- Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Readers: Only a man like John Donald MacArthur, who essentially built northern Palm Beach County, could cast such a giant shadow 40 years after his death on Jan. 5, 1978, at age 80.
Here’s more from colleague Joel Engelhardt’s profile in The Palm Beach Post’s 1999 Our Century special section, as well as from”Post Time” columns in August 2001 and August 2002:
Next to Henry Flagler, no developer has influenced Palm Beach County as much as MacArthur.
Both were self-made millionaires who grew up poor, and both were sons of preachers. But MacArthur stood as Flagler’s unrefined opposite.
Ornery, cheap and profane, MacArthur reviled blue bloods. He had more patience for those in blue collars. He awoke at 4:45 every morning, smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day, drank 20 cups of coffee and swilled Scotch.
“Big Mac” ran his empire from a corner of the coffee shop at the Colonnades Beach Hotel on Singer Island, which he’d bought in 1963. Once, when asked why he dressed like a bum, MacArthur explained: “Sometimes, it’s better to feel like a bum than a millionaire.”
MacArthur sold mail-order insurance in Chicago before coming down in 1955 to collect on a loan. He took control of 80 percent of Lake Park and all of what he would name North Palm Beach. He kept buying, adding thousands of acres. He founded Palm Beach Gardens in 1959 and decided to stay and watch it grow.
He had a stroke at the Colonnades in 1976 and died 14 months later. The hotel closed in 1987 and was razed in 1990.
When MacArthur died, he was the second wealthiest man in America. He gave his fortune to a foundation named for him and his second wife, Catherine. He didn’t set up the MacArthur Foundation to do good. “I’ll do what I know best and make (money),” he told his lawyers. “You fellows will have to learn how to spend it.” But the foundation has given away billions.
MacArthur is the namesake of the state park on Singer Island. It had a dicey beginning.
Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, Air Force Beach was one of the largest nudist beaches in the nation. The 1/2-mile-long beach was owned by MacArthur, a frequent skinny-dipper, and got its name because it was popular with fly-boys from Palm Beach Air Force Base, at Morrison Field, now Palm Beach International Airport. One story says that when Walt Disney came down to survey Palm Beach County as the possible site of Walt Disney World, he and MacArthur took a skinny-dip.
The beach once drew hundreds of people a day, many of them au naturel, and the population rose dramatically during weekends and college spring breaks. When the state bought the beach in 1982 and made it part of the state park, the foundation that controlled MacArthur’s properties recommended an area be set aside for clothing-optional use. The state refused.