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A "Derogatory" Obit?

Adam Bernstein

A reader wrote in last week to criticize what she called the "derogatory and negative" tone of the recent obituary for Huntington Hartford II, the A&P heir whose quest to be taken seriously as a patron of the arts led him to drain much of his enormous fortune. Hartford died May 19 at 97.

"In almost half a page about the life of a man," the reader wrote, "I could not see one good thing written about this man. ... I can see how your piece can be rewritten with a positive note or two in it: He was a great philanthropist, he loved and supported the arts, he helped the artists and so on."

The nature of the letter raises a question about what readers expect from an obituary. Often readers mistake obituaries for eulogies, or at least stories focusing on positive legacies at the exclusion of anything remotely unsavory.

But really they are news stories. And like any story about, say, the White House or Wall Street finance, the writer should go where the facts take him or her. Often what helps eliminate the "derogatory" factor is to try to find quotations that illuminate the context of the person's foibles.

As obit writers, our mission is not to impose personal views on a person but to collect data that gives a fair portrait of a subject. Sometimes fair is a matter of corroborating what had been written in many previous articles about a man, to make sure the prevailing view of a person is accurate. This was the case with Huntington Hartford II, whose eccentric and at times disturbing life was well-chronicled.

He fathered a child out of wedlock with a chorus girl while married to the first or four wives. According to Vanity Fair magazine, HHII would have nothing to do with the illegitimate child, who later shot himself to death.

HHII was a patron of the arts but with very precise tastes. He hated anything considered modernist, whether the art of Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning or the novels of William Faulkner or the playwriting of Tennessee Williams.

It's fine to have such tastes, but HHII was a vocal antagonist of those artists, taking out advertisements lambasting their work as immoral.

He also spent enormous sums on a NYC museum dedicated to more-traditional art styles he liked, and the museum itself was considered one of the more controversial buildings in Manhattan. The New York Times obit for HHII called his Gallery of Modern Art "a folly or worse" and quoted its former architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable calling the gallery design a "die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops."

By most accounts, Hartford was a crummy businessman as well. He plowed $30 million into a resort in the Bahamas but lost it for $1 million because he did not invest in a gambling license. He wrote in Esquire magazine in 1968, "to most Americans the worst errors are financial, and in that respect I have been Horatio Alger in reverse."

As a young man during the Depression, he walked off one job to attend a college football game. He got a job as a reporter at the newspaper PM in New York because he invested $100,000 in the publication. He once told an interviewer -- perhaps apocryphally -- he could not turn in an assignment on time because there was no place to park his yacht.

During World War II, when he served in the Coast Guard and commanded a cargo vessel in the Pacific. He twice grounded the ship, one time because "I mistook feet for fathoms."

The Wall Street Journal blog "The Wealth Report" also noted Hartford's death and ran through his litany of bizarre behavior, which included a drug addiction that most sources have blamed on his fourth wife. Many writers took the blog in stride. But one writer felt compelled to oppose the prevailing view.

"I knew "Hunt" in the '70s," she wrote, "and yes he was surrounded by hanger-ons and his ridiculous last wife, but he was a kind man, who was very intelligent, excellent conversationalist and a good spirit. The fact that he wasn't good with his fortune should not take the place of a sweet soul."

By Adam Bernstein  |  May 26, 2008; 12:51 PM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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