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The Force Behind The Whitney
American art was hardly more than a cultural curiosity in the early years of this century. Now it is among the world’s most influential, and much of the credit belongs to a self-made woman named Juliana Force.
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
She would imply that she was born into a genteel family and educated in private schools at home and abroad.
Julia never forgave her husband for their fall, and she vented her anger and frustration on her family. She kept the children in line with a rattan switch and terrified them with chilling anecdotes of babies choking to death. Max buried himself in books and newspapers, declining to overrule his wife or defend his offspring. Julia’s neuroses, hard as they were on her children, may have worked to Juliana’s good. Whereas the average girl learned indirection at her mother’s knee, Juliana had the example of a female parent who got what she wanted by assertiveness rather than submission.
In Hoboken Julia divested herself of her household duties by conscripting Juliana’s older sisters, Mary and Clara. After they reached the age of eleven or twelve, their mother removed them from school and put them to work. When Juliana reached adolescence, her mother planned the same course for her, but a teacher interceded, persuading Julia that this child was too gifted to throw away.
In 1896 Juliana was given her first chance at a richer life. She had been an excellent student, but when she was sixteen her eyesight started deteriorating; she had to leave school and stop reading for six months. This was a terrible blow. Juliana wanted to be a poet and go to Wellesley, nearly unthinkable ambitions for a young woman of her means. Providentially, a wealthy member of the Riesers’ church offered to send Juliana to the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in East Northfield, Massachusetts.
Today the Northfield Mount Hermon School is a nonsectarian coeducational preparatory school that caters to the children of the affluent. But it was founded in 1879 by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody as a boarding school for the daughters of the poor. The education was “earnestly Christian,” which must have seemed a drawback to Juliana. She was an avid reader of Emerson, Thoreau, and George Eliot, and her own faith was in individualism. But Northfield was considered a steppingstone to Wellesley, so in the fall of 1896 Juliana enrolled. Seminary life was sober and strait-laced, and it was evidently not to her liking. After only three semesters she left, forfeiting her dream of college. Like her childhood in Hoboken, her attendance at Northfield would become an inconvenient fact, better hidden and forgotten.
Northfield did equip Juliana to become a teacher, one of the few careers then open to middleclass women. She got a job at a business school in Hoboken, teaching English and secretarial courses. In her spare time she wrote poems and stories, which she sent off to Scribner’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular magazines. The submissions went out under a male pen name, but they were rejected nonetheless.
In 1904 Juliana met Willard Burdette Force, a local dentist five years older than she and unhappily married. Juliana’s appearance on the scene seems to have tipped the balance, and two years later Force left his wife and moved to New York City. To deflect some of the gossip in Hoboken, Juliana began commuting across the Hudson to work in New York. She married Willard Force in 1912, a few months after his divorce became final. As far as Juliana was concerned, her link with Hoboken was now sundered. She was Mrs. W. B. Force of Manhattan, and the world was not to know she had ever been anyone else.
Juliana Force could not have metamorphosed into the astonishing creature she became without the persistence and daring of Gertrude Whitney, the sculptor and socialite, who was striving for self-definition in her own sphere. The daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, one of the richest men in America, and the great-granddaughter of “Commodore” Vanderbilt, she was a great heiress whose destiny, it would seem, was to dress expensively, entertain splendidly, and do very little else. She fulfilled the conventional expectations perfectly in 1896 when she married Harry Payne Whitney, scion of an eminent American family and rich enough not to be branded a fortune hunter. Gertrude, happy and settled, shouldered her social duties with pleasure. As the seasons demanded, she shuttled to and from their palace on Fifth Avenue, their retreat on Long Island, their cottage at Newport, their camp in the Adirondacks, and their farm in South Carolina. She produced three children.