What if Zell Kravinsky isn’t crazy?

After word got out that one of Philadelphia's most eccentric millionaires, Zell Kravinsky, had donated a kidney to a random stranger, a reporter at one of America's most prestigious newspapers was sent to interview him. What the reporter found wasn't a magnate in pinstripes, but a morose guy wearing a thrift-store shirt. What happened next is the reason the reporter insists that his name and his newspaper stay secret — because within a few hours, the so-called nutcase had persuaded the reporter to sign a contract that required him to donate his kidney. Zell would pay him, or a charity of his choosing, $10,000. (“Name your price,” Zell had said, looking the reporter in the eye.)

The reporter was a willing participant, and he agrees that “the enthusiasm was mutual,” as Zell says. But it's not unusual for Zell to proselytize. He did it two months later, on an airplane above Ohio. Zell turned to his seatmate, yanked up his shirt, and flashed his protruding ribs and his three-inch kidney scar. Zell told his seatmate that he'd do whatever it took to persuade her. “I think I freaked her out,” he says.

Then, in October, Zell reconnected with an ex-girlfriend he hadn't seen in years, and he went through the same routine. “I told her that I would come to California where she lives,” Zell says. “I said, 'I'll hold your hand, the whole thing. I'll do anything you want. I'll put you at ease.'” He assured her that the scar wouldn't be disfiguring, pulling up his shirt to show her. On the contrary, he said. The scar would be sexy. If he weren't married, in fact, and he had a kidney-donor lover, “I would kiss it so tenderly,” he says. “The parts without scars would be less beautiful.”

: zell has been obsessed with kidneys ever since reading a Wall Street Journal article in 2002. Zell reads the Journal because he's a real-estate magnate, a multimillionaire, and he likes to keep his eye on the market. But this article wasn't about real estate. It was about the dire public health crisis that is kidney disease. More than 3,500 Americans die each year for want of a kidney. Three hundred thousand-plus souls languish in dialysis — a blood-cleaning process that leaves you dog-tired and drained, six hours a day, three times a week. Zell decided he could spare part of himself to save a fellow human from this hell.

Zell is married. His wife, Emily, is a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders. They have four kids, ages four to 12. They live in Jenkintown, on a quiet block that's worthy of Norman Rockwell. Zell's house cost just $141,500, although he could have afforded something infinitely more lavish. As of a couple years ago, Zell owned scores of commercial properties across the Midwest. Zell won't reveal the size of his fortune, but it had to be at least $45 million. He's given away that much money.

“The only cure for the disease of wealth,” says Zell, “is to spend money.” Starting last year, he embarked on a charity spree, focusing on public health causes. (His sister, Adria, was a smoker who died of lung cancer in 1984, stamping Zell with a passion for public health.) Last year, Zell and Emily gave $6.2 million to the Centers for Disease Control, and they gave smaller amounts to other related causes until Zell had burned through $15 million.

It only whetted his appetite. He wanted to give it all away — including his kids' college tuition savings. “Cooler heads prevailed,” he says. But just barely. This spring, Zell gave $30 million in real estate — the bulk of his portfolio — to Ohio State University to start a school of public health. He doesn't have anything left for retirement.

“Well, first he decided to give all his money away, and I thought, well, that would be very nice,” says Zell's father Irving, who is 90 and lives with Zell's mother Reeda in Center City. “I thought that would satisfy him, but it — “

Reeda interrupts him. “It's satisfying some need in him as well as doing something good for someone.”

The need demanded a more extreme sacrifice. When Zell told his wife about his kidney plan, she said she'd divorce him. Zell's parents, too, begged him to back away from the scalpel. “We told him the same thing we'll tell you,” says Irving. “He's a family man. He's got four little children. … “

Discouraged by his family's reaction, Zell started telling some friends. One was Barry Katz, a developer of luxury homes in Connecticut.

“I tried to talk him out of it,” says Katz.

“He hung up on me,” says Zell.

Trapped between his ideal and his loved ones, Zell chose the ideal. On July 22nd, he sneaked out of the house and had his kidney removed at Albert Einstein Medical Center. When he woke up the next day, he was out of his mind with pain. He couldn't take the hospital's narcotics, because they messed with his problematic stomach. But Zell was a trouper. When the TV cameras came, he struggled not to slur his words. He wanted people to see the procedure as routine, so they'd want to donate kidneys too.

Which is basically the truth. Giving a kidney isn't the huge production it used to be. Back in 1954, when the first kidney was successfully transplanted, doctors had to crack you in half, slice three-quarters of the way around you, and yank out a rib. These days, it's all done with tiny incisions and a fiber-optic camera. You can check into the hospital on a Thursday, regain consciousness on Friday, pop some narcotics, and three days later be home watching Monday Night Football. The risk of dying is about the same as from a hernia operation.

But there is a risk. Only 151 people have given kidneys anonymously to non-family members. By proselytizing for kidneys, is it possible Zell is asking too much of us? And if he is, can he stop? The terrifying thing about Zell's do-gooding is that he doesn't know. “I want to go on giving,” he says, “even if it leads me into poverty or disgrace or” — he stutters — “or an early death.”

There are many more needy people on Earth than can be helped by one man, even a rich and brilliant man like Zell. His level of commitment either makes him a chump or an exemplar, a nutball or a saint.

Would we all be better off if we followed Zell? Look at what happened to the reporter who signed Zell's contract. When he told his mother about the operation, she started bawling. “I had never heard her scream like that since my grandma died,” the reporter says. He eventually decided not to go through with the operation, after his mother cried and his newspaper threatened to fire him. But he still thinks giving a kidney is the right thing to do. He thinks that, because Zell convinced him: “I mean, you want to talk coherent? He's as coherent as you get.”

After the donation, Zell went on a media blitz, trying to get as many people to donate kidneys as possible. Reactions fell between two poles of exclamation — Isn't this guy odd and Isn't this guy amazing.

Let's start with odd:

One late-summer afternoon, I'm walking with Zell toward the playground near his Jenkintown home. It's where Zell conducts his interviews on nice days — his wife Emily won't let reporters in the house. On the way, we run into one of Zell's old friends, a man named Alan Berkowitz. I ask Berkowitz, a short man wearing wraparound sunglasses, what he thinks of Zell's kidney donation.

“Ah, well, Zell and I haven't even discussed that,” he says, laughing nervously. “But, ah, what can you say? It's a great thing.”

“You can tell him if you think it's stupid,” Zell says.

“No, it wasn't stupid. It was a good thing to do. Anything else, I'll discuss with Zell later.”

Even Zell's friends don't know what to make of their post-op buddy. “The altruistic issues have always been very interesting,” says Zell's longtime friend Jim Kahn. “But the altruistic issues have often been … tinged with … things that made us ambivalent. Sometimes there's a slightly pathological element to them.”

There's also a cultural element to that ambivalence. Most educated left-leaning types believe in helping the poor and doing good deeds. We listen to npr and cluck our tongues about Liberia. We've got two cars, two coffeemakers, two video-game consoles, two plasma TVs, two laptops, two lawn mowers. Two kidneys. Zell is a walking reminder of everything we could be doing to help other people, but don't. “We're all looking for the way we can make a difference in the world,” says the reporter who signed Zell's contract (and later backed out). “He just looks at you and says, 'Why don't you do this?'”

Okay — now let's talk to the people who find Zell amazing:

Today, a morning in late September, Zell is at Ohio State, where he's given $30 million. He's sitting in a room with 20 health-care researchers, wearing an untucked blue flannel. Zell is in top verbal form. He charms and flatters the researchers. After the meeting, one woman comes up to me, flabbergasted. “It's like 1940s Frank Capra,” she says, tittering. “At first I thought it was a tax dodge, but this guy is actually generous!” Another professor tells me, “Some of us were joking [that] maybe we should start wearing flannel shirts.”

He's joking, but he has a point. Even though Zell is unconventional, says his friend Jim Kahn, “He's always managed to in the end get these great results.” That's one difference between genius and lunacy: success. And if there's one thing Zell has a genius for, it's success. Part of Zell's genius is the way he has leveraged his kidney donation for personal benefit. It's possible — even probable — that he'll make money from it. How? In September, he launched a real-estate investment fund, partially made possible by the kidney publicity. Zell isn't collecting commissions now, but he will in the future. (He says they'll go into a charitable trust.) Already he's sinking 40 hours a week into massaging the numbers.

The fund lays bare one of Zell's blind spots: For such a smart guy, he's unsophisticated about how to make a difference. Why start a fund? Why not make another $45 million and give that away instead? (Zell says he can make millions whenever, now that he's developed his system.) He often name-drops politicians, implying he has influence — e.g., “I could get Specter's people involved, they owe me one” — but political gears don't get greased without infrastructure, and Zell has none. No lobbyists, no foundation. No focus. Any new charitable emergency threatens to throw him off track. In late October, he tells me he's planning to travel abroad with a woman who ministers to aids patients. Zell is going to India, just like Gandhi. “You know, Gandhi was a big influence for me,” he says, perhaps not aware of how grandiose this sounds.

Many people besieged by the media end up changing their phone numbers or going unlisted. Not Zell. He wants to hear from people who need him. Now he spends a good part of each day answering pitches — some brazen, some sincere, some just loony.

There's the guy who needs $40,000 to pay off a credit card (Zell said no), and the Nigerian limo driver from New York who wants Zell to help him fight a lawsuit (Zell gave him two hours with his lawyer, worth $700). There's the lady from Brooklyn who wants money to start a day-care center, and the lady from Russia who says Zell is her long-lost cousin, even though she spelled his name incorrectly in her letter.

Zell has gotten pleas from actual family members, too. Which creates a dilemma. If he doesn't help Uncle Irv pay off a credit card but he gives cash to strangers, he looks callous. He can save more lives by giving money to fight third-world diseases than he can by giving a friend $2 million to buy a house. The problem is, as Zell points out, “The suffering of people you like or love is more immediate.”

It's not that Zell isn't tender toward his family members. He has just decided to discipline himself toward a higher goal. It's fairer, he believes, to love everybody instead of loving a select few. “I truly believe all of us are brothers and all of us are sisters,” he says. If we could all embrace each other, “There'd be no more war, no more ethnic jealousy.” Zell doesn't think this is a neurosis. He thinks it's a calling.

And he put this conviction to its extreme test when he met the recipient of his kidney — Donnell Reid, 30, an African-American woman from Mount Airy who took the bus to her dialysis treatments every other day. They couldn't have been more unalike, but Zell still risked his life to save her from certain death. He goes as far as to call her his “sister” — a sentiment worthy of Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin and Martin Luther King, the 20th century's great martyrs to universalism.

Zell's love ranges over the entire world. But does it have any depth? Donnell is lovely, and we should all be glad she's alive, but to Zell she's a rhetorical tool. He knows her about as well as he knows the airline stewardess he met in September who gave him an extra packet of pretzels and “had a smile for everyone. Someone like that is a true philanthropist, a greater philanthropist than I am,” he says. Zell loves the stewardess like he loves Donnell like he loves every person he meets. Abstractions all. It's simple to love an abstraction.

In a snippet of Zell's poetry — “It's the thing I do best,” he says, “better than philanthropy, better than real estate” — he speaks of “the brevity of the cities of men (the insolidity of their houses)/and the longevity of love.” But love of this sort — saintly, divorced from real life — can be dangerous. Just look at Gandhi: When his wife and kids got sick, he withheld the doctors' meat-based cures rather than compromise his vegan ethics. Being human, George Orwell wrote in an essay on Gandhi, means that you risk being “defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals.” Hard-fought love — not Zell's diaphanous affection, easily bestowed and just as easily withdrawn — is raw, and it hurts.

Zell's wife Emily wouldn't talk to me for this article, but I do meet her briefly one weekend morning at her home, while I'm waiting for Zell. She emerges from the house and walks toward me. “Zell's watch stopped,” she says pleasantly. “He's going to be another half an hour. He's meditating.” She rolls her eyes a little bit and smiles — a little shared joke between us.

Then I ask if I can interview her. “It's against my wishes that the story be published,” she says, and turns on her heels. I tell her there's nothing I can do.

“Oh yeah there is,” she says angrily. “You can get your hands off the keyboard.” Then she walks into her house and slams the front door with the righteous anger of a woman exerting her only bit of control over an absurd situation.

I imagine Emily must feel like Katie Carr, the protagonist of How to Be Good. In Nick Hornby's novel, Katie's husband suddenly decides to devote his life to helping others. Katie finds herself avoiding the newspaper, because she sees the stories “in terms of potential trouble for my family.” One article about Afghan refugees “I actually tear out and throw away,” Katie laments, “because it contains enough misery and hardship to starve us all.”

Zell has not only strained his marriage. He's strained his relationship with his kids, too. His oldest son used to let Zell tell reporters that he approved of Zell's financial giving. Now the kid has asked Zell to cut it out.

This is tough on Zell. He talks about his kids often, and he showed me a tender, bittersweet poem he wrote about his oldest son. In the poem, Zell says he's proud even though his son struck out during a Little League game:

All eyes are on my son. He takes a pitch.
We're glad he didn't swing for life's a bitch
And it's always bad but the bad is more
When you swing at every pitch however poor.

Rewind the tape of Zell's life. See the kidney scar disappear. See Zell's Midwestern domain evaporate. See West Philly devolve, the properties around the Penn campus that jump-started his empire grow shabbier and weedier, blight spreading toward the river. See the Tyvek sheathing those homes, the deeds with his name on them hurtling back into the laser printer trays. See the buildings fly apart, plank by plank, as his bank accounts thin out too, all the zeroes on those real-estate millions sloughing off like dead cells, from $45 million to $25 million to $10 million. … See frat parties rage at Penn while Zell's sitting in his filthy grad-student apartment, reciting Eastern mantras and reading his beloved Paradise Lost, learning Milton's credo about happiness — how it's a condition liable to afflict a lot of fools. Keep rewinding, but don't skip the scene in the English department library, where Emily's meeting Zell for the first time at a faculty mixer, and they're both laughing — why? And then you see it: The seltzer water from her bottle is magically spilling upward, from Zell's crotch back to its place of origin.

Keep rewinding, and you may see a shot of Zell in North Philly, lying on a chilly swatch of ghetto pavement, his skull a mess of blood and bone. Step back frame by frame and you'll catch the culprit — a mugger with a tire iron. Rewind farther and you'll understand why Zell's in the ghetto: to do good, of course, by teaching disruptive public-school kids who don't want to learn. Now rewind eight years more, back to Dartmouth, where Zell's schlepping Asian Studies textbooks, looking dazed, trying to figure out what to do with his life. One last scene you've gotta see. Zell's 12, and he's protesting at City Hall — something about housing integration in the Northeast, his first good deed, and it makes his dad proud, according to what Irving tells the newspaper.

Have you been watching Zell's face? The transformation there is just as profound. Watch Zell's sharp features soften, those hangdog grooves around the mouth blurring out. See the ribs recede, the hollow cheeks fill and the skin get oily, his limbs plumping like ballpark franks. Hit stop when you see Zell wearing his daddy's Army helmet, parading around the Kravinskys' modest Oxford Circle home. Zell (that's his shtetl name) is young again, with a mop of sandy brown hair and an agile mind that's filling rapidly with his father's idea of righteousness — his father, Irving, an old-world Russian Jew who never shed his faith in Communism, or at least its basic ideals.

That was back when reasonable people could really believe in caring and sharing, without being shouted down by the mob. A pressman by day, Irving played Paul Robeson records at night, and he taught Zell the way the world works: how it's run for the ruling classes, how blacks are oppressed, how ambition's a foolhardy trait — better to aim low and never attract attention. He just wanted Zell to get steady work. When Zell got his public-school job, Irving cracked a bottle of champagne. “He was euphoric,” says Zell.

But Zell's sister Adria never approved of his teaching job. She thought it was a waste of his talents. Zell listened. He has another sister, Hilary, a psychiatrist in Missouri, but Adria was more of a kindred spirit. “She was bright and funny and pretty and everybody liked to be with her,” says Zell. “She was generous toward people, and they took advantage of her. She had no worldliness.”

Adria smoked. Zell often told her to quit. She kept smoking. In July of 1984, Adria was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Zell watched her waste away to the point where she weighed nothing. Her organs failed, and she went blind. She died in December. “When my daughter died,” says Zell's mother Reeda, “he felt, why didn't it happen to him?” Zell says, “When she died, I, ah — ” He pauses, shakes his head. “I went into a tailspin.” He became severely depressed. “The only thing that pulled me out,” says Zell, “was the thought that I would do good in her name.”

He would have sacrificed his own life to save Adria's, certainly. But now Zell says he might give up his life to save anyone's, provided the person could perform more good than Zell. If some miracle doctor somewhere needed a kidney, Zell has said he'd give his second kidney, too. When you save a life, he says, “You're saving the universe. That's what it says in the Talmud. To save a life, you're entitled to break any law.” Of course, that's also the rationale of the guy who just drove a truck into Red Cross HQ in Baghdad. “It's a wonderful thing,” says Zell, “to die performing a moral act.”

“If he does that, then there's something really wrong,” says Paul Fink, a professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine. “Then we're dealing with pathology. Real pathology. And if I was his wife, I'd have him committed.”

Zell's statements, even if they're only half-serious, put his loved ones in an impossible position. Think about his parents. To what lengths should they go to make sure they don't lose their only son? They've already lost a daughter. And Zell is fully aware of the dimensions of that pain.

“There's never a day I don't think about her,” he says of Adria. “If she'd been around, I wouldn't have given anything away, and I would have saved some of my money for her.” Zell imagines that if Adria were still around, she'd be an ally in his quest for the moral life — unlike his parents, he implies. But the truth is that they're not as unsupportive as he imagines.

“He's a good guy, there's no question of it,” says Zell's mother Reeda.

“Now that it's over,” says Irving, speaking of the kidney operation, “we're sort of proud of him, but at the time, we didn't agree with it.”

When I tell Zell about his father's statement, his eyes bug out.

“He said that?” Zell says incredulously. He looks down and scratches his head. “You weren't leading him or anything? Like, 'Aren't you proud of your son?'”


Zell pauses and looks up, glazed over with innocent wonder. Softly, he says, “He hasn't told me that since I was 12 years old.”

: Zell wants me to give a kidney. The offer's the same as with the reporter from the major American newspaper. He'll pay me $10,000, and I'll go under the scalpel. Together we'll challenge the federal law that bans organ sales — the law that Zell believes is unjust and consigns thousands to their deaths. Aside from the political statement we'd be making, my donation itself would save a life, maybe two. Zell points out that since I'm a big guy, docs could halve my kidney to give to two children.

I think I'd like to do it, but I need to be totally convinced. So I decide to play devil's advocate. I try to make a case for keeping my starting lineup of organs intact. Like, what if my spouse objects? Zell huffs. “Why should a spouse approve of the decision that you've made with perfect moral clarity?” he says. “If you're a bit more morally evolved than your spouse, why should you be dragged down to his or her level?”

“So what should I tell my girlfriend?”

“Tell your girlfriend that you'll be five times as good a lover, because you'll have love in your heart.”

“But how do I convince my mother?”

“Compare it to other, more risky activities that she wouldn't bat an eye at.”

I'm losing the argument. So I play my trump card.

“I don't think I'm a good enough person.”

Zell makes an ack sound with his throat. “I used to pray,” he says. “I used to pray to God to be good. To make me good. I used to fantasize about a pill I could take that would make me good,” he says. “Then I realized it's putting the cart before the horse.” And that's when I realize that Zell's no different from anybody else on this brutish planet. Zell isn't a saint. He's a sack of water and muscle and bone. A flawed man who isn't good, but is trying to be better.

“First,” he says, “you do the good deed.”

E-mail: jfagone@phillymag.com