Stewart R. Mott, a flamboyant General Motors heir and self-described “avant-garde philanthropist” who used his family’s fortune to underwrite progressive social causes and liberal political campaigns, died Thursday at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y. He was 70 and had cancer.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Mott was one of the country’s most visible and controversial activists.
He invested heavily in causes including population control, abortion reform, sex research, arms control and, for a time, extrasensory perception. He also was a chief financial backer of antiwar presidential candidates Democratic Sens. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972.
In a statement, consumer advocate Ralph Nader called Mott “about the most versatile, imaginative philanthropist of his time. He threw himself into projects and was a pioneer in many fields well before the large foundations.”
Tall and irreverent, Mott attracted attention for his flamboyance.
He once lived on a Chinese junk on the Hudson River but exchanged it for a Manhattan penthouse, where he cultivated a vegetable garden with hundreds of varieties. Neighbors were not pleased when his agricultural interest led him to construct a compost pile and chicken coop.
But beneath the surface eccentricity was a determination to address what Mott called the two problems that “confront planet Earth that dwarf and aggravate all conventional problems, namely the threat of nuclear war and the continuing worldwide population explosion.”
Alarmed by the course of the Vietnam War, he confronted the General Motors board for failing to speak out on the conflict. To drive home the point -- literally -- he owned a Volkswagen.
Mott’s $400,000 contribution to McGovern won the philanthropist inclusion on the Nixon White House’s enemies list with the dismissive notation, “Nothing but big money for radic-lib candidates.”
Mott replied that the list was “an honor roll of decent Americans.”
With some irony, he added that his tax lawyers at the time were partners at Nixon and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell’s old firm.
In the 1970s, Mott’s political advocacy group, People Politics, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on similar organizations for women, blacks, young people and good governance. He also funded anti-corruption efforts investigating political and business scandals.
For years, Mott cut large checks to causes and candidates. This approach was challenged by post-Watergate campaign finance reforms, promoting Mott to ally himself with conservatives fighting what they termed the incumbent-protection act.
The subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buckley vs. Valeo (1976) upheld the $1,000 individual contribution limit, saying the government’s compelling interest in preventing political corruption or its appearance justified the reduced civil liberties.
Stewart Rawlings Mott was born Dec. 4, 1937, in Flint, Mich. His father, Charles Stewart “C.S.” Mott, sold the family’s wheel-and-axle business to General Motors and became the largest individual shareholder in the car manufacturer.
In 1926, the elder Mott established a family foundation that focused on social efforts around Flint, the hub of the American auto industry.
Stewart R. Mott was a product of his father’s fourth marriage and was born when his father was 62. He described a neglectful upbringing in which he was left for months with a governess while his parents took vacations.
The relationship was further strained by his father’s formal letters home, signed “Very truly yours.”
As a child, Mott was overweight and uncoordinated and resented being shipped away to summer camp. After he ran away from one camp at age 11, his father agreed to a bargain: half a summer at camp, in return for working the rest of the time at Mott-controlled businesses.
He was a stock boy at a department store in Flint, a machinist at a pecan-and-goose farm in New Mexico and an executive trainee at a refrigerator plant near Paris.
He studied for three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before quitting to hitchhike around the world.
A year’s travels cost him $1,500, he proudly told interviewers.
He graduated from Columbia University in 1961, with dual degrees in business administration and comparative literature, then returned to Flint, where his deepening interest in population control led him to establish a birth control clinic for Planned Parenthood.
Tensions with his father about the family foundation’s direction -- the son wanted the organization to expand its focus to global issues -- caused Mott to decamp for New York in 1966.
He also cut off contact with his father for a year while he spent his time creating his own philanthropy.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Mott drastically reduced his public profile but continued to oversee the Washington-based Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust, which says it funds interests “exposing government corruption and the protection of constitutional rights.”
A longtime “confirmed bachelor,” Mott was once quoted as saying “I’ve never yet encountered anyone whose lifestyle is quite like mine.” He married Kappy Wells, a sculptress, in 1979 and divorced 20 years later. Survivors include a son and a sister.