Huntington Hartford: Riches-to-rags grocery heir

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In the annals of big spending with little to show for it, Huntington Hartford occupies a special place. Having inherited a fortune of at least $90m (worth many times more in today's dollars) he managed to squander at least $80m as an unsuccessful property developer, patron of the arts and Hollywood and Manhattan boulevardier – not to mention as the husband of four beautiful younger women, all of whom he divorced.

Grandson of the founder of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, later the A&P supermarket chain that at one point was the largest retail business in the world, Huntington grew up in the lap of luxury. After his father died when he was just 11, he was brought up by his overbearing mother Henrietta and an army of servants in a mansion at Newport, Rhode Island, and before long was settled with an annual income of $1.5m.

In 1930, just after he had started studies at Harvard, his mother is said to have considered marrying him off to the tobacco heiress Doris Duke, one of their Newport neighbours. Instead Huntington fell for and eloped with 18-year-old Mary Lee Epling, a trainee kindergarten teacher, who became his first wife. It was the first stage of a colourful but exceedingly expensive marital odyssey.

Having graduated from Harvard, he went to work at A&P's New York headquarters. Huntington expected a senior management post, but instead was given the task of tracking the sales of bread and pound cake. His career in the family business ended when he skipped work to attend a Harvard/Yale football game. Thereafter, for better or (mostly) worse, he was on his own.

In 1940 he put up $100,000 to help start a New York paper called PM, and worked as a reporter there – a stint best remembered for his remarkable excuse for once missing a deadline on a story he was sent to cover in Long Island. He had returned to the city in his yacht, Huntington explained to his editors, but could find nowhere to moor it.

After the Second World War, in which he enlisted with the US Coast Guard and served as captain of the FT-179, a small supply ship that he twice managed to run aground, he initially set up shop in Los Angeles. There he dated the likes of Lana Turner, Gene Tierney, and Betty Hutton – and on one occasion Marilyn Monroe, whom he described as "too pushy, like a high-class hooker".

On the business side of things, he set up a modelling agency, tried to buy at least two Hollywood studios, and created the Huntington Hartford Foundation, intended as a resort-cum-artist colony. Inevitably too, he became smitten with an 18-year old aspiring actress called Marjorie Steele, whom he married in 1949.

Gradually, however, Huntington's career in the entertainment industry foundered. His first and short-lived Broadway production was the play A Day by the Sea, in 1955. Three years later came his most ambitious venture, an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, called The Master of Thornfield, for which he wrote his own script.

The initial show in Los Angeles, starring a ravaged Errol Flynn as Rochester, was panned. It fared no better when it moved to New York, with Eric Portman now playing Rochester. After lingering six weeks before half-empty houses, it died an expensive and mostly unlamented death. Consolation of a kind came with his third and final Broadway production, Does a Tiger Wear A Necktie? (1969). It too did not run for long, but featured a young actor named Al Pacino, whose performance won a Tony Award.

But Huntington's serious money-losing was already well established. In 1959 he bought up most of what was then Hog Island in the Bahamas, renamed it Paradise Island and set about turning it into a resort, which he opened with a party in 1962 for 2,000 guests, among them Zsa Zsa Gabor. However, he failed to get a gambling permit and the venture never quite came together. House guests at his villa in those years included Richard Nixon, Sean Connery and The Beatles, when they visited the Bahamas to film beach scenes for the movie Help! By some estimates the Paradise Island adventure ultimately cost Huntington up to $30m.

Other unsuccessful schemes followed, among them an automated parking garage in Manhattan, a handwriting institute, purporting to help in the detection of cancer, and a fancy European-style café in Central Park. The most spectacular flop of all was the Huntington Hartford Museum, an $8m white elephant which opened its doors at Columbus Circle in Manhattan in 1964.

Huntington, who hated the Abstract Impressionism dominant at the time, intended the museum to be a showcase of 19th- and 20th-century art. Instead The New York Times architecture critic described the building as "a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops". The contents were scarcely more warmly received.

By then, he had divorced Marjorie Steele at considerable cost, including $1m trust funds for each of their children, and married a young model called Diane Brown. Their union was stormy, marked among other things by Diane's well-publicised fling with the singer Bobby Darin. The couple reconciled, however, and had a daughter, before divorcing in 1970.

In 1974, at the age of 63, Huntington tied the knot for the fourth time, to Elaine Kay, a 20-year-old hair stylist from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The couple divorced in 1981, but continued to live together at Huntington's 20-room Manhattan apartment. According to a 2004 article in Vanity Fair magazine, Kay introduced him to the use of drugs, with miserable consequences.

The Manhattan townhouse he subsequently moved to became so squalid that the city health department sent warnings. Eventually he filed for bankruptcy in 1992, and left New York to spend his final years at a $6m beachside villa at Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, paid for out of a trust fund that escaped the bankruptcy.

To the end, Huntington seemed to have few regrets about losing the bulk of his fortune, during a life that was the American Dream in reverse. "I was always trying to create something beautiful," he told Vanity Fair four years before he died. "I had a lot of money and now I have enough."

Rupert Cornwell

George Huntington Hartford, arts patron and property developer: born New York 18 April 1911; married 1931 Mary Lee Epling (marriage dissolved 1939), 1949 Marjorie Steele (one son, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1961), 1962 Diane Brown (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1970), 1974 Elaine Kay (marriage dissolved 1981); died Lyford Cay, Bahamas 19 May 2008.

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