SQUANDERED FORTUNE

The Life and Times of Huntington Hartford

By Lisa Rebecca Gubernick

Putnam. 272 pp. $24.95

William K. Vanderbilt, who knew whereof he spoke, provides the epigraph for one section of Lisa Rebecca Gubernick's tale. "Inherited wealth," he said, "is a real handicap to happiness. It is as certain death to ambition as cocaine is to morality."

Certainly it is the key to the story of George Huntington Hartford, who as Gubernick writes "took the long fall; he ran through one of America's greatest fortunes." Heir to some $100 million earned by the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., the commercial colossus brought into being by his grandfather and namesake, Hartford succeeded in frittering away all but the odd vestige of it not on grandiose monuments to his own glory or foolish investments in Teapot Domes, but on astonishingly ill-conceived efforts to win "lasting fame" for himself.

Indeed he wanted more than fame; immortality was his ambition, a place for his name among those few who live on in the communal memory. The difficulty was that whatever native gifts he may have possessed -- they seem, in truth, to have been slight -- were given no opportunity for nurture in the hermetic world into which he was born. No one can say what would have happened had he been born without the proverbial silver spoon; but born with it he was, and it became the instrument through which he squandered not merely his fortune but also his life.

In the long chronicles of human waste and folly, a chapter surely belongs to Huntington Hartford. He built a theater, a museum, a resort; he founded a magazine, helped subsidize a newspaper, lavished money on the arts -- he did all this and more, yet all of it predeceased him. Now, as he lives in disarray in a town house on East 30th Street in Manhattan, he has nothing save the cranky companionship of a former wife and the pocket change left over from millions flung to the winds.

If ever in his reveries Hartford pauses to contemplate the root cause of the wreck that is his life, does he linger for a moment upon the memory of his mother? Surely he must. For if Gubernick is right -- and "Squandered Fortune" is in all other respects convincing -- Henrietta Pollitzer Hartford was the woman who done him wrong. Widowed when her only son was 11 years old, she spent the rest of her life babying him, denying him through the suffocating influence of her love any chance to stand on his own, isolating him so thoroughly from the normal run of human experience that he never had a prayer in the world outside.

The costs exacted by inherited wealth are innumerable and often unidentifiable, but this immunization from the bracing influence of reality seems to be near-universal among them. Not merely does it deny its victims the responsibilities and rewards of work, but it afflicts them with a debilitating sense of entitlement -- a conviction, felt if never expressed, that whatever they want or need is theirs.

This above all else seems to have been Huntington Hartford's problem. It does not seem unfair to say that never in his nearly 80 years has he done a single moment's work: not merely work in the received sense of the word, but in the sense of laboring to make his life worthwhile. He was "compulsive" in his pursuit of women, but apparently passionless once connections had been made; he married four times, but seems not to have wasted a moment's exertion on making any of these alliances succeed; he was father to four children, one of them illegitimate, but lavished nothing except indifference upon any of these offspring.

All of that having been said, it must be added that in no important respect was he a bad man; he was capable of kindness, had lofty if vague notions of service to mankind, could even be said to have wanted to put his fortune at the service of causes larger than himself. His problem was simply that he knew so little about life, was so utterly unconnected with reality, that his better instincts all eventually ended up serving the same master: himself.

In the end therefore Hartford's story is merely pathetic and sad. In its most overt manifestations, this means the polite squalor in which he now lives and the human relationships he has allowed to wither away. But sadder and more poignant than these is the pervasive sense of pointlessness and waste, of a life that might as well not have been lived at all. Not merely did Hartford fail to achieve the lasting fame he so desired; he didn't even make a dent.