05/20/2008 02:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Confronting Huntington

A recent New York Times obituary of Huntington Hartford, the much-married millionaire A&P heir, described all his failed philanthropic ventures in art, architecture, theatre, recreation, publishing, and penmanship. The piece gave me a pang since it reminded me of a meeting I once had with him in his twenty room apartment on 1 Beekman Place on an afternoon in the late nineteen-fifties.

I had been ushered into his capacious living room, with its panoramic views of the East River, the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty, and all points North, by his current mistress, a lovely dark-haired woman in a Gucci gown, who wandered in and out of the room, carrying coffee and finger food. Hartford wanted to discuss an article I had written in the now defunct Theatre Arts magazine which had somehow caught his attention. I had no idea why. The piece was a defense of the proscenium stage against those who were blaming the failures of American theatre on the fourth wall.

I thought I had been summoned into his presence to discuss artistic matters. Instead, he remarked upon the title of the magazine and asked me what I thought of "Theatre." I told him that theatre was a profession to which I had devoted my life. "No, no," he said impatiently, "I mean what do you think of the word 'Theatre.'" Puzzled, I allowed that it was a pretty good word. "I like it, too, but I don't like the word Arts." He added that he was thinking of starting a magazine to be called Theatre. "There already is a magazine called Theatre," I replied. "No problem," he said, "I'll buy it. What do you think of the idea?"

"That would depend," I said, "on the magazine's contents." He looked towards the huge chandelier on the ceiling: "I've noticed that the papers don't tell you much about what's happening on TV, and my magazine would give you background on all the network shows." "But that's not theatre," I said, "It's television." "What do you mean?" he replied, somewhat testily. "Some of the best theatre I've ever seen has been on television. Is this something you'd be interested in running?"

I had begun to realize that we weren't communicating very well, so I launched into a stump speech about how, as a man of means devoted to culture, he should be subsidizing the kind of magazine that doesn't normally receive much financial support. I described a periodical devoted to what was new in the theatre, whether in playwriting or production, that would afford as much attention to off- and off-off-Broadway as the newspapers were giving to the commercial stage. Hartford looked at me blankly. His mistress wandered in with some canapés, which I gobbled up before taking my leave.

Soon after, Huntington Hartford produced his new magazine. It was called Show, suggesting that the new publisher had become as bored with the word "Theatre" as with the word "Arts." Featuring stories about television, movies, and even a few about the stage, it lasted for three years. Today, Show is a girlie magazine, featuring half-clad models in black and white lingerie. Nobody summoned me to a penthouse to ask me what I thought of the change.