Oct. 2 (Bloomberg) -- It is a delicious bit of irony that the last name of a compulsive tightwad has entered the national vocabulary as a one-word descriptor for one of America’s most generous philanthropic awards. Artists and scientists and academics can now win “a MacArthur” just as they win a Pulitzer, a Fulbright or a Guggenheim.
Yesterday, the newest batch of MacArthur fellowships was announced by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The 23 winners of these “genius awards” -- including the novelist Junot Diaz and the mandolin player Chris Thile -- will each be given no-strings grants of $500,000 over five years to “advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, change fields or alter the direction of their careers.”
The money that funds this largess was earned by an admired (and hated) modern-day Midas who was so obsessed with thriftiness he left corporate office walls half-painted and poured unfinished cups of coffee back into a hotel restaurant coffee urn. (Of course, he owned the hotel.)
More irony: A lifelong, unreconstructed womanizer, John D. MacArthur was nevertheless one of the first tycoons to insist that his wife’s name be part of the official name of the foundation he reluctantly agreed to fund (only to avoid taxes). “Put Catherine’s name in there -- she helped build it up,” said MacArthur, according to lawyer William Kirby, who sat with the pair at the kitchen table of their apartment in a modest -- some would say tacky -- beachfront Florida hotel in October 1970.
Although MacArthur had some “pet charities” and there were stories of private generosity to some employees and their families, he had no great philanthropic vision. “I’m going to do what I do best,” he told Kirby. “I am going to keep making it” -- that is, money --“you guys will have to figure out after I am dead what to do with it.”
As he told a documentary interviewer, “I don’t want to be known as a philanthropist. I would be a sucker.”
“I don’t want to pretend that he was any gem of a charity because he sure as hell was not,” Kirby told an interviewer after MacArthur’s death. “He thought the money came from the people and should go back to the people.” (Although not through taxes.)
MacArthur was a controversial business genius himself, in insurance and real estate, and was probably the second-richest man in the country when he died in January 1978. This was three years before the announcement of the first genius awards (a term, incidentally, that is frowned upon by the foundation, which says it looks for qualities besides genius).
In August 1978, Kirby, a member of the foundation’s board, brought to a meeting an editorial titled “Of Venture Research,” written by an innovative cardiologist named George E. Burch. The editorial, which appeared in the American Heart Journal, said thinkers needed time and space to think “without the annoyances and distractions imposed by grant application, reviewing committees, and pressure to publish.” It suggested an unorthodox approach to grant making that had particular appeal to a fledgling foundation looking for ways to use money accumulated by an unorthodox man.
MacArthur’s son, John Roderick MacArthur (known as Rod), was also on the board. His legendary fights with Kirby and other board members turned early meetings into roiling, contentious knuckle bruisers. But this time the two were in agreement: In an amazing bit of cooperation, MacArthur and Kirby would share the credit for making an expansive idea of no-strings grants a reality. As Rod MacArthur explained in interviews, he wanted to free “genius” from “the bureaucratic pettiness of academe.” These grants would go to individuals, not institutions. “Albert Einstein could not have written a grant application saying he was going to discover the theory of relativity,” he said.
The first 21 MacArthur fellowships were announced in June 1981. The winners would receive, among other things, “the gift of time,” wrote Denise Shekerjian in her 1990 book, “Uncommon Genius.” Although the fellowships these days account for only about 5 percent of the foundation’s annual grants, they are by far the best-known of its programs.
By the end of his life, John MacArthur had mellowed a bit about what would happen after he was no longer able to call all the shots. There was no point trying to run things from the grave, he told a reporter. “You have changing times. Besides, you lay down rules and people don’t follow them. So I’ll trust to the Almighty that my trustees will do more good for the country than I would.”
Some critics charge that the foundation has funded more liberal social activism -- even in its selection of fellows -- than the archconservative who made the money would have tolerated. But who knows? MacArthur’s life was almost as rich in paradox as it was in dollars.
(Nancy Kriplen is the author of “The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur -- Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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