Stewart Mott

Sam Smith

WHEN ANNE ZILL called me in the mid 1980s and told me that she and Stewart Mott would like to have lunch with me, I thought, well, I better be on my good behavior. This, after all, was in mind the guy who had, funded the 1960s, not to mention giving the buck power to the campaigns of Gene McCarthy and George McGovern and making it onto Nixon’s enemy list.

That day I may have worn a tie and I’m sure I replaced my running shoes with loafers, but it wasn’t necessary. Zill and Mott arrived at my Dupont Circle office, each carrying a motorcycle helmet. Right away I knew we would share a paradigm or two.

For more than two decades after that luncheon, I would sit on the board the Fund for Constitutional Government, a delight even if it hadn’t been helping the cash flow of groups protecting government whistle blowers, uncovering government waste, and fighting would-be censors of the Internet. The fund’s board meetings averaged between four and six hours in length, shared by some of the most competently eccentric folk I have met. Journalism grant committee meetings took almost as long over lunch at La Tomate, as one might expect of a confabulation that has included over the years Christopher Hitchens, myself, and Hamilton Fish Number Whatever He Is.

During board meetings we heard reports from some of the most useful people in America (our fundees) as they patiently dealt with some of the most contentious people in America (their funders). At one end of the large table would sit Mott, who might or might not be wearing a day-glo orange hunting vest, and the chair, Russell Hemenway, who was almost certainly wearing a suit in which each pin strip had been individually pressed. Hemenway, accustomed to the more sedate ways of the Big Apple, regarded us not unlike a grandfather painfully observing his obstreperous, penultimate genetic responsibilities. You soon learned that when Russ stopped glaring and stood up that the party was over and we actually had to do something.

The groups that FCG has helped start and/or fund – including the Project on Government Oversight, the Government Accountability Project and the Electronic Privacy Information Center – are at the top of the list of effective Washington non-profits. On just one day, these organizations were the basis for three articles and one editorial in the New York Times.

Given the seriousness of these groups’ work – such as protecting whistleblowers, running classes for congressional staff on how to deal with the executive branch, or serving as an ACLU of the Internet – one might imagine gatherings marked by turgidity and solemnity. Far from it, because the best fighters are driven not by intellectual abstraction or bureaucratic syntax but by a passion that that can enjoy as well as it struggles. Besides, Mott and the masterful FCG executive director, Conrad Martin, understood that good meetings depend on good food. Saving the Constitution becomes considerably more palatable while munching on the more than palatable.

In their tribute, the gang at POGO recalled what had been said in the past: “In the grey-flannel world of philanthropy, Stewart Mott is a red sombrero.” And they added, “While he had a quick business mind that could catch even the smallest errors in a spreadsheet, he was also likely to giggle gleefully at a successful effort to expose government malfeasance.”

Ralph Nader noted, “A philanthropist for all seasons, Stewart R. Mott was about the most versatile, imaginative philanthropist of his time.”

And Douglas Martin wrote in the NY Times:

“Irreverent, good-looking and effusive, Mr. Mott seemed tailor-made for the 1960s and ’70s, when he attracted his widest attention, not least for his all-to-candid comments about everything from his sex partners (full names spelled out in newsletters) to his father’s parental deficiencies (“a zookeeper”) to his blood type (AB+).

“He once lived on a Chinese junk as a self-described beatnik and kept notes to himself on Turkish cigarette boxes, accumulating thousands. He held folk music festivals to promote peace and love. His garden atop his Manhattan penthouse (which he sold some years ago) was famous; at one point Mr. Mott taught a course in city gardening at the New School for Social Research in New York. He once told an interviewer that he lay awake wondering how to grow a better radish.

“Mr. Mott seemed to relish poking his finger in the eye of General Motors, a company that his father, Charles Stewart Mott, helped shape as an early high executive. In the ’60s, the younger Mr. Mott drove a battered red Volkswagen with yellow flower decals when he drove at all. He lambasted G.M. at its annual meeting for not speaking out against the Vietnam War. He gave money to a neighborhood group opposing a new G.M. plant because it would involve razing 1,500 homes. . .

“His mansion in Washington has long been used to raise funds for candidates, as well as causes from handgun control to gay rights. . . Mr. Mott officially told the election agency that his job was “maverick.” He listed himself as “philanthropist” in the Manhattan phone book. (Space limitations precluded his preferred “avant-garde philanthropist.”). . . For years, Mr. Mott was a highly publicized eligible bachelor. When The Washington Post reported that he had slept with 40 women over an eight-month period, he issued a correction, saying the number was actually 20.”

You never knew what to expect. Once he visited us in Maine and stayed out past our bedtime shopping at LL Bean’s. The next morning we were greeted by an enormous frying pan – far bigger than any of ours – in which lay what looked like a purple human organ of some sort, with a note on top, held in place by a large knife. It turned out to be a eggplant Stewart had proudly grown, the frying pan was a house gift, and the note merely offered thanks.

On another occasion, I received a Fedex box from Stewart and inside were various loaves, muffins and other baked goods, each dyed some stunningly unappetizing color. He had been hard at work again in the kitchen. The recipient list included was quite long and among the names was that of Governor Mario Cuomo.

The bread came with a four page guide that included questions – “Is the syrup sweet enough? Which breads did you enjoy the most?” – and a warning: “I’ve made almost 1,000 loaves, trying out something like 3-400 different recipes. And so help me, if you dare to ask me the same question posed by my mother – ‘Stewart, did you rally make all those yourself?’ – then I’ll cross yu off my list of gift recipients forever.”

But there was a sad part of the story, too. A difficult divorce and far too much drinking, smoking and cocaine for anyone’s good. His friends knew what was happening; some tried to help, but even those closest to him could had little effect on his habits. He was reportedly still drinking a bottle of vodka a day in his last months.

Stewart was his own man and had his own life. The last time I was with him was a meeting the Fund for Constitutional Government. He knew he was going to die and we sat around discussing what sort of memorial program we should have for him. Stewart participated in it as though it was just one more public project that needed to be done and for which he had some good ideas on how to do it. As you did when you sat around with Stewart, we drifted into his reality and heartily joined the discussion for, after all, he had been the master of one of best public projects any of us had seen: his own remarkable life.

2 thoughts on “Stewart Mott

  1. It would be hard to overstate the role that Stewart Mott's largesse and ideas played in nourishing the progressive voices in Washington. He and his foundations nurtured the people who attacked utterly wasteful Pentagon spending, invasions of civil liberties and the protection of the privileged at the expense of the rest of us.Sam, thanks for the remembrance.

  2. I was something between a friend and acquaintance of Stewart Mott during the 1960-1961 academic year at Columbia University. To fulfill our requirements for an M.A. in comparative literature we both needed to opt for a seminar in our area of specialization. Stewart and I both chose to focus on dramatic literature. Prior to actually meeting Stewart,Iactually observed him walking across the quadrangle through the winter slush. He wore a long threadbare brown jacket–probably suede–and worn,white cotton duck slacks. He wore very old white canvas sneakers with holes in them and this rig was topped by an afghan hat. I judged him to be a very poor immigrant, possibly from western Asia. I thought that if I could befriend this poverty-stricken student, I could offer him some of my old clothes. You can imagine my astonishment, after meeting him in my seminar, when I learned he was probably the richest student in the world!Later, he invited me to cruise Long Island Sound on his Chinese junk, but I had to seek a summer job.I don't think he was the flaming liberal in those days that he was to become a few years later. I liked Stewart enormously–I'm sorry we grew apart. I wrote him once or twice but never got an answer. It is a great tragedy for me that I never had a chance to converse with him in his later years. I hope they have a section in heaven for flaming liberals, because I'm one too and have much to discuss with Stewart.

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