Whitney, John Hay

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1904-08-27
Death 1982-02-08
Americans

Biographical notes:

John Hay Whitney

John Hay Whitney was born into one of the most prominent American families of the twentieth century; widely known for their interests in business, government, publishing, entertainment, philanthropy, horse racing and breeding, and fine art collecting. He was the second child of Payne and Helen Hay Whitney and born in Ellsworth, Maine, on August 17, 1904, while his parents were summering with Clara Stone Hay (mother to Helen Hay Whitney). Mr. Whitney was fifteen months younger than his sister Joan (born on February 5, 1903). He spent his childhood between the New York City townhouse at 972 Fifth Avenue and the family residence in Manhasset, New York (“Greentree”). Mr. Whitney studied at St. Bernard’s School in New York City, prepared at Groton School (1917-1921) in Massachusetts, and in 1922 entered Yale (from which his father, great uncle and numerous relatives had graduated). Mr. Whitney studied English, rowed crew on the Junior Varsity team, joined the Scroll and Key Society, and cultivated lifelong interests in the theater (appearing in the Dramatic Association’s plays) and publishing (writing for the yearbook committee). He maintained strong ties to Yale after graduation, becoming a notable contributor and member of the Yale Corporation. After graduation in 1926, Mr. Whitney entered Oxford University in England to study literature and history. At the sudden death of his father in 1927, Mr. Whitney returned to New York to tend to business and family affairs.

John Hay Whitney joined the New York investment banking firm of Lee & Higginson as an entry-level clerk in 1929. His employment lasted one year, after which he focused on his investments and interests. In 1929-1930, Mr. Whitney was elected to the board of the Freeport Sulfur Company (becoming chairman in 1934 and, in time, a stockholder for fifty-three years). He invested in the Aviation Corporation of America; established Beckhampton, Ltd. to oversee his growing interest in English horse turf racing (winning the Cheltenham Cup in 1929 and 1930 with “Easter Hero”). He also purchased a 2,000 acre horse farm in Upperville, Virginia (“Llangollen”), as a wedding gift to his new bride, Mary Elizabeth Altemus (“Liz”), whom he married on September 25, 1930. During their marriage, which lasted until 1940, Llangollen was their primary residence and developed into a major thoroughbred breeding ground and training center.

John Hay Whitney played competitive polo from 1929 to 1939. His Greentree team won the United States Open Championships in 1935 and 1936. Mr. Whitney was the only polo player to ever appear on the cover of Time magazine (1933). Mr. Whitney established Pioneer Pictures (1934-1953) to fund the invention of “Technicolor,” a film colorizing process. He financed and produced forty theatrical stage productions in twenty years, including Gay Divorcee, Life with Father, Dark Victory (starring Tallulah Bankhead), and Broken Dishes (debuting Bette Davis). Mr. Whitney co-founded Selznick International Pictures with David O. Selznick and made ten pictures between 1935 and 1939, including A Star is Born, Rebecca, Garden of Allah, and the epic Oscar winner, Gone with the Wind . As chairman of Selznick International Pictures, Mr. Whitney led the New York operation (handling bookings, advertising, foreign distribution and story acquisition) while Selznick led the Hollywood operation until dissolving the company in 1942 to pursue separate interests. In 1941, John Hay Whitney was introduced to Betsey Cushing Roosevelt by his cousin, C. V. Whitney (“Sonny”). They married on March 1, 1942.

During the early years of World War II, Mr. Whitney joined the Citizens’ Military Training Camp, which offered the opportunity for civilians to receive military commissions. On May 22, 1942, Mr. Whitney was commissioned a captain in the U.S. Army and soon after entered the Army Air Corps intelligence school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. On July 25, 1942, Mr. Whitney was assigned to the Eighth Fighter Command headquarters outside London working directly for General Ira Eaker, commander of the Eighth Air Force. In 1943, Mr. Whitney was promoted to Army Air Force Colonel and served as a political affairs officer. During a 1944 field operation in southern France, Colonel Whitney and his crew were captured by the Germans and narrowly escaped by jumping off a moving train. Mr. Whitney remained on General Eaker’s staff until he was relieved from active duty in September of 1945. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Legion of Merit for his service.

The year 1944 was a pivotal one for John Hay Whitney. On his fortieth birthday, he was granted full control of a trust fund established by his father and then inherited additional assets in real estate, fine art, and business when his mother died on September 24, 1944. This influx of capital furthered his personal commitment to allocating his financial resources to funding “growth companies” and supporting educational and community enhancement projects; thereby strengthening a postwar capitalistic economy. In 1945, he co-founded the North Shore Memorial Fund with his wife and sister to build North Shore University Hospital on land adjacent to Greentree. The hospital opened in 1953. After inheriting his mother’s Georgia property (“Greenwood”) in 1945, he charged his land management team to find a way to utilize the nearly 18,000 acres for the benefit of southern agriculture. This led to the development of hybrid seed corn called “Dixie 18” by the Greenwood Seed Company, which quadrupled corn output for southern farmers by the 1960s. A by-product of this agricultural and entrepreneurial effort was the advancement of an ecological approach to land and wildlife management. In 1946, he founded J.H. Whitney & Company to provide capital and skilled management to new ideas such as Minute Maid frozen orange juice. This innovative business model is considered to be the first venture capital firm in the United States. In that same year, he also incorporated the John Hay Whitney Foundation to help individuals of diverse backgrounds realize their potential through education in the humanities and social sciences.

John Hay Whitney served the community through appointments rather than publically elected positions. In 1951, Mr. Whitney led his first political fundraising effort as the chairman of the financial committee of the Citizens for Eisenhower – Nixon. Mr. Whitney was a steadfast Eisenhower Republican and trusted personal advisor and friend to Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1954, Mr. Whitney accepted an appointment to the State Development Advisory Committee studying the reorganization of the foreign service. When Eisenhower was elected to a second term, Mr. Whitney was appointed the eighteenth American Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s serving from 1957 to 1961. Mr. Whitney was credited with improving Anglo-American relations previously strained by the 1956 Suez crisis. At the end of his ambassadorship in December 1960, he negotiated the West Indian American Defense Agreement at the direction of president-elect John F. Kennedy.

John Hay Whitney created Whitcom Communications Corporation (WCC) to invest in newspapers, magazines, radio stations and emerging communication outlets, like cable television. His 1957 investment in the nearly bankrupt New York Herald Tribune turned into outright ownership in 1958. In 1961, Mr. Whitney assumed the full time role of editor-in-chief and publisher in an effort to save the historic daily newspaper from bankruptcy. In April of 1966, the plan to merge the Tribune with two other newspapers ignited a one hundred day union strike that ultimately closed the paper.

For the next ten years, John Hay Whitney actively continued his involvement in his many business entities, as well as refocused the direction of the John Hay Whitney Foundation. Mr. Whitney suffered a heart attack in 1976. He died on February 8, 1982, survived by his wife, two daughters and eight grandchildren.

Betsey Cushing Whitney

Betsey Cushing Whitney was born on May 18, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, the third of five children born to Dr. Harvey Williams Cushing, pioneer brain surgeon, and Katherine Stone Crowell Cushing (“Kate”). At age 22, Betsey Cushing married James Roosevelt, the eldest son of then New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Their early years were spent in Massachusetts. They moved to Georgetown after Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the thirty-second president of the United States, and James Roosevelt became his aide. Betsey and James Roosevelt had two daughters, Sara born in 1932 and Kate born in 1936. Betsey Roosevelt was regarded as President Roosevelt’s favorite daughter-in-law and often assisted in hosting White House events. In 1939, Betsey Roosevelt was asked by the President to join him, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for a drive after a picnic in Hyde Park, New York. These events began a lifelong friendship with Queen Elizabeth. The marriage ended in divorce in 1940.

In 1941, Betsey Cushing Roosevelt met John Hay Whitney, whom she married on March 1, 1942. John Hay Whitney joined the Army Air Force and entered active duty three months after their marriage. In an effort to join Mr. Whitney overseas, Mrs. Whitney appealed to her former father-in-law (with whom she maintained a warm relationship and affectionately called “Pa”) for an overseas assignment. President Roosevelt declined her request. In 1948, John Hay Whitney obtained James Roosevelt’s consent to adopt Betsey’s daughters, and the adoption was formalized on March 30, 1949.

Following the death of Helen Hay Whitney and Mr. Whitney's return from World War II, Betsey and John Hay Whitney moved into Greentree in 1945, and Mrs. Whitney addressed necessary renovations and improvements to both the interior decorating and exterior landscaping there and at the other Whitney residences: Greenwood in Georgia; a Manhattan townhouse on East 63rd Street (until 1976); a house and private race track in Saratoga Springs, New York; a New York City duplex apartment on Beekman Place (after 1976); a flat in London; and a summer house on Fishers Island, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Whitney maintained a yearly travel schedule visiting each location while managing their vast business and philanthropic interests and social engagements. Mrs. Whitney often accompanied Mr. Whitney to official government and public service appearances and was a member of the U.S. Delegation that attended the inauguration of Korean President Syngman Rhee in 1956. In the 1950s, Mrs. Whitney was a member of the Defense Advisory Committee advocating policies for American servicewomen. Mrs. Whitney separately invested in theatrical productions staged by Irene Selznick, such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Chalk Garden .

The Whitneys moved to London in 1957 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Mr. Whitney the Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. In 1958, Ambassador and Mrs. Whitney hosted a small dinner for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip marking the first royal visit to the ambassadorial house. Having amassed one of the largest collections of Impressionist and Modern fine art, the Ambassador and Mrs. Whitney collaborated with the Tate Gallery in London and their art historian, John Rewald, to mount the first public exhibition of their collection in 1960-1961. The collection was also exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, in 1983.

Betsey Cushing Whitney was a prominent philanthropist in medicine, education and art. She served on the boards at the Whitney Museum of Art, the John Hay Whitney Foundation, and the Association for Homemakers Services. Mrs. Whitney was a Benefactor of North Shore University Hospital; elected Honorary Life Governor of The New York Hospital; involved with New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center; a Life Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a Fellow of the Frick Collection, and long-term supporter of the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, and Yale University.

Mrs. Whitney supported many local charities as well, joining Helen Hay Whitney and Joan Whitney Payson in their charitable efforts to raise money for Mrs. Payne Whitney’s Milk Fund. The Milk Fund was established in 1928 to benefit the Family Welfare Association of Nassau County and the New York Hospital for Social Services. After Helen Hay Whitney’s death in 1944, Mrs. Whitney and her sister-in-law, Joan Payson, continued support of the Milk Fund.

In 1983, Mrs. Whitney established the Greentree Foundation to support community projects designed to improve the education levels of community members and/or lessen social or cultural tensions. In 1990 to honor her father and her husband, Mrs. Whitney made a generous donation to the Yale School of Medicine to finance the renovation and enhancement of the university’s medical library, which was renamed the Harvey Cushing /John Hay Whitney Medical Library. Mrs. Whitney served as president of Greentree Foundation until her death on March 25, 1998. In her will, she increased Greentree Foundation’s endowment and entrusted the Foundation to realize her and Mr. Whitney’s wishes for Greentree to be preserved as a retreat for meetings dedicated to peace, human rights, and international cooperation.

Other Creators

John Milton Hay (1838-1905), John Hay Whitney’s maternal grandfather, was a statesman, author, diplomat and journalist. Hay graduated from Brown University in 1858 and was the assistant secretary (1860-1864) to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Hay co-authored with John G. Nicolay the ten-volume study titled Abraham Lincoln: A History published in 1890 and co-edited the twelve-volume series Abraham Lincoln: Completed Works published in 1895. From 1865 to 1870, Hay was secretary of legation in Paris (1865-1867) and Madrid (1867-1868) and chargé d’affaires in Vienna (1868-1870). In 1870, Hay left government to be an editor for the New York Tribune . In 1897, he served President William McKinley as the second American Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Hay served as the United States Secretary of State from 1898 until his death in 1905; first under McKinley, then under President Theodore Roosevelt. Hay married Clara Stone Hay (1849-1914) in 1875 and their daughter Helen was born in 1876.

Helen Hay (1876-1944), John Hay Whitney’s mother, was a published poet, thoroughbred horse owner and breeder, author of children’s books, and wife of Payne Whitney, whom she married in 1902. She published seven books between 1898 and 1912. Her interest in horse racing prompted Payne Whitney to purchase a horse farm in New Jersey and establish a racing and breeding business that evolved into the renowned Greentree Stud and Stable, winning the Kentucky Derby in 1931 (with “Twenty Grand”) and 1942 (with “Shut Out”). By 1942, Helen Hay Whitney was the first woman stable owner to be the leading money winner in the United States. Helen Hay Whitney and her children donated $6 million to Yale University, building the Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

Payne Whitney (1876-1927), John Hay Whitney’s father, was a prominent New York City businessman and Yale alumnus (1898) with interests in the banking, tobacco, mining, railroads and oil industries. Son of William Collins Whitney (1841-1904) and Flora Payne (d. 1893), Payne Whitney was one of four children. He inherited a significant fortune in 1917 from his uncle, Oliver Hazard Payne, and was a major benefactor of the New York Public Library, Brooks School, Yale University, and Cornell Medical Center. His estate was regarded as the largest ever appraised in the history of the United States, estimated at nearly $179 million ($60 million of which was willed to various charities).

Joan Whitney Payson (1903-1975), sister of John Hay Whitney, was a horse racer and breeder, philanthropist in the areas of medicine and education, art collector, and the first owner of the New York Mets (serving as president from 1968 to 1975). Joan Whitney married Charles Shipman Payson in 1924.

Dr. Harvey Cushing (1869-1939), Betsey Cushing Whitney’s father, was a pioneer surgeon, physician and professor at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Yale universities. Dr. Cushing is credited with inventing neurosurgical techniques and discovering Cushing’s disease. He was awarded the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Sir William Osler. Dr. Harvey Cushing married Katherine Stone Crowell in 1902.

Source: Jock: The Life and Times of John Hay Whitney, by E.J. Kahn, Jr., 1981.

About the Creators was authored by Greentree Foundation.

From the guide to the John Hay Whitney and Betsey Cushing Whitney family papers, 1826-2010, (Manuscripts and Archives)

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