He was a grandson of a a principal founder of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company and was raised with wealth as a boy. His desire was to be, as the NY Times puts it "an arbiter of culture and a master builder," a goal he worked on in a variety of ways. He opened the he Huntington Hartford Museum, also known as the Gallery of Modern Art in Manhattan in 1964 to showcase 19th and 20th century art and to buck the current trend then for Abstract Expressionism. The overblown palazzo-style of the building, which is shown at right, was considered slightly ridiculous and the art inside wasn't particularly distinctive. Hartford poured $7.4 million into the project before giving up and the museum's home is now undergoing a extensive redesign as the future home of the Museum of Arts and Design.
Another costly venture was his investment in Hog Island, in the Bahamas. In 1959 he bought most of the island, renamed it Paradise Island and started to build a lavish resort. Unfortunately he was unable to get a gambling license for the resort and his increasingly extravagant plans doomed it to failure, losing him an estimated $25 million to $30 million.
His life reads like a story of wrong turns. He graduated from Harvard and worked briefly for his uncles at the company headquarters but was often absent. He donated a yacht to the Coast Guard after the start of World War II and was given the command of a supply ship in the Pacific which he rang aground twice. In Los Angeles, he tried his hand at the movie business and converted an old movie house in a stage theater, the Huntington Hartford Theater. He later started an arts and entertainment magazine, Show which he lost more money on before it folded in 1973. He eventually declared bankruptcy even though he was still the beneficiary of a trust fund that brought him more than $500,000 a year.
His losses were so legendary that a book "Squandered Fortune: The Life and Times of Huntington Hartford" (Putnam, 1991) was written about his life. The author Lisa Rebecca Gubernick that lacked focus, his dreams were big but he was easily distracted.Hartford definitely had his fun, marrying four times and spending time in the company of movie stars. All in all, not such a bad life even if it was the reversal of the American dream. Writing in Esquire in 1968 he described himself as "Horatio Alger in reverse."