Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lifestyles of the Rich and Goofy

I hope everyone reads today's obituary of the 97-year-old Huntington Hartford, an heir to the A&P fortune who blew most of his money on assorted dreamy schemes... here's a few excerpts:

Mr. Hartford, a grandson of a principal founder of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, was treated like a prince as a boy, indulged by his mother and a staff of servants and eventually provided with a living of about $1.5 million a year. Not content merely to be rich, he longed to be a writer and, more than that, an arbiter of culture and a master builder — ambitions that eluded him time after time.

A famous example was the Huntington Hartford Museum, also known as the Gallery of Modern Art, at 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Mr. Hartford opened it in 1964 as a showcase for 19th- and 20th-century work that went against the prevailing current of Abstract Expressionism, which he detested. The building, designed by Edward Durell Stone, was considered a folly or worse: “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” wrote Ada Louise Huxtable, then the architecture critic of The New York Times....

The art within was generally unremarkable. And far from becoming the self-sustaining museum that Mr. Hartford had envisioned, it cost him $7.4 million before he abandoned the building to a rocky fate....

Costlier still was Mr. Hartford’s makeover of Hog Island, in the Bahamas. After buying four-fifths of the place in 1959 and having it renamed Paradise Island, he set about developing a resort with the construction of the Ocean Club and other amenities. Advisers persuaded him to stop short of exotic attractions like chariot races, but, overextended and unable to get a gambling license, he wound up losing an estimated $25 million to $30 million.

There were many lesser ventures that either bombed or fizzled, among them an automated parking garage in Manhattan, a handwriting institute, a modeling agency and his own disastrous stage adaptation of “Jane Eyre.” He inherited an estimated $90 million and lost an estimated $80 million of it.

The guy just couldn't catch a break:

Huntington went to Harvard, studying English literature and graduating in 1934. He went to work for his uncles at the company’s headquarters, then housed in the Graybar Building next to Grand Central Terminal, where his job was to keep track of sales of bread and pound cake. But he was often absent. In 1934 he defiantly took a day off to attend the Harvard-Yale football game. That ended his career in the family business. Yale won, 14-0.

In 1940, Mr. Hartford tried being a reporter for the New York newspaper PM, after putting up $100,000 to help get the paper started. If nothing else, the experience produced one of the all-time great excuses for missing deadline: he once sailed his yacht to cover an assignment on Long Island, and upon returning to the city could find no place to tie up and come ashore with the story.

With the start of World War II, he donated the yacht to the Coast Guard. In return he was given the command of a modest supply ship in the Pacific. He ran it aground twice — once, he said later, because his navigational charts were out of date, the other time because “I mistook feet for fathoms.”

And then there is the ending to the obit, which I found by turns bizarre, annoying, and poignant:
In 1974 Mr. Hartford married Elaine Kay, a former hairdresser more than 40 years his junior. They, too, were divorced, in 1981, but continued to live together in Mr. Hartford’s 20-room duplex apartment at 1 Beekman Place in Manhattan. In 1984, Ms. Kay and a friend were arrested and charged with tying up a teenage secretary to Mr. Hartford and shaving her head. The directors of the building voted for eviction.

Mr. Hartford moved to a townhouse on East 30th Street but subsequently lost it when he declared bankruptcy, even though he was still the beneficiary of a trust fund yielding more than $500,000 a year. He moved to the Bahamas in 2004.

“I have tried to use my millions creatively,” Mr. Hartford wrote in one of the early issues of his magazine Show. But, he added, “The golden bird, coming to life, has sometimes wriggled out of my hand and flown away.”


1001 Petals said...

That's just unfortunate.

jdroth said...

I found this yesterday. It's a fantastic piece of journalism -- one of my favorite obituaries ever. (Is it wrong to say that?) I may cover it on Memorial Day...

Unknown said...

Oh man, that's just too funny. I exploded into laughter and sprayed spit all over my monitor when I got to the part about donating the yacht and running his navy ship aground... twice... I'll send you the cleaning bill.

Well, on the plus side, this story says much for the merits of trust funds - after all, if this utter imbecile could not run out of money in his trust fund, no one could. Imagine if his parents had been stupid enough to give him a lump sum...