Palevsky was born in Chicago to Izchok (Isadore) (born May 10, 1890 in Pinsk, Minsk, Russia and died September 27, 1969 in Los Angeles), and Sarah Greenblatt (born May 16, 1894 in Poland-Russia and died December 28, 1949 in Chicago). Both were recent immigrants, Izchok arrived in Baltimore from Bremen, Germany on the S.S. Brandenburg on March 18, 1910, while Sarah immigrated from Poland-Russia around 1916. Palevsky's parents spoke Yiddish fluently, but little English, and did not have a car, and his father carried everything as a house painter for building contractors, Joseph Neidoff, on the streetcar in Chicago. Palevsky grew up at 1925 1/2 Hancock Street in Chicago.
Palevsky was the youngest of three children, with an older brother, Harry (born September 16, 1919 in Chicago, IL and died September 17, 1990 in Ventura, CA), a physicist who worked as one of the developers of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and an older sister Helen born in 1920, who later married Melvin M. Futterman (December 28, 1918 to March 14, 1989).
After graduating from public high school in Chicago, Palevsky volunteered for the US Army Air Corps as a weatherman during World War II from 1943 to 1946. He was trained at the University of Chicago in basic science and mathematics, and Yale University in electronics for a year. Palevsky was sent to New Guinea, the central base for electronics for the Air Force in the South Pacific until the end of the War. After the war, on the GI Bill, Palevsky earned a B.S. degree in mathematics and a B.Ph. degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1948. Palevsky did post-graduate work in philosophy at UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago.
After attending and resigning from a doctorate program in philosophy at UCLA, where he had served as a teaching assistant in the philosophy department, Palevsky discovered computer technology through a lecture at Caltech by John von Neumann about the advent of computer technology, and the possibility of building a device to correct its own errors.
With his background in logic and electronics, Palevsky first worked on a computer project in 1951 for $100 a week designing computers at Northrop Aircraft, designing the "MADDIDA" (short for "magnetic drum differential analyzer"). Invented by physicist Floyd G. Steele, MADDIDA was priced from $25,000 to $30,000 and was built between March 1950 and January 1951. Intended to help analyze differential equations, MADDIDA would prove to be the last and most sophisticated dedicated differential analyzer ever built, from then on all attention turned to electronic computers.
Almost immediately after he joined Northrop, the division was sold to Bendix Corporation. Palevsky worked at Bendix from 1952 to 1956 designing digital differential analyzers as a project engineer, working on the logic design for the company's first computer. In March 1956, Bendix offered their first digital computer, the Bendix G-15, described by some as the first personal computer (a claim that is widely disputed). Palevsky worked on the DA-1 differential analyzer option, which connected to the G-15 and resulted in a machine similar to the MADDIDA, using the G-15 to re-wire the inputs to the analyzer instead of the custom drums and wiring of the earlier machine.
In March 1957 Palevsky went on to work at Packard Bell in at a new affiliate that he started called Packard Bell Computer Corp. in a store front at 11766 W Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles. He was vice president and director of the new division. The new facility launched a research and development program in the digital computer field, with a staff of experienced engineers and skilled technicians to implement the new development. Palevsky convinced the company that they should enter the computer business and helped develop the first silicon computer, which became the Packard Bell PB250, which was modestly successful. In April 1960, Packard-Bell Computer Corp. and Bailey Meter Co. signed an agreement for the exclusive application of PB250's in the control of power plants. As vice president and general manager of Packard Bell Computer, Palevsky supervised building of a new 20,000 sq ft (1,900 m2). building at 1935 Armacost Avenue to house the firm's expanding computer activities, for consolidation of computer and systems engineering and needed expansion of systems as well as computer manufacturing facilities. Palevsky gave many lectures during this period, including the second international meeting on analog computation at Strasobourg, France in September 1958.
Palevsky felt that ten percent of the market of small to medium size scientific and process control computers was being totally neglected. He started looking for venture capital to start a company to address this market, and through contacts from the University of Chicago was able to raise $1 million from Arthur Rock and the Rosenwald family of the Sears Roebuck fortune. He left Packard Bell with eleven associates from the computer division to found Scientific Data Systems of California in September 1961.
Within a year they introduced the SDS 910, which made them profitable. Initially, they targeted scientific and medical computing markets. From 1962 to 1965, the company introduced seven computers, all of them commercial successes. On March 15, 1966 they introduced the Sigma 7, the first of a family of machines that market the full-scale entry of the company into new areas of business data processing, time sharing, and multiprocessing. The Sigma 7 had business capabilities because the once-separate disciplines of business and scientific electronic data processing had moved to the point where one machine could handle both. SDS became a little more than two per cent of the overall digital computer market in 1966 and continued to grow with the market.
Palevsky sold SDS to Xerox in May 1969 for $920 million, with Arthur Rock's assistance, at which time he became a director and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Xerox Corporation. Palevsky's initial investment of $60,000 in SDS became nearly $100 million at the sale. He retired as a director of Xerox in May 1972.
Palevsky dabbled in politics, supporting Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern with a $300,000 1972 donation, and managing, among other projects, Tom Bradley's first successful campaign for mayor of Los Angeles in 1973. He made numerous friends and allies on the Californian political scene, including former governor Gray Davis, who were dismayed at his $1 million dollar contribution in support of California Proposition 25, a campaign-finance reform initiative. He said to Newsweek: "I am making this million-dollar contribution in hopes that I will never again legally be allowed to write huge checks to California political candidates.
As a venture capitalist, Palevsky has helped to fund many companies, including Intel, which grew to become one of the nation's leading semiconductor companies and a pioneer in the development of memory chips and microprocessors. Palevsky became a director along with Arthur Rock, who helped bankroll SDS, at the company's July 18, 1968 founding as Integrated Electronics Corporation, later changed to Intel on August 6, 1968. Intel was funded with $2 million in venture capital financing assembled by Arthur Rock. Palevksy became a director emeritus in February 1998.
He also became a director and board chairman of Rolling Stone magazine, which he rescued from financial destruction in 1970 by buying a substantial share of the stock. While on the board he became friends with the late Hunter S. Thompson, inventor of Gonzo journalism. In December 1970, Cinema V, the movie-theater distribution operation entered film production in a joint venture, Cinema X with Palevsky. He went into independent production with Peter Bart, former production vice president of Paramount Pictures in November 1973 in a deal with Paramounnt to produce six features in three years. Palevsky has produced and bankrolled several Hollywood films, including "Fun With Dick and Jane" and "Islands in the Stream" both with Peter Bart in 1977, and "Endurance" in 1998. Author Albert Goldman dedicated his controversial 1988 biography The Lives of John Lennon to Palevsky. In June 1977, Palevsky was elected to the board of the American Ballet Theater.
Palevsky also served as a director and Chairman of the Board of Silicon Systems Inc. of Tustin, CA from April 1983 until February 1984, chairman and chief executive of the board of The Daisy Systems Corporation, a Mountain View, CA-based maker of computer systems used to design electronic circuits, and from November 1984 to 1999, a director of Komag Corp., a Milpitas, CA based maker of data storage media.
Palevsky also collects art, in particular Japanese woodblock prints, and has given generously to establish and maintain institutions of visual art. He established the Palevsky Design Pavilion at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He also built an Arts & Crafts collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and donated $1 million to help establish the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. All his art holdings are promised to LACMA as of 2001, and he continues to give regularly.
Palevsky is an alumnus of the University of Chicago, and earned undergraduate degrees in both Philosophy and Mathematics in 1948. He served as a trustee at his alma mater from 1972-1982. He established the Palevsky Professorship in History and Civilization in 1972, and the Palevsky Faculty Fund in 1996.
In 2000, Palevsky donated $20 million to the University of Chicago to enhance residential life. In 2001, the University completed construction on three large, colorful dorms that are connected through underground tunnels and bear his name. A one-screen cinema at the University is also named after him, and is the home of the University's Doc Films, the oldest continuously-running student film association in the United States.
Palvesky was named to the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans with an estimated net worth of $200 million in 1985 and $240 million in 1988.
Married and divorced five times with six children born from 1958 to 1985, Palevsky was married to fourth wife, political activist Jodie Evans, married second wife Sara Jane Brown on September 6, 1969 by a Congregational minister at his home in Bel Air, third wife Lynda L. Edelstein in November 1972 by Rabbi Leonard Beerman at the Leo Baeck Temple, and first wife, Mary Joan Yates (later Joan Palevsky) (born February 23, 1926 in Omaha, NE and died March 21, 2006 in Los Angeles, CA at UCLA Medical Center), after meeting at UCLA from 1952 to 1969, also a noted philanthropist and the mother of his children Madeleine Moskowitz and Nicholas Palevsky.
Joan grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from UCLA, earned her master's degree in French from the University of Wisconsin, then returned to UCLA, teaching there from 1949 to 1956. Joan was noted for living in a modest two bedroom house and driving an aging Toyota Corolla, wearing no jewelry and not spending time on her hair or nails, despite her estimated $40 million 1968 divorce settlement.
She served as a trustee of LACMA from 1973 to 1979 and as vice president of the board from 1978 to 1979. After her March 2006 death, in her will her estate gave over $200 million to the California Community Foundation in 2006, one of the largest bequests ever given to a U.S. public charity. Additionally, Palevsky left $6.1 million to the University of California at Los Angeles for professorships of $1 million each to the history, French, and classics departments, and for fellowships and scholarships in the College of Letters and Science. The money will also support a campus child-care center, an honors program, a humanities center, and a research library. Palevsky graduated from the university in 1947. She also left $1.1 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for its ancient-art division, it's the department of prints and drawing, an intern program she had previously established, the museum's library, endowment, and its Islamic-art division (to which she had given 650 objects from her own collection in 1973). She also bequeathed $1 million each to Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, the National Parkinson Foundation in Miami, the United Negro College Fund in Fairfax, Va. and $2.6 million to 38 additional nonprofit organizations.
Max Palevsky owned noted homes with his collections of art and furniture since June 1975 at 28060 Sea Lane Drive in Spanish-style villa in Paradise Cove in Malibu, CA with interior renovations by renowned Italian pop architect Ettore Sottsass of the Memphis group, at the time a $3 million castle-like home constructed of wood on 5 acres (20,000 m2) above a bluff near Paradise Cove; 1021 W Cielo Dr in Palm Springs, CA, an ultra-Modern designed by renowned mid-century modernist architect Craig Ellwood in 1970; and 841 Greenway Drive in Beverly Hills, CA purchased on April 22, 1983 for $2,879,555 built in 1929 by George Washington Smith, a Spanish-style home with the interiors reworked recently by well-known California avant-garde architectural designer Coy Howard, who also designed some of the furnishings. All three homes were featured in "Three California Houses: The Homes of Max Palevsky" by Aaron Betsky, released February 22, 2003 by Rizzoli International Publications.
Max Palevsky funded the non-profit American Cinematheque's refurbishment of the Aero Theatre (1328 Montana Avenue) in Santa Monica. The theatre re-opened in January 2005 and bears his name.