The Eccentric Billionaire

When John D. MacArthur, an insurance and real estate baron, died almost exactly 30 years ago (January 6, 1978) he may have been the second richest man in America (trailing only shipping tycoon and investor Daniel K. Ludwig). As the biography by former Time magazine researcher Nancy Kriplen makes clear, a difficult man to get a handle on. The improbable father of the “genius grant” and funder of PBS and NPR was probably best known while alive for being the brother of playwright and screenwriter Charles MacArthur and brother-in-law of Charles’ wife, the actress Helen Hayes; the remaining facts about his life and career make up a mass of contradictions. , The son of a minister, MacArthur played fast and loose with the law. “John would talk rather proudly about the chicanery of his early days in insurance,” Kriplen writes, retelling the story about how he’d deposit premiums and discard claims – figuring that if ” someone really had a claim?he would hear from them again.” At the same time, he was always ready to sue others. He cherished his image as a hard-hearted man of business (buying failing businesses on the cheap was a signature strategy); yet his insurance company, Banker’s Life, was famed as one of the largest employers of the handicapped in Chicago. And though he seems to have founded his far-reaching Macarthur Foundation largely to avoid estate taxes, the politically archconservative founder gave its administrators free reign – which they took, funding PBS, NPR, and Amnesty International, and eventually instituting the famous, application-free “MacArthur Fellows award, which gives the recipient a large sum and a correspondingly wide berth to carry on their work. Kriplen takes a “just the facts” approach to this enigmatic man’s life and legacy – the good news about that being that you can see his mix of self-service and good works as a Rorschach test and read anything into it that you like. But you never quite get an understanding, either, of why this particular parsimonious investor was able to make his billions, and can even to this day extend his reach into a world of culture he himself largely ignored.-