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Book review: SoCal's wealthy Huntington family in Shelley Bennett’s 'The Art of Wealth'

Arabella Huntington, in a cabinet photo, c. 1880s
Arabella Huntington, in a cabinet photo, c. 1880s
W. Kurtz
Arabella Huntington, in a cabinet photo, c. 1880s
An 1872 portrait of railroad baron Collis P. Huntington
Stephen W. Shaw/The Crocker Art Museum

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She was a winsome teen who blew into post-Civil War New York with a tin-horn gambler on the run from the law. Soon, she was pregnant and writing to one of the richest men in America, "Dear Mr. Huntington, I am so worried I don’t know what to do.” Yes, that Mr. Huntington.

It’s a story never before told in full, in "The Art of Wealth," Shelley Bennett's spectacular new quadruple biography of Arabella, Collis, Henry and Archer Huntington, a fierce family foursome that gave the Southland the Red Car lines and its most venerated museum, and America two of its greatest fortunes.

Collis Huntington, a former Sacramento storekeeper who became top executive of America’s transcontinental railroad, knew just what to do. He never denied he was father of Arabella Yarrington’s little boy Archer, but just how the married robber baron became such has never been disclosed, according to "The Art of  Wealth." 

Huntington pulled Arabella and son Archer from her off-Bowery hovel and put them in a house of her own on Lexington Avenue. Thus began her 30-year rise to Gilded Age aristocrat that left her official portrait glowering down through tinted pince-nez at visitors to the Huntington Library  in San Marino.

When his wife, Elizabeth, died in 1884, Arabella married Collis and moved in with him — after a courtship of 16 years. But Bennett insists she was never a kept woman. “She was a shrewd investor," she told me.

"When she borrowed from Collis, she paid him back,” Bennett added. By the time the two got hitched, she’d made the equivalent of more than $6 million hustling Manhattan real estate.  She had her own mansion on New York’s West 54th Street, which she sold to none other than John D. Rockefeller (it’s now the MOMA sculpture garden).

The pair became formidable collectors of great art: They could afford virtually anything when much of Europe’s art was for sale. They built themselves a Fifth Avenue palace, where Tiffany’s stands now, and bought a mansion on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. They commuted between the coasts and filled both homes with art they bought in Europe.

This is not the book to read if you’d like to learn how Collis Huntington’s railroad became notorious in California as The Octopus. Bennett acknowledges Collis was a notorious robber baron, but notes that he was also a passionate progressive on issues like the abolition of slavery and the education of black people (he was a  supporter of Tuskegee Institute), and he opposed Asian exclusion laws. Booker T. Washington was a major admirer of the elder Huntington, who, toward the end of his life, became involved with the Metropolitan Museum where many of  his paintings now hang.

After Collis died, Arabella married — wait for this — his nephew, Henry. They had much in common besides a last name. They were the same age, for one thing. (Collis had been almost 30 years older than Arabella.) But they also shared a love of art and great means to acquire.

It’s after Henry Huntington that Huntington Drive, Huntington Beach and Huntington Park are named. He created not only the venerated Red Car system, but also the communities that it served from Ontario to Orange County.  As historian Reyner Banham noted, Henry really invented Greater Los Angeles

As Arabella went on collecting, Henry bought 800 acres of San Marino and built his library, plus a bower for his bride that became the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, long one of the Southland’s foremost showplaces of fine art.  

Bennett says her book, the consummation of her 31-year career at the Huntington, stems from her finding a cornucopia of Huntingtonia in son Archer’s own museum, the Hispanic Society in New York. It’s a six-year labor of love, with a wealth of reproduced masterpieces and family photos. It leaves her only one unanswered question: “I’d like to see a DNA test to prove that Archer is really Collis Huntington’s son.”