The arguments between her husband and her son had been building for weeks, but at an acrimonious, five-hour board of directors meeting April 19, Gloria Haft held her tongue. She helped restrain herself by writing over and over on a note pad: "Do not speak. Do not speak. DO NOT SPEAK..."

But five weeks later, tensions between Herbert, 72, and Robert, 40, over Haft-controlled Dart Group Corp. had grown from quiet disagreements to bitter yelling matches. So the 66-year-old matriarch could no longer heed her own inky warnings.

Gloria, a tiny woman wearing an expensive designer suit, rose at the large marble table in the elegant conference room at Dart's Landover headquarters May 24 at a board meeting of Dart's subsidiary Crown Books Corp.

She spoke just as the meeting began, when she saw that Herbert and the three non-family directors of Dart companies had brought lawyers to represent them. That had never happened in the long history of Dart's retail and real estate empire -- an organization run with a close-knit solidarity that had been the family's principal defense in decades of bitter fights with commercial rivals.

Recalling their almost half-century of marriage, Gloria pleaded with Herbert to settle the feud with Robert over everything from Dart's business strategy to the timing of the son's expected succession as the company's top executive. She said they still could work out the problems together as in the past.

And, finally, teary-eyed, she said: "Herb Haft, do not do this."

Her husband did not respond, but turned and whispered to his lawyer, Michael Klein. Then Klein spoke, saying simply that he was there to represent Herbert.

"Well, I am here without the advice of a lawyer," Gloria said. "Since others have them, there must be some reason to have one, so I am not staying."

Ignoring protests, she quickly left the room. The meeting broke up for 45 minutes, until Robert and his sister, Linda, persuaded Gloria to return.

But Gloria's statement was a watershed, according to many of those present. When Gloria spoke, they said, it was clear that the bonds that had long held together one of Washington's richest, most famous and controversial business clans had cracked. Within two weeks, Herbert had ousted everyone except himself from the Dart board -- including Gloria and Robert.

It was a traumatic break for a family that was a near-perfect case study of up-by-the-bootstraps American business success. Herbert, the son of a Russian immigrant, and Gloria opened their first discount pharmacy, Dart Drug, in Adams Morgan in 1954. The couple mortgaged their home and cashed in their babies' savings bonds to get it going. Gloria worked in front of the store while Herbert ran the pharmacy counter.

One of the genuine pioneers in discount retailing, they mastered a low-price, high-volume formula. From that modest start, the couple and later their three children built a network of stores and shopping centers based locally but extending nationwide.

Today, the publicly held Dart Group -- controlled by Herbert -- owns major stakes in the Trak Auto, Crown Books and Shoppers Food Warehouse chains; a Total Beverage discount superstore; and a portfolio of real estate and other investments. The Hafts also own more than three dozen strip shopping centers throughout the Washington region in a separate, valuable private real estate company called Combined Properties Inc.

The Hafts' total holdings were estimated in 1991 by the local business magazine Regardies to be worth $500 million to $1 billion.

Living Like Royalty

The Haft family's success has allowed them to live like modern royalty. They have mansions in Northwest Washington, Florida, California and Massachusetts. They ride around in black Cadillac limousines, Mercedeses and Land Rovers, and travel abroad frequently. They mix socially with powerful figures, from mayors of Washington to presidents of the United States.

On this climb to wealth and influence, Herbert pursued a lifelong confrontational strategy that won him respect but little affection from the rest of the business establishment. In the Haft patriarch's tough manner lies the seeds of his family's current trauma.

Sometime in the last few years, Robert began to tire of his father's style of leadership, according to sources knowledgeable about the family and the company. Turning away from his father's aggressiveness and isolation, Robert gradually adopted an approach that was more open and accessible to the local business community, Wall Street and the press.

Robert also came to disagree with his father about Dart's direction. He wanted to acquire other retail chains, for example, while his father preferred to focus on real estate.

Initially Herbert and Robert kept these differences private. But a rift opened in March when Robert -- four months after his 40th birthday -- asked Herbert to take steps to give him the company's reins.

"Robert is typical of a very bright, young guy who gets restless and wanted to build his own company," a former Crown board member said. "He justifiably thought he was pursuing an ongoing plan for natural succession."

To Herbert, however, Robert's action looked like a crude grab for power. So Herbert took aim at his family, using the same hard-edged tactics that he has wielded so effectively in the business world.

First, Herbert used his personal control of 57 percent of Dart's voting stock to remove Gloria, Robert and three other directors from the boards of Dart, Crown Books and Trak Auto. Then Herbert fired Robert from the presidency of Dart and other executive positions.

Robert lost posts for which he received $2.8 million in direct pay last year, in addition to millions of dollars in profits from stock options. Robert also was ousted as chairman of Crown Books -- the chain he founded and for which he was the well-known pitchman in Crown's familiar "books cost too much" advertisements. Herbert succeeded him as chairman.

In Herbert's view, the punishment was justified because Robert had betrayed him in a number of ways, such as by disagreeing with him in board meetings and talking to the press about Dart's future after Herbert's retirement.

"Robert was throwing it all in the face of his father, insulting all that had made the company successful over the years," a source close to Herbert said. "Herbert never ever said no to his children until this happened, but sometimes your kids have to be sent into a corner."

But Robert and Gloria see their expulsions from top Dart posts as the latest example of Herbert's vindictiveness, according to sources who take their side. "He is cannibalizing his children in order to get what he wants," a source who takes Gloria's side said. "He wants to control everything and everybody."

Members of the Haft family declined to comment on the record for this article.

A former Dart executive warned that the family battle could have wide implications for everyone from employees to shareholders. Like most people interviewed for this story, the former executive did not want to be identified, largely because of fear of recrimination from members of the family.

The family's power has always rested in their unity, said the former executive. "So if they aren't together anymore, there are not going to be any survivors, only victims."

'Genuine Tough Guy'

Over the decades, the Hafts' reputation has been dominated by that of Herbert's, a man whom friends and foes call "tough," "hard-as-nails" and "hard-nosed." Several close associates believe early fights -- with major manufacturers, tenants and close business associates -- created a lifelong pattern of going head-to-head with anyone Herbert perceived as in his way. He has parted in acrimony with many business partners, lawyers and employees.

"Let's just say, he's a genuine tough guy," a close business associate said. "When he hits an unsolvable dispute, he deals with it in a decisive way. He does not worry about what people think of him at all."

Even friends agree. "Herb is a very strong-willed individual and has had to be in order to have come so far in such a short period of time," said Sidney Kramer, former Montgomery County executive and a friend of Herbert. Born in Philadelphia in 1920, Herbert grew up in Baltimore where he lived above his Russian immigrant father's drugstore, a business that the family lost in the Depression.

The family moved to Washington and soon opened another store, with Herbert attending Washington's Central High School (now Cardozo High School) and then George Washington University and training as a pharmacist. After the Navy discharged him because of an overbite, Herbert served as an Army supply officer during World War II.

Afterward he married Gloria Greenberg, and they opened their first store on Connecticut Avenue NW near Porter Street with seed money from her parents. That store was upscale, but later the couple opened the first Dart in Adams Morgan.

The drugstore's discount prices soon caused trouble. Early in the 1950s, Herbert single-handedly took on major pharmaceutical and supply companies that did not want him selling their products at prices below what they suggested. His case, pressed by the Justice Department, went all the way to the Supreme Court. Its 1960 landmark decision against fixing prices was critical to the growth of the discounting business.

A nasty family lawsuit also came in 1960 when Herbert's brother-in-law, Alvin Shapiro, sued him over allegations that Herbert had cheated him out of initial investments he had made in the drugstore chain.

The case was settled out of court with Herbert reportedly paying Shapiro an undisclosed amount of money. According to sources knowledgeable about the Haft family, Herbert broke off relations for 15 years with his brother, Leonard, who had sided with the brother-in-law.

As Dart grew, there were many other fights. At one point more than three dozen lawsuits were pending, recalled a former lawyer hired by Dart. In a particularly sensational case, a longtime business partner -- Vana E. Martin -- said in a suit she "carried on a sexual affair" with Herbert from 1965 to 1980. He denied the allegation at the time and settled out of court.

That alleged affair and Herbert's numerous social appearances with other women have strained the Haft marriage and contributed to Robert's estrangement from his father, according to sources knowledgeable about the family. But one of the sources said, "Herbert and Gloria were a team from a long time ago ... and that meant that they never let go no matter what."

Gaining National Fame

The Hafts' fame began to spread beyond Washington in 1984, when Herbert and Robert engineered the sale of the original Dart Drug chain -- grown to more than 70 stores -- to its employees for $160 million.

The Dart Drug sale was marred by a dispute. Dart Group later paid $2.7 million to settle a Labor Department case alleging that the Hafts failed to monitor the drugstore chain's pension fund, used as collateral in the transaction. The Dart Drug chain, burdened by debt after the buyout, was later sold and ultimately went out of business.

The money from the Dart Drug sale, plus $250 million raised later by selling junk bonds, made it possible for Herbert and Robert to mount numerous takeover battles in the 1980s. They went after a number of important retailers, including May Department Stores Co., Jack Eckerd Corp. and Supermarkets General Corp.

The takeover attempts made the pair national business celebrities. But, according to retail specialists and Wall Street executives who observed these contests, the two were widely seen as seeking quick windfall profits rather than as really intending to buy anything.

The Hafts' pattern was to buy a significant amount of stock in a targeted company. That led other investors to buy too, on the expectation of a takeover, and drive up the stock's price. But the Hafts didn't go through with the acquisition, instead reaping gains by selling the stock at the higher price. All told, Dart earned about $100 million in the takeover bids, according to company sources.

Earlier this year Herbert became embroiled in a different kind of battle, connected with Total Beverage in Chantilly. He published full-page newspaper advertisements criticizing Giant Food Inc.'s exclusive rights to sell certain wines. Herbert reportedly had an angry meeting with Israel Cohen, Giant's chairman and another Washington area retail legend.

A Family Man

While Herbert loved to battle with outsiders, he was never confrontational with his family. Almost every source familiar with the Hafts said everything Herbert did over the years was for his family, especially Robert.

From the beginning, Herbert cultivated his eldest son to ascend to the top of the empire. In previous interviews, Robert has recalled his father taking him at a very young age to bank meetings, drugstore conventions and negotiations with suppliers. Herbert also made sure Robert got the best training -- Bullis private school here, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University's graduate business and design schools.

After Robert came to Dart in 1977, the pair went everywhere together -- movies in Dupont Circle, vacations and store visits. They awarded themselves high annual salaries, always well more than $1 million, with generous bonuses and stock options.

They even had similar famous hairstyles -- Herbert's magnificent mane of snow-white angel's hair, a pompadour that sits atop his head like a national monument, and Robert's dark brown shaggier version. During their takeover heyday, Wall Street wags gave the pair a hair-inspired nickname, "The Poodle and the Puppy."

Away from work, Herbert was a doting grandparent to Robert's children, and Robert and his two small boys often were seen walking the short distance on Massachusetts Avenue NW between their two homes to visit.

"It was sweetness and light, and Herb often said he could not have been a finer son," a close business associate of the Hafts said.

Robert turned out to be as savvy a businessman as his father. The idea for Crown Books was solely Robert's, who thought of it in his 20s at graduate school. Two years later, Robert was deeply involved in starting Trak Auto. And after taking charge of renovating their Dart Drug stores, Robert played a key role in selling the chain.

In general, according to former board members and many sources familiar with the business, Robert raised the level of professionalism at the company. He recruited virtually all its top young managers. Sources also credited Robert with the recent, successful push toward opening Crown and Trak superstores, with more space and larger selection.

"Herbert and Bobby have been like an act," an investment banker who has worked with the pair said. "Herb tells the anecdotes and Bobby lays out the business plan."

While father and elder son often got most of the credit, Gloria and other Haft family members also played key roles in the business. Gloria has long been Herbert's closest adviser, according to family sources.

"Gloria has a superb understanding of finance and is a very smart, capable woman," a longtime Haft family friend said. "She has been an integral member of the team."

Gloria splits her time between social and charity activities and overseeing the family's real estate holdings. Employees of Combined Properties said she often visits potential sites to check on them.

And so, sources said, do Robert's older sister, Linda, and younger brother, Ronald.

Linda, 43, whose first marriage ended in divorce and whose second was annulled, has two children and helps run Dart's financial investment subsidiary. She is called shy and aloof by many who deal with her, but also is considered shrewd. She lives in a large home in Bethesda.

Ronald, 34 and unmarried, heads the real estate company Combined Properties. Though he is said to be devoted to his work, many sources said he does not have the same intense interest in business as Herbert and Robert. Several business associates described him as a socially active "man about town," who travels frequently or relaxes on his large boat "Powerplay" in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Ronald lives in a spacious house on California Street near Herbert and Robert in Northwest Washington. He was interested in an acting career and in the movie industry long ago, according to sources who know him. Ronald spends about half the year in Los Angeles, sources said, where he has purchased two homes.

Lifetime of Preparation

To have all of one's children so actively involved in a business is unusual, family business experts said. But the Haft parents carefully prepared their children.

A Haft friend remembers that Gloria and Herbert used to have their children sit around the dinner table and tell what they had achieved for the day. Another recalls the children being schooled at home by Herbert about sewer regulations and how to swing financing on a real estate deal.

"It has been a very tightly knit family who spent all their waking moments together on business," said a current Dart executive. "Against the rest of the world, they stood together."

Stood together, that is, until this spring when the Haft family began to tear apart.

The current battle among the Hafts has its origins in the fraying in recent years of the family's key relationship between Herbert and Robert. Weary of the burden of his father's reputation as a business renegade, Robert began distancing himself from Herbert in recent years, according to sources knowledgeable about the family and Dart.

Unlike his father who shunned local business groups, for example, Robert became a member of the local branch of the Young Presidents organization, a group of youthful executives of local companies.

Herbert's controversial reputation has exacted a social price on Robert, according to sources knowledgeable about the family. For example, members of Rockville's Woodmont Country Club said Robert has not been accepted into the club and its circle of Jewish business elite because of his father's reputation. Herbert had tried and failed to gain acceptance there many times. Woodmont officials would not comment.

Robert also focused on retail and not on the real estate holdings that his father loved. According to sources, in recent years Robert has identified several retail company acquisitions for Dart that Herbert rejected.

Before his firing, Robert was working on deals to acquire the Dollar Tree general merchandise stores and the Books A Million book chain, both discount retailers like Dart's other companies. Former board members of Dart said they were excited about the proposed retail acquisitions and encouraged Robert. But sources close to Herbert said the deals were not right for Dart.

Robert, in contrast to his father's practice, also began to foster a more open style, which included more complete financial information in annual reports and other corporate statements.

Wall Street analysts and investors said they were pleased with these kinds of moves because Herbert's secretiveness has contributed to Dart shares being deeply undervalued for years. Dart shares, for example, have long hovered at $80 per share, though many investors and analysts think they could be worth as much as $150 to $200.

"The problem {for the stock price} is that investors have had no idea what Herbert Haft was up to," said Robert Robotti of the New York brokerage firm Robotti & Eng. "It's an uncertainty that makes it hard for people to get excited about Dart."

Whoever prevails in the Hafts' saga, the outcome could have profound effects on their retail chains and shopping centers, and on their companies' shareholders and almost 10,000 employees. "The Haft family is the Haft business, and I don't know if you can separate the two," said a former Dart executive.

The feud is especially troublesome since Dart's current profits are relatively small, compared with the size of the organization, and have dropped in the past three years despite increases in sales.

In Dart's fiscal 1993 ended Jan. 31, the company had profit of $3.8 million and sales of $1.26 billion. Two years ago, profit was $8.3 million with sales of $1.01 billion. Financial analysts think earnings have declined because Dart has been making investments that should soon lead to a substantial increase in profits.

But that assumes a happy Haft family, rather than one divided by deepening fissures.

"I think that Bobby has tried very hard to upgrade the reputation of the whole family and the company," a prominent real estate player in Washington said. "I think part of the problem for Bobby was that Herb still wanted to do it the old-fashioned way -- that meant take no prisoners."

No one who knew Herbert Haft ever thought he would apply that hard-edged approach to his family.

Next: Scenes from the breakup