SARATOGA SPRINGS — Marylou Whitney, who has been synonymous with the summer social life of Saratoga Springs for more than a half-century, has died at the age of 93.
Whitney's death was announced during Friday afternoon's racing program at Saratoga Race Course, where she had been a fixture in front row seats in the clubhouse for decades. She was active until recent months, hosting an annual racing season ball at the Canfield Casino for decades, philanthropically supporting track workers and supporting organizations like Saratoga Hospital.
Whitney, who married into great wealth but took to the high-society social whirl so naturally that the term "socialite" came to define her, often called Saratoga a favorite among her several homes. She died at that home, Cady Hill off Geyser Road, on Friday.
"An avid horsewoman and true lover of the sport, Mrs. Marylou Whitney was one of thoroughbred racing's greatest ambassadors," said NYRA President and CEO David O'Rourke.
"Marylou's passion for racing was only matched by her love for the city of Saratoga Springs and her support for the backstretch community," O'Rourke continued. "Her generosity was unparalleled and the list of her contributions is endless. Saratoga would not be the destination it is today without the esteemed leadership, dedication and support of Marylou. Marylou's love of this sport and city will have a lasting impact on generations to come. On behalf of the New York Racing Association, we offer our deepest condolences to her beloved husband John [Hendrickson], and their family and friends."
Whitney was a founder of the National Museum of Dance on South Broadway, and its Hall of Fame is named after Marylou and C.V. Whitney.
At Saratoga Hospital, Whitney and Hendrickson were consistent financial supporters, and she frequently credited the hospital with her recovery after some serious illnesses. The intensive care unit carries her name, and the cardiac catheterization lab is named in her honor, as well. Whitney and Hendrickson also donated $1 million to the hospital's radiation oncology center.
“Through her extraordinary commitment to Saratoga Hospital, Marylou Whitney has had an immeasurable impact on our community,” said Angelo Calbone, Saratoga Hospital president and CEO. “Marylou’s grace, kindness and generosity, and her ability to inspire others to join her in supporting Saratoga Hospital, have touched almost every aspect of the care we provide to our patients. And for that we will be forever grateful.”
Whitney was a founder of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the early 1960s. During the Saratoga race meet, she was for decades the honorary chair of or hostess of numerous charity events.
"She was such a sparkling, one of a kind, classic Lady who gave so much to her beloved Saratoga community. I consider it a blessing to have known her," Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, wrote on Twitter.
Born Marie Louise Schroeder, sher grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and attended the University of Iowa before going to work as an actress in movies, television and radio. She married John Hosford, an heir to the John Deere fortune, and they had four children before divorcing. She then married Cornelius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney, who died in 1992. In 1997, she married Hendrickson, who is nearly 40 years her junior.
The Whitney family had long been involved in thoroughbred racing, and Marylou Whitney went on to found Marylou Whitney Stables, which bred and raced Birdstone, the 2004 Belmont Stakes winner. Birdstone went on to win that year's Travers Stakes in Saratoga.
She returned to active philanthropic work even after suffering a stroke in 2006.
Whitney was noted even into later years for her sense of fun, showing up at a Grateful Dead concert in leather and riding the roller coaster at the Great Escape. The extravagant season-opening galas she threw at the city-owned Canfield Casino in Congress Park were a fixture, with few breaks, from 1959 until less than a decade ago.
"Marylou was truly one of a kind," state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, wrote on Twitter soon after her death was announced. "She loved Saratoga and did everything she could to make the Spa City the wonderful community it now is. My condolences go out to her husband, John Hendrickson, their family and many, many friends. RIP"
Whitney is survived by her husband and five children, Louise "M'Lou", Frank "Hobbs", Henry "Hank," Heather and Cornelia.