'Eccentric Billionaire' spotlights John D. MacArthur's dark side

It was in Florida that the MacArthur Foundation was established: In 1970, 73-year-old John realized his will "was a disaster from a tax and estate planning perspective. … The federal government would take most of it in taxes."

John took the advice of attorney Bill Kirby and formed a charitable foundation to preserve his fortune. According to Kirby, John said, "I'm going to do what I do best; I'm going to make (money). You guys will have to figure out after I am dead what to do with it."

It's disheartening to learn a foundation that awards $260 million a year (and has more than $6 billion in assets) was established to avoid estate taxes. What's more, the book reveals a man who in many ways embodies the American Dream but whose eccentricities sometimes morphed into cruelty.

MacArthur's life is a story worth telling, and there's plenty of family detail, from his seven siblings to sister-in-law and actress Helen Hayes, to son Rod, who founded the Bradford Exchange, the direct-marketing leader of collectibles. The book delves into MacArthur's business practices but may not dig deep enough for those curious about the nitty-gritty of how he negotiated company sales or brokered specific real estate deals.

The Eccentric Billionaire tells the tale of a contradictory and mysterious man who amassed great wealth over several decades but is far from well-known, who founded an influential and generous foundation about which he cared not a bit. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that his biography can get only so specific: Those who knew him likely didn't completely understand him, either.

Linda Castellitto is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.

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