Huntington Hartford II; A& P Heir Lost Millions On Cultural Investments

Huntington Hartford II, once ranked among the world's richest, lost hundreds of millions of dollars funding movies, plays, a self-named artistic foundation and other enterprises.
Huntington Hartford II, once ranked among the world's richest, lost hundreds of millions of dollars funding movies, plays, a self-named artistic foundation and other enterprises. (The Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Huntington Hartford II, 97, heir to the A&P supermarket fortune whose quest to be taken seriously as a patron of the arts led him to bankroll movies, plays, galleries and publications that ultimately drained his wealth, died May 19 at Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Hartford once ranked among the world's richest people. He indulged hundreds of millions of dollars on interests as varied as his attention span was brief. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once called him "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 as well as the glossy magazine Show, a journal of art and culture.

Mr. Hartford's Ocean Club resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas suffered because of a lack of a gambling license and went bust. Resorts International eventually bought him out for $1 million, a fraction of his $30 million investment.

His Gallery of Modern Art in New York, featuring an Edward Durell Stone design, opened at 2 Columbus Circle in 1964 to risible reviews, for both 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 the advisers to his self-titled foundation, created to aid composers, writers and fine artists. He appointed new advisers 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 pockets 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 Vanity Fair magazine report, that last wife, a Fort Lauderdale hairdresser a decade his junior, introduced Mr. Hartford to cocaine, amphetamines and quaaludes.

He was hospitalized at least once for an overdose, and his fourth wife remained a destructive presence in his life for years. His apartment at One Beekman Place in New York became the site of violent encounters involving transient visitors. He was once left for hours writhing in pain after falling and breaking a hip.

When he made the news, it was usually for something unsavory, such as the fourth wife's assault on his secretary.

Mr. Hartford spent his final years living quietly in the Bahamas, a much-reduced figure compared with 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 April 18, 1911, in New York. 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 a storied American business, rivaling General Motors by the 1950s as a multi-billion-dollar corporation.

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