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Alfred Wright
September 04, 1961
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
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September 04, 1961

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

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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."

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