Huntington Hartford

Huntington Hartford died on May 19, aged 97. He was a multimillionaire trust fund baby who inherited from a wealthy grandfather food magnate. He lived the life of a playboy. He married lots of times and spent much of his life in a haze of alcohol and drugs. At one time he dabbled in the art market and built up a significant collection but then he squandered all his money and lost it. He ended up having nothing, living like a down-and-out, and was rescued by one of his daughters. It’s a familiar story of how dangerous it is to spoil children and give them too much money. I see it over and over again, even in the Jewish community, or indeed especially in the Jewish community. I never tire of repeating Roberto Benigni’s remarks when he won the Oscar for Life Is Beautiful; he said, “I would like to thank my parents. . .They gave me the biggest gift of poverty.”

There are exceptions. Some wealthy families do learn not to spoil, to make demands, and to realize that to really love might actually involve saying “no”. That’s how some wealthy dynasties survive, though even then it might be just one out of the siblings who makes it. Usually overindulgence produces waste, apathy, and indolence. I remember a very successful West Coast Orthodox rabbi telling me, some fifty years ago now, that the board of his synagogue had just appointed a very talented young rabbi as his assistant. But he knew he’d never last in the rabbinate because he had married into too much money.

Yet for all his dissipation I have a soft spot for Huntingdon Hartford for one reason only. At the height of his art phase and fame, he had a museum built on Columbus Circle in Manhattan in the manner of a Venetian Palazzo. Now, in 1961 my late father had tried very hard to persuade me to study architecture. He said that I would find the rabbinate so frustrating I’d be better off having a proper career. As I’d always loved art, as well as people, he pushed me in that direction. To get into Cambridge I produced a dissertation that was a contrast between two buildings, the modern synagogue at Carmel College, a hyperbolic parabola designed by Tom Hancock and now a “protected masterpiece” and on the other hand this, what we now call retro, Italian Renaissance style throwback designed by Edward Durrell Stone. I will not go into the details of the contrast I made, but in the process I really grew to be fond of that building–so beautiful, so anachronistic.

It did fit in with the Italianate sculptures of Columbus Circle that predominated in those days. But slowly the money disappeared. The gallery closed and fell into disrepair. As the modern skyscrapers of real estate developers gradually closed in on it, it began to look more and more out of place. After a series of humiliating transformations and decay, it has just been completely redesigned into the Museum of Arts and Design.

Over the years I have moved from here to there as my spirit and circumstances changed. I have been a happy rootless cosmopolitan and my mother called me a chameleon who could fit in almost anywhere. Now I am living in New York City, and from my apartment window I have a bird’s eye view of Columbus Circle and my old friend, Huntington Hartford’s building, which, now transformed, looks like nothing so much as a hip design for a boutique shopping bag.

In the year I did actually study architecture, I learnt about the importance of design relating to use. And no doubt the transformed gallery is much more practical, user friendly, and flexible. Nevertheless, it symbolizes the constant transformation of cities, and in one way I am sad for my youthful innocence.

Older and wiser, and aware now, despite everything I have just written, I delight in the transformation. We cannot go on hankering after the past. In our lives and in our religion we must progress. On the other hand, our whole heritage emerged from the past and constantly reminds us of its successes and failures. The age-old question is how to find a balance between the two without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I find all those buildings that try to recreate a style from the past to be rather sad reflections of human mediocrity, imitation rather than creation. It is like trying to return to the horse and cart. New technology does create new buildings. As Le Corbusier famously said, “A building is a machine for living in.” So, technologically speaking, I cannot stand retro, and I despise pseudo-antique reproductions and nouveau riche homes that believe plastic covered Louis Quinze imitations and chandeliers to be the height of Gemutlich Yiddishkeit. And I cannot bear those ridiculous new synagogues that reproduce nineteenth century Polish fake medieval grandeur with crenulations and Gothic windows, or recreations of nineteenth century brownstone New York amongst the citrus orchards of Israel. There is room for nostalgia, but not when imposes a straightjacket.

Huntington Hartford represents everything I despise. A wasted, self-indulgent, material life, and the creation of a nostalgic design that proved totally out of sync with modernity. So where does this leave me, a modern, religious guy living my life according to rules that are thousands of years old?

Well I think I have the best of both worlds. For all that is technological, I look forward, embrace change, and welcome innovation. But for human morality, certain traditional values and structures have a therapeutic and curative effect that transient modernity does not. Technology requires overwhelming change and obsolescence. Morality and religion while it must adjust to new and different circumstances, requires continuity and detachment and an ability to say, “no”, “stop”. Not everything that is modern is good!

Whether one makes use of a written constitution or an oral one (or, as Jews do, both), to be so limited by it one cannot adjust is as bad as being so unconstrained as to adopt every passing fancy. Good old Maimonides was right. The Golden Mean was best. But now, as then, everyone thinks he has found it when clearly very few have! To borrow a totally inappropriate metaphor, this is the Holy Grail of our era!

I am grateful to Huntington Hartford for reminding me why I like my traditional values.