A&P; heir lost fortune to failed arts endeavors

The Washington Post

Huntington hartford ii, heir to the A&P; supermarket fortune whose quest to be taken seriously as a patron of the arts led him to bankroll a series of movies, plays, galleries and publications that ultimately drained his wealth, died Monday at Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. He was 97.

No cause of death was reported.

Ranked among the world’s richest people at one time, Hartford was once called by Architect Frank Lloyd Wright “the sort of man who will come up with an idea, pinch it in the fanny and run.”

He underwrote a series of failed enterprises, most of which resulted in spectacular losses. Among them were an artist’s foundation and colony in Los Angeles, and the glossy magazine Show, a journal of art and culture.


His Ocean Club resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas suffered from the lack of a gambling license and went bust. Resorts International eventually bought him out for $1 million, a shell of his $30-million investment.

His Gallery of Modern Art in New York City, featuring an Edward Durell Stone design, opened at 2 Columbus Circle in 1964 to risible reviews, both for its structure and offerings. He had promoted the museum as a bulwark against modernism in art, whether the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning or the literature of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

He condemned the “vulgar” and “meaningless” extremes of modern abstract art, preferring what he called “realistic art” of an earlier period. His vocal antipathy to artists he disliked led to the resignation of all advisors to his self-titled foundation meant to aid composers, writers and fine artists. He appointed new advisors and bought large advertisements condemning “obscurity, confusion, immorality, violence” in contemporary painting.

Meanwhile, with money never an object, he remained devoted to extracurricular pleasures, including the study of handwriting, petroleum extraction and the personal lives of showgirls. He once dated Marilyn Monroe and described her as “too pushy, like a high-class hooker.”

His excesses cost him financially and personally. He had unexpectedly ascetic habits in some areas of his life, such as a disinclination to drink alcohol. But his fourth marriage, in the 1970s, marked a turning point. According to a 2004 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, his last wife, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hairdresser a decade his junior, introduced Hartford to cocaine, amphetamines and Quaaludes. At least once he was hospitalized for an overdose.

After his fourth marriage ended, Hartford spent his final years living quietly in the Bahamas, a much-reduced figure than how he presented himself in his prime.

In his 1964 book “Art or Anarchy?,” a polemic against modernism, he described championing traditional art against the prevailing trends. “I have always hated the goose step,” he wrote.

George Huntington Hartford II was born in New York on April 18, 1911, and never used the name George.

He was the namesake of his grandfather, a Maine tea merchant who in 1869 founded the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.

The company would become one of the storied American businesses, rivaling General Motors by the 1950s as a multibillion-dollar corporation.

Hartford began reaping the financial benefits at age 6, when his grandfather died and left him with an annual income of $1.5 million.

The family lived lavishly during the 1920s and ‘30s and owned a seaside estate in Newport, R.I. His father, an inventor, strayed from the family business and patented a shock absorber for cars.

Hartford received an elite education, graduating from the private St. Paul’s preparatory school in New Hampshire in 1930 and Harvard University in 1934. In college, he played on the tennis and squash teams.

Subsequent years were spent enjoying his wealth, although he made periodic forays into employment. He spent six months as an A&P; clerk, monitoring pound-cake sales until he was fired after walking off the job to catch a Harvard-Yale football game.

He later became a reporter at the newspaper PM in New York, a job he acquired after investing $100,000 in the publication. His interest in boats was put to use during World War II, when he served in the Coast Guard and commanded a cargo vessel in the Pacific.

After his discharge, he settled in Los Angeles, where he met Marjorie Steele, a 19-year-old cigarette girl who became his second wife. She reportedly was responsible for his interest in fine arts, resulting in the creation of an artists foundation and retreat.

Meanwhile, he deepened his involvement in movie production, including the Abbott and Costello comedy “Africa Screams” (1949) and the feature anthology “Face to Face (1952), which starred his wife.

He also funded Broadway productions, including his own short-lived 1958 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” with Eric Portman as Rochester and Jan Brooks in the title role; movie star Errol Flynn briefly portrayed Rochester in a troubled pre-Broadway production.

Hartford’s traditional tastes were evident in a costly renovation of Hollywood’s Vine Street Theatre in 1953, which became the Huntington Hartford Theater.

He lured Helen Hayes to star in “What Every Woman Knows,” a creaky J.M. Barrie drama she had starred in on screen 20 years earlier.

(He also owned much of the land that is now Runyon Canyon Park in Los Angeles and lived for a time in the property’s mansion. The estate’s most famous resident was Flynn, who stayed for a time in the guest house, giving rise to the false perception that he actually owned the land. In 1984 the city bought the property for $5.16 million and it was turned into a park.)

By the early 1960s, Hartford had accomplished few projects that amounted to anything.

He devised an automatic parking garage system, chaired a shale-oil company and hoped to create a European-style cafe in New York’s Central Park before parks commissioner Robert Moses axed the idea.

Toward the end of his life, he told Vanity Fair that he had always been searching for ways “to create something beautiful. . . . I had a lot of money, and now I have enough.”

He is survived by two children.