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.
Last week, 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.