Stewart R. Mott, 70, a 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 1970s, Mott was one of the country’s most visible and controversial activists.
He invested heavily in causes including population control, abortion reform and arms reduction. He was also a chief financial backer of two anti-war presidential candidates, Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and Sen. George McGovern in 1972.
In a statement Friday, consumer advocate Ralph Nader called Mott “about the most versatile, imaginative philanthropist of his time” and “a pioneer in many fields well before the large foundations.”
Tall, irreverent and fond of Turkish cigarettes, Mott attracted attention with his flamboyance.
He once lived on a Chinese junk on the Hudson River, but he exchanged it for a Manhattan penthouse, where he cultivated a garden with hundreds of vegetable varieties. Neighbors were not pleased when his agricultural interest led him to construct a compost pile and chicken coop.
Mott was described in profiles as an easygoing maverick with little regard for discretion in discussing his political interests, finances or romantic conquests.
But beneath the surface eccentricity was a determination to address what Mott called “the two problems confronting 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 criticized the General Motors board for failing to speak out. To drive home the point – literally – he owned a Volkswagen.
His $400,000 contribution to McGovern won Mott inclusion on the Nixon White House’s enemies list.
Starting in the mid-1980s, he drastically reduced his profile but continued to oversee the Washington-based Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust, which says its funding interests include “exposing government corruption and the protection of constitutional rights.”