The Force Behind The Whitney


In 1947 Juliana learned she had abdominal cancer; she underwent the first of three operations in November. Hiding her illness as long as she could, she summoned up an almost superhuman determination to stay alive. Whenever she was well enough, she made it a special point to attend meetings at the Metropolitan to defend the Whitney against administrative depredations. A. Hyatt Mayor, a curator at the Met, described her arrival at one such meeting: “She rose from her death bed, put her war paint over the hideous yellow of her illness, armed herself in electric blue silk, with a plumed hat to match, and stormed into the meeting under the brutalizing glare of a ceiling spotlight. None of us expected ever to see her again when she burst into the room, gathering the last of her life to fling at our remembrance. Her ghost could not have startled us more.”

In the fall of 1948 officials on both sides decided to call off the union, and the Whitney children, having come to realize that the museum was their mother’s greatest memorial, committed themselves to keeping it going. This was to remain a secret for several months, but not long before her death on August 28, Juliana confided the news to a friend. He said: “She looked dreadful and felt very ill, but she said, This is the happiest day of my life. The Met is not getting the Whitney. I’ve done my work.’”