Robert Temple - Author of The Sphinx Mystery

Huntington Hartford and his second wife, Marjorie Steele, when they were happy together.
Huntington Hartford was one of the most misunderstood and under-valued cultural figures of his time. For most of his life, he was rich and famous, and ‘had everything going for him’. He accomplished much, but received in return public ridicule and contempt. Much of the fanatical opposition to him was based on naked envy, and the hatred by vested interests of his traditional views of art and the direct challenge they posed to numerous art dealers and museum directors. He made enemies with the same ease with which he picked up girls. There was never any shortage of either. Personally, he was the most amiable and generous of men, always as friendly as a Labrador puppy except when he was in a frenzy about someone who he thought was an enemy of culture, or when he discovered, as he did so often, that he had been robbed or cheated by a friend or business advisor, which turned him apoplectic. Journalists have spread the story for years that Hunt wasted his entire fortune. But the truth is that much of it was stolen from him, although he was not prudent with the rest, and was a wild spender. Hunt told me that when he was 21, he inherited more than $500 million (that was in 1932). A large proportion of this he claimed was stolen from him early on by his Uncle John, a businessman, who apparently cheated him out of at least $200 million. Then a corrupt accountant over a period of many years siphoned off tens of millions of dollars which were never recovered. Hunt often told me of these things with bitterness. When he was older, he was defrauded of at least $250 million by the American Mafia. He never dared to go public about it, because they would have murdered him. So he had plenty to worry about. I never heard of a financial advisor in Hunt’s life who did not cheat him or steal from him. The press estimates of his wealth and losses are largely inaccurate.

Hunt and I first became friends in the spring of 1967 in Paris. I was a very young man and we ‘bonded’ over our mutual love for Aristotle’s Poetics and our intense agreement on basic principles about the sacred duty of art. Because Hunt was at that time still one of the richest men in the world, he had few real friends, but was surrounded by vast hordes of sycophants, hangers-on, and blood-suckers. We saw a great deal of each other after that in London, where he owned a house in Red Lion Yard in Mayfair round the back of Mirabelle’s Restaurant. Hunt’s absolute certainty that I had no interest in his money meant that he trusted and confided in me about every detail of his personal life, despite the great disparity in our ages and circumstances. He told me over and over again that I was the only person he could really talk to apart from Larry (mentioned in a moment). That shows just how alone he really was, despite his huge number of ‘friends’. My wife Olivia and I noticed at a party at Red Lion Yard attended by Hunt’s friend Sammy Davis Junior (then one of the most famous show biz personalities in the world), in fact it was a birthday party thrown for Davis, that the house was full of people drinking Hunt’s champagne and flocking round Davis and impressing one another, but no one bothered to speak to Hunt. He stood on the sidelines, a lost and pathetic figure at his own party. In New York a few years later, Hunt told me he was going to write his autobiography and call it From Riches to Rags. He never finished it. Another time, he said to me mournfully: ‘You know, I’m down to my last sixteen million dollars in a totally unbreakable trust fund.’ I sympathised profusely, though it took some effort. His grief was too genuine for me to laugh at such a ‘problem’ which most people would like to have.

When he was a young man, Hunt was universally acknowledged to be the ‘most eligible bachelor in America’. He was bullied when young by his domineering mother, by then a widow, about the need to marry a socially acceptable girl. Instead, he eloped at twenty with Mary Lee Epling, who was not right for him. He told me he respected her a lot, but had made a terrible mistake, was glad to be divorced, and thought she had made the right choice in marrying Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, afterwards. The great love of Hunt’s life was Marjorie Steele, his second wife, who was as fresh and clean as a spring dawn when all the leaves are just coming out. No one could have been more genuine, more pure in heart. Alas, his philandering was compulsive and Marjorie turned to the bottle, and it all fell apart. She later married the actor Dudley Sutton, who is still a respected senior figure of the Chelsea Arts Club. Occcasionally, he and I exchange a few words and look meaningfully at each other when Marjorie is briefly mentioned. Finally, she married the Irish author Constantine Fitzgibbon, which gave her much happiness. Hunt and Marjorie spoke, almost daily, on the telephone for years, after Constantine’s death, and during the 1990s when he took to phoning me every day from New York for months on end, Marjorie would sometimes call as well, and we had a kind of three-way commiseration about how sad everything was. And it was. Hunt and Marjorie never stopped loving one another all their lives, they just could not live together. Hunt told me endlessly: ‘Marjorie was the one great love of my life.’ Marjorie is a brilliant artist and sculptor, and as an actress she was very good indeed, though her career was short. She has now survived two of her three husbands and still lives in Ireland. I managed to save some of Hunt’s film enterprises from oblivion. He assigned to me various rights such as distribution and re-make rights in the three Hollywood movies he produced: The Secret Sharer, a film based on a story by Joseph Conrad starring James Mason, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, starring Robert Preston and Marjorie Steele with screenplay by James Agee (these two were joined in the RKO release Face to Face, 1952) and the unreleased Hello Out There! (1949) directed by James Whale and also starring Marjorie, based on a William Saroyan play. I showed these three films at the National Film Theatre in London in the 1970s, and have preserved a 35 mm print of Face to Face. I also acquired from him the rights to Daphne du Maurier’s story No Motive and James Agee’s screenplay of Stephen Crane’s The Blue Hotel (the word ‘blue’ had no pornographic connotations in those days and referred to a building painted the same colour as a heron’s legs). Hunt was to share the proceeds, but there never were any. His heirs will possibly benefit one day, but at least the things were saved from the dustbin. Hunt owned so much and so many such things (I have a record of a large number of other film properties owned by him, the only record of them which survives) that nobody will ever trace them all. I did what I could, but the task was beyond human endeavour. He had a hyper-efficient executive secretary named Marie Ricci in New York, who was so devoted to him, but she vanished from the scene in the 1970s or 1980s, and with her went all knowledge of most of his business affairs. At one time, Hunt owned so many valuable paintings that if they were put up for sale today they would go not for millions but for billions. I used to admire in particular one of his Rossettis, hanging over the sofa where I often sat. Hunt was passionate about the Pre-Raphaelites, and probably owned as many of their paintings at one time as Andrew Lloyd-Webber does today. He owned Gauguins and van Goghs, Monets, Turners, and countless major works by Dali (‘Columbus Discovering America’, and the one of Christ crucified in space, for instance, both of which he commissioned), whose patron he was, and enough important canvasses by major artists to fill a museum. So he built the museum! It was at 2 Columbus Circle in New York, and the building still stands. Hunt was forced to close it as a gallery in 1969. As an art gallery, it was the most luxurious imaginable, and had very thick soft carpets, so that one’s feet never ached. It was called The Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art. He told me he intended it as a counter-blast and antidote to the cultural poison emanating from The Museum of Modern Art. Hunt had a violent hatred of abstract expressionism, and he stood against everything that Saatchi today stands for. He wrote (without a ghost-writer) an excellent book entitled Art or Anarchy? (Doubleday, 1964), one of my prized possessions being the copy he signed for me, and he and I discussed it for hours on end with great passion, getting each other worked up about it like university students in a dorm. As Hunt said: ‘An artist is a leader of men, a creator, and he has a responsibility.’ Hunt was also an excellent graphologist and wrote (once again he really did it himself) a book called You Are What You Write (Macmillan, 1973). He was as gleeful as a child when he told me how he had spotted Senator Barry Goldwater in a restaurant one evening and had dared to go up to him and ask him for his signature, which he then analysed and added to his graphology collection of famous people’s handwriting. Hunt was a good friend of Howard Hughes. He told me Hughes was a nice guy who went a bit nuts, but he liked him. They shared an uncontrollable need to seduce every attractive girl they met, though Hughes liked them older and bustier than Hunt. If Hunt slept with less than 10,000 girls in his time, I would be amazed. And most of them were under 25. That may seem like a lot of girls, but more than one a day was very common for him. He kept a special flat for trysts on the corner of Curzon Street, and paid young men to pick up girls for him. I got to know one of the boys who did that, and he told me all about how the system worked. The girls would not at first know that the boy himself was not whom they were destined for, but an older man to whom they would be introduced by the boy. Girls in a state of semi-dress were also a constant problem at Hunt’s house, often interrupting our conversations about Greek and Roman philosophy, so that he would snap at them and tell them to get back in the bedroom and criticise them for not knowing what philosophy was.

Hunt employed a very nice and amusing fellow named Larry Horn to look after him, who had a particularly charming wife whom Hunt like a true gentleman never tried to seduce. Larry was completely honest, and seriously normal and straightforward, and kept Hunt out of trouble. (If Hunt left wads of cash lying around carelessly, he would hand them to him, and never pocket anything.) Larry and I speculated about Hunt’s satiromania (now called, since Michael Douglas, ‘sex addiction’). If Hunt exasperated Larry beyond what he could bear, Larry would call him a faggot. This was how to wound and silence Hunt and make him behave. Larry’s theory was that Hunt was so terrified that he might secretly be gay that he couldn’t stop sleeping with girls compulsively lest he suddenly realize that he might really be a bisexual and go to pieces. Hunt had a beautiful daughter named Cathy, who died in 1988, apparently from a drugs overdose. Hunt adored her and couldn’t bear to discuss it, it was such a tragedy. He had a very nice and well-mannered son named Jack, who survives him. I often asked after him, and Hunt was extremely fond of him and used to glow when he was mentioned. Hunt had an illegitimate son whom he never mentioned to me. However, I later came to realize that as the boy had committed suicide in the same year I met Hunt, Hunt’s sorrow about it may have been a motivation for his befriending a young man like myself, aged only 22 at the time, seven years younger than the boy who died. I may have filled for him the gap of a ‘son figure’, his other son Jack being still too young. Certainly no one could comprehend why he treated me with such intense concern all of his life as if we were somehow the same family. From the first day we met, he treated me till the end as someone with whom an intimate friendship was taken entirely for granted, a case of ‘unconditional affection’ such as few parents give. Hunt’s third wife was Diane Brown, who left him shortly before I met him, so that I never met her. He often spoke of her and still cared for her after they separated, as he was a very sentimental man, and she was also amazingly beautiful. They even got together again briefly, and a daughter emerged as a result. It was their daughter Juliet who rescued her father from an obscure fate in 2004 and looked after him until his death. Hunt’s fourth wife Elaine was a terror, and he warned me and Olivia that she kept a loaded .38 revolver to scare off his friends if they tried to call and ‘would wait with it behind the door and would shoot’. When visiting him in his brownstone house on East 30th Street in Manhattan (after he had to downsize and live there, in what to him was obscurity after One Beekman Place), it was therefore necessary to plot with him on the phone how to creep in when she was out. I refrain from giving more distressing details of his situation at that time, which was really grim and upsetting. He seemed to be essentially a captive living in a state of terror in his dressing gown.

Hunt was ahead of his time in countless ventures, was highly creative and imaginative. He published a sophisticated glossy arts magazine called Show for many years, which finally closed in 1973 after being re-launched unsuccessfully with an emphasis on movies, to widen its appeal. He invented a marvellous new form of tennis using real racquets with shortened handles which could be played indoors on a table with a special ball (I still have one, and it was the ball that was the secret), which was really very brilliant and should have been a world-beater. But it was never marketed properly. He used to make me play it with him in his basement at Beekman Place, even though I was no good. He was a superb tennis player, and knew all the tennis champions. Hunt was Chairman of Shale Oil Corporation, and wanted to produce oil extracted by a special process from shale rock, of which there are billions of tons in America and Canada. But this was not economical at that time, when ordinary oil was so cheap. He talked about this technology project endlessly to me, but for the 1960s and 1970s it was ‘a vision too far’, despite people looking more seriously at it for a while during the 1973 oil crisis.

When I think of all those people who wanted to know Hunt when he was somebody, I have such contempt for them at the way they abandoned him when he was nobody. I only got out of touch in the last few years because of living in different countries, and because he would wake me up every morning at 4 AM in England to talk for an hour or two about philosophy and art, and I was going crazy from lack of sleep. He liked to remind me over and over again that I was the first person who ever told him about the philosopher Seneca. He no longer knew what time it was because he never went outdoors or saw day and night. It was Marjorie who told him to stop phoning, although she said sadly: ‘You see, he needs you.’ Hunt needed somebody, that’s for sure. I did what I could as a friend, which was never enough, I fear. My admiration for him never flagged, and I still admire him enormously. Good luck to you, Hunt, they can’t steal your money in heaven, but the sex may not be so good.


© Robert Temple 2009-2022