Huntington Hartford, Rich Dilettante Who Dabbled in Theatre, Dies at 97

Obituaries   Huntington Hartford, Rich Dilettante Who Dabbled in Theatre, Dies at 97
Huntington Hartford, the grandson of one of the founders of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company whose wealth and wandering attentions occasionally led him into the world of theatre, died May 19 at his home in Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. He was 97.

Mr. Hartford was raised in opulence on the Jersey shore and in a mansion in Newport, RI, at a time when few families in America were richer than the Hartfords. The scion never worked a regular job, per se. Instead, he pursued four marriages, many affairs and dozens of quixotic business ventures during his time, almost none of them ending in success.

The New York Times reported that, having inherited an estimated $90 million, he went through $80 million of it, with little to show for his expenditures. Among his most high profile follies was the Huntington Hartford Museum, also known as the Gallery of Modern Art, at 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan, which he opened in 1964 to showcase his taste in art. The gallery's walls did include works by the prevailing abstract expressionists of the time, whose art he abhorred.

Theatre and journalism remained abiding interests throughout his wayward career. In 1940, he put up $100,000 to start the newspaper PM, hiring himself as a reporter. He tried publishing once again with Show, an arts and entertainment magazine that had a decade of fitful life before folding in 1973.

Living in Los Angeles after World War II, he met and married aspiring actress Margorie Steele, then working at a cigarette girl at Ciro's nightclub. She was only 19 at the time. He produced the films "Hello Out There" (1949) and "Face to Face" (1952), which featured her. The latter starred James Mason and had an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad work by James Agee. Steele also made several stage appearances, but soon retired to raise a family.

In 1954, Mr. Hartford converted an old movie house into the Huntington Hartford Theater — thus creating the only legit stage in Hollywood at the time. Helen Hayes starred in his theatre's gala first production, James Barrie's What Every Woman Knows. The building was remodeled by Helen Conway at a cost of $750,000. According to Cinema Treasures, "The facade featured white Vermont Marble in mid-century modern design. The lobby contrasted with black and silver carpet, specially loomed for the floors. The auditorium doors were black teak wood with gold fittings. The large auditorium had gray-green walls with black pilasters rising from either side of the stage." In 1964, Mr. Hartford sold the theatre to James Doolittle (owner of the Greek Theater in the Hollywood Hills) for $850,000. Mr. Hartford first produced on Broadway in 1955, backing a short-lived play called A Day by the Sea. In 1958, he became considerably more ambitious, producing his own adaptation of "Jane Eyre." It0 began in Los Angeles with Errol Flynn as its star. But the show was badly reviewed and Flynn fled. Mr. Hartford took the show to New York with Eric Portman as his new Rochester (and with Lehman Engel, future founder of the BMI workshop, arranging the music). It ran for six unprofitable weeks at the Belasco Theater.

His third and final Broadway production was his most successful, in that the title, Does a Tiger Wear A Necktie?, featured a rising young actor named Al Pacino, who won a Tony Award for his performance. The production, however, did not run long.

In the final years of his life, Mr. Hartford declared bankruptcy, though he still had a considerable income owing to a trust fund. He moved to the Bahamas in 2004. He is survived by his daughter Juliet and his son John.

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