- Son of Charles Stewart Mott, the largest individual shareholder in General Motors
- Was a self-proclaimed beatnik in the early 1960s and a hippie thereafter
- Created the Stewart R. Mott Foundation
Stewart Rawlings Mott (SRM) was born on December 4, 1937, in Flint, Michigan. He was the son of Charles Stewart Mott (1875-1973), the largest individual shareholder in General Motors, and Ruth Rawlings Mott (1901-1999), Charles’s fourth wife.
When SRM was born, his father was 62. This age gap, coupled with the father’s standoffish personality, created an immense emotional chasm between the two. The New York Times, for example, once reported: “The father signed notes to his son, ‘Very truly yours, C. S. Mott,’ and hired a coach to teach him to ride a bike.”
After running away from home at age 11, SRM struck a bargain with his father, agreeing to come home for half the summer if he could work the other half at various family enterprises. The boy’s experiences included jobs in a Flint department store, a pecan-and-goose farm in New Mexico, and a refrigerator plant near Paris.
SRM later studied engineering for three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then hitchhiked around the world for a year, and subsequently finished his education at the Columbia University School of General Studies, where he earned two bachelor’s degrees—one in business administration and another in comparative literature.
During the Sixties, SRM lived for some time as a self-described beatnik aboard an ancient Chinese sailing vessel moored in the Hudson River. When the boat repeatedly had trouble staying afloat, however, Mott abandoned it for terrestrial accommodations. Ever increasingly, he became known for his many eccentricities—e.g., writing notes to himself on Turkish cigarette boxes, of which he accumulated thousands; periodically holding folk music festivals to promote peace and love; and cultivating, atop his Manhattan penthouse, a farm with 460 plant species, a chicken coop, and a compost pile. At one point, Mott taught a course in city gardening at the New School for Social Research in New York.
In the academic year of 1963-64, SRM taught English at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Soon thereafter, he returned to Flint and started the city’s first branch of Planned Parenthood. Mott subsequently traveled the nation on behalf of that organization.
In the mid-1960s, SRM asked to join the board of his father’s philanthropy, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which mainly served the Flint community. But the politically conservative father, who once described his son as possessing “twice the brains I have, but only half the common sense,” denied the request. This prompted SRM to use trust funds—along with some money from his mother—to start his own charity, the Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust, which later became the Stewart R. Mott Foundation. SRM moved to New York in 1966, and did not speak to his father for a year.
Reflecting, years later, on his decision to establish his own philanthropic entity, SRM said: “At age 18, I realized that two problems confront planet earth that dwarf and aggravate all conventional problems: namely the threat of nuclear war and the continuing worldwide population explosion. Coming to grips with these realities, I decided to dedicate my life to help find solutions to these two problems through public service in philanthropy and politics.”
Throughout his young adulthood, SRM relished opportunities to poke a proverbial finger in the eye of General Motors, the company his father had helped shape as an early high executive. In the ’60s, for instance, the younger Mott drove a battered red Volkswagen with yellow flower decals; he lambasted GM at its annual meeting for not speaking out against the Vietnam War; and he donated money to a neighborhood group that tried to prevent the proposed construction of a new GM plant.
Irreverent, charismatic and effusive, SRM attracted wide public attention as a free-wheeling bachelor in the 1960s and ’70s, not least for his candid comments about his sex partners (whose full names were spelled out in newsletters). When The Washington Post reported that Mott had slept with 40 women over an eight-month period, he issued a correction, saying that the number was actually 20.
SRM’s philanthropy, meanwhile, was targeted chiefly toward organizations promoting birth control, abortion reform, sex research, feminism, civil liberties, governmental reform, gay rights, research on extra-sensory perception, and arms control. A 1979 report by the Heritage Foundation stated that by financing such organizations as the Project on Military Procurement and the Center for Defense Information, Mott was effectively bankrolling an “anti-defense lobby.”
SRM also engaged in a considerable amount of political giving, much of it directed against incumbent presidents. In 1968, for example, he used newspaper advertisements to pledge $50,000 to the as-yet-nonexistent presidential candidacy of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, if other donors would cumulatively contribute double that amount. When Rockefeller rejected his efforts, Mott heavily bankrolled Democrat Senator Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to President Lyndon Johnson.
Four years later, SRM was the top contributor ($400,000) to the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. This earned Mott a spot on President Richard Nixon’s famed “enemies list.” In response, Mott defiantly declared that the list was “an honor roll of decent Americans.”
Also in 1972, SRM ran what some regarded as a scurrilous ad campaign against Senator Edmund Muskie, a rival of McGovern’s in his own Democratic Party. This led to Mott’s being called before the Senate Watergate Committee, which was investigating political “dirty tricks.” The Committee found no wrongdoing by him.
After a 1974 campaign-finance law outlawed the sort of large political gifts in which SRM specialized, he joined conservatives to fight it as an unconstitutional abridgement of free expression. In 1976 the Supreme Court agreed, while keeping other parts of the law intact. Mott subsequently became skilled at devising ways to give to candidates under the new rules. He formed political action committees and became an expert on direct mail, using both as methods of collecting many small donations.
The Washington, DC building that SRM purchased in 1974 to serve as both his home and his Foundation’s headquarters, also housed the local branch office of the American Civil Liberties Union. Over the years, Mott opened his building for use by a wide range of “progressive-liberal advocacy organizations” involved in such issues as handgun control, social justice, civil rights, civil liberties, campaign finance reform, abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, anti-military campaigns, anti-war and anti-nuclear crusades, and anti-drug-war efforts.
SRM paid most of the early legal fees for a 1976 lawsuit that ultimately caused former Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew to repay kickbacks ($147,599 plus interest) that he had been accused of receiving when he was governor of Maryland. Agnew did not admit guilt.
In 1980 SRM donated a considerable sum of money to the independent presidential candidacy of Representative John Anderson of Illinois.
Over the years, SRM was affiliated with the boards of such organizations as Americans for Democratic Action, Friends of Family Planning, the Fund for Constitutional Government (which he founded), the Fund for Peace, Planned Parenthood, the Population Action Council, and Voters for Choice. He once told an election agency that his job was “maverick,” and listed himself as a “philanthropist” in the Manhattan phone book. (Space limitations precluded his preferred identification, “avant-garde philanthropist.”)
Mott died of cancer on June 13, 2008.
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