I began researching the philanthropy of Joan Kroc because of a curious 26-foot tall chain link sculpture of a mushroom cloud that sits in the civic center of Santa Monica, California.
I’d gone to report on its fate for a public radio station where I covered art. The work was in disrepair, and the city council was considering “de-accessioning” it due to the high costs of maintenance.
A local peace activist named Jerry Rubin met me to talk about it; a public movement to preserve “Chain Reaction” was just forming.
When I asked who had paid for this public art piece in the first place, he asked me to turn off my tape recorder.
“We think the late Joan Kroc funded it,” he whispered. “But it was an anonymous gift.”
Joan Kroc, who inherited the fortune her husband made with McDonald’s, was a legendary figure to anyone in public radio, of course. She had bequeathed the network NPR $225 million after her death in 2003—a gift immortalized with a mention each day on the air. Rubin figured anyone who worked in the medium would know who she was and, of course, he was right that I did. Yet about all else I knew was that she had last lived in San Diego. I had vague recollections of her running the San Diego Padres in the 1980s.
So why was a woman—a fast-food heiress from two hours south—funding a sculpture here, a pointed statement against nuclear war? Being a no-nukes supporter seemed even more radical than supporting public radio, which likely did not cotton well with the conservative McDonald’s corporation. I knew little about McDonald’s, the corporation, and I didn’t eat that kind of food, but these gifts seemed more radical than one would expect from traditional corporate America.
As curious was the artist behind the work: The Pulitzer-prize-winning Paul Conrad, known for his editorial cartoons. What was he doing making a sculpture?
The artist was deceased, but his son was involved in saving ‘Chain Reaction’, and I talked with him that day, too. He explained that his father made sculpture on the side, as a hobby—and he suggested that Joan’s involvement in the peace movement in the eighties extended far beyond this one sculpture.
Intrigued, I began looking for a biography. There wasn’t one, but scattershot clues to her unorthodox philanthropy could be found in news articles: centers for the study of peace named for her on the campuses at Notre Dame and the University of San Diego. Recreation centers funded by a far larger bequest than the one to NPR. Her $1.6 billion to the Salvation Army, named for both her and her husband. Flood relief funds to the tune of $15 million during the devastation in Grand Forks in 1997, which she’d given anonymously—until a wily reporter traced the tail number of her private jet and outed her as the “angel.”
It seemed incredible that no book existed about Joan.
Ray Kroc’s 1977 autobiography detailed how they met in St. Paul, Minnesota, when each was married to someone else. The official corporate biography of McDonald’s mentioned a second wife, and that Joan had ordered supplies (back when each franchise sourced local ingredients) to stock store #223, which her first husband opened in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Intrigued by these disparate facts, I naively appointed myself biographer.
It didn’t take long for me to find out why no one had written one before. McDonald’s deflected my inquiry, curtly referring me to the two aforementioned books. Joan herself had no foundation at the time of her death, and thus, no public records or papers existed of her giving.
Soon I unearthed a Rosetta stone. When Ray Kroc had become instantly rich in 1965 with the IPO of McDonald’s, he’d formed a foundation—a mid-century instance of “corporate social responsibility,” without that moniker, of course. (And that was before the creation of Ronald McDonald House, which was started by a franchisee, not Ray.)
Thankfully, he’d hired his scientist brother to manage the money he tucked away at the instruction of his advisors as a tax deduction. He even charged his brother with developing the foundation’s mission. Dr. Robert Kroc decided to do what he knew best: fund medical research and convene scientists for conferences on the magnificent ranch in Santa Ynez, California that the suddenly flush Ray had purchased.
Dr. Kroc was a meticulous record keeper who had the foresight to leave the records of the foundation to a university, where I decamped to sleuth out more.
The story unfurled: Once she married Ray, in 1969, after their roller-coaster 12-year courtship, Joan, as vice-chair of the Kroc Foundation’s board, muscled her way to control of the Kroc philanthropic money. She deflected advances from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, which began courting Ray after he lectured there when they discovered he had no college affiliation—he was a high school drop-out—and that he had no heirs. (His only daughter had died.)
Instead, she worked with Dartmouth’s medical school as part of her first major philanthropic foray, Operation Cork, a pioneering alcoholism education effort, through which she made nationally broadcast films and published popular books on the subject. Ray was hospitalized for treatment a few years before he died in 1984—having transferred the Kroc Foundation’s assets of over $30 million to Joan. She also inherited the lion’s share of his personal fortune.
For a while, she operated as a traditional philanthropist under the Joan B. Kroc Foundation. But in 1990, she dissolved her foundation it, overwhelmed by the deluge of requests she received.
For the rest of her life, she gave with abandon. There was no strategic plan or articulation of a philanthropic philosophy. She just gave, particularly when she was enthused by a person with a vision. She was an early funder of hospice (after meeting a doctor on a plane who outlined her hopes to build the first freestanding facility in San Diego) and AIDS research (including the $4 million check she wrote to a doctor she saw on TV who explained the need for a clinic in Harlem.) When the San Diego Zoo needed money, she swept in with her checkbook. When a local priest wanted to build a homeless shelter, Joan underwrote it—it won an award for humane design. When, years later, she heard him speak on the radio about needing to expand it, she called in and said she’d write him a check.
The former Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins became a major beneficiary of Joan’s—as well as a close friend— after he launched a controversial effort to study the relationship of the mind and physical health at UCLA.
Her giving was radical and ecstatic, and completely maddening to one of her closest advisors, who, as Kroc aged, entreated her to re-enstate her formal foundation.
Long before Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pledged to give away their fortunes, Joan Kroc did so, but not by design. Diagnosed with brain cancer in 2003, she set about dispersing her nearly $3 billion in assets. Writing her story and sleuthing out innumerable gifts and unusual friendships was the thrill of a lifetime for me.
As for "Chain Reaction," Jerry Rubin, Paul Conrad’s son, and a host of other people worked tirelessly to raise money to save it. Had Joan been alive, she likely would have just written the check.
Lisa Napoli is a veteran journalist and author of Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave it All Away, just published by Dutton. She's also the producer and host of a podcast about growing old called Gracefully.