Huntington Hartford, heir to the A&P fortune, was once a fixture on Manhattan’s social upper crust. By the time Cree McCree was hired as his personal secretary in 1982, however, he was toast—in more ways than one. His money dwindling, his drug use and philandering a staple of the tabloids, his business ventures all failing, Hartford held a tenuous grip on his residence at tony One Beekman Place. Cree offers a firsthand look behind the velvet curtain of that palace of decadence.
Before there was Donald Trump, there was Huntington Hartford. A boldface gossip-column fixture and tabloid headliner from the 1930s well into the 1980s, the gallivanting A&P heir wanted his name writ large on everything he built, just like Trump. In the process, Hartford lost his shirt so many times in bad business deals his red ink tsunamis surpassed Trump’s gushers during his Atlantic City years. Had Hartford been born 30 years later, he could easily have gone mano a mano with Trump on dueling episodes of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, set in their own fairy tale worlds. They also both despised Manhattan’s cultural elite, though for vastly different reasons. But the similarities end there.
When I met Huntington Hartford in October of 1982, he was 71 years old, just a year older than Trump was when he inflated the number of people who attended his presidential inauguration. But while Trump was only beginning to flex his ego, Hartford was nearing the nadir of a decades-long slide down an escalator that never ascended back up. The scene at One Beekman Place, from which he was soon be evicted by his hoity toity neighbors, was like a bad reality show before the genre even existed: crawling with hangers on, drug dealers and ad hoc pimps sent to procure young hotties for the master while Hartford himself shambled around in a grubby bathrobe, stoned on various combinations of ‘ludes and coke and smack, if he managed to crawl out of bed at all.
What was it like to work for Huntington Hartford for a few brief weeks that would otherwise be lost to oblivion? Here’s my best recollection, based on my own contemporary notes and journal entries, bolstered by memory-refreshing research and a close reading of Squandered Fortune, the 1991 Hartford biography by the late Lisa Rebecca Gubernick.
Spoiler alert: Stick around for the boffo finale: Three years after I left the job, ABC No Rio and No Wave heroes Circle X invaded Hartford’s old domain at 2 Columbus Circle, and exorcised the demons of my recent past.
“Huntington Hartford would like to meet you.”
I was on my way out the door of a fraying-at-the-seams disco on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, far from my usual downtown stomping grounds, eager to escape a dreary New Age benefit I’d been roped into attending, when a mafioso type in a pinstripe suit and pro forma shades stopped me in my tracks.
Huntington Hartford??? Hmmm. The name vaguely rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite place him. The de facto bodyguard gestured toward a corner banquette, where a rather distinguished white-haired man in a dark suit sat surrounded by a group of much-younger club habitués well into their cups. Champagne was flowing freely (though Hartford himself stuck to his beloved Bailey’s Irish Cream), so I figured why the hell not cadge some free bubbly before I cabbed it downtown?
We chit-chatted a bit, and when he asked me what I did, I said I was working as a PR person and studio assistant for a well-known psychedelic artist, Isaac Abrams, and helping him with the logistics of animating his paintings.
“Does that pay well?” he asked. No, in fact it didn’t pay at all, but I got to live in a cool (illegal) loft above his SoHo studio for free. “Well, I need a new secretary,” Hartford said, “and I can pay you to do the job.” Having my own pocket money sounded pretty sweet, so after Hartford assured me I could still work for Isaac (whose work day generally started after dark), I agreed to have dinner with him the following evening to discuss the particulars.
“Isaac, guess what happened tonight?” I announced when I stepped out of his freight elevator at West Broadway and Canal. “Huntington Hartford wants to hire me as his secretary!”
“What, are you nuts?” Isaac put down the spray paint nozzle he’d been pointing at his latest phantasmagoric spacescape and let out a snort. “You know what happened to his last secretary, don’t you?”
Actually, I didn’t. I’d been so wrapped up in my own little psychodrama of being the concubine in Isaac’s quasi-open marriage, and in finishing the final draft of the how-to flea market book I’d just mailed off to my publisher, that I hadn’t been paying much attention to the ever-passing parade of scandals in New York City’s daily tabloids. So, Isaac proceeded to lay it out for me, in all its lurid details.
“You know what happened to his last secretary, don’t you?”
In early 1982, after keeping a fairly low profile for a while, Hartford burst back into notoriety when his ex-wife, Elaine Kay, and her girlfriend tortured Hartford’s 18-year-old live-in secretary, Sheila Dowling, by tying her to her bed with adhesive tape, stripping her naked and shaving her head with an electric razor to avenge Hartford’s alleged affair with Dowling.
Though Kay and Hartford had divorced, she’d continued to live at One Beekman Place until their irate neighbors started eviction proceedings against Hartford after the head-shaving escapade, which was a gift that kept on giving to the tabloids. After Dowling escaped, she went to the cops and filed charges against Kay and her accomplice, and later launched a civil lawsuit against Hartford. Elaine and her pal got off fairly lightly; they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and paid a $500 fine. But shortly before we met, Hartford (who had slept through the incident) was forced to cough up $117,000 of his fast-dwindling fortune as a payoff to the abused secretary.
Gulp. That story was enough to give me pause, and it did. But the more Isaac and I talked about it, fueled by the blizzard of cocaine copiously available in the ‘80s, the more we mutually decided I’d be a fool to look a gift horse in the mouth. I was already in my early 30s, far too old to spark Hartford’s lust for nubile teens, and had probably only caught his eye in that low-lit club with my long blonde hair. Hartford was also offering to pay me the then-princely sum of $250/week, which would curb my occasional mooching off Isaac, a win-win for both of us. Best of all, for a not-yet-published aspiring writer, Hartford would make great grist for my mill as a subject.
Isaac helped me pick out what to wear to the dinner date with my potential boss: an elegant but modest jersey dress with a high neck, long sleeves and a swirly mid-calf skirt that was stylish enough to wear to the kind of fancy old-school restaurant, like the 21 Club, where I assumed he’d take me to eat. Freshly perfumed with Chanel #5, and armed with enough money for cab fare there and back, I asked the driver to drop me off at One Beekman Place, a prestigious midtown building on the East Side of Manhattan, where Hartford occupied a spacious triplex penthouse.
Hartford burst back into notoriety when his ex-wife, Elaine Kay, and her girlfriend tortured Hartford’s 18-year-old live-in secretary, Sheila Dowling, by tying her to her bed with adhesive tape, stripping her naked and shaving her head with an electric razor to avenge Hartford’s alleged affair with Dowling.
I can’t remember who let me in when I stepped off the elevator and rang the bell; it was probably Stella or Paulette, his daytime and evening housekeepers. But I waited for a good 10 minutes before Hartford finally appeared at the top of a sweeping staircase. After giving me a feeble wave, he began haltingly descending, step by step, gripping the banister as he came down. Far from being dressed to go out to dinner, he was wearing an old brocade bathrobe over wrinkled pajamas and a pair of scuffed-up slippers. About halfway down the stairs, he asked me to come up and have a drink with him. Which I did, because I was there, and hey, it was cocktail hour.
Hunt didn’t exactly have a well-stocked bar. Like Trump, he was famously a teetotaler for years, and got a kick out of hoisting a glass of milk next to revelers with martinis at swank watering holes like the Stork Club. But once Elaine lured him into drugs, he developed a penchant for Bailey’s Irish Cream as his comfort drink, and also kept a stash of Stoli around for his dealers, young hotties and whoever else happened by.
After I’d downed a couple Stolis, Hunt brought out a tray of cocktail of hors d’oeuvres: several fat lines of white powder. I assumed it was cocaine, which I could snort like a pro back then, so I hoovered up a couple biggies and waited for the familiar rush to kick in. But instead of exhilaration, I felt like I’d been kicked in the head by a horse. The fat white lines were smack, which I’d assiduously avoided, and for good reason; it was definitely not my drug. Almost instantly, I was overcome by nausea and any designs Hunt might have had about bedding me dissolved into puddles of puke.
I don’t remember exactly what happened next; I might have passed out. When I came out of my stupor, I was in a pitch-dark room and the door was locked, spawning instant paranoid fantasies about being held captive, possibly in the infamous secretary-torture room. But I wasn’t taped to the bed. When my eyes adjusted, I realized I was just locked in a bedroom with a bathroom I sorely needed, since I was still throwing up. And, thank god, a phone.
I immediately called Isaac, told him what had happened, and asked him to help me plot my escape. He patiently talked me down, pointing out that I might well have locked myself in that room as an act of self-defense. And he was right; the door was locked from the inside, not the outside, so I could walk out anytime. Isaac advised me to keep the door locked, stay where I was and sleep it off. Which I did.
It was early afternoon when I woke up the next day, splashed some water on my face and managed to find my way down to the kitchen. That was Stella’s domain, and over the next few weeks I’d spend a lot of time with Stella, who’d seen it all. Compared to the rowdies and basket cases she had to regularly ride herd on, I was a lightweight casualty, and she handled me a strong cup of coffee and scrambled some eggs to bring me back to earth.
I was just getting ready to go outside and catch a cab, when Hunt’s voice came over the kitchen speakerphone. He asked if I was still there, and told her to ask me to bring him his breakfast, which Stella usually did. While Stella poached his eggs, toasted his bread and sliced a grapefruit, I debated in my mind what to do: should I stay or should I go?
The mercenary won that argument; $250/week was nothing to sneeze at, and I was curious whether Hunt’s offer was still on the table. So I carried the ceremonial domed silver tray, a vestige of his silver-spoon A&P heir days, into the service elevator and up to his cluttered master bedroom, where Hunt sat propped up by pillows on a bed strewn with several days’ worth of newspapers.
“I’m sorry about last night,” he said, sounding genuinely contrite and surprisingly coherent, which Hunt occasionally managed to be. “I should have told you that was heroin, I thought everybody did it. But if you still want to work for me, you can start on Monday. I’ve been handling all my own business since Elaine did that terrible thing to poor Sheila, and I really could use some help.”
Thus began two of the weirder months of my life.
My first visit to One Beekman Place was such a blur I hadn’t really noticed my surroundings. They only came into focus when I officially started my new job and began coming into the kitchen through the downstairs service entrance. I’d grab a cup of coffee with Stella and catch up with the latest gossip from the goings-on the night before; the cast of characters changed daily, but there was always a rogue’s gallery of miscreants sleeping it off somewhere in the rabbit warren of rooms upstairs. Then I’d take the service elevator up to Hunt’s office, where I spent most of my time.
Sometimes Hunt would summon me upstairs on the kitchen speakerphone. But more often than not, he’d be dead to the world when I arrived. He had his good days and bad days, depending on whether he’d found the right mix of daytime drugs to offset his nighttime ragers, but when he was fairly compos mentis he’d actually assign me jobs.
Organizing Hunt’s office was always on the agenda, and a truly Sisyphean task. A jumble of files devoted to dozens of long dead ventures poured out of open file cabinets and cluttered every available surface, mixed in with memorabilia from his Cafe Society days. Photos of Hartford with everyone from Errol Flynn to Marilyn Monroe to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Richard Nixon to the Beatles were strewn over old copies of Show magazine, which went belly up in 1973. Files of famous signatures from his now-shuttered Institute of Handwriting Analysis were piled on top of blueprints for his Bahamian Shangri-La, Paradise Island, Hunt’s splashiest failure of all, which he was then fighting a losing battle to wrest back from Resorts International. (Later Paradise Island owners included, briefly, Donald Trump).
Over in the corner, gathering dust, was the architect’s model for the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, the towering monument to mediocrity he erected at 2 Columbus Circle, which had long since been stripped of his name. Built to spite the elite critical art establishment and MoMA, which had enshrined abstract expressionists and other masters of “meaninglessness” like Picasso and Matisse, the gallery was an outgrowth of Hartford’s 1964 Art or Anarchy? screed. Updating that derisively-panned tome for a new edition was one of several quixotic jobs Hunt put on my to-do list that thankfully fell by the wayside; as editor of that project, I would have been tasked with finessing his premise that abstract expressionism was a secret Soviet plot to “break down our morals….[with] ugly, revolting art.”
“I should have told you that was heroin, I thought everybody did it. But if you still want to work for me, you can start on Monday
I gamely did my best to create order out of Hunt’s chaos (talk about anarchy!), but my new boss had the attention span of a gnat. In the course of an afternoon, he’d shift gears from dictating yet another threatening letter to the Resorts International honchos to having me work on soliciting the endorsement of tennis champ Arthur Ashe for Ten-Net, Hunt’s hybrid of ping-pong and tennis, which he had set up in his basement for visitors to play and which he was certain would set the sports world on fire.
There was one daily task, however, Hunt expected me to perform without fail: organizing the invites to black-tie benefits and gala openings, which continued to pour in from musty Social Register mailing lists that had not yet purged Huntington Hartford from the A-list of invitees he’d occupied for decades.
On the days Hunt was lucid, we’d spend a couple hours going through his invites, trashing some and sorting the rest into maybes and definites, though how many of the definites he actually attended I’d be hard-pressed to say. I usually split to go back to Isaac’s studio by 6 or 7, and most of the time I worked for Hunt there was no one around to help him suit up for formal affairs, a job he definitely couldn’t have handled on his own.
Toward the end of my employment, however, a fresh young female face appeared on the scene, whose problematic presence I recounted in a journal I kept at the time:
Hunt’s New Girlfriend (11/19/82)
Hunt has rapidly become enraged over the blithely innocent non-cooperation exhibited by his latest live-in lovely, one Julie H. Miss H has just moved her allegedly platonic longterm roomie John into the Hartford domain along with her motley assortment of possessions, and Hunt is beginning to have his doubts.
Miss H, it seems, is either indisposed, in need of privacy, or sound asleep whenever Hunt feels amorously inclined (as inclined as he can be at 71 and doped up, down, and sideways to the gills). Miss H does, however, show a remarkable alacrity of recovery when being escorted to such bastions of chic as the 21 Club. Or when Hunt has arranged a photography session with a star shutter man that may advance her modeling career.
At the moment, Hunt is engaged in yet another discussion of Julie’s ways, whims and sexual shortcomings (read: no-comings) with John, the aforementioned platonic pal. John, for his own reasons, not the least of which might be the lure of a free ride at Hartford Whorehouse, argues eloquently and passionately for the delicacy of Julie’s nature, diplomatically delineating her case history so that Hunt can understand it’s not HIM. Not HIM, my god, he’s just another poor man finding his way through the gossamer maze of an angel whose complexities reside in her simplicities. Maybe.
Julie is adequately attractive, but that’s all. There’s not a single distinguishing feature on a face still battling teenage skin problems at 23 that marks her with the unmistakable quality of beauty. And all Hunt’s four wives to date, whatever else they might have been, have been beauties and originals. Julie is neither bright nor beautiful, and thus she becomes the ultimate metaphor for Huntington Hartford. Not only has he lost his fortune, his health, and his ability to function. He’s also lost his way with women.
Whatever happened to Miss H? I have no idea. She was just one more vulture that attached herself to Hunt to feed on his remains and pick what they could off his bones. There was also a Trinity School blonde Hunt met at a debutante ball who liked to blacken her mouth with gunk and lurched into his life from time to time. Her father was some kind of publishing honcho at Life, and according to notes I scrawled back then, one day she begged Hunt for money to buy a half-gram of heroin before she went to meet the staff of Life with her dad. “I’m not afraid of telling him you gave me heroin, because they can’t prove it,” she bragged, then added: “And my father’s a pretty heavy dude.”
But her threat fell on deaf ears. Hunt, as usual, didn’t have a red cent on him. Which brings me to the most vivid memory I have of my Huntington Hartford era, recorded in my journal toward the very end of my employment:
A Trip to the Bank with Huntington Hartford (12/10/82)
Lurching through sub-basement #3 of One Beekman Place, HH — his nostrils caked with snotty coke — takes the shortcut to the E.A. Bank, flanked by me, his trusty secretary.
Behind the bank counter, a sharply dressed young Hispanic teller does his best to make sense of the seedy millionaire and his female bodyguard. Hunt wants access to his safety deposit boxes and fumbles through the pockets of his stained suede jacket, dumping an assortment of keys, envelopes and three well-used straws on the counter. Politely ignoring the straws, the teller helpfully assists me in finding the most likely keys among at least a dozen stuffed into a red envelope.
We try them all and voila! The last one fits. But when Hunt opens the box, it’s empty. So is the second one, which we finally manage to unlock. No big surprise. Hunt seems doomed to a seedy little death leaving nothing behind but a legion of parasites squabbling over the remains of his once-mighty empire.
My prediction proved prescient, for more than two decades.
Shortly after I stopped working for Hunt, One Beekman succeeded in booting him out for good. He decamped to an old townhouse on East 30th St., where his ex-wife Elaine and her druggie pals once again ruled the chaotic roost. That era is perfectly captured in an infamous photo shot by Annie Leibovitz for “Whatever Happened to Huntington Hartford?”, a 1986 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, which shows a distraught Hunt looking like a deer caught in the headlights in his dark, cramped bedroom, captioned: ”This really is like a prison, you know.”
And it all went downhill from there. As recounted in “Hostage to Fortune,” a lengthy 2004 Vanity Fair piece by Suzanna Andrews, an increasingly enfeebled Hunt became a power-of-attorney pawn of Elaine and her unscrupulous attorney, Linda Blake, who grabbed POA after Elaine died and moved Hunt into a tiny bedroom in her home office in upstate New York.
Then, mirabile dictu, in 2003, an angel appeared. Juliet Hartford, Hunt’s daughter by his third wife Diane, wrested control back from Blake after the lawyer was arrested and convicted for bilking another elderly client. After nursing Hunt back to health from a near-fatal congenital heart condition, Juliet tapped the single trust fund Hartford miraculously left untouched, which was worth about $11 million. That tidy nest egg enabled her to whisk Hunt away to the Bahamas, where he purchased a lovely $6 million seaside villa in Lyford Cay, Nassau, not far from his beloved Paradise Island. And it was there, with the Bahamian sun streaming into his spacious bedroom and his daughter Juliet by his side, that Hunt defied all predictions and died peacefully of old age at 97 in 2008.
My own story as Hunt’s oft-beleaguered secretary also has a happy ending that I couldn’t have predicted at the time.
Ten years after I gave my notice to Hunt, during the first flush of romance with my husband Donald Miller, who I met in late ‘92 and married in ‘95, we stumbled upon an unlikely coincidence. Turns out Donald was part of the painting crew hired by the new owners to purge the post-eviction damage at Hunt’s recently vacated abode, which Donald aptly described as “haunted.” So, every day for weeks, just like I did, he came in through the service entrance of One Beekman Place. But instead of sorting through black-tie invites, or pointing dealers to Hunt’s bedroom, he assisted in the sorely needed renovation of Hunt’s old domain, which had rotted so badly that the massive chandelier in the dining room crashed to the floor while they were working, narrowly missing Donald and his fellow painters.
The last one fits. But when Hunt opens the box, it’s empty. So is the second one, which we finally manage to unlock. No big surprise. Hunt seems doomed to a seedy little death leaving nothing behind but a legion of parasites squabbling over the remains of his once-mighty empire.
To commemorate our shared history with the ghosts of One Beekman Place, we had a photographer friend shoot us posed like gargoyles on the roof of our apartment building on E. 38th St., with One Beekman looming behind us. And just recently, while I was working on this story, another unlikely coincidence came to light.
In 1985, unbeknownst to either Hartford or me at the time, Donald played a tangential but pivotal role in a now-legendary performance by No Wave provocateurs Circle X at 2 Columbus Circle, which originally opened in 1964 as the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art. Long since stripped of his name, the widely-reviled building then housed the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, which had somehow been persuaded to allow ABC No Rio’s Lower East Side art collective to celebrate its Fifth Anniversary on the premises.
Inside the building, where Hunt’s beloved representational art once hung, various installations deconstructed modern life in late capitalist decay with the visual cacophony that Hunt so reviled. Meanwhile, outside the building, Donald was part of the team pushing a giant wooden cart toward Columbus Circle with Circle X vocalist Tony Pinotti strapped to one of its wheels while performance artist Samoa rode on top, banging from inside an oil drum. Adding to the drama, the band was forced to set up outside in the rain, where they performed in the face of fast-approaching Hurricane Gloria.
“We were originally supposed to roll the cart all the way around Columbus Circle,” recalls Pinotti. “But by the time we got there, the wind was really picking up, the sky was positively black and there were custodians running around everywhere taping up the windows. So we only rolled the cart once around the building.”
That was fine by Pinotti, who’d previously been tied to the band’s Catherine wheel at The Pyramid Club and CBGB, where he was rolled in from the street, and remained understandably wary of being strapped to its spokes.
“I was always terrified that the wheel would flip over and smash me on my face,” he recalls. “And what I was so afraid of at Columbus Circle was that someone would run up and kick me in the balls or slash me in the gut. I was vulnerable when I had my arms tied up like that and we were in public and you never knew what kind of nut was gonna run up.”
To help keep potential marauders at bay, Pinotti blew into a screeching whistle hanging from his neck while Samoa banged the crap out of the oil drum. And despite the impending hurricane, the sheer spectacle and the din attracted a huge crowd of onlookers. “It was rush hour, so commuters were pouring out of the subways,” remembers Pinotti. “And people just stopped and gawked on their way home from work. It was kind of fun to play to that type of audience.”
Meanwhile, worried suits from the Department of Cultural Affairs guarded the entrance to the building’s lobby, where Circle X was originally scheduled to play, and told the band to plug into into a gerry-rigged network of extension cords stretched across the ground, where water was already starting to puddle.
“All our equipment was starting to get wet, and we were getting little shocks every few minutes,” says Pinotti, who has a vividly visceral memory of that show. “We were all standing on cardboard, and I kept yelling to people that I had to have some rubber gloves. I ended up singing wearing those yellow dishwashing gloves because I was afraid of shocking myself while I was holding the microphone. So we didn’t play very long. It was a very abbreviated 20-minute set.”
“Our playing was …. need I say it? …. electric!!!” adds Circle X guitarist Rik Letendre, with a gleeful chuckle. My husband Donald Miller, a Circle X ally and co-conspirator, heartily concurs: “It was a great fucking 20-minute gig!”
Oh, how I wish I’d seen that epic throwdown! One for the ages, for sure. But it would have been even more satisfying if my old boss had been there to witness the forces of anarchy let loose on the very ground where he built his own temple to mundane middlebrow art.
There’s a certain poetic justice in coming full circle to Circle X’s exorcism of Hartford while I was writing this story: it helps wipe the slate clean of musty old memories of what would otherwise be a minor footnote in my life. For in the final analysis, the name Huntington Hartford is destined to live in oblivion rather than in the infamy he once craved.
Would that the same could be said of Donald Trump.