Marylou Whitney, who fled Kansas for New York with dreams of being an actress and found instead a life of immense wealth and privilege, marrying into two of America’s richest families and reigning for decades as the social queen of the Saratoga, New York, and Lexington, Kentucky, racing seasons, died Friday at her home in Saratoga Springs. She was 93.
The New York Racing Association announced her death, which it said came after an unspecified long illness.
Whitney, the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney — businessman, film producer, philanthropist, horse breeder, polo player — was a tireless society hostess, a patron of the arts and the author of three cookbooks, including one on peanuts and peanut butter.
Not least, she was a sportswoman and a thoroughbred breeder, inducted this year into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. She hunted and fished with the outdoors-loving Sonny Whitney, as he was known, throughout their 34-year marriage. As she approached her 70th birthday she sponsored a dog sled team, accompanying it by skiplane into the Alaskan wilderness for the Iditarod race.
Whitney had all the requisites of a member in good standing of the international set: homes in the United States and abroad (there were seven at one time), jewels with illustrious provenance (a diamond and ruby tiara once belonged to Empress Elizabeth of Austria) and couturier clothes (heavy on frills, flounces and femininity).
From the Gazette: Socialite Marylou Whitney has died
In Saratoga Springs, where the Whitneys owned a stately manor on a 135-acre estate called Cady Hill, Whitney was renowned for her annual late-summer gala on the eve of the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
At the benefits and balls she oversaw, grand entrances were her signature, her conveyances as diverse as a coronation carriage and a hot-air balloon. The penchant was practically lifelong: No stranger to the gossip columns even as a young aspiring actress in New York, she once attracted publicity by riding a horse from Central Park to the supper club El Borracho and hitching it to a fence before going in to join a friend. At 71 she married a man 39 years her junior.
For the 1994 Saratoga gala, at the old Canfield Casino in Congress Park, Whitney, in emeralds and diamonds, made a shimmering arrival as the Good Witch Glinda, in keeping with the evening’s theme, “The Wizard of Oz.” The Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and Dorothy were her escorts.
Her season-opening parties in Kentucky were less theatrical, although she would decorate her 20-room white brick Federal house in Lexington in grand style for the occasion, sometimes to resemble a child’s version of fairyland, with constellations of tiny lights twinkling indoors and out and a “rainbow bridge” spanning a pool in the atrium.
A Villa, a Castle, a Wilderness
The house sat amid the sprawling C.V. Whitney Farm, founded in 1896 by Sonny Whitney’s grandfather William Whitney, an industrialist who built a fortune on oil, tobacco and New York City streetcars. The couple also had a duplex apartment on Fifth Avenue, a villa in Palm Beach, Florida, a 100-room castle in Majorca, Spain, a ski lodge in Mount Placid, New York, and a summer retreat in the Adirondacks called Whitney Park, at more than 50,000 acres one of America’s largest tracts of private wilderness.
In Lexington, Whitney took a passionate interest in the C.V. Whitney Racing Stable, whose great thoroughbreds in its trademark Eton blue and brown included Equipoise, Phalanx and Counterpoint. The stables later ceased operations, and Sonny Whitney died in 1992 at age 93, but Marylou Whitney carried on the tradition, establishing her own stables. Her biggest success, under the guidance of Nick Zito, a racing Hall of Fame trainer, was Birdstone, the horse that spoiled Smarty Jones’ bid for the Triple Crown with an upset victory in the 2004 Belmont Stakes.
Whitney called off her annual racing gala in 2012, saying she wanted to concentrate on more charitable events during the season, like holding dinners and other festivities for the track’s 2,500 “backstretchers,” mostly Hispanic men, who worked for low wages in more than 90 barns at Saratoga.
“We had to do more for the workers in the backstretch,” Whitney told The New York Times in 2010. “They’ve needed a sense of belonging. And dignity.”
She was born Marie Louise Schroeder in Kansas City, Missouri, on Dec. 24, 1925, to Harry and Marie Jean Schroeder. She attended Southwest High School and enrolled at the University of Iowa but had to return home at 19 when her father, a bank officer as well as an accountant, died. She found work at a Kansas City radio station as a wartime disc jockey, creating “Private Smiles,” a program for servicemen broadcast worldwide. Then she took off for New York with dreams of acting.
Blond, blue-eyed and petite, she found bit parts in early television shows while adding to her uncertain income by working and writing for a trade magazine and selling program ideas to a radio show. Meanwhile, she made the social rounds.
“She walked into ‘21’ on the arm of Teddy Howard, the theatrical press agent, and three men at the bar were instantly interested,” one of the men, the socially prominent Richard Cowell of Palm Beach, told New York magazine in 1998. “She was unquestionably glamorous.”
Her money problems ended when she married Frank Hosford of the John Deere farm machinery family. They had four children. The family later moved to Phoenix, where she earned a real estate license and worked part time as the hostess of a television cooking show.
It was while she was separated from Hosford that she met, and impressed, Whitney at a Phoenix supper club. “I’ve never seen a woman cook,” he was quoted as saying.
Soon she was given a role in “The Missouri Traveler,” a movie he was producing. She took off for California and, when filming ended, received a telephone call from Whitney, who was 26 years her senior. He proposed to her, she recalled, as she was putting a soufflé in the oven. By the time she had recovered from the shock and said yes, the soufflé had fallen.
After divorcing their spouses, the couple married in 1958 at a ranch in Carson City, Nevada. They spent their honeymoon in 30-below-zero Flin Flon, Manitoba, where Sonny Whitney had interests in the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co. Marylou Whitney’s trousseau included a caribou parka with a wolverine-trimmed hood.
She was the fourth wife of Sonny Whitney, whose mother was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the artist who founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
To the North Pole
The new Mrs. Whitney threw herself into her husband’s sports activities while running their homes, organizing their parties and keeping their romance alive. Sonny Whitney, she said, was a playful romantic who enjoyed calling her pretending to be a secret admirer and arranging an assignation. Once he gave her a candy Easter egg; when she bit into it, she struck a diamond.
Indeed, jewelry was another passion. On the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera at the newly built Lincoln Center in 1966, the sparkling chandeliers had competition in Whitney’s tiara, with its 75 rubies and 1,900 diamonds.
On his death Sonny Whitney left his entire fortune of $100 million (the equivalent of about $179 million today) to his wife. It had grown from a $20 million inheritance from his father, Harry Payne Whitney, thanks to shrewd investments in Pan American Airways, which the younger Whitney helped found; in movies like “Gone With The Wind,” in which he had a major financial interest; and in Marineland, the Florida tourist attraction, which he had built.
As a widow Marylou Whitney became even more active — traveling to the North and South poles, learning ice fishing and snowshoeing, and involving herself in dog sled racing in Alaska. She also began painting.
The gossip pages tracked her romantic life as she dated men of her own generation as well as younger ones, including John Hendrickson, a former aide to Gov. Walter Hickel of Alaska. They met in Alaska and married in 1997; she was 71 and he was 32.
Whitney later named Hendrickson vice president of Whitney Industries, which manages the family’s lumber business and land holdings.
As a Whitney she maintained ties to the Whitney Museum. But that relationship ended in 2000, when the museum chose to include in its biennial show a work called “Sanitation,” by Hans Haacke, a German-born New York artist.
The piece featured a wall of garbage cans with speakers blaring the sound of marching jackboots, a reproduction of the First Amendment and, in a medieval typescript favored by the Nazis, quotations from Mayor Rudy Giuliani and prominent hard-line U.S. conservatives. Some Jewish organizations denounced the work as trivializing the Holocaust.
Whitney, too, was offended. She withdrew her financial support for the museum and resigned from its national fundraising council. “Gertrude would roll over in her grave,” she said of her mother-in-law. But the exhibition went on as planned.
Big Gifts, Small Kindnesses
During that episode it was revealed that Whitney had given the museum only about $5,000 a year, a donation expected of all council members. But she asserted that she had planned to leave the museum $1 million in her will; now, she said, that money would go to the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming, which was established by Sonny Whitney.
It was not the first time Whitney had been involved in a public dispute. In 1997, with timber prices down and property taxes on the rise, she shocked environmental and recreation groups in New York state by proposing to subdivide and sell, to home developers, nearly one-third of Whitney Park, which the family had owned for a century.
From the Gazette: Socialite Marylou Whitney has died
New York state ended up buying 15,000 acres for $17.1 million in 1997 (more than $27 million today).
Whitney’s survivors include Hendrickson and five children, Mary Louise, Frank, Henry and Heather Hosford and Cornelia Vanderbilt Whitney, her only child from her marriage to Sonny Whitney.
Whitney remained an active philanthropist with Hendrickson into her last years, particularly in establishing a cancer research and treatment center for women at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She and Sonny Whitney were founders of the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
She was also known for smaller kindnesses. In 2007, after recovering from a stroke the year before, she came to the aid of her friend Sarah Ramsey, who had suffered an even more debilitating one. Ramsey and her husband, Kenneth, are among thoroughbred racing’s most successful owners and breeders.
Whitney flew one of her doctors to Kentucky to treat Ramsey, along with equipment that had helped her own rehabilitation. Grateful for the help, the Ramseys named one of their top young horses Thank You Marylou.