Two weeks before he died, discount retailer Herbert H. Haft quietly married his longtime companion in a hospital ceremony that provided yet another twist in a bitter and very public family feud.
Haft, 84, married Myrna C. Ruben, 69, on Aug. 18 at Sibley Memorial Hospital, where the multimillionaire died Wednesday of heart disease. His marriage to Gloria Haft, his wife of 45 years, ended in a nasty divorce in the mid-1990s.
"It was a wonderful wedding," Myrna Haft said yesterday in the Haft home off Embassy Row, between phone calls and visits from family and friends. "We were surrounded by a crowd of close friends."
Haft said the two met 10 years ago on Valentine's Day and lived together in Haft's home for many years. "We felt married. We lived married," she said.
Why the wedding two weeks ago? "I don't know. I just know that Herb wanted me to marry him. . . . He asked me, and I said yes."
Haft's second marriage was not mentioned this week when family members reflected on his life and death. In an interview Thursday, his son Robert told an obituary writer at The Washington Post that his father had not remarried. But the new wife was listed among survivors in the paid death notice, which is prepared by the funeral home and was published in yesterday's Post.
Robert Haft said in the interview that he and his siblings had begun to reconcile with their father and that they had spent time with him at the hospital. Yesterday, he said he didn't know about the marriage and declined to comment further.
The wedding was a surprise development in a family saga that has sporadically captured Washington's attention since the 1990s, when family warfare ended up destroying the Haft empire. The business began with a drugstore in Adams Morgan and grew into a large retail corporation that, at one time or another, included Dart Drug, Crown Books, Trak Auto, Total Beverage and Shoppers Food Warehouse. Haft also had substantial real estate holdings in another company, Combined Properties, which once managed 40 shopping centers.
Robert Haft became a partner in his father's retail business, and his younger brother, Ronald, spearheaded Combined Properties. In 1993, Herbert Haft abruptly fired Robert, sparking a family feud that spawned suits and countersuits, with both sons ultimately fighting for control of the family business. Parts of the business were sold off, and others went into bankruptcy.
Myrna Haft said her relationship with Haft's children was "civil" but declined to elaborate. She said she was widowed in 1989 when her first husband, Leon B. Ruben, who owned Steven-Windsor clothing stores, was killed in an auto accident. "I was an independent woman when I met Herb," she said.
She declined to talk about the legal implications the marriage would have on the family estate. "I have nothing to say about that," she said.
But William E. Davis, whose District firm, Ross, Marsh & Foster, specializes in trust and estate law, said the marriage will reinforce Myrna Haft's legal standing as an heir.
"A spouse has more rights than just a companion," Davis said. "If you're married, you're married."
A spouse, even if not designated an heir in the will, has a legal right to an "elected share" of the estate, Davis said. Under District law, the surviving spouse can elect to take up to 50 percent of the probate assets. He cautioned, however, that in "sophisticated" probate plans, all assets are not probate assets.
"Now that they are married, she has a statutory right to take the elected share against the will," he said. "A spouse has special standing; you can't challenge an elective share. . . . I know couples who lived together years and years and only married when one of them was diagnosed with a terminal illness and they wanted to be sure the survivor was provided for."
Davis, who is not involved in the Haft estate, said children in such circumstances could challenge the marriage. But he noted that this would be difficult in this instance if Haft "knew what he was doing" when he wed.
Associate Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge S. Michael Pincus, who married the couple in the hospital, declined through a spokesman to comment.
Yesterday, at the Haft mansion, photos of the couple were on prominent display, including several on a table in the foyer. A wedding gift -- two silver kiddush cups, used for wine in Jewish ritual and engraved with their names and the date of their marriage -- also adorned the table.
The Hafts, who celebrated the 10th anniversary of their initial meeting in February with a lavish party at their home, were preparing for more festivities this month before Herbert was hospitalized six weeks ago. Invitations to celebrate his recent 84th birthday had already been printed.
"We had a wonderful, blessed life," she said, looking wistfully at pictures of Haft with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Boris S. Yeltsin and other luminaries. She pointed out a bronze bust of Haft depicting him at 21 and already sporting his famous pompadour.
"He was incredible," she said. A moment later, gazing at another picture, she added, "Look at that hair."
Staff writers Annie Groer, Margaret Webb Pressler, Roxanne Roberts, Patricia Sullivan and staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.