Huntington Hartford, R.I.P.

If someone loses his father at 10, goes to boarding school, graduates from Harvard with distinction, serves in Asia during World War II, inherits a lot of money, makes ambitious plans to contribute to society rather than fritter away a trust fund, reaches 97 and passes away, he can be sure he will be pilloried and ridiculed in the obituary columns.

Especially if he also:


invests in the Caribbean with the dream of making winter vacations more affordable. Hartford created the original Paradise Island before losing it to his partners. Until his innovative project, a Caribbean vacation was conceivable only to the very wealthy.


plans a similar development in Southern California, with an emphasis on resorts featuring fine-arts pursuits.


invests in Broadway to create more traditional, less vulgar plays, as well as low cost productions of works by classical authors.


launches, and for a while also edits, “Show”, one of the few illustrated monthly magazines about Broadway theater.


creates a stunning 10-story Venetian town palace—designed by the architect who built Radio City—at the foot of Columbus Circle next to New York City’s Central Park and opens it as a huge public art gallery devoted to 18th and 19th century painting and sculpture, early modernist art such as Dali, and photography, as an alternative to the sterile Rockefeller-built Museum of Modern Art.


buys space in New York newspapers to criticize the hegemony of bad art and architecture that most people are embarrassed to admit they neither understand nor enjoy. It took Tom Wolfe 10 years to catch up with him in “The Painted Word” and “From Bauhaus to Our House”.


writes books and gives speeches about the coarseness and vulgarity of not only popular culture but also culture generally, and the arts in particular.


funds one of the world’s first shale oil exploration and extraction facilities.


invests in “handwriting analysis” research, with a particular focus on detecting the onset of disease.


proposes to the mayor of New York City, and offers to help to develop a large, public, European-style open-air café in Central Park, long before the “latte” craze began.


makes a few movies (including Errol Flynn’s last) for his wife to star in, that feature old-fashioned action and adventure, with an occasional anti- Communist twist (at the height of the Cold War).

Hartford was a potent threat to the elitist cultural establishment of the 1950s and 60s, who branded him a dilettante.  Since he possessed one of the largest fortunes in the US, it should be no surprise that, from time to time, he might act like it.  Perhaps he should have hired a better press agent.  He married four times—big deal.  Yet he avoided alcohol and played sports.  His yacht was named “Joseph Conrad”.  Perhaps if he had been a Trump, Murdoch or Sulzberger, and inherited a media or real estate empire, rather than the world’s largest grocery store chain, he would have been remembered better. But then, he would not have been as heroic.

Last week’s obits were scurrilous, focusing on his financial losses, as well as alleged drug use when he was in his sixties.  In the 1970s the nation was awash in cheap drugs, not the prescription antidepressants of today.  An ex-wife accused him of using cocaine and tranquilizers—apparently a sin for an aging millionaire.  Certainly a man of no special personal virtue himself, Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t receive any of Hartford’s many commissions.  Nevertheless, Wright’s mean-spirited portrayal of him as a foolish, scatterbrained playboy has been quoted in the many obituaries.  However, consider the source.  Wright and Edward Durrell Stone, who built the Columbus Circle museum, were rivals.  Plus, the pompous and insecure Wright was a legendary ladies’ man.

Let’s look at the world Huntington Hartford left.  Planes to the Caribbean overflow with middle class tourists. Visitors and collectors flock to shows and auctions of 18th and 19th century painting and sculpture.  The public has fallen in love with urban structures clad in white marble and Renaissance motifs.  For maverick cultural sensibilities, there’s a fashionable New York museum, about 15 years old, that was created by George Soros for his wife, Susan.  It has become deservedly chic for exhibiting textiles, jewelry and household appliances as fine art.  Hartford may have been a risk-taker, but he was also way ahead of the curve.

The irony is that he has been dragged through the mud in the obituary columns by many of the same people and publications who bemoan the lowbrow state of our culture. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Weekly Standard have likened Hartford to today’s spoiled debutantes and drug addicted film stars.  Yet a glance at his record shows that he was quite the opposite, a dedicated and iconoclastic champion of fine art and culture and a visionary.  His losses were often, eventually, our gains.  Society needs more Huntington Hartfords.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 2nd, 2008 at 4:03 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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2 Responses to “Huntington Hartford, R.I.P.”

  1. EAS said:

    Another interesting obit from the same generation,

    From the poor potato to a fashionable favorite, long live the french fry!

  2. Ben said:

    great article. I used to work at Hunt’s house in Manhattan in the mid eighties, doing maintenance and odd jobs. That eerie, quiet, too empty townhouse> two house keepers,If i remember correctly Pauline and Maria, who tried to care for Hunt as good as they could. He lived like a virtual hermit in his spacious bedroom. As I was free to access most rooms in the house, I was able to look at pictures and framed newspaper and magazine articles that kind of chronicled his interesting but turbulent life. This made it so much more painful to see this once very rich and powerful man wither away in misery. One could not help but feel for the guy> I used to pick up my cheques at his caretaker/lawyers office> This was a former swimming champ, forgot his name. He had the unenviable task of protecting Hunt’s rapidly dwindling fortune from vultures and leeches, plentiful around. There was a junkie scumbag living on the top floor, supposedly just to go out and buy whatever drugs were needed in the house by Hunt and his then wife or girlfriend.After a while there was no more work to be done, and I quit, although it would have been easy to pretend there was more work to be done. Nobody supervised, i just wrote the hours and got paid. But this was not my style, and I had plenty of other jobs in tv commercial production and the nightclub scene. I was approached by various magazine reporters whom I knew from the club scene to dish the dirt about Hunt, but i declined. For people to judge Hunt just for his lavish life style and often ill fated investments is probably just jaleousy. Bottom line is the clock ticks away the time for all of us, whether you have $400,- or $400 million in the bank. He certainly had a hell of a ride and salute his guts for doing it his way.

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