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The Life and Art of Jock Whitney

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May 4, 2004, 6:37:35 PM5/4/04
Front page piece in yesterday's New York Sun.

The Life and Art of Jock Whitney

By STEPHEN MILLER Staff Reporter of the Sun

Picasso's 1905 painting "Garcon a la Pipe," or "Boy with
a Pipe," which is to be auctioned Wednesday night at Sotheby
's, is touted as the last remaining work in private hands
from the artist's "Rose Period" - just after his "Blue
Period" but before Cubism.
It would grace any wall.
All it takes to get involved is a little liquidity -
Sotheby's estimates the bidding could top $70 million when
the gavel is rapped. No doubt those hoisting the trademark
blue-and-white Sotheby's bidding paddles will be
representing some of the wealthiest and most powerful people
in the world - new Russian plutocrats, perhaps, or Silicon
Valley billionaires, now that the Japanese have seen their
mad money accounts dwindle.
If the record is reached, will the painting be a good
investment? The painting's record in this regard seems
excellent. In 1950, John Hay "Jock" Whitney, a wealthy
businessman and diplomat, shelled out $30,000 for it. Even
accounting for inflation,it was a great investment - the $70
million figure would represent the equivalent of 15%
interest compounded annually for the 54 year period.
Still, art experts frequently counsel buyers to invest in
works they like,if only because nobody can know future
That was Whitney's style, too. As an avid sportsman and
for a time the owner of the largest string of horses in
America, he bought boxing pictures by George Bellows,
sculling pictures by Thomas Eakins, and a racing scene by
Edouard Manet featured at Wednesday's sale. Its predicted
price tag: $20 million to $30 million.
The sale represents the last significant block of
paintings in one of the finest private art collections
assembled in the 20th century.
John Hay Whitney was a man who had a lot of money and
liked to live well.The paintings hung on the walls of his
many estates - and in his bedroom at Greentree, his
Manhasset mansion, was a set of three Picassos. They were
cubist works he bought from the Gertrude Stein estate.
As for the rest of Whitney's collection, the vast
majority consisted of impressionist, post-impressionist, and
modern art, most of it European. More than anything, it was
a representation of who Jock Whitney was - upper crust,
sophisticated, bold in vision, yet fairly traditional in
taste. Whitney relied for much of his collecting career on
John Rewald, an art historian who was also a close adviser
of Paul Mellon.
If the robber barons of the 19th century favored old
masters, the new men of the 20th were more cosmopolitan and
progressive.Even so,there was continuity. Like
Mellon,Whitney inherited a vast fortune that had been built
in the 19th century. Whitney actually inherited two, one
from each of his parents' families.
In terms of prestige, his heritage was exceptional as
well; both of his grandfathers had been cabinet members and
one, John Hay, had also been Abraham Lincoln's private
secretary and later ambassador to England, a post Jock
Whitney would fill in the second Eisenhower administration.
Whitney was brought up at the family estate at Greentree,
a horse breeding where his mother had filled the house with
expensive art. His mother's family, the Paynes, was wealthy
from railroad money amassed by an early associate of John D.
Rockefeller. Whitney's aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney,
founded the Whitney Museum.
Young Whitney was schooled at Groton and Yale, where he
distinguished himself in athletics and became enthralled
with dramatics.At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he was often
described as having a build like a centurion. His first role
in a Yale production was as a Roman soldier.
Called back home from graduate studies at Oxford by the
premature death of his father in 1927, Whitney inherited
one-fourth of his father's fortune of nearly $180 million,
said to be the largest estate appraised in the country up to
that point.
Unlike many of his contemporary tycoons-by-inheritance,
Whitney built on his nest egg, multiplying his inheritance
many times over through investments and other business
His first interest was in publishing - eventually he
would become publisher of the New York Herald Tribune and
suffer his biggest-ever business failure. But Nelson
Doubleday convinced him initially not to pursue his career
ambitions "in view of my personal problem - administering my
money," Whitney told the Saturday Evening Post in 1957.
Whitney's first job was as a "buzzer boy" at a brokerage
firm, for which he earned $65 per month. Soon he was
promoted, but in any event he was investing his millions.
Some of his investments were clinkers, like the "Brotex"
tree that was supposed to replace sisal. But other
investments, like a sulfur mine and a Texas shipping
company, turned a tidy profits.
Always guided by his passions, Whitney invested in boxers
and stage shows in the 1930s, and had a stunning success
with "Life With Father." His close friend, the humorist
Robert Benchley, had advised him not to invest: "I could
smell this alleged comedy you want to back, before the
mailman got it up to the door."
Whitney knew his mind well enough to ignore even the most
experienced adviser on occasion."Life With Father" opened on
November 8, 1939, and ran for 3,224 performances. It was
sold to Hollywood for the largest sum ever paid for a play.
The story was similar for "Gone With the Wind." Whitney
founded Pioneer Pictures to introduce Technicolor movies -
he had already teamed with director David O. Selznick to
produce such classics as "A Star is Born," "The Prisoner of
Zenda," and "Rebecca."
Selznick was indifferent when an agent sent him a
synopsis of the story. Whitney started reading "GWTW" while
on a flight to Hollywood. He got off at Pittsburgh to wire
his office in New York: "If Selznick won't purchase the book
for company, I'll buy personally." Selznick reconsidered,
and the film got made - in color - for $4.2 million. It
would understate the movie's significance to say it became
one of the most popular films of all time.
In 1940, Whitney divorced his first wife, a Philadelphia
socialite who shared his interest in horses and theater.Two
years later, he married Betsey Cushing Roosevelt. Betsey
Cushing was one of three Cushing sisters, daughters of a
prominent Boston neurosurgeon, all of whom married into the
highest echelons of society. Her older sister, Mary
("Minnie"), married Vincent Astor and her younger sister,
Barbara ("Babe"), married William Paley, the founder of CBS.
Betsey first married James Roosevelt, son of the then
governor of New York, and was said to be the president's
favorite daughter-in-law.
A few days after their marriage, Whitney signed up with
the Air Force and as a colonel and in 1943 was put in charge
of public relations for the 8th Air Force, then deployed in
Italy. He later went ashore in France during a landing at
Provence and was captured by the Germans. While being
transported by train back to Germany, he managed to escape
by jumping from the car, and was rescued by French partisan
He returned to America in 1944, and nearly
simultaneously, his mother died and he turned 40.With her
inheritance and the final opening of his father's trusts, he
had about $40 million in cash, plus estates in Georgia,
Saratoga, and Long Island.
Whitney's art collecting became more than just an
occasional hobby. He had been a director of the Museum of
Modern Art since its founding in 1931. Art was part of his
heritage, and among the paintings he inherited from his
mother is an oddly off-center portrait of Robert Louis
Stevenson twirling his mustache by John Singer Sargent. It
is expected to attract $5 million to $7 million at a Sotheby
's sale May 19.
That painting hung in the TV room at Greentree, while
"Garcon a la Pipe" hung over a bookcase in the living room.
Visitors to Greentree and Whitney's other homes - including
the apartment in New York; the stables in Kentucky, and
Winfield House, the ambassador's residence in London - were
struck by the way that great art was hung everywhere.
John Russell wrote in Sotheby's catalog for the Wednesday
sale, "[T]here was an upstairs sitting room at Winfield
House, for instance, that had as great a concentration of
first-rate Fauve paintings as can be found at any American
institution. But they were not forced upon the visitor's
attention with trick lighting and spurious "installation."
They were simply there, as household familiars. It seemed
then and it seems still, the best way to treat wonderful
Under Betsey Whitney's direction, Greentree was decorated
by Sister Parish, the American interior decorator known for
her devotion to "the three C's": chintz, color, and
cushions. "You see all kinds of trophies and treasures,"
wrote the Saturday Evening Post."Like keys from Coney
island, and the first dollar that somebody earned. Many rich
men's homes look sterile,but Greentree is the home of people
who have never been ashamed of what they liked."
Greentree had winding drives, a polo pitch (Whitney was a
national champion polo player), a golf course, and at least
68 buildings, including stables and extensive greenhouses.
Among its surprises was a full-grown alligator named Oscar.
It also had a staff of over 100. It, plus his other
holdings, was tremendously expensive to run, yet Whitney
continued to prosper. The stables ran at a slight profit.
Among his more successful postwar investments was the Minute
Maid company, which was originally a producer of an
unsuccessful powdered orange juice for the armed forces.
Whitney helped interest the company in frozen concentrate
technology. Later, Whitney brought in his friend Bing
Crosby - with the incentive of a directorship and stock - as
the brand's advertising spokesman.
Long associated with liberal Republican circles, Whitney
became a large contributor to the Eisenhower campaign. He
was named ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1957. His
family had a long history of running racehorses in Britain,
and Whitney was a welcome figure at Buckingham Palace, where
he knew the queen from a grouse shoot and picnic he had
attended with her at Balmoral Castle several years before.
During his first month in London, Whitney had a horse place
second in the Grand National Steeplechase.
As ambassador,Whitney was responsible for a significant
portion of the budget - he estimated it cost him over
$100,000 a year to run the U.S. mission. To spruce up
Winfield House, he brought over more than 40 of his favorite
paintings, including "Garcon a la Pipe" and Gilbert Stuart's
portrait of George Washington. Hung nearby the Stuart was a
Van Gogh self-portrait, a Matisse, and so forth.
With the change in administrations in 1961, Whitney
returned to America, but not before lending his art to the
Tate Gallery for a six-week exhibition. "Even Mr. Whitney
himself has never seen all of this portion of his collection
under one roof," said the Tate's grateful director.
Whitney's one major business came next.He took over as
editor in chief and publisher - as he listed himself on the
masthead - of the New York Herald Tribune in 1961, and
failed to turn it around. When he finally closed following
the 1966 strike, after $40 million in losses, he said it had
"meant the most to him of all his enterprises," according to
E.J. Kahn's biography of Whitney.
Despite this setback, he increased his philanthropy
through the 1960s and served as president of New York
Hospital, a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, a fellow of the Yale Corporation, and
numerous other public trusts.
When Whitney died in 1982, the best part of the art
collection, valued at $300 million at the time, went to
MoMA, the national Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and
the Yale University Art Gallery.
The rest were sold off in a series of blockbuster
auctions beginning after his wife's death, in 1998. It is
indicative of the quality of his collection that, even
before Wednesday's sale, two of the five highest-price
paintings ever sold at auction came from it.
He often seemed to downplay his pedigree, once going so
far as to have his name removed from the Social Register.
Yet, as a waggish writer for the Saturday Evening Post
wrote in 1957, soon after Whitney had been named ambassador
to England, his "life is evidence that America can be the
land of unlimited opportunity, even if you start at the

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