Tag: Charles MacArthur

Image of Money

Chicago’s Richest Man

             But Who Was He, Really?






By  Megan McKinney


Credit: Nancy Kriplen, The Eccentric Billionaire.

 Here is the richest man in Chicago’s history, back when he was young and handsome.


We have given the subject of this week’s feature a great deal of thought over a long period of time, not so much because the man was so rich—with today’s equivalent of as much as $125 billion. Our question was of a deeper nature, a genetic nature. How, we wanted to learn, could such a reportedly tightfisted curmudgeon be a brother of one the most loveable American men of the 20th century.

And there was something else. This man was responsible for making the innermost, personal dreams of more than 1,000 quietly creative people come true with a no-strings-attached gift of well over a half million dollars each. Furthermore, with the gift came the implication it was given because the individual was a “genius.” Now there’s altruism for you!

Chicago’s all-time richest man was John D. MacArthur. Here he is late in a life that ended in 1978 when he was 80.

Credit:Nancy Kriplen, The Eccentric Billionaire.

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, in whose names those “genius grants” are conferred.  

Joining MacArthur in the adventure of becoming excessively superrich was the pretty teenager who was an employee in the insurance office of one of his brothers when John met her. They married—sort of—in 1937. But was it legal? No. Not till she sued him years later. By then, the smart little bauble who had helped pile up what was already a fortune knew everything. If there had been mail fraud or unreported income—we’re not saying there was, but if there had been—she would have known. She hired a team of sharp, well-paid lawyers and among her demands was half ownership of the company. It was about that time it dawned on old John D. that he had met an equal and, as The Eccentric Billionaire author Nancy Kriplen wrote about Catherine in her biography of MacArthur, “she had out-Johned John.” At this point, the relationship was redefined.

John’s brother, Charles MacArthur, was a Chicago newspaperman, a New York playwright and, with Ben Hecht, an Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter. Charlie was a favorite of The New Yorker magazine/ Algonquin Roundtable set, which included Robert BenchleyCharlie’s salad days roommate­and a one-time girlfriend, Dorothy Parker.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said of the loveable MacArthur brother, “Some men do not have to create something to prove they are artists. They have only to exist. Charlie is one of them.”

Ben Hecht, wrote, “The main thing about MacArthur was his attractiveness. He had a remarkable allure for every human who came across him…Men and women fell in love with him all over the place.” Hecht was one of these; he so greatly esteemed his friend and colleague, he wrote the 1957 posthumous book, Charlie, about him. In it the great screenwriter revealed that a staple suggestion during typical Hollywood story conferences was, “Let’s make the hero a MacArthur,” which meant, wrote Hecht, “Let’s have a graceful and unpredictable hero, full of offbeat rejoinders.” Among those who “played MacArthur” in this film or that one were Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, George Saunders and Robert Taylor.

“First Lady of American Theatre” Helen Hayes was so thoroughly captivated by Charlie MacArthur that she married him.

Their adopted son was James MacArthur, star of the long-running television series Hawaii Five-O.

Credit: Nancy Kriplen, The Eccentric Billionaire.

The MacArthur family was captured in this image at the turn of the last century. The two youngestdressed alike, as usual-are in the front row; Charlie has his arm fondly around his little brother John. The bearded man in the center is the patriarch, William Telfer MacArthur. He was an evangelical preacher, who inspired even a “wavering” Billy Graham, but he also regularly beat his children and made almost no money. Did a childhood of physical abuse and dependency on the charity of congregation members inspire one child to become among the three richest Americans of his time and the other the most loveable? That we don’t know. But we did discover information about John D.’s astonishing “altruism.”

Credit: Nancy Kriplen, The Eccentric Billionaire.

The MacArthurs: John D., Catherine T. and Charlie on the grounds of Charlie and Helen’s house, overlooking the Hudson River in Nyack, New York.

Credit:Nancy Kriplen, The Eccentric Billionaire.

Bankers Life and Casualty Company, up on West Lawrence Avenue, and other insurance companies were the source of the MacArthur billions, plus some banks and a huge chunk of the state of Florida.

As possibly history’s most successful life insurance salesman, John D. cleverly never mentioned the unthinkable inevitability when discussing the need for his product.

John’s personal attorney, William T. Kirby, above, is the man the geniuses can thank for their collective millions. For years Kirby tried to talk with John about his own unthinkable inevitability.  At the time, John’s estate plan left half the immense fortune to Catherine and the other half to the two children of his first marriage, Virginia and Rod.

In 1970, Kirby finally convinced MacArthur that the nearing inevitability would immediately produce two hated entities–government and taxes–which meant that almost everything he had built up “would have to be dismantled and disposed of at fire-sale prices to raise cash” to pay those taxes.

According to author Nancy Kriplen, Kirby’s pitch was, “This money is going to the public or for public good one way or another…So who do you want to make decisions about how it will be spent—’bureaucrats or people you trust?’”

Therefore, one Sunday morning in October 1970, Kirby met with John and Catherine in their apartment in the MacArthur-owned Colonnades Beach Hotel on Singer Island in Palm Beach County.

Plans for the John D. and Catherine T. Foundationwhich would keep the fortune intactwere wrapped up that day and not a word was said or written about genius grants, simply that the foundation would be operated for “charitable, religious, scientific, literary and educational purposes,” standard IRS language. John chimed in with a single sentence, “You guys will have to figure out after I am dead what to do with it.”   

So much for personal altruism.


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo: Robert F. Carl





Ben Hecht’s Chicago





By Megan McKinney



Ben Hecht was Hollywood’s greatest screen writer. It was not an occupation he respected or enjoyed, but he did respect and enjoy the money—the industry’s highest compensation “for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.” Each year he would journey out to California at the beginning of January with his wife, oil paintings, servants and records.  He would stay exactly as long as it took to earn enough money to live expensively for the rest of the year, then it was straight back to New York.

Hollywood treated Hecht well in every way. It presented him with its first Best Original Story Academy Award back in 1927 for Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld. Ben’s tale of two Chicago gangsters (pre-Code, as you can see from the publicity still) was a huge hit and it set the tone for gangster films of the next nine-plus decades. Hecht knew a lot about Chicago gangsters; quite a lot. And it was Chicago, with its rough early 20th century newspaper world and accompanying low life that Hecht remembered fondly throughout the rest of his days.

 It had all begun on July 3, 1910 while 16-year-old Bennie Hecht was standing in line to see a vaudeville show at the Majestic Theatre, 22 West Monroe St. He had run away from Wisconsin the previous day, not from his Racine home, but from Madison, where he had been a student for three days before deciding university life was not for him.

He was buying a vaudeville ticket at the Majestic box office when he heard a voice cry out his name. It was a man who identified himself as Bennie’s uncle and then asked, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m looking for a job,” the boy lied.

It turned out the uncle was a liquor salesman, who was on his way to call on one of his “best customers” (did you guess newspaper man?) and if 16-year-old Bennie came with along him there just might be a job in it for the boy.  

One of the uncle’s “best customers” turned out to be John C. Eastman, who was owner and publisher of the venerable Chicago Daily Journal, Illinois’ oldest daily newspaper. If Bennie could write a poem about a bull who swallows a bumblebee, promised Mr. Eastman, and add a naughty moral to it, there would be a newspaper job for the 16-year-old college dropout.

The job paid $12.50 a week—remember, this was 1910—and the position was “picture chaser”. In Hecht’s words, he was “sent forth each dawn to fetch back photograph of…a woman who had undergone some unusual experience during the night, such as rape, suicide or murder.” Families of such women were understandably protective, and photographs were almost impossible to obtain. Hecht wrote that his technique was to go to the scene of the “experience” and “hover broodingly outside the ring of interviewers. I learned early not to ask for what I wanted. Instead, I scurried through bedrooms, poked noiselessly into closets, trunks and bureau drawers, and–the coveted photograph under my coat–bolted for the street.”

Hecht performed so well as a picture chaser, his salary crept up to a weekly $15 and soon he was a bono fide Chicago Daily Journal reporter.

Portraying the young newsroom Hecht is Cary Grant in a role taken from a great Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur screenplay. But we’ll get to that later.

Eventually, Ben entered the Chicago newspaper big time, was recruited by Chicago Daily News Editor Henry Justin Smith and became a “tough crime reporter,” as well as a figure in Chicago literary circles.  From 1918 to 1919, he served as war correspondent in Berlin for the Daily News and, in 1921, inaugurated an enormously influential column, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago.  A century later the column has become a book.

The world remembers Hecht not as a newspaperman but for his screenplays, which included some of Classic Chicago readers’ best-loved films. He and a favorite collaborator, Charles MacArthur, for example, wrote the scenario for 1939’s Wuthering Heights.

“We wrote plays and movies together,” wrote Hecht of MacArthur in his autobiography, A Child of the Century. “But our literary work was only a sideline of our relationship. Our friendship was founded on a mutual obsession. We were both obsessed with our youthful years. I had no more interest in Charlie’s past than he had in mine. But for twenty-five years we assisted each other in behaving as if these pasts had never vanished. We remained newspaper reporters and continued to keep our hats on before the boss, drop ashes on the floor and distain all practical people.”

“But it is difficult,” Hecht continued, writing about MacArthur, above left, “for two grown men to continue playing games and palavering as if they were marking time in some pressroom. Thus, since MacArthur (the non-reporter) was hotly in love with the theater and I was ready to work on anything, we added playwriting to our relationship and later movie writing.”        

Hecht was also the unaccredited script doctor for Gone With The Wind. But his greatest success, another mega-hit with MacArthur, was The Front Page, first as a 1928 Broadway smash and then many times as a successful film.

The first film version in 1931, which created a blueprint for all future newspaper films, starred dapper Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns, who Hecht and MacArthur created from the real-life Chicago newspaper editor, Walter Howey, with Pat O’Brien in the Hildy Johnson role.

It’s quite a movie. The entire Chicago death row press corps is squeezed into a tiny set–allegedly the Criminal Courts Building press room–which must have made the Broadway stage for the 1928 play preceding it seem spacious. It was rougher still for the actor playing the condemned man, who spends nearly the whole of the evening hidden behind the tightly shut wooden roll of a roll-top desk.

Many people’s favorite Front Page adaptation is His Girl Friday,  where Cary Grant shows up again as Walter Burns. In this version, Hildy Johnson is played by a woman, Rosalind Russell.

Ben Hecht’s stories about his life in Chicago, Hollywood, New York or anywhere else usually have a bit of far-fetched movie scenario about them. Perhaps, as Norman Mailer noted in 1973, it’s because Hecht “was never a writer to tell the truth when a concoction could put life in his prose.”  But think of the fun he has given us!


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl