Huntington Hartford and Andy Warhol. Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair.
A couple of weeks ago, one Sunday evening, I was driving back to my home in New York City from Hunter Mountain in upstate New York. Most of my drive home was spent on the New York State Thruway, the major vehicular artery connecting the city to the state capital, Albany, and then on to Montréal via a continuation called the Northway.
As I approached the New Jersey border (please see my post WHAT’S IN A BORDER) driving southbound, I passed by Schunemunk Mountain on my right and then a succession of some small hills and valleys. I also drove under a pedestrian overpass where I used to play a silly game with my children; the object of the game was to cross directly over the path of an oncoming car and get ‘run over’ (except, of course, you are on the overpass above). Small children love this game – the direct opposite of “don’t play in traffic” – as well as parents with the mind of a small child.
Before crossing the border, I passed through a small dreary rural town called Hillburn. After crossing, the sprawl of suburbanization was immediately palpable.
The last 20 miles took me through the northwest corner of New Jersey. One of my favorite stops is a well-stocked A&P Supermarket in Allendale. Not only does it feature a great selection of grocery items at low prices, but also has an unexpectedly good selection of wines. Like 10 year old Pauillacs, perfect for drinking, which cannot be found in Manhattan (at least not 10 year old ones – damn wine bitches teefed all the good stuff).
To my surprise, I pulled up to see that the familiar A&P moniker that used to grace the façade above the front doors had been replaced by the new name ACME. A&P, a retail business since 1859, alas, was now defunct.
It reminded me of a strange business investment solicitation my Dad received in the early 1980s. In this case, I was not the wingman, but the paddleman. Let me explain.
Dad in the mid-1980s onwards was in a very enviable position. Having created a highly successful (and innovative) business, he was a sought-after potential investor. It’s a desirable position to be in, except for the substantial risk of being fleeced.
The invitations started innocently enough with a proposal to join a water bottling plant outside Toronto. There were the oil wells in Kansas, where I was sent one time to inventory the mostly dry well heads. It rapidly progressed into a succession of ill-advised schemes like an Indian casino in Southampton, Long Island, porn shops in Nassau, Bahamas, and limited liability Nevada corporations (for the purpose of hiding assets), or even reinvesting with a stockbroker against whom Dad had won a previous $1,000,000 judgment for churning.
But I am getting ahead of myself. There’s plenty of time for Bobby Edwards, the Jewish oil cowboy, and other stories later.
Today’s post concerns an interesting invented sport called tennet. And it took place around the period covered in my very first post here on The Bernard Olcott Story blog, YES DEPOSIT, YES RETURN.
In the early 1980s, I was working as a junior executive at Olcott International in charge of trademark renewals. One afternoon, Dad came up to me and said, “C’mon, we’re going to go see my friend Huntington Hartford.”
“Who?” I said.
“The heir to the A&P supermarket fortune,” he responded. Why didn’t my son know that, he must have muttered to himself.
Hartford, who passed away in 2008, was widely known for being one of the world’s richest people. His grandfather, George Huntington Hartford, had transformed the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company into a grocery chain powerhouse with innovations like in-store branded goods, promotions, and redeemable stamps given out based on purchase amounts.
The A&P, however, was owned by the Gilman family. When George Gilman died in 1901, Hartford proved to his heirs that he had an unwritten 50% partnership by providing evidence that Gilman had split the profits with him since 1878.
Huntington Hartford, on the other hand, led a checkered life. He actually joined the A&P corporate staff in the Graybar Building, next to Grand Central Station in the mid-1930s. He worked there 6 months. You see, his real passion was to serve as a patron of the arts. He amassed a huge collection of paintings, built the windowless Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle in 1964, and engaged in many other artsy endeavors (see featured image on top).
The windowless Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Sadly, he is most remembered for having frittered away a $100 million inheritance. Although he bought Paradise Island in Nassau, Bahamas for $11 million with the intention of turning the Ocean Club into a world class casino, he was out-maneuvered by Resorts International who snatched it from him for $1 million. Not to mention the $20 million he had poured in as improvements (like a reassembled 14th century French cloister). Ouch!
The Reassembled 14th Century French Cloister on Paradise Island, Nassau, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Well, that day some 30-odd years ago, Dad and I jumped into his Mercedes and drove through the Lincoln Tunnel from Weehawken to Hartford’s townhouse on East 30th Street in Manhattan. It was a curious meeting. Like the time my Dad returned condoms because they were “too small,” he gave me little insight beforehand as to the purpose of the meeting, how he actually knew Hartford, or what the hell exactly I was supposed to contribute.
As far as I can figure out, there were two likely points of past intersection between Dad and Hartford. Hartford apparently hung out at The Stork Club in the 1940s and 1950s so it’s possible that they crossed paths. The other likely commonality was the aforementioned Paradise Island. I find the latter to be unlikely as Hartford had been already bought out (at a tremendous loss) in 1970, which was way before Dad’s era in Nassau. They certainly didn’t hang out together, before or afterwards.
Somehow Hartford had unearthed Dad’s number and called him to come see his brain-child, a game called “tennet,” pronounced “ten net.” It was an indoor tennis game, played on a table, sort of like ping pong on steroids. The table was maybe 50% bigger, divided into quarters. The net in the middle was horizontal, not vertical, (the table was actually two pieces connected by this 15 inch wide net) and if the nerf-style ball got caught in it, you lost your point.
Suddenly, my role in the meeting was clear! I was to play Hartford at his own game! I play a fairly decent game of ping pong so I readily accepted! Hartford and I adjourned to a converted squash court where the tennet table was set up.
Tennet turned out to be much more like tennis than ping pong. The paddles are like large ping pong ones except you serve overhead, like tennis, into the opposing quadrant. Scoring was the same archaic love, 15, 30, 40 sequence.
The 72 year old master of the game readily dispatched his 25 year old opponent. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous to think that I believed at the time that I could have beaten him.
We left shortly afterwards. In the car, I gave my Dad the thumbs up. It was fun! I had enjoyed the game and was struck by its similarity to tennis. Except this could be played indoors.
Hartford had solicited Dad’s investment to promote the sport. Dad evidently told Hartford that he “would think about it.”
I never saw or heard about Hartford again. But, in preparation for promoting and soliciting investments in tennet, he did register a trademark in the early 1980s — here it is:
Unfortunately for Hartford, he apparently was never able to find investors for tennet. Records in the US Patent and Trademark Office list the registration as DEAD as of March 9, 1989.
So was tennet a good potential business investment? Hartford at the time was beginning a heavy descent into drugs and simply wasn’t up to the task of launching a new sport. Besides, his business performance hadn’t been so good. I never saw any numbers of the proposed investment or hockey stick projections. I think Dad picked up on this and wisely stayed away.
As I perused the goods at ACME, I quickly noticed that the cherished liquor license, which the state of New Jersey stingily regulates, had not carried over to the new owners. No more Pauillacs. Stork Club, A&P, tennet. All gone. Even if an idea takes off, nothing guarantees longevity. 15 minutes of fame is right.