August 25, 1980 12:00 PM

The idea is extraordinary, but then, so is the man. J. Roderick MacArthur, son of a billionaire and a self-made millionaire himself, is looking for talent—and is willing to pay handsomely for it. Like Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo’s patron, MacArthur wants to find a few geniuses, kindle their ambitions with his generosity, then bask in the glory of their splendid achievements. Later this year, at his direction, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will announce the names of as many as 10 such beneficiaries in a variety of fields. No applications are required, no strings attached. “Einstein couldn’t have written a grant proposal saying that he wanted to discover the theory of relativity,” explains MacArthur, 59. “You can’t say you’re going to discover something that you don’t know exists. Einstein needed to be free—and so do future Einsteins.”

Hoping to underwrite a modern-day Renaissance, the foundation will give each would-be Einstein or Shakespeare a five-year stipend—$1,000 a year for every year of the recipient’s age plus $10,000 a year for work-related expenses. A 45-year-old would receive $55,000 the first year, $56,000 the next, and so on. By the time the program is in full swing, the foundation anticipates naming 50 MacArthur Prize Fellows annually. “We’re prepared to make mistakes and to pick a bunch of failures,” MacArthur admits. “Of course, the selection will be subjective. It’s not always easy to distinguish the maverick from the crackpot, but we are going to try.”

Although MacArthur has been prudently secretive over the qualifications the foundation is looking for, he may have tipped his hand last month when he staged a dramatic last-minute rescue of Harper’s magazine. After the publishers of the financially plagued monthly announced they were folding because of their inability to locate a suitable buyer, MacArthur rode in like a silent-movie hero plucking a helpless maiden from certain death on the railroad tracks. “It’s got some very gutsy stuff,” says MacArthur of Harper’s. He persuaded the Atlantic Richfield Foundation to join the MacArthur Foundation in donating $3 million and turning the magazine into a nonprofit enterprise. “I don’t see it as a gamble if we’re willing to subsidize it forever. The only risk is that Harper’s might become boring.”

For the unconventional MacArthur, boredom is anathema—and nothing is duller than being predictable. His family history has more surprises than an Agatha Christie mystery. Father John D. was the youngest son of a fundamentalist minister whom Rod remembers as “picturesque and dramatic, with a flowing mane of hair and a gold-handled walking stick.” Although they grew up poor, the reverend’s four sons could have sprung from the pages of Horatio Alger. Alfred and Telfer made millions in insurance and publishing, respectively, and Charles gained fame as newspaperman, playwright (co-author of The Front Page, with Ben Hecht) and husband (to actress Helen Hayes).

It fell to the youngest son, John D., to surpass his brothers both in wealth (estimated between $500 million and $1 billion at the time of his death) and in chutzpah. A pioneer in the mail-order life insurance business, John operated frequently on the edge of the law, shocking his staid brother Alfred (who stopped speaking to him) and provoking government investigations, which left him unscathed. Astounding even fellow Scots with his frugality, John was known to stub out cigarettes after a few puffs and carefully put them back in the pack. Once, after missing a pre-theater dinner because he was negotiating a deal in his hotel room, he scooped up a steak from a room-service cart, stashed it under his coat as he entered the elevator, and munched it in a taxi on his way to the play. Though he was one of the world’s richest men, he lived in a less-than-first-class hotel he owned near Palm Beach and conducted business from a table in its coffee shop. He always traveled coach when he flew (“My tail fits very nicely into those seats”) and looked on luxury with a stoic’s suspicion. “At one time,” he explained, “I had myself shaved every morning and discovered that the day went better if I did it myself. Too much comfort, like too much Scotch, softened my brain.”

Fearing that luxury would have the same effect on his offspring, John kept Roderick, his only son, on a modest salary until the age of 50. Finally, in 1973, with the help of a $100,000 loan from his father, Rod decided to strike off on his own. He set up the Bradford Exchange, a clearinghouse for collectors’ plates—and quickly turned it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. The elder MacArthur, aroused by such profits, seized his son’s inventory and demanded 51 percent of the business. Rod refused and pulled off a daring daylight raid, hauling more than 25,000 plates away from a warehouse owned by his father. Last year the Bradford Exchange grossed $50 million. “Collectors’ plates are the most widely traded form of art,” MacArthur says. “People buy them, then sell them at higher prices, just like stocks.”

Rod reconciled with his father by the time the 80-year-old tycoon died of cancer in 1978. The old man had made no secret of the fact that he planned to leave most of his fortune to the foundation, but never specified how the money should be used. “He insisted that he wasn’t trying to direct things from the grave,” Rod recalls. “I made numerous attempts to try to get him to say what he wanted to happen, and he was always reluctant.” MacArthur believes that his father would be pleased with the foundation’s bequests thus far: a $2.5 million grant to the Better Government Association, an organization in Chicago that is on the lookout for government waste and graft; $1 million to Resources for the Future, a Washington conservation group; sizable gifts to several hospitals; and a planned donation of $18 million worth of Florida oceanfront wilderness as the John D. MacArthur Park. Most of all, Roderick thinks his father would have approved of the genius hunt. “We’re going to bet on the person, not on projects,” Rod says. “Although my father was quite stingy in his lifetime, he did believe in taking chances on individuals. Obviously we can’t find the extraordinary few without betting on a bunch of losers as well. But a foundation like ours can afford that.”

While the magnanimity of the scheme seems wildly incongruous, given the elder MacArthur’s skinflint tradition, Rod stresses that the grants will hardly be sizable enough to corrupt the recipients. “We could create a comfortable beachcomber,” he concedes, “but it’s not enough money to create a playboy.” Meanwhile, he himself hasn’t succumbed to the temptations of his late-acquired millions. He lives with Christiane (nicknamed Cri-Cri), his Paris-born wife of 32 years, in a comfortable but unpretentious ranch house in suburban Northbrook, Ill. They have three children, ranging in age from 24 to 30.

If MacArthur shows traces of his father’s frugality, he possesses also the old man’s love of a challenge. Last summer, he tried scuba diving for the first time and plunged to a depth of 200 feet. Now, Rod says, “I’m dying to try hang-gliding, skydiving and sail-planing—I love adventuresome things.” Perhaps the greatest adventure will be his grand talent search. Undeterred by organizing difficulties and the problem of rejecting a torrent of unsolicited applications, Rod is optimistic that the plan will succeed. “I’m not saying this is better than the traditional foundation approach,” he says. “But it’s an alternative that isn’t already being done.” To those who say that it’s just the impractical pipe dream of a romantic millionaire, Rod replies simply, “What’s practical is for people to live better and enjoy their lives. There’s something ultimately very practical about the enhancement of civilization. I feel this is the biggest opportunity to do good in the world that could occur in a million lifetimes.”

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