Local Obituaries

Visionary sunglasses pioneer, arts philanthropist Sanford Ziff dies at 91

Sanford Ziff, founder of Sunglass Hut, in an April 1994 photo. Ziff created Sunglass Hut of America at Dadeland Mall in 1971. The company’s success led him to become one of South Florida’s top philanthropists.
Sanford Ziff, founder of Sunglass Hut, in an April 1994 photo. Ziff created Sunglass Hut of America at Dadeland Mall in 1971. The company’s success led him to become one of South Florida’s top philanthropists. Miami Herald file

In 1971, when Dadeland Mall clung to the far reaches of civilization on not yet commercialized Kendall Drive, optometrist Sanford Ziff had a vision: “How about sunglasses?”

And so was born Sunglass Hut of America as a kiosk in the middle of Dadeland Mall. The company grew to 550 boutiques around the world and had $100 million in sales when Ziff, who built Sunglass Hut with his first wife, Helene, sold 75 percent of the business in 1987 for $35 million. He sold the remaining 25 percent in 1991.

Ziff, who died Friday at 91 from complications of a stroke, used the proceeds from his gambit to become, along with his second and third wives, the late Dolores Ziff and his widow, Beatrice, one of South Florida’s premier philanthropists. His name, along with those of the respective wives, adorn numerous buildings thanks to their donations to universities, homeless shelters, Jewish centers and arts organizations.

For instance, a $10 million gift led to the naming of the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

“Dr. Ziff was an active participant and enthusiastic philanthropist in our arts community for decades. His generous support of the Arsht Center began before the center’s opening and continued with zest until his convalescence. We are grateful to Dr. Ziff and the Ziff family for believing in the transformative power of the live performing arts,” said John Richard, Arsht Center president and CEO, on Saturday.

There’s also the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Family College of Education at Florida International University after a $2.5 million donation.

The late Gregory Wolfe, former president of FIU, had said of Ziff that he had “a passion for doing good and for helping to advance knowledge, justice and beauty in life.” Ziff translated that passion, Wolfe added, “into visible results in the worlds of music, visual arts, education and compassionate causes.”

In 2005, Cindy Ziff submitted her father’s biography for a Florida International University Hall of Fame Award. Ziff didn’t graduate from the university, but his extensive résumé was enough to convince the selection committee. The school awarded him a special Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ziff’s name also graces a health center at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, the Business School Placement Center at the University of Miami and a campus at North Miami-Dade’s Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center.

Born June 4, 1925, in Akron, Ohio, Ziff also donated to Camillus House, Vizcaya, the Center for Abused and Abandoned Children, Infants in Need, WLRN public radio, WPBT public television, GableStage, Beethoven Society of Miami and the Concert Association of Florida.

All of this giving derived from his humble start inside Dadeland Mall, born from an idea he had while examining one of his patients — the mall’s owner. Ziff proposed renting a small mom-and-pop space to sell sunglasses under the Sunglass Hut moniker. At the time, the dominant brand-name manufacturers — Ray-Ban, Serengeti — dealt primarily with department stores like Dadeland’s one-time anchors Burdines and Jordan Marsh, or sporting goods and optical stores.

“We made it a year-round product,” Ziff said in a 1997 Miami Herald profile. Ziff made sure employees at the kiosk were trained to convince potential customers that sunglasses were not just a health aid to block the sun’s damaging rays, like ultraviolet and infrared light, but that they were also a fashion statement.

Ziff was no stranger to struggle, though. As a child of 5, he stacked egg cartons and filled potato sacks at his parents’ delicatessen in Akron. Days stretched to 18 hours for his mom and dad. A “day off” was unheard of.

Ziff studied at the University of Akron, but when his parents sold their business he moved with his family to Miami in 1945. He studied physical sciences at the University of Miami, then moved to Chicago to study optometry where he earned his doctorate at Northern Illinois College of Optometry. He opened his first practice in Miami in 1950. He practiced optometry and conducted clinical research in contact lenses for the next 30 years.

During this time, the early 1970s was fraught with a recession, an energy crisis, Watergate and the war in Vietnam. Sunglasses as red carpet accessories were not yet common. Tom Cruise sporting Ray-Ban Wayfarers in “Risky Business” was 12 years away.

“I never thought we would do $10,000 worth of business when we started. When we sold we were doing $100 million,” Ziff said in retirement soon after Helene died in 1993. The couple were wed for 43 years.

In 1995, Ziff married Dolores Keator, a former art teacher, antiques dealer and actress who had scored a bit part in the first James Bond adventure, 1962’s “Dr. No,” when she lived in Jamaica. The two had met at a mutual friend’s party at the Bath Club in Miami Beach. The two bonded over tea at her Key Biscayne home, where they would live as husband and wife for 15 years until her death in January 2011.

The couple proved fixtures in the Miami social scene and in philanthropic circles. Some credit Dolores for turning Ziff onto the arts, and he was not shy about asking that the Ziff name live on at institutions he endowed.

“I want this to be my legacy,” he said at a gala in Coconut Grove in 1999 when he and his wife initially pledged $12 million to the Performing Arts Center Foundation of Greater Miami, the group behind the construction of the $446.3 million Arsht (originally called the Carnival Center when it opened in 2006). The gift turned out to be $10 million. Ziff was determined to make a performing arts center a reality in a faded neighborhood on Biscayne Boulevard. “I want this to inspire others to give. I want this center to rank up there with Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the opera house in Sydney.”

At the gala, the foundation’s chairman, Sherwood Weiser, said, “Things like this don’t happen unless people in leadership positions step forward. Sandy and Dolores have put us over the top,” he said.

But Ziff’s gifts didn’t always come without controversy. In 1994 he withdrew — and then reinstated — a $2 million pledge to UM when its administrators allowed an ad in the school newspaper, The Miami Hurricane, to question whether Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust had really happened. He similarly reacted two years later on a $1 million pledge to the university’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center when several of the school’s black organizations received money from student activity fees to pay for a speech by a representative of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — a man criticized for his racist rhetoric.

Ziff married his third wife, Baroness Beatrice Clancy, seven months after Dolores died in 2011, and he courted controversy when he considered swapping her name for his late wife’s on several nonprofit venues that he and Dolores supported — including the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Opera House. The idea drew a quick backlash, including from one of Dolores’ sons.

The names remain as originally placed.

For the Arsht’s 2011-2012 season, the newlyweds were honored with the naming of the Sanford and Beatrice Ziff Classical Music and Dance Series at the Arsht. Ziff and Beatrice were also honored as the Royal Couple of the Jackson Memorial Foundation for their contribution to Holtz’s Children’s Hospital. And in 2012, they were honored by The Buoniconti Foundation to Cure Paralysis with the Outstanding Philanthropic Award for their charitable and humanitarian work.

Ziff is survived by his children, Cindy and Dean Ziff; three grandchildren, Marco, Matteo and Ashley Ziff De La Cruz; great- grandson Jazz Ziff De La Cruz; wife, Beatrice Ziff, and her two children and grandson Theodore Gary.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Donations in Ziff’s name can be made to any charitable organization.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen