C.V. Whitney; Scion of Two Noted Families
Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, scion of two of America’s most prominent families who considered himself “a lucky guy who was born with a proverbial silver spoon in my mouth” and who made additional millions as a captain of industry, sportsman and even a financial angel for such classic films as “Gone With the Wind,” died Sunday.
Whitney was 93 when he died at his lavish estate in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said family spokesman Ed Lewi.
Sonny Whitney, as he was known to friends, was a chairman of Pan American Airways, an owner of top thoroughbreds including two Belmont Stakes winners, and a multimillionaire patron of the arts who maintained seven residences and a Lear jet to fly among them.
He served in government as an assistant Air Force secretary from 1947 to 1949, as an undersecretary of commerce from 1949 to 1950, and as President Harry S. Truman’s special envoy to England, Luxembourg, Italy and Spain in 1950.
A descendant of Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, Whitney was born in Roslyn, N.Y., and attended Groton and Yale universities. He was a fighter pilot in World War I and returned to Air Corps service in World War II, where he saw service in India, Africa and Japan, winning the Distinguished Service Medal and Legion of Merit with two battle stars.
His mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, was a sculptor who founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. She was a great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who amassed a fortune in steamships and railroads.
His father was Harry Payne Whitney, son of William Collins Whitney, who was secretary of Navy under President Grover Cleveland and who founded the Whitney horse racing dynasty.
While in his 20s, Whitney started his own fortune, parlaying a $3,150 investment into $500,000. With that money he co-founded the airline that became Pan American Airways, which he chaired until 1941.
“I made my life,” the tall, ruggedly handsome Whitney recalled in 1976. “I always thank my father. He never gave me a damn cent. He sent me out to the mines to work for the same salary as a mucker.”
He sold some of his stock in Pan Am and used it to found the Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting Co., of which he was chairman until 1964. He also founded Marineland, the country’s first oceanarium, near St. Augustine, Fla.
With his cousin John Hay Whitney, he helped finance the development of Technicolor and Cinerama and they co-produced half a dozen David O. Selznick pictures, including “Gone With The Wind,” the 1937 version of “A Star is Born” and “Rebecca.”
When his father died in 1930, Whitney was said to have inherited $20 million to add to his fortune. And he took over the stable and stud farm that his grandfather had founded at the turn of the century.
C.V. Whitney-bred horses won 176 stakes races. Five times he led the nation’s owners in earnings. With Phalanx in 1947 and Counterpoint in 1951 he won the Belmont Stakes.
Whitney also wrote four books: “Lone and Level Sands,” a 1951 account of his World War II experiences; “Live a Year with a Millionaire,” “High Peaks” (his autobiography) and “The Owl Hoots Again.”
His first three marriages ended in divorce. With his first wife, Marie Norton, he had a son and daughter. His second marriage, to Gladys Hopkins, produced a daughter. He had another son with his third wife, Eleanor Searle.
Then he met Marie Louise Hosford, who was starring in “Missouri Traveler,” a movie he helped produce about a runaway orphan. They married in 1958 and had a daughter.