ANITA McCORMICK BLAINE was a philanthropist on so grandiose a scale she almost dwarfs the Ford Foundation. From the 1890s to 1949 she gave away money with the glee most of us feel only when we receive it. The daughter of Cyrus McCormick, who invented the reaping machine, and daughter-in-law of James G. Blaine, who ran for president on the Republican ticket in 1884, she was a rich, prominent Chicagoan who might have devoted her life to foreign travel or collecting old masters. Instead, she practiced generosity like religion. It gave her a "cleared, freed feeling," she wrote in 1948, to sign away a million dollars -- at the urging of Harris Wofford and Stringfellow Barr -- for a world assembly to write a world constitution (neither of which ever happened). And when her 33,334 shares of International Harvester stock (sent to Barr in a silver tea caddy) dropped more than a point before they could be sold, she mailed off an extra $70,439 to make up the difference. Earlier in 1943, she pronounced it a "beautiful moment" when she opened her briefcase and handed Madame Chiang Kai-shek $100,000 in stock certificates to use "in any way you want."

Anita Blain's neediest cases ran from Henry Wallace ($800,000 for his Progressive Party by the end of 1948) to strangers who were bankrupt and in-laws who were not. When the widow of her only son remarried, she staked her daughter-in-law's new husband to a showplace in Virginia, a "camp" in the Adirondacks (next door to Mrs. Merriweather Post) and abundant footwear, asking her shoemaker one Christmas "to persuade the Colonel to order all the pairs of shoes he might want -- 'namely, streetwalking shoes, rough camp walking shoes, and evening shoes, and any other he might be able to use. And please send the bill completely to me.'" Way back in 1899 she took pity on the city of Chicago, reassessing her personal property upwards -- to $1 million, the largest individual listing ever filed. "Those able to pay the taxes should pay them," she told the assessor -- to the horror of the rest of the McCormicks and other Chicago millionaires.

As Gilbert Harrison describes it in his excellent biography, her munificence was broad and indiscriminate. In addition to investing $4.5 million to found a progressive school (originally started for her son), she "gave to panhandlers and charity organizers, paid off friends' debts, set the unemployed up in business, took care of hospital bills and funerals, financed committees, underwrote publications, buildings, summer camps, conferences. And she often gave without being asked. . . . Hearing of a Kentucky coal miner trapped in a cave, she sent a doctor to the site and a check to the miner's wife." She "gambled on goodness without calculating the odds," notes Harrison, whose wife Nancy Blaine Harrison, was Anita's only grandchild. If Anita often gambled and lost, that did not seem to matter. Charity for its own sake was her message.

Harrison never completely explains what drove this unusual woman -- so unlike Cyrus McCormick's other four children (who tended to madness, public scandals and feuds). But it is clear that her father's fortune and her mother's severe Presbyterian conscience produced in Anita a generosity of almost preposterous proportions. It is a credit to Harrison's skill as a biographer that under his handling she becomes credible and even endearing.

Hers is a tale of such innocence and trust that it would be too sweet to swallow were it not for Anita's sense of humor and the eccentricities which made her human. She could lend $30,000 to a man she'd never met -- but forget to pay the laundress; she threatened to fire a butler who refused to leave the dirty dishes in the sink and come into the living room to hear one of her guests sing. Although 11 secretaries working in three offices -- one of them an entire floor of a Chicago office building -- tried to organize her affairs, they did not succeed. Her "chaotic system" consisted of putting everything in files where, after her death, loose cash, throwaway mail and a long string of pearls were found. There were other little oddities about her life -- like the lawn of her house at 101 East Erie St. which was specially constructed so her son could run barefoot without getting his feet wet. And when he died young -- as his father had before him -- she turned to spiritualism, an interest she shared with her hero Henry Wallace. In 1939 she imported a medium from England and kept her in style at Boston's Copley-Plaza for 10 years -- but rarely bothered to consult her.

Anita Blaine strayed far from the orthodox political and religious views of the other McCormicks, but she remained at the center of the family, always ready to help with the turbulent lives of her sister and brothers. A gentle activist, she does not seem, in her long and controversial life, to have lost a friend or made an enemy. Even Cousin Bertie McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, with who she differed on nearly every issue, felt moved to say when she was 80: "Cousin Anita and I have always been aiming at different targets ever since we were youngsters, but she has always been a straight shooter."