The MacArthur “Genius” Grants and The Eccentric Billionaire

The Eccentric Billionaire

The 2015 MacArthur “genius” grants (technically known as fellowships) have been announced. Each of the 24 grant recipients will receive a total of $625,000 distributed quarterly over a five year period with no stipulation as to how the money must be spent. The grants, and many other philanthropic causes, are funded through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Who, you may ask, are (or were) John and Catherine MacArthur? I wondered too, and I found out when I read The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur—Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary by Nancy Kriplen back in 2008. What I learned was very different from what I expected.

John Donald MacArthur, the son of a Baptist preacher, got his billions in part by buying insurance companies cheap and selling lots and lots of insurance. His major acquisition was Bankers Life and Casualty which he bought for $2,500 (that’s not a misprint). He also invested heavily in Florida real estate including 2,600 acres of property in what is now Palm Beach. He was a skinflint who lived in an apartment with his wife at The Colonnades, a hotel he owned in Palm Beach Shores. He did business from a Formica topped table in the hotel’s restaurant rather than from a plush office. When business associates met with him there, he would ask if they wanted something to eat or drink. When they finished, he would present them with a bill for what they had consumed.

He didn’t get along with his children, and fought with them and practically everybody else who he dealt with. There were always multiple law suits against him, and he seemed to thrive on them. When he flew on commercial planes, he flew tourist class – supposedly because his employees couldn’t expect to go first class when the boss didn’t. He hated paying taxes and the MacArthur Foundation was created solely to keep the IRS from getting his money when he died. He was definitely not a philanthropist during his lifetime, and seemed to hate the very word. It’s interesting to note that the MacArthur Foundation supports a number of perceived if not outright liberal causes since MacArthur was very, very conservative.

One of the many interesting stories about him in Kriplen’s book concerns a casino he owned in Las Vegas. The casino had a very flashy neon sign in front of it. Howard Hughes, who owned the casino across the street, complained to MacArthur that the sign bothered him. (Hughes, who was becoming more and more reclusive and weird, wanted almost total darkness around him.) When MacArthur refused to remove the sign, Hughes offered to buy the casino. MacArthur agreed to sell it for what he considered an exorbitant price, and Hughes accepted.

The Eccentric Billionaire contains many entertaining stories about this very strange man who after his death became a world-class philanthropist. Perhaps that’s the strangest thing of all about John D. MacArthur.

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