its first six months.
“Not one year has passed since 2002 without Henry making a generous gift to the Ali Forney Center,” wrote Sicilano in a Facebook tribute. “Frankly, there were several times when we were on the ropes after funding losses, and Henry always came through with extra gifts during our hard times. Many times over the years we reconvened at his favorite cafe and he listened with the most alert attention to the news of our challenges and progress. It makes me very sad to realize there will be no more lunches with Henry.”
Among the other causes or agencies van Ameringen supported are the New York City Anti-Violence Project, the local queer cable news show, In the Life, Griot Circle (which serves LGBTQ seniors of color), the National Center for Transgender Equality, GMHC, Lambda Legal (fighting for LGBTQ people in courts), Victory Institute, People for the American Way, Movement Advancement Project, Equality Federation, the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, Freedom for All Americans, New York City’s LGBT Community Center, and Fountain House, a transitional home for people with mental illnesses.
Many recalled that van Ameringen wasted neither his own nor others’ time. “I served on the Board of Gay Men of African Descent for three years,” says photographer and public health activist Timothy Benston. “In 2005, Henry requested to meet with us, and I was the only one who could, because our executive director had to fly home for an emergency. So we met over lunch. He was very blunt. He said, ‘I want to fund a meaningful project at GMAD. Give me three projects and the budgets for each.’ I rolled three off the top of my head”—among them, a support group for seniors with HIV and a substance-use counseling and education program for Black gay men—“which impressed him. I left with a check for $65,000. The lunch was kept to one hour. After he wrote the check, he said, ‘I’m done here. You can leave now.’”
Van Ameringen was an executive at the New York City–based International Flavors and Fragrances, a company founded by his father. In a Facebook tribute, longtime HIV activist and former TheBody editor JD Davids wrote that his Jewish grandfather’s working for the company in Amsterdam was what allowed both him and his wife to emigrate to the U.S., to work for the company, as Nazism ascended. “This is how my grandparents were able to survive the Holocaust,” wrote Davids. “Most of their family did not survive, as part of the massive genocide of Dutch Jews.”
Van Ameringen lived in the scenic riverside town of Hudson, New York, with—and is survived by—his spouse, T. Eric Galloway, a Hudson real-estate developer and founder and president of the Galvan Foundation (the name being a combination of his and van Ameringen’s names). Contacted by TheBody, Galloway, who is known to keep a very low profile, passed on the message to Christopher Cormier Maggiano, a longtime close political advisor of van Ameringen, who added that van Ameringen also gave tens of millions of dollars to LGBTQ and LGBTQ-aligned political candidates.
“He was a kind, generous, and brilliant man who used his resources and standing in the world to help those most marginalized,” says Maggiano. “He was constantly aware of those who weren’t part of, and were forgotten by, the mainstream.”
Even when many affluent gay white men in the 2000s were putting time and money into the marriage-equality movement, says Maggiano, “Henry was always much more interested in LGBT youth, homelessness, aging seniors, and the new generation of [queer people] who were facing their own unique challenges. I imagine that his own early struggles with being gay gave him a unique perspective about what it means to be not fully seen or understood by the world around you.”
He added that van Ameringen, as opposed to many funders who pull away support when an agency or movement seems to be faltering, would double down on his support, as Siciliano has said that he did with the Ali Forney Center. Said Maggiano, “His view was, if you’ve given a group hundreds of thousands of dollars over a decade, why would you walk away when they need help most?”
Van Ameringen also funded efforts to remove laws in several states that criminalize people for not disclosing their HIV status to sexual partners—or to at least modernize such laws to reflect the fact that people with HIV who are on meds and whose virus is undetectable are unable to transmit the virus sexually.
Says Sean Strub, founder of POZ magazine and also of the anti-criminalization campaign the Sero Project: “Henry supported Sero every year since we started, generally between $75,000 and $125,000 annually. ... Early on, Sero made a decision, with Henry’s help, to fundraise for in-state anti-criminalization efforts, to empower the in-state activists and communities. ... So Henry funded Empower Missouri, Equality Florida, Pennsylvania AIDS Law Project, and others, at Sero’s recommendation, which helped strengthen the statewide organizing infrastructure.”
Maggiano told TheBody that the Henry van Ameringen Foundation would continue to honor van Ameringen’s commitments to all grantees, and that details around that would be announced at a later date. Donations in van Ameringen’s name can be made to Lambda Legal or to Fountain House.
Strub concluded, of van Ameringen: “He was a Johnny Appleseed of our [HIV and LGBTQ] movement, providing seed money to fledgling efforts and activists with a great idea and plenty of passion. At the risk of pushing a metaphor too far, rather than apple trees, his seeds cultivated [giant] sequoias.”