By Gioia Diliberto
June 09, 1986 12:00 PM

At 75, George Huntington Hartford II, heir to the great A&P grocery fortune, sometimes resembles the elderly Howard Hughes. His hair hangs in stark white strands. He walks with a cane, peering wearily from behind thick-lensed glasses. Surrounded by servants and a group of young friends who run errands and answer the phone in his Manhattan town house, he passes his days reading Mark Twain and perfecting “Ten-Net,” a game he designed that is a cross between tennis and Ping-Pong.

Thirty years ago Hartford was handsome, healthy and fabulously rich, having inherited $90 million. He dated stars like Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe, partied with Errol Flynn and played tennis with Pancho Gonzalez. But, in a curious inversion of the Midas principle, nearly everything he touched turned to rubble. Over more than three decades, he has squandered most of his fortune on a succession of failed dreams: a theater, a magazine, an art museum, a resort. His worth today: $8.7 million.

Though Hartford is hardly in need of public assistance, the third of his ex-wives, Diane Brown Hartford, 44, believes the trend toward dissipation is ominous. She has asked that a conservator be appointed to oversee Hartford’s finances. In papers filed in New York State Supreme Court, she claims her ex-husband has suffered mental and physical degeneration because of old age, alcohol, cocaine and lack of proper nutrition and medical care. She charges that Hartford is being corrupted by his fourth ex-wife, former hairdresser Elaine Kay, 33, who still lives with Hartford and “who has usurped control of his business affairs social life [and] household management.”

According to court papers Kay is accused of introducing Hartford to prostitutes and drug users some of whom live in his five-story town house for weeks at a time. They supply Hartford with drugs says Diane and cording to her also steal his silver, china and paintings. Juliet urged her mother to file her petition. “I do not want my father to become another John Belushi or Elvis Presley,” she says in an affidavit.

Hartford denies his ex-wife’s allegations and has described his use of cocaine as “sporadic.” Moreover, he enjoys Elaine Kay’s company, he says, and denies that she controls his affairs. “While most people would not approve of my life-style…that is my concern and not theirs,” Hartford says in an affidavit. “If I choose to spend my money in what some people believe is a frivolous manner or if I choose to give it away, that is my affair….”

Nor does he believe that Diane’s expressed concern for his fortune proceeds from the noblest of motives. Rather, he says, she “wants to ensure the continuing flow of generous alimony for the duration of my life.” In fact, Hartford, who plans to leave his money to charity after his death, now pays Diane $97,500 a year, his single largest expense out of an annual income of $680,000. He has already surrendered considerable control over his financial affairs to his lawyer, R. Edward Towns-end Jr., who keeps track of all Hartford’s money pays his bills and gives him a $400-a-week allowance Towns-end says Hartford “wishes to keep me under a tight rein regarding my spending habits We argue frequently over the amount of my allowance and he for the most part Prevails…”

According to an old adage, the worst thing a man can do to his children is leave them a lot of money. Hartford, the grandson of George Huntington Hartford, founder of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, has always seemed destined to prove the ancient wisdom correct. He grew up in the jazz age splendor of Newport, R.I., graduated from Harvard in 1934, worked briefly at A&P as a clerk in the statistics department and served in the Coast Guard during World War II. Soon after he inherited the bulk of his fortune Hartford began a crusade for the return of realism in the fine arts an obsessive vision he attempted to foist on an unresponsive public. In 1951 he wrote and published a pamphlet entitled Has God Been Insulted Here? that denounced as vulgar and profane the works of James Jones William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Picasso. Tom Wolfe railed Hartford “the Martin Luther of modern culture, a fanatic who had the most flagrantly unfashionable taste anybody in New York had ever heard of.

In 1949 Hartford had spent $600,000 to establish an artists’ retreat on 154 acres in Pacific Palisades, Calif. But once artists became aware of his tastes, most of them rejected his patronage. Undaunted, the hardy traditionalist went on to write his own fiercely Victorian adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre and staged it in 1958. An aging, dissipated Errol Flynn, who demanded a TelePrompTer to help him remember his lines, starred in the production during its pre-Broadway tryout, then walked out before the play opened in New York to scathing reviews. It closed after six weeks, losing $500,000.

In 1961 Hartford splurged on Show magazine, a lavish, high-gloss monthly that was supposed to recapture the elegance and wit of the original Vanity Fair. That folded for the first time in 1964, costing him another $8 million even before it was briefly and unsuccessfully revived in the early 1970s. By 1974, garnishing his record of persistent futility, he had lost another $7.4 million on a modern-art gallery he had built in Manhattan.

But if Hartford’s appetite for failure was ravenous, he seemed uniquely equipped to indulge it. In 1959 he paid $11 million for 700-acre Hog Island in the Bahamas. He renamed it Paradise Island and spent another $19 million trying to turn it into a fashionable watering hole for the rich. He built a 52-room hotel and an 18-hole golf course, then, unable to obtain a gambling license, sold 75 percent of his holdings in 1966, losing more than $20 million.

Hartford’s marriages were no more successful, if not quite as costly. He married his first wife, Mary Lee Epling, a doctor’s daughter from West Virginia, in 1931. They were divorced in 1939, and she is now married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Afterward, Hartford played the field with the enthusiasm of a lifelong consumer. “The story goes that he used to stand on the street corner handing out his card to pretty girls who walked by,” says Raoul Felder, Diane Hartford’s lawyer. In 1949 he married Marjorie Steele a cigarette girl from Ciro’s, a fashionable Hollywood restaurant Steele was a talented artist whose paintings and sculpture still adorn her ex-husband’s town house and she also bore Hartford two children—John 32, a writer, and Catherine, 35, an artist. That marriage ended in 1961 after Steele accused him of adultery.

Hartford married Diane, an aspiring model, in 1962. “He was a good-looking man then. He didn’t look more than 40,” says Diane of Hartford, who was 51 at the time. In her affidavit she says he never took drugs and never drank alcohol except for spiked eggnog at Christmas. Hartford and Diane were divorced in 1970, when Juliet was 2. In 1974 Hartford married Elaine Kay. They were divorced in 1981, but Kay continued to live off and on with Hartford at Manhattan’s fashionable One Beekman Place. There, in January 1982, Kay was arrested for tying up a naked 17-year-old girl who was working as Hartford’s secretary, and shaving her head. Hartford, who reportedly slept through the incident, was not charged, but was later evicted from the apartment in which he had lived for 28 years.

In separate affidavits, Diane and Juliet say they visited Hartford at his new house on East 30th Street last Aug. 26 and found several disheveled people wandering about. One “was walking around in circles and seemed very shaky,” says Juliet, while another “was sitting on the couch and just seemed to be staring into space.” When Hartford appeared, Juliet says, “I had to fight to hold back my tears. He looked awful and had aged terribly. There [were] bottles of pills and bottles of liquor all over. It was like a drugstore.” Juliet and her parents went to the “21” Club for dinner and after they returned says Diane a “Dr Gross” arrived to deliver pills for Hartford She says the label on one bottle indicated it contained Butazolidin an anti-inflammatory drug commonly administered to horses and athletes.

Soon afterward Juliet visited her father again. He seemed incoherent, she says, and had no memory of her previous visit. Juliet reports that she and her father talked for a while in Hartford’s bedroom; then he got up and walked into the bathroom. “I saw him lean over…and sniff up a powdery substance that was laid out in two lines on the vanity,” she says. “I realized that he was snorting cocaine which had been [left there]…by one of the ‘creeps’ in the house.”

Diane’s case has been buttressed by a court-appointed guardian who agrees that Hartford needs a conservator. “It is my opinion that Mr. Hartford’s abuse of drugs has persisted over the years without being addressed by those close to him,” wrote the guardian, Lynn R. Terrelonge, in her most recent report. Diane wants the conservator to oversee Hartford’s finances, control his spending and make decisions concerning his care—”including placement in a nursing home or under psychiatric care if necessary.” (Before a scheduled June 5 hearing in the case Justice Andrew Tyler will review the reports of a psychologist a psychiatrist and a neurologist who are to examine Hartford.)

Though Diane insists that such drastic measures would only be for Hartford’s own good, her ex-husband’s son, John, believes the appointment of a conservator would destroy his father. “To take away control from my father of his finances…would crush him [and] would affect his spirit and his will to live,” he says in an affidavit of his own. “It would, in fact, be the final act of humiliation a final blow I am afraid he would not survive.”