It was early evening on Aug. 18 when they gathered at the bedside of legendary Washington tycoon Herbert H. Haft, who lay in a glass-enclosed cubicle in the second-floor intensive care unit of Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Wearied by age and illness, Haft, 83, was jaundiced from liver failure, his weakened heart maintained a feeble beat and his kidneys no longer functioned.
Short and pugnacious, the white-haired millionaire and former Wall Street terror who stood just over five feet tall now seemed shrunken and frail against the expanse of his hospital bed.
He had just two weeks to live, but those who had assembled amid monitors, IV tubes and other hospital machinery that muggy Wednesday hadn't come to say farewell.
They were there to see Haft marry.
His fiancee, Myrna C. Ruben, 69, wearing an elegant new pink suit, looked nervous as a judge intoned, "Repeat after me." The wedding ceremony lasted about 15 minutes. There was no cake. Then the groom stayed behind as his bride headed out for dinner with their friends. They threw flowers as she sat down in the restaurant.
As with many events during Haft's long and contentious life, the weeks since his death Sept. 1 have generated two bitterly competing versions of his last month on earth. Attorneys and judges were in play even as he lay dying. And the wrangling has continued since his death, with attorneys hoping to avert the sort of litigation for which the Haft family is renowned.
With the fate of a fortune estimated at more than $50 million at stake, the issue is whether the wedding was the most wonderful thing to befall him in a decade or the deathbed manipulation of a befuddled man.
His bride and the new family of friends he had developed in the past decade say the marriage was his heartfelt desire. The children of his first marriage worry that it was not.
"He was always calling the shots," said Elliott L. Burka, a friend who attended the wedding. "Even in the hospital."
A second wedding-day act would take on legal consequences after Haft's death. His will was amended to emphasize one important point:
"I have not made provision for any of my children or their descendants. . . . And that is my considered and definite intention."
It was signed in the shaky and barely legible handwriting of a sick, old man. Skeptical family members questioned whether he was making his own decisions. They suspected that he was half-delirious and feared he was being duped.
This account of his final days was drawn from court documents and interviews with acquaintances, friends and family members. Some of those who agreed to interviews did so only on condition that they not be quoted by name.
Man About Town
Two months before his death, Herb Haft and Myrna Ruben pulled up in Haft's clear-windowed stretch limousine outside Prime Rib, the downtown Washington restaurant where they were regulars.
Haft didn't like tinted windows. He was a dapper man about town who enjoyed the company of attractive women. He liked to be seen, and he liked the people with him to be seen.
This night in late June, it was philanthropist and former Fox and America Online executive George Vradenburg and his wife, Trish, who lived a few blocks from Haft's mansion on 3oth Street, just off Northwest Washington's elegant Massachusetts Avenue Embassy Row.
The wealth that paid for Haft's lifestyle was of his own making. Raised in Baltimore and the son of a Russian immigrant pharmacist, his success story began with a single discount pharmacy in Adams Morgan. Using moxy, smarts and frequently resorting to combat in the court system, he built an empire on commercial real estate and retail discount chains, expanding his fortune through bold stock market gambits.
The most spectacular legal battle erupted in 1993 like something out of a Jerry Springer show -- a multimillion-dollar dispute within the family over control of the conglomerate.
Haft, his children, Linda, Robert and Ronald, and his then-wife, Gloria, fought over Dart Group Corp., the family's half-billion-dollar retail holding company that oversaw its business, which included Crown Books, Trak Auto and Total Beverage.
The family dispute mushroomed into allegations of infidelity and physical and verbal insult. It ended, for the most part, about 10 years ago, with the Hafts divorced, the children estranged from him, the family name tarnished and millions paid to the combatants and their attorneys.
In the aftermath, friends said, Haft had found new happiness with a fresh circle of acquaintances, a sort of surrogate family.
"He pretty much gathered his own new family," said Michael Simpson, a Washington consultant who was a good friend of Haft's.
And, they said, he grew devoted to Ruben.
She had two adult children. Her first husband, Leon, had been the co-founder of a local clothing chain. He died in a car accident on the Interstate 95 bridge over the Susquehanna River in 1989.
Haft's divorce after four decades of marriage had been public and ugly, and he had vowed to friends that he would never wed again. But he and Ruben got on well. They dined, traveled abroad and entertained. Sometimes they would go in his limousine to a local Popeye's restaurant, which he loved.
In a 2001 version of his will, Haft named Myrna Ruben to preside over his estate, describing her as "my friend and companion."
She left her Bethesda condominium and moved into his buff-colored mansion on 30th Street NW.
The house had marble and hardwood floors, six fireplaces, seven bedrooms, a glittering, mirrored first-floor powder room, and French doors overlooking a rear garden and pool.
They sometimes referred to each other as Romeo and Juliet, she said.
"We had a wonderful life," Ruben said. "I adored him."
At the Prime Rib, there was always a little electricity when the couple arrived for dinner. And pianist Ramon Ballve, playing the restaurant's big Kawai with the Lucite top, usually spotted them right away. Ballve would strike up the melody to the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me," which he knew was Herb and Myrna's song.
"Herb was very much in love with her, and she with him," George Vradenburg said.
Haft's regular table was No. 39, an upholstered, star-shaped table near the front. Haft, his trademark white hair coiffed, habitually sat at one end, facing the door.
From there, Haft could see and be seen by all who came and went.
"The perfect spot," recalled restaurant owner C. Peter "Buzz" Beler.
Sitting together in the low light of the dark-paneled restaurant that night in June, Haft seemed healthy and mentally sharp, the Vradenburgs said. They chatted about various business schemes.
But Haft's days of wheeling and dealing were nearing their end.
In a matter of days after his dinner at Prime Rib, he was admitted to Sibley Hospital, where he remained until July 20, court records show.
Five days after his discharge, friends who joined him and Ruben for a casual dinner at a restaurant near American University said his illness was apparent.
"He was pure yellow," said one friend who had known him for years. "It was clear he was not well."
Haft checked into Sibley again the next day, July 26. He was sent right to intensive care.
His liver was failing, and his kidneys were spent. He was ordered to undergo dialysis three times a week, flushing his blood out a catheter in one of his veins and through high-tech machinery that cleansed it of impurities.
Each treatment left him exhausted.
Within a week, Carlos Picone, a physician, described Haft as a "profoundly jaundiced male who is fatigued with malaise."
"He answers questions vaguely, has difficulty concentrating and falls asleep easily," Picone noted in a record that later became part of the court file.
Another physician, Lawrence Widerlite, said that on dialysis days, Haft was so fuzzy that he "clearly can't make a decision."
'I Want to Marry Myrna'
One day in early August, Elliott Burka, 64, met Ruben for lunch in Sibley's spare, antiseptic ground-floor cafeteria overlooking Loughboro Road NW.
Burka and his wife, Christine, had been friendly with Haft and Ruben for years. The four had traveled abroad and dined out together frequently.
Burka, 20 years Haft's junior, greatly admired the man he had first known as "Mr. Haft." He had gone to Sibley regularly since Haft's hospitalization.
Now, as he and Ruben sat on the cafeteria's pink plastic chairs talking, she said: "You're not going to believe this, but Herbert asked me to marry him this morning."
"I'm delighted," Burka replied. "Congratulations."
When they went upstairs, Burka said Haft was beaming and confirmed the news.
"I want to get married," Haft said, according to Burka. "I want to marry Myrna."
"It's about time," Burka responded.
"He was very adamant," Burka recalled later. "I know the kids will probably say there was coercion or unnecessary influence. I did not see that. . . . Herbie was very excited about getting married. He was looking forward to it."
The couple had been issued a marriage license Aug. 12, according to court records. And legal sources said she had accepted a prenuptial agreement in which she waived her legal right, as his spouse, to half his assets. She would be taken care of, the sources said, through Haft's private trust.
Someone had to be found to conduct a bedside wedding in the ICU. A local rabbi who was approached declined.
Burka suggested Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge S. Michael Pincus, whom he and Haft both knew. Pincus was contacted and agreed.
The wedding was set for Aug. 18.
A Worrisome Sight
Linda Haft had last seen her father a year earlier, in his customary crisp blue suit, his hair perfect, his manner, jaunty, as usual, his health apparently excellent.
Haft's only daughter, she had been unaware of his hospitalization -- he had not notified his children -- and when she entered his Sibley cubicle Aug. 10, she was stunned by what she saw.
He was clothed in a hospital gown. His hair was disheveled. He had intravenous lines snaking from his arms and a tube in his nose. On a tray in front of him were bland-looking chunks of meat.
Worst of all, though, his skin was the grayish-yellow color of an extremely sick man.
A sign nearby read "Fall Risk." He had a private nurse with him.
His situation seemed dire, there was a blank look to his face and he seemed confused. According to the family, Linda Haft spent about 90 minutes with her father, holding his hand as he relived his long-ago service in World War II, something she seldom recalled him doing before.
He came around after a while and asked her about her family. But she departed alarmed at his condition. Afterward, she telephoned her brother, Robert, who was out of town, and urged him to come home and see their father.
Haft's relationship with his children still was badly frayed. His friends said that even while at Sibley, he expressed distrust of them and told his attorneys that he did not wish to see them.
In early July, about the time Haft entered Sibley for the first time, Robert had sued for $2 million he said his father still owed him.
When Robert showed up at the hospital the day after Linda's visit, the family said he was greeted icily by Ruben and one of Haft's old attorneys. Robert left but returned later after the others had gone.
After that, Robert and Linda timed their visits to avoid Ruben and Haft's attorneys. Linda often waited in the parking lot outside, where she could see her father's room, and went in only after she saw the others leave.
On Aug. 12, Linda Haft brought along her daughter -- Haft's granddaughter -- Deborah Rappaport, 28. Haft was happy to see her and asked to see her sister, Stacy, 24.
On Aug. 17, Deborah, Stacy, Linda and Linda's ex-husband, Gary Rappaport, came to visit.
Ruben and Haft's attorneys were there, briefly barring them from seeing Haft, the family said. Ruben relented after Linda appealed to her. The granddaughters were allowed a quick visit after Ruben cautioned them, according to the family, "No hugs in the ICU."
After leaving the hospital, Linda Haft filed a petition in the probate division of D.C. Superior Court to stop the wedding.
Her father had "repeatedly indicated his lack of desire" to marry Rubin in the past, she said in court papers. It was "bizarre that [he] would change his intention now."
He was "weak and feeble-minded," the filing said. She asked that a psychiatrist be called in and requested that she be named her father's guardian. The circumstances surrounding the marriage, she said, clearly suggested "a manipulation."
Herbert Haft, she argued, was "severely ill, appears near death, [and] cannot understand ordinary communication."
A Bedside Ceremony
Haft was jovial the next day as he sat propped up in his hospital bed, while his bride and friends assembled in his cubicle for his wedding.
The court had declined to act immediately on his daughter's request.
Pincus read a simple civil wedding service. The couple exchanged I dos, slipped rings on each other's fingers, and Haft added: "I love Myrna very, very, very, very much," recalled Burka. "We all laughed," Burka said. "It was so cute."
Then the two kissed.
Burka said the nurses chased everybody out pretty quickly. There were other sick people around.
As the gathering was breaking up, Haft joked that he wanted to go, too: "I'll take you all to Prime Rib and have dinner," he said, according to Burka.
Some of the others went off to the Prime Rib, according to one member of the party. They arrived at the restaurant before Ruben and showered her with flowers gathered from the tables when she sat down.
Ruben and Haft were husband and wife for exactly two weeks. Though Haft's condition remained variable, the couple talked about a honeymoon when he got out.
On Aug. 23, Haft turned 84.
Three days later, he was interviewed by Ronald D. Wynne, a veteran psychologist who had been appointed by the court after Linda Haft sought to block the wedding. Wynne was asked to determine whether Haft was mentally competent to make big decisions.
Wynne talked to doctors, nurses, family members and Haft. Wynne found Haft sickly, weak and slightly confused but alert and aware. He told Wynne that he was married "several weeks ago," although it had been only a few days. He told Wynne that he suspected his ex-wife was behind the court action.
Wynne reported back to the judge that, although Haft's status could change from one day to the next, he was competent on the day Wynne saw him.
"He appears a socially skillful man trying hard to maintain an air of normalcy, and even control, while battling a serious, perhaps terminal illness," he wrote.
On Wednesday, Sept. 1, Ruben was summoned to the hospital.
Haft now needed a ventilator to breathe. He appeared to be semiconscious and comfortable but failing.
About 10:30 p.m., with Ruben and three friends at his side, he died.
"He passed peacefully, with dignity," said his friend Michael Simpson, who was there at his death. "There were no heroics."