- Historic Sites
Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
by W. A. Swanberg Charles Scribner’s Sons 32 pages of photographs 544 pages, $17.50
William C. Whitney and his daughter Dorothy, charter members of Ward McAllister’s Four Hundred, were personally endearing people, whose warmth of personality created a circle of affection around them. Moreover, both of them were intelligent and exceedingly able. But as Swanberg makes clear in this rich dual biography, there the similarity ended.
As a businessman, Whitney was not so savory. He wasn’t quite in the robber-baron class: his arena for larceny—New York’s surface transit system—was too small. But by 1900 he had built himself a considerable fortune by fleecing small investors with watered stock and “wholesale stockjobbery.” His financial schemes were so arcane that few people in his lifetime could fathom their impropriety. And little has turned up since to untangle the mess.
We learn more, therefore, about how Whitney spent his money than about how he made it. He and his first wife, Flora (Dorothy’s mother), were mansion builders. Like other rich Victorians, they cannibalized Europe to create “instant grandeur” in their vast new dwellings.
Only six when her mother died, Dorothy received large amounts of her father’s money and little of his attention. She grew up, astonishingly enough, with a very unWhitney-like social conscience. Her brother Harry referred to her (not to her face) as “my pink sister.” In 1911, after a touchingly romantic courtship, she married Willard Straight, considered an adventurer in Dorothy’s set because he had f leetingly wooed two heiresses before he met Dorothy. The intensity and passion of their marriage is revealed in the prodigious correspondence they exchanged if parted for even a day. The marriage was cut short when Willard died of influenza in 1918.
In drawing these contrasting family portraits, Swanberg—the well-known biographer of Hearst and Luce—is obviously intrigued by the duplicity of the father, but his affection is reserved for the gentle and honorable daughter.