SONNY WHITNEY: A SUCCESS IN SPITE OF HIS MONEY

Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, born to wealth and position, has applied an extraordinary competitive sense to a wide variety of activities—from polo and horse racing to mining and movie making. Here is the story of a rich boy who made good
September 03, 1961

As befits a man with such a name, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney was born into a world of spangled opulence beyond the imagination of even a Father Divine or a Gabor sister. There are no actuarial odds available on the chances for future success of someone raised amidst such wealth and such tradition, but the daily evidence in the tabloids would indicate that their prospects are not bright. Nonetheless, C. V. Whitney overcame these childhood handicaps. By the time he was 40 years old he had become a spectacular success in such diverse enterprises as mining, moving pictures, marine zoology, commercial aviation, natural history, agronomy and sport, and he has been adding to his list of distinguished accomplishments ever since.

Last year, at the age of 61, Whitney, who is still known to his friends as Sonny, reached what may well be the apogee of one of those many careers. The C. V. Whitney Thoroughbred racing stable, which was started by Whitney's grandfather and carried on by his father before he himself took it over in 1930, won $1,039,091. Only Calumet Farm, the stable that dominated U.S. racing for 11 of the previous 20 years, had ever before passed the million-dollar mark in winnings.

But among Thoroughbred purists like Whitney, winning big purses is not enough. Deep satisfaction comes only from a complementary success in breeding—projecting the bloodlines of one's finest horses through the years and, as the saying goes (laughingly) among the $2 punters, "improving the breed." Thus, the real excitement for Whitney in his 1960 triumph is that he was also the leading breeder of the year. Horses bred on the rolling countryside of his lovely 960-acre Whitney Farm at Lexington, Ky. won $1,193,181—10% more than those of the second-place breeder. The union of these two accomplishments in one stable is as if Charles Lindbergh had built the Spirit of St. Louis with his own hands before he flew it to Paris.

Anyone who has followed the career of C. V. Whitney as it has been so painstakingly chronicled in the society and gossip columns for four decades might get the idea he is a gay, handsome, carefree, fun-loving type who spends most of his time cavorting in the company of movie stars and other picturesque people. But aside from the fact that he has had four marriages to beautiful women and that one of his five children by these marriages is a dazzling blonde with a penchant for publicity, Whitney is a far cry from the popular tintype of the rich American sportsman and socialite. Handsome he is, to be sure—a six-footer with an athletic build, a youthful face and only the wispiest flecks of gray in his wavy brown hair—but with it all he is as earnest and intense as a clergyman. Small talk bores him, he drinks sparingly and his notion of a full evening is a couple of rubbers of bridge with his wife and some other couple. "Sonny never really seems to have any fun," a friend has said of him, but it would be more accurate to say he likes his fun in very small doses.

Whereas horse racing is a sport and most rich people go into it as a pleasant and gregarious form of recreation, Whitney approaches it as if it were a moral duty. "I would never have gone into it in the first place," he once said, "if it weren't for the family tradition." And because his competitive instinct is as uncompromising as a tidal wave, he couldn't possibly keep at the sport without wanting to be the best. "I enjoy the competitiveness first," he says.

Whitney once quit racing entirely—in 1937—when he felt he didn't have the time to do it properly. "I was only 38 years old," he recently recalled, "and I was extremely busy with a great many other interests. I was very active in the moving picture business at the time. My cousin, Mr. John Hay Whitney, and I had large investments in Pioneer Pictures, a company that produced some of the first Technicolor movies, and later became Selznick International, which made Rebecca, A Star Is Born and Gone With the Wind.

"In addition to that, I was busy with my copper-mining interests in Flin Flon, Canada, where I was a partner in the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company with my old friend, Roscoe H. Channing Jr. I was also deeply engaged in the formation of the Marine Studios at St. Augustine, Fla., and I was taking an active part in the management of Pan American Airways. Then there were such civic enterprises as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Metropolitan Opera Company. And I was serving on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which my two sisters and I endowed in memory of my mother. So, I had very little time for sport."

When Whitney goes into a business—or anything else, for that matter—he plays for keeps, and any resemblance to the rich dilettante is strictly illusory. Before joining the Flin Flon mining venture in northern Manitoba, Whitney had worked as a mucker in the Cornstock Lode, learning the business from the underground up. Then, when Channing proved to Whitney the feasibility of his process for recovering low-grade ore, the older man and the young Yale graduate personally led the arduous expedition into the Canadian wilderness where the mine is located. From the very first, Whitney served as an active chairman of the board of the mining company, as he still does, and he also took over the presidency upon the retirement of Channing a few years ago.

During his first Hollywood outing Whitney served on the board of directors of Pioneer Pictures and Selznick International and helped keep a firm hand on the purse strings while David Selznick, the flamboyant producer, was developing new and expensive ways to make pictures. Later, in 1954, Whitney again entered the movie business and his new company, C. V. Whitney Pictures, Inc. produced three Westerns—The Searchers, The Missouri Traveler and The Young Land. They were not financial triumphs, but they had a modest critical success, and they helped to appease his desire to glorify the early pioneer spirit.

Before Whitney abandoned the movies for good in 1959, he married Mary Lou Hosford, a small and vivacious blonde with four children by a previous marriage. He had met her casually while dining in a Phoenix, Ariz, restaurant, cast her in the ingénue role of The Missouri Traveler, married her in Carson City, Nev. and took her back to Kentucky to live.

From the very start of Marineland—or, more exactly, the Marine Studios, Inc. near St. Augustine, Fla.—C. V. assumed an active part in the collection of the deep-sea animals with which this marine zoo was stocked. And he has always served as its board chairman.

The same sort of thing was true at Pan American, a company that was an outgrowth of an early aviation partnership among Whitney, Juan Trippe and several other air-minded New Yorkers. Whitney had won his wings with the Canadian Royal Flying Corps in World War I when freshly out of Groton School, and he helped pioneer some of Pan Am's early routes from the cockpit of a small plane. Here, once again, Whitney served as board chairman of a company in which he was heavily involved, but a business disagreement with Trippe ended this arrangement before World War II.

It has been almost axiomatic, then, that when Whitney entered a business venture he would assume the leading executive position and assume its duties as well as the title. Through the years he has served as a chairman of the board almost as often as George Jessel has served as a toastmaster.

"What time I could spare from my business and other interests," Whitney said, "was taken up largely by my polo team—the Old Westbury team, we called it. It was composed of Mike Phipps, Cecil Smith, Stewart Iglehart and myself. We won the national championship in both 1937 and 1938.

"At that time my racing stable had had a couple of bad seasons and had just about hit the bottom. So I decided to sell all the horses I had in training—though I'd keep the horses I had on the farm in Lexington until I decided whether I would continue in racing."

Despite the relatively poor record of the C. V. Whitney stable in 1936 and 1937, Whitney was able to auction off all of the 15 horses he had in training for a total of $119,600—a pretty hefty sum in those days of the skinny, post-Depression dollar. The next year, running under the colors of various other owners, these same 15 horses won a total of $216,165—enough to have nearly led the list of winning owners if Whitney had kept them under his own famous Eton blue and brown silks.

"I went back into racing more out of a sense of duty than anything else," Whitney said. "I had never been particularly excited about it, but both my father and grandfather had loved the sport, and they had devoted great care to building up our bloodlines and breeding stock. As a matter of fact, although I didn't think about it at the time I decided to resume racing, I had one very unusual experience when I was a young man that may easily have been the deciding factor in my decision."

During these reminiscences Whitney had been sitting at his desk in a small, cluttered office that he maintains in a corner of one of the small cottages on his Kentucky farm. It is an unpretentious place, but it reflects the sentiment that lies behind Whitney's shy and formal facade. There is a photograph of his mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was a granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and a very distinguished sculptor. In another photograph is his father, the late Harry Payne Whitney, characteristically wearing the black bowler hat which was almost a trademark for him around the race tracks. There is a picture of Channing, the elderly man who first interested Whitney in his Canadian mining project and who died this year at the age of 93. "He was like a second father to me," C. V. says. There is a formal photograph of Whitney in the uniform of an Army Air Force colonel during World War II and under it, inscribed in his own hand, a description of his visit to the landing beaches at Iwo Jima in the company of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who was a close friend. There are pictures and sculptures of some of the more famous Whitney horses—all adding up to the feeling that this is a room where Whitney likes to concentrate his fondest memories.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance that Whitney attaches to tradition. Someone once seemed astonished to discover that C.V. was a Democrat in good standing who had run for Congress on the Democratic ticket in 1932, had supported Jack Kennedy for President and even served for two years in Harry Truman's subcabinet as Under Secretary of Commerce.

"Of course I'm a Democrat," Whitney said. "Both my grandfather and father were Democrats."

William C. Whitney, C.V.'s grandfather and the founder of the Whitney fortune, largely through his interests in the New York City street-railway system, had a dramatic political career. He spent a lot of his time fighting Tammany Hall, helped unseat Boss Tweed and eventually became Secretary of the Navy in Grover Cleveland's Cabinet. Harry Payne Whitney, in his turn, was one of the major financial supporters of Al Smith.

Once, when C.V. was a youngster, he heard his mother and father arguing over his future. "My father was saying he wanted me to be a great athlete, and my mother was saying she wanted me to be a concert pianist. 'Over my dead body,' my father said. I was never a great athlete nor a concert pianist, but I feel in a way that I have satisfied both their desires. My work in moving pictures and my participation in such things as the opera and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyo. have helped to carry on the artistic traditions of my family, and I have always tried to lead an active life in sport—or as much so as I have had time for."

Whitney can indeed look back on a very full life as a sportsman—a tackle on the Groton School football team, a bow oarsman on the Yale varsity crew, a fox hunter, a deep-sea sailor, a six-goal polo player, a skier, a fisherman, a huntsman, an excellent lawn-tennis player and a naturalist with serious credentials. And, of course, there is his Thoroughbred racing stable.

One day recently, Whitney took me on a tour of his Lexington farm, which is impressively functional with its dark-brown rail fences dividing the lush green pasturelands. He pointed out the small cemetery, where the farm's most celebrated Thoroughbreds are buried with such modest inscriptions on the headpiece as:

EQUIPOISE

CHESTNUT—1928
PENNANT—SWINGING
DIED AUGUST 4, 1938
AN ILLUSTRIOUS SON OF THIS STUD

Whitney drove his gray, 10-year-old Mercedes convertible past the acres of tobaccoland that he leases out to a local farmer on a share-cropping basis and along a road that divides his own farm from Greentree Stud, the adjoining farm of his cousins, Jock Whitney and Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson. "If you look through those trees," he said, "you can probably see Tom Fool, who is Green-tree's best sire right now. I've had several seasons to him, and one of them produced Tompion."

We then drove past the stallions' barn, and Whitney stopped the car so we could get out and look at a proud old sway-backed gray stallion who was grazing in a nearby paddock. This was the great Mahmoud, who won the Epsom Derby in 1936 for the Aga Khan and in doing so set a stakes record that still stands. Whitney bought him three years later for $80,000, and in 20 years at stud on Whitney Farm he produced as many distinguished racing and brood mares as any other sire in American Thoroughbred records, although, for some genetic mystery, he never produced a truly first-class colt.

Mahmoud, aged 28, is now in retirement and enjoying the leisure of his autumn years. His three principal successors are in the adjoining paddocks. One is Fisherman, the little brown horse who won the Washington, D.C., International. Another is Mount Marcy, one of the better Whitney racers of recent years, and the third is Counterpoint, a large chestnut 13-year-old, who is just beginning to be recognized as a successful sire. Five of the top seven Whitney money winners last year were Counterpoints. "One of the significant things of the past few years on this farm," he explained as he examined this stallion with pride, "is Counterpoint's new importance as a sire. He went from absolutely no recognition at all during his first five years at stud to 10th on the list of winning sires last year, and he now has 23 horses running."

As we drove on, we could see several dozen mares and their weanlings grazing in the brown-fenced pastures on either side of the road—the 1961 crop of Whitney Thoroughbreds. "Do you notice how many of those mares are gray?" Whitney inquired, and, sure enough, almost half of them were. "You wouldn't see that anywhere else in the world," he said. "Those are Mahmoud mares, and the strain of gray in him is so strong that he has passed it on to many of his mares."

Eventually we arrived at a large barn, where Whitney stopped the car and got out to show me some of the 500 head of Black Angus cattle he maintains. "These are the ones we are getting ready for the shows," he said, nodding toward a number of very black and very fat animals, who were being entertained by rock 'n' roll from a radio and cooled by electric fans the size of airplane propellers.

"We've had great success with this herd, and some people rate it among the top five in the country," Whitney said later as we sat on the front porch of one of the guest cottages and looked across the fields at the gray mares and their foals and the black cattle and the rolling bluegrass countryside and the three-quarter-mile training track, and beyond to the enormous barn, where such distinguished racers as Dotted Swiss and Tompion were living.

"It was through Ivor Balding's influence, you know, that I went into cattle. In fact, I couldn't emphasize too strongly the tremendous part he has played in the renovation and success of this establishment—in both horses and cattle."

Ivor Balding is the manager of the eastern division of Whitney's racing string and a general consultant on all phases of the C. V. Whitney Farm and the Thoroughbred operation. Twenty-five years ago Whitney hired Balding, then a young Englishman scarcely out of his teens, to manage his polo ponies and serve as a substitute on the polo team, and Balding has been a friend and employee ever since.

In 1939, the year Whitney decided to re-enter Thoroughbred racing after a one-year hiatus, young Balding was the man he selected to head the entire enterprise. He sent Balding to Cornell for a course in agronomy and then put him in complete charge of Whitney Farm. One of Balding's first moves was to start the Black Angus herd as a means of naturally fertilizing the pastureland. His other major decision that year was the purchase of Mahmoud.

In the '50s Mahmoud's daughters showed they could not only run but could also produce winners. In 1959 one Whitney filly, Silver Spoon, who was by Citation out of a Mahmoud mare, beat all the best colts in California during the winter meeting at Santa Anita. Sentimentalists everywhere were pulling for her to be the second filly in history to win the Kentucky Derby (she finished a respectable fifth). The sentiment was fanned by the fact that Regret, the filly who won in 1915, had belonged to Whitney's father.

In 1960 Whitney's long and patient rehabilitation of his racing stock hit the jackpot. Tompion, his temperamental 3-year-old colt, looked, after a successful winter season in California, as if he might bring Whitney his first victory in the Kentucky Derby. He ran a disappointing fourth in that race, but even so, he won more than a quarter of a million dollars during the year. Dotted Swiss, a 4-year-old, did most of his racing in California and led the Whitney money winners with $296,900. And Silver Spoon, as a 4-year-old, won more than $130,000. All told, 34 Whitney Thoroughbreds, racing mainly in California under Trainer Bob Wheeler and in New York and Kentucky under Bud Greely, contributed to the winning total of more than a million dollars.

"It is, of course, very satisfying to win all that money," Whitney said one afternoon as he relaxed in a rocking chair and looked over his peaceful acres. "But the real success of this farm was reached in the fall of 1960, when we had 30 yearlings, all of whom were sound. Most people don't realize that only about half of the Thoroughbreds that are foaled each year are actually sound horses. In both our 1960 and 1961 crops all the foals were sound. This is our great achievement. Unspectacular statistics like that are the true measure of the success that Ivor and I have had here.

"Racing has changed a great deal in recent years. A lot of the oldtimers who loved horses and rode them and hunted them and played polo on them are disappearing. Now you get a great many people who just like to win a trophy or a big purse and have a box at Belmont but don't really give a damn about the horses themselves.

"When you watch a horse you've raised and trained and brought to the races, when you watch him run in an important race like The Belmont, it's just like watching one of your own children do something important.

"Do you remember my mentioning an unusual experience I had when I was a young man that had an important effect on my decision to return to racing?

"Back in 1927 my father had a 3-year-old named Whiskery who was running in the Kentucky Derby, and I came down to the farm from New York with him and some of his cronies in his private railroad car. At that time I had no particular interest in racing, and I'd never seen a Derby.

"My father used to get so nervous when he had a horse in an important race that he could hardly bear to watch. Sometimes he would just go off and stand all by himself on the backstretch. Well, he finally decided at the last minute not to watch this Derby, so he sent me over to Louisville as his emissary.

"When I got to the track I fell in with a lot of newspapermen and writers like Ring Lardner and Bill Corum and Grantland Rice, who were sitting around a table eating and drinking. At one point I happened to mention that I didn't know what I would say for an acceptance speech if Whiskery should win.

" 'Don't worry, I'll write your speech for you,' Ring Lardner said. He took out a pencil and leaned over and wrote on the cuff of my shirt: 'Whiskery won because his mother was a mudder.'

"As it turned out, Whiskery did win, but I never had a chance to give the speech, because the police couldn't get me through the crowd in time for the presentation ceremonies.

That night, when I got back to the farm, my father and his friends were all playing poker in the private car, so I went out to take a walk and get some air. Off on a hillside in the distance I saw a fire burning, so I walked across the fields to see what it was.

"When I got there I discovered a huge bonfire on the crest of the hill, and dozens of men who worked on the place—they were all colored men in those days—were grouped around the fire singing strange, weird chants I had never heard before. It was almost like some pagan rite.

"In the shadows a few yards away from the fire I saw a horse tethered, so I went up to one of the men, who didn't have the faintest notion who I was, and asked him about the horse.

" 'That's Regret,' he said. In order to celebrate that day's victory in the Derby the men had gone down to the barn and gotten the only other Whitney horse to win it and brought her up on the hill as part of the ceremony.

"I sat around there until one or two in the morning listening to that wonderful singing, and for the first time I had some appreciation of the real emotions that go with horse racing."

PHOTORICHARD MEEKC. V. AT SARATOGA sits in opulent old Casino. Portraits of famous horses now hang in the National Museum of Racing. THREE PHOTOSWHITNEY CAREER HAS INCLUDED ROWING FOR YALE, LEADING CHAMPIONSHIP POLO TEAM AND AIR FORCE DUTY IN WORLD WAR II PHOTOFORAY INTO POLITICS was made by Democrat Whitney in 1932 when he ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress on Long Island. His second wife, Gwladys, campaigned with him.
PHOTOWHITNEY AND WIFE MARY LOU AT HOUSE IN FLIN FLON

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)