William Collins Whitney (1841-1904) was a financier and founding father of the Whitney family’s immense fortune. His aptitude for accumulating wealth was matched by a talent to charm his way into Manhattan society controlled in the late 1800s by the arbiter of taste Mrs Astor. Whitney could trace his family’s descent back to William Bradford who had sailed to America on The Mayflower in 1620 and settled in Massachusetts. But William Whitney’s ambition was to take his place in Gilded Age New York society for whom Mrs Astor was gatekeeper.
Whitney graduated from Yale in 1863 where he befriended wealthy and influential friends such as John D. Rockefeller and Oliver Payne who would become his brother-in-law. He entered Harvard Law School where a contemporary described Whitney as ‘magnanimous, unselfish and generous’ concluding ‘we all agreed when we graduated that his success would depend on whether anything would stimulate him to a full development of his powers’. Whitney left Harvard before graduating to pursue his legal career in New York and was admitted to the bar in 1865. Whitney’s stimulus proved not to be law but money.
Popular, good looking and charming, Whitney made an advantageous match with Flora Payne, Oliver Payne’s ‘expressive and vivacious’ sister in 1869 with whom he had five children. According to Governor of New York Samuel Tilden, William Whitney was ‘the ablest political associate I ever had’. It was said of him ‘mediocrity in Whitney is unthinkable’. He served on the Corporation Council of New York between 1875 and 1882 and the powerful Vanderbilt family called on the ‘intellectual giant’ for financial advice.
William Whitney’s first fortune was made as a streetcar magnate. He and business partner Thomas Ryan used underhand tactics including bribery and corruption to secure control of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Company; buying shares belonging to rival Jacob Sharp after the unfortunate man was jailed for a fraction of their value. According to Greg King’s A Season of Splendor (2009) ‘the Metropolitan Transit Company offered new and frequently dubious opportunities for self-enrichment. They leased their own trolley cars to themselves at highly inflated prices, awarded themselves extravagant salaries and, it was said, pocketed the dividends due to their shareholders to increase their own coffers. So successful was this endeavour that in a mere five years, Whitney had made a staggering $40 million ($800 million today)’.
In 1885 President Cleveland appointed Whitney Secretary of the Navy; an office he held until 1889. While in office he and Flora held court in Washington and made influential political and social alliances. Flora Whitney died in 1894 and Whitney rekindled a relationship with the widowed Mrs Edith Randolph who it was rumoured was also a former mistress of J. Pierpont Morgan. The reappearance of Mrs Randolph caused a rift with the deceased Flora’s brother Oliver Payne. The unmarried Payne promised his fortune to Whitney’s children if they would remain loyal to their late mother and condemn the marriage. One son, William Whitney Jr, accepted his uncle’s offer and changed his name to Payne Whitney. The eldest son Henry Whitney remained loyal to his father.
Whitney and Edith married in 1896 and set about remodeling a vast mansion on the southwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue opposite the Vanderbilt palaces. Architect Stamford White constructed a Venetian palazzo façade for the ‘Palace of Art’ that contained green onyx walls, 16th century French tapestries, the largest ballroom in New York, bronze gates taken from the Palazzo Doria in Rome and artworks by Raphael, Tintoretto, Van Dyck and Reynolds. The Whitneys had not moved in to the mansion when Edith was rendered comatose in a riding accident on their estate in South Carolina in 1898. She barely recovered and lived in great pain for several months before dying in 1899.
The widower Whitney moved into the Fifth Avenue palazzo in 1900 and gave a debutante ball for 700 for his niece Helen Barney. But the mansion was said to resemble a sepulchre without a lady of the house. The American newspapers were dismissive of Whitney’s acquired tastes: ‘we could wish that Mr Croesus was putting up an American house instead of reproducing a Venetian palace; or that some decorative artists had made a mantel so beautiful and so perfect that it was not necessary for the latest millionaire to ransack an old French chateau to discover something to his liking’ wrote Munsey’s Magazine in 1901.
Despite his recently and dubiously acquired millions, William Whitney maintained an air of aristocratic bonhomie. As King writes ‘Whitney’s success owed much to his genteel manner. He had carefully cultivated an aura of refinement from his days at Yale and Harvard, and could easily charm those he encountered. No one took him for a ruthless robber baron or unscrupulous speculator’. His final years were spent investing in his beloved thoroughbred horses that were stabled at his summer estate Old Westbury on Long Island. The Westbury Stable was 800 feet long with boxes for 84 horses and a mile-long gallop adjoining. His stallion Volodyovski won the Epsom Derby in 1901.
William Whitney died in 1904 from peritonitis after an emergency appendectomy. In the same year Henry James published The Golden Bowl and the patriarch character Adam Verver was said to be based on the late Mr Whitney. Whitney’s Fifth Avenue palazzo was sold but found its way back into the family when William’s son Henry bought it back. When Henry Whitney’s widow Gertrude died in 1942 the house contents were sold (many finding their way into New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the mansion was subsequently razed to the ground.