Felix was one of the seven children of Moritz Warburg, who ran the banking firm of M. M. Warburg and Co., which had been founded in Hamburg in 1789 and existed in Germany until 1938, when it was confiscated by the Nazis. He was also the official leader of the Jewish community of Hamburg. Felix grew into a strikingly handsome youth, with a happy face, dark hair, black eyes, and a mustache. He loved beautiful women, clothes, books, music, paintings, horses, sailboats, and motorcars. He was nicknamed “Fizzie” for his vibrant personality and for the Vichy Clestin “fizzy water” he loved to drink.
At the age of sixteen he left school and was sent to Frankfurt to work with the Oppenheims, his mother’s family, in their precious stones business.
He married Frieda Schiff, daughter of the American financier, Jacob Schiff, who gave him a position with his firm, Kuhn, Loeb and Co. in New York, in 1895. He became a partner and later a senior partner of the company and was involved in the financial aspects of the industrial development of North America. He enjoyed an international reputation as a financier, philanthropist, and a champion of social causes.
One of the earliest social enterprises with which he was associated was Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement, which helped provide open-air playgrounds for children in crowded tenement districts of the city. He later participated in the establishment of the Playground Association and initiated the visits of nurses to the ailing poor of the Lower East Side. He was also associated with the Educational Alliance, the main purpose of which was to assist the absorption of immigrants in the United States.
In 1902 Warburg was appointed a commissioner of the New York Board of Education, and, during the many years that he held the position, introduced reforms in the public school system, special classes for the mentally retarded, and the appointment of trained nurses to schools. He was also involved in the organization of the first children's court in New York, was instrumental in passing of a probation bill enabling the courts to deal with juvenile delinquency, and in 1907 was appointed the first state probation commissioner. His activity in the field of health included from the establishment of a babies’ hospital and a tuberculosis preventorium for children. He became vice-president of the Neurological Institute, the first hospital in the United Slates devoted exclusively to the prevention, treatment, and study of nervous diseases. He was also a director of the Solomon and Betty Loeb Home for Convalescents and the White Plains Hospital.
Warburg’s interest in education and the arts led him to join the board of the American Museum of Natural History, and to become a trustee of such institutions as Teachers College at Columbia University, Hebrew Union College, and the Jewish Education Association, as well as a director of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He was involved in the development of the Juilliard School of Music and the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and took part in the establishment of the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard University. In 1914 he became the chairman of the newly-established American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a position he held until 1932. During World War I he directed the census of food supplies of New York City. In 1917 he was the prime mover in the formation of the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies of New York; he was elected its president and remained so for twenty years.
Although Warburg was not a political Zionist and consistently opposed the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, he was directly involved in furthering the country’s development through his support of the Palestine Economic Corporation and was one of the founders and patrons of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1929 he became cofounder, with Louis Marshall, of the Jewish Agency, and chairman of its administration committee, but resigned in 1931 to protest against the British restriction of Jewish immigration. In 1933 he assumed leadership of the campaign to raise money in aid of the oppressed Jews in Hitler’s Germany. In 1937he publicly protested the British plan for the partition of Palestine.
Warburg found time to indulge his passion for the arts and for recreation. He had a full Stradivarius string quartet and an extensive collection of etchings, paintings, tapestries, and sculptures. His former New York home on Fifth Avenue is now the Jewish Museum.
He married Frieda Schiff (1876–1958), daughter of Jacob Henry Schiff (1847–1920) and Therese Loeb Schiff, on 19 March 1895, in New York. They had four sons and one daughter:
Frederick Marcus Warburg
Gerald Felix Warburg
Paul Felix Warburg
Edward Mortimer Morris Warburg
All of their children were active in community service.
Born January 14, 1871
Died October 20, 1937