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Whitney, John Haylocked

(17 August 1904–08 February 1982)
  • Susan Hamburger

Whitney, John Hay (17 August 1904–08 February 1982), financier, philanthropist, and sportsman, was born in Ellsworth, Maine, the son of Payne Whitney, a capitalist and philanthropist, and Helen Hay Whitney, at the time a poet. “Jock” Whitney graduated from Yale in 1926 and studied history and literature at Oxford for one year. His father’s death in 1927 brought him home to assume control over the Whitney business interests in oil, tobacco, street railways, and real estate, worth cumulatively almost $179 million.

At an early age Whitney developed his lifelong interests in theater, film, journalism, and sports. He pursued his love of theater and film as an investor in Broadway shows and motion pictures. Between 1928 and 1948 he backed forty plays, including Gay Divorcee, Charley’s Aunt, Life with Father, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Whitney did not simply invest his money but read scripts and participated in the casting of shows. He entered the motion picture business in 1933 as owner of Pioneer Pictures, which introduced Technicolor. Between 1935 and 1940 he was the New York–based chair of the board and East Coast manager handling the commercial end of Selznick International Pictures, which made ten films, including the hits A Star Is Born, The Prisoner of Zenda, Rebecca, and Gone with the Wind. He handled the bookings, advertising, and foreign distribution and, with David O. Selznick, acquired story properties and made major casting decisions. Not every play or film Whitney backed found box office success, but his $2 million investment in movies earned him a profit of $1.5 million by 1948.

Whitney was a member of the board of trustees for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City beginning in 1930. He began its film library after the museum put him in charge of soliciting films and money from the studios between 1935 and 1955.

With the advent of World War II Whitney sold his film interests and enrolled in officers’ training. In the fall of 1940 he joined with Nelson Rockefeller to run the Motion Picture Division of the Office of the Co-ordinator of Inter-American Affairs to develop better relations with Latin America. Whitney received his commission as captain in the U.S. Army Air Force in May 1942 and progressed through the intelligence ranks to colonel. He was captured by and escaped from the Germans in France in 1944. This experience profoundly affected Whitney, and he resolved to channel his resources into three main streams—wise investments, philanthropy, and living well. Whitney’s first marriage, to Mary Elizabeth Altemus in 1930, ended in divorce ten years later; they had no children. He married Betsey Cushing Roosevelt in 1942 and adopted her two daughters in 1949.

He created the John Hay Whitney Foundation in 1946 to “promote the development of knowledge and application thereof to the improvement of social welfare” by ameliorating the plight of the disadvantaged through funding humanities programs with $1 million each year. Rockefeller said Whitney “has always been on the constructive, liberal side of things and hasn’t been afraid to say so” (Kahn, p. 72). Selznick told an interviewer that Whitney was “an extraordinarily able, well-balanced, objective, and conscientious man with a wonderful sense of obligation, both to his wealth and to the public interest” (Kahn, p. 110).

Founded concurrently with the foundation in 1946, J. H. Whitney & Company began with $10 million to invest in chancy enterprises with limited appeal to conventional sources of financing. One of the many successes was Minute Maid orange juice. The original 1946 investment had increased tenfold by 1980; much of the success has been attributed to Jock Whitney’s insights into individuals and his knack for evaluating business prospects.

Twice Whitney chaired fundraising committees to elect Dwight D. Eisenhower president; Eisenhower often golfed and hunted quail on Whitney’s “Greenwood” plantation in Georgia. Because of his marked shyness and mild stutter, Whitney reluctantly accepted the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James from 1957 to 1960. Whitney’s only other diplomatic or foreign relations experience consisted of appointments to the Presidential Commission on Foreign Economic Policy to investigate tariff and trade programs in 1953 and as special ambassador with the U.S. delegation to South Korea in 1956. The diplomatic post to Great Britain afforded Whitney the opportunity to smooth Anglo-American relations and negotiate the West Indian American Defence Agreement, ratified in 1961. While in England, he became interested in the plight of the New York Herald Tribune and began investing in the Republican newspaper. He formed the Whitney Communications Corporation in 1958 to buy small weekly newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations. Upon returning to the United States in 1961, Whitney assumed the role of publisher and editor in chief but failed to salvage the Tribune. After spending almost $40 million, he closed the paper in 1966 but converted the Paris edition into the successful International Herald Tribune.

Throughout his adult life, Whitney owned horses. He began playing polo in prep school and took up the sport seriously in 1929. His Greentree team won the U.S. open championship in 1935 and in 1936, when he attained a six-goal handicap. Whitney sold the horses in 1939 and retired from active participation. For his twenty-second birthday, Whitney had received two thoroughbreds from his father to start his own racing stable. Two years later he became the youngest member of the American Jockey Club. He began racing thoroughbreds in England in 1928. In America, Whitney kept his stable, Mare’s Nest Farm, in Lexington, Kentucky. His mother brought him into a 30 percent partnership in Greentree Stable in 1942; after her death in 1944, Jock and his sister Joan Whitney Payson inherited the remainder of Greentree Stable on Long Island and Greentree Stud in Kentucky. Whitney then incorporated his stable into his 63 percent share of Greentree. He preferred to breed his own racers and bought breeding stock only at sales. Whitney and his sister produced the 1949 Horse of the Year, Capot; the 1953 Horse of the Year, Tom Fool; and the 1968 Belmont Stakes winner, Stage Door Johnny, among other numerous stakes-winning horses. Throughout Whitney’s career in racing he thought of it as a sport rather than a business, a philosophy he frequently espoused as an officer of the New York Racing Commission and the Westchester Racing Association and, after 1934, as an executive of the American Thoroughbred Breeders Association. Whitney died at his “Greentree” estate on Long Island.


Whitney’s personal papers are at Yale University’s Sterling Library. Papers from his ambassadorship are at the National Archives, RG 84 and RG 59. E. J. Kahn, Jr., Jock: The Life and Times of John Hay Whitney (1981), is a full-length biography. Whitney’s involvement with publishing is documented in Richard Kluger and Phyllis Kluger, The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune (1986); and his business dealings in the film industry are covered in David Thomson, Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick (1992). For his horse-racing interests see Robert V. Hoffman, “Famous Families in Sport: Part II, the Payne Whitneys,” Country Life, May 1932, pp. 57–59, 76, 78; and Bernard Livingston, Their Turf: America’s Horsey Set and Its Princely Dynasties (1973), pp. 59–73. An obituary is in the New York Times, 9 Feb. 1982.