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

ByABC News
March 10, 2008, 12:08 AM

— -- Devotees of PBS are familiar with John D. MacArthur's name because of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has long provided fianancial support for many public television productions.

Also, every year, about 25 standouts architects, writers, economists and other luminaries in the arts and sciences are named MacArthur Fellows. Each "genius grant" recipient is awarded a $500,000 grant, dispensed in quarterly installments over five years.

The foundation also donates to groups and individuals that work toward peace, justice and equality.

It's reasonable to think, then, that the foundation is the perfect legacy for two generous, open-minded people dedicated to improving the human condition.

That might be the case for Catherine. However, according to Nancy Kriplen's The Eccentric Billionaire: John D. MacArthur Empire Builder, Reluctant Philanthropist, Relentless Adversary, the same can't be said for John.

Upon his death in 1978 at age 81, MacArthur was the third-wealthiest man in the USA. He had also alienated nearly his entire family and countless business associates. But, Kriplen writes, MacArthur was a creative and clever businessman; his gift for salesmanship may have been inherited from his father, William, a traveling salesman who became a celebrity preacher.

At age 23, after serving in the U.S. Navy and Canada's Royal Flying Corps, John MacArthur was working for brother Alfred at National Life Insurance, where he demonstrated "undeniable talent in the insurance business." He also developed an interest in Alfred's 18-year-old secretary, Catherine T. Hyland, despite being married to Louise, mother of his two children.

Nearly a decade later, he and Catherine left National Life to work for State Life Insurance. They later founded Marquette Life Insurance, which they kept afloat even during the Great Depression and the difficult years afterward.

Surviving the Depression, Kriplen writes, was likely due to John MacArthur's penchant for scamming customers, vendors and investigators. He routinely discarded claims ("Heck, if someone really had a claim, he figured he would hear from him again") and misaddressed checks to keep money in the company coffers a bit longer.