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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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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 ing�nue role of The Missouri Traveler, married her in Carson City, Nev. and took her back to Kentucky to live.

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