Squandered Fortune: The Life and Times of Huntington Hartford

January 11, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

The gossip industry is vital to our nation’s economy. Yet too often we forget that it is based on the ruthless exploitation of the rich and powerful. Most of these victims have little choice but to cultivate vice, the cash crop from which the industry derives the precious dirt that is dished to millions of consumers.

Consider the sad case of Huntington Hartford II. Forbidden to meddle in the A&P grocery empire from which he inherited his fortune, he was forced to become a playboy and to dissipate his millions while blundering through four marriages and holding down a full-time position as aging satyr. Today, at 79, he is said to be a virtual prisoner in a Manhattan town house furnished in Contemporary Squalor and presided over by a raving, drug-addled ex-wife. His only reward for a lifetime devoted to the interests of tabloid journalism is this tabloid biography by Lisa Rebecca Gubernick, who has assembled one of the world’s largest collections of rumors and innuendos and called it a book.

Like most scandalmongering, it has its moments. During the 1930s, Hartford’s life is a madcap upper-class comedy that should have been directed by Preston Sturges. Given a routine clerical job at A&P headquarters in New York, he spends his time on the phone, bargaining for paintings and yachts, or on the floor, sleeping off his all-night excursions into cafe society. With a retinue of scientists and society ladies, he launches his yacht on a futile three-month expedition for sunken treasure. The voyage turns into a floating cocktail party punctuated by the arrival of milk sent by his mother, who worries he will drink too much coffee and miss his naps. After setting out on a honeymoon with his second wife, he leaves her in a restaurant while he ogles the other women in the place. A few minutes later he abruptly realizes — slapping forehead with palm of hand — that the beauty he is eyeing across the room is the woman he has just married.

The account of Hartford’s crusade against modern art in the 1950s has a certain quixotic grandeur to it, but the book soon declines along with its victim. Gubernick risks spraining her insinuating style (unsubstantiated suggestions that his mother slept with him, that he used his daughter’s schoolmate to procure girls, and so forth) when she drags Watergate-era heavies like Bebe Rebozo and Robert Vesco into her stew, and if you think you might go bananas if you hear anything more about the Studio 54 crowd, here is your opportunity to find out. This book tells us everything about Huntington Hartford except why there needs to be a book about him. My advice to the rich: Go on strike. Simply refuse to take drugs or mistresses, gamble, or grow fat. Bring the gossip profiteers to their knees. Force them to write about each other. D+

Squandered Fortune: The Life and Times of Huntington Hartford

Lisa Rebecca Gubernick
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Squandered Fortune: The Life and Times of Huntington Hartford

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