Dennis Alter and the Tragedy of Advanta

Construction of his new house? $80 million. Donation to Temple University? $15 million. Cranking up interest rates on his customers’ credit cards to nearly 40 percent? Shameless.

Those are unambiguously good works. But sometimes, according to people who know Alter, the motivations aren’t so clear. “He’s a very cerebral person, a very strategic person,” said Ira Brind, a trustee along with Alter at the Museum of Art. “He thinks hard about how to position his giving, strategically, how to leverage what he has. You can see that at the Art Museum. A very smart use of marketing money.”

Those terms — strategic, leverage, marketing — don’t spring to mind when one thinks of charity. Here’s what they mean: During Advanta’s first sponsorship of the Cézanne show, the Museum distributed thousands of what appeared to be free Cézanne postcards, which, when turned over, doubled as credit card applications. Hundreds of people applied. Anyone who presented an Advanta credit card in the Museum’s gift shop received a Cézanne poster emblazoned with Advanta’s logo. “It was a working partnership in the truest sense,” Alter said in a press release at the time. (He declined an interview for this story.)

An associate of Alter’s opined in more blunt language: “The tennis, the Art Museum, the Carousel” — the Carousel Ball, a hospital fund-raiser — “he controls them all with money. It’s what he does.”

A current employee of Alter’s spoke hesitantly, on the condition of anonymity, and swung between fearful pleas — “Look, I’m just trying to do a job here. And he’s a powerful guy, you know?” — to statements about Alter’s largesse: “He’s one of the greatest people on the earth. Honestly.”

People who work with Alter say he is, above all, a man of discipline and focus. He carries himself with a demeanor of restraint, of trimness, whether in his own physical condition or the salt-and-pepper mustache he wears. He fixes himself to a task — on his tennis court or in the boardroom — and expects the same from others around him.

But drawing people out about him is difficult. One said by phone, “I don’t talk about Advanta,” and hung up. That was Alter’s sister, Linda.

Sheldon Bonovitz, an attorney who has long served with Alter on the Art Museum’s board of trustees, said, “I don’t know anything about him, so I’m afraid I can’t help you,” and — likewise — hung up.

Alter’s personal life seems to mirror the recent volatility at Advanta. He and Gisela are now estranged, and Alter has been seen around the city with a young woman. Such sightings are narrow glimpses into an otherwise intensely private life. Ira Brind, the Museum trustee who described Alter’s smart giving, went on to say, “I’ve known him a long time. Twenty years or more.” But then added, “We’ve never been particularly close or anything. You know, I don’t really know who his close friends are.”