Whitney, Dorothy Payne (1887–1968)

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Whitney, Dorothy Payne (1887–1968)

American philanthropist . Name variations: Dorothy Straight; Dorothy Straight Elmhirst; Mrs. Willard Straight. Born in April 1887 in Washington, D.C.; died in 1968 in Devon, England; daughter of William Collins Whitney and Flora (Payne) Whitney (1843–1893); married Willard Dickerman Straight, on September 7, 1911 (died in 1919); married Leonard Knight Elmhirst, in 1925; children: (first marriage) Whitney Straight; Beatrice Straight (1918–2001, an actress); Michael Straight; (second marriage) two.

Born in 1887 in Washington, D.C., the youngest child of William Collins Whitney and Flora Payne Whitney , Dorothy Payne Whitney was a mid-life baby; she was only six when her mother died of heart disease. William's subsequent marriage to Edith Randolph Whitney was regarded as treachery by the older Whitney children, Payne and Pauline Whitney , although Dorothy and her other brother Henry (Harry) Payne Whitney stood by their father and came to love their stepmother. Even after Edith succumbed to injuries sustained in a riding accident in 1898, the family remained divided in loyalties. William went on to amass quite a fortune and when he died in 1904, Dorothy became a wealthy young heiress. She was placed in the guardianship of her brother Harry and his wife Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney , who felt it their duty to protect her from the legions of young suitors they believed were out for her money.

Following a European tour and her introduction to society, Whitney enjoyed a busy social life (her diary for 1906 revealed dates with more than 40 men). Unlike her mother, however, whose life had been dominated by social activities, she was more attuned to the world. "Dorothy had a compassion that was ultimately to be translated into 'radicalism' displeasing to her set," writes W.A. Swanberg in Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress. "She was thrilled by such sonorous incitements to righteousness as Henley's Invictus. Although she took it for granted that she was of the elite, she shunned the more obtrusive snobberies of her circle and began her philanthropies—safely, through intermediary charities—by the distribution of her cast-off clothing to the poor."

In the summer of 1909, Dorothy embarked on a world tour. While in China, she met up with Willard Straight, who was negotiating banking transactions in Beijing (Peking) and serving as advisor to railroad magnate E.H. Harriman. Although Willard and Dorothy had met a few times previously at social gatherings, Willard had little money or family connections and appeared to be an unsuitable match for a Whitney. Over the course of two weeks in Beijing, however, the two fell in love, though family disapproval postponed their nuptials until September 7, 1911.

After 11 months of marriage, during which time they traveled extensively, the couple settled in New York. They eventually built a mansion on Fifth Avenue, where they entertained an endless stream of well-heeled and prominent personalities. Dorothy had three children, all of whom she cherished, but she entrusted them to English nannies to pursue her outside activities. She redoubled her charitable efforts, working with the Junior League, the drive for women's suffrage, the State Charities Aid, and the YWCA. She also supported her husband's frequent career changes, from banking to law, and subsidized The New Republic, a weekly newspaper devoted to "the improvement of the democracy" which he started with Herbert Croly in 1914.

During World War I, while her husband served overseas, Dorothy worked as a fund raiser for the Red Cross, and continued her service to the YMCA, although she came to abhor the pious, evangelical attitude of some of its members. "When I hear them say that their first duty is to put the soldier into proper relationship with God, I want to say, 'go to H——, the soldier is far closer to God than you are!'" At home, she cut her staff of some 26 servants almost in half, and cabled her husband for permission to sell off half of his polo ponies. In his absence, she also served as advisor to The New Republic, relaying messages from him to the editorial staff, attending weekly luncheon meetings, and working on particular projects. "You are wonderful, my dear Dorothy," editor Croly wrote to her. "There has never been a group of intellectual warriors, since the world began, who have had the kind assistance and support from a trustful friend that we have had from you." According to Swanberg, Whitney was also instrumental in starting the New School for Social Research in 1918, of which she also served as a director. The school provided "progressive" adult education and served as an independent social service institute.

Willard's unexpected death in November 1919 left Whitney bereft for months. The following summer, however, she undertook a request from General John Pershing to supervise the refurbishing of the cemetery at Suresnes, where Willard had been buried. The trip abroad revitalized her spirits, and by September her diary noted: "Most wonderful & happy day."

In 1925, Whitney married Leonard Knight Elmhirst, president of the Cosmopolitan Club at Cornell University. whom she had met while planning a union building at the university to honor her husband. The marriage surprised the social world as did the couple's subsequent move to England. There, they purchased Dartington Hall, a decaying mansion on 2,000 acres in Devon, and started a combined school and industrial-cultural center. Dorothy explained the enterprise to her friends back home in The Junior League magazine: "At Dartington, we regard the school as a part of the community in which adult education and rural enterprises of all kinds are being carried on," she wrote. "Fear of elders [on the part of the pupils, known as juniors] does not exist…. the juniors are exposed to the intellectual as well as the practical interests of the community."

At first, the school was judged a bit too progressive, especially in its informality and its lack of religious affiliation. The village cleric was censorious, and rumors about immorality and nudity ran rampant among the townsfolk. In time, however, Dartington became famous as an advanced school, particularly in the arts. Among its highly qualified teachers were Mark Tobey in painting, Margaret Barr in art history, and Michael Chekhov in drama. (Whitney's daughter Beatrice Straight , who became an acclaimed actress, received much of her training at Dartington.) The school also boasted occasional lecturers such as Bertrand Russell, Julian and Aldous Huxley, and Rabindranath Tagore. Whitney taught Shakespeare at the school and occasionally gave lectures to the convicts at nearby Dartmoor Prison.

Whitney continued to support The New Republic until it was sold in 1953, at which time her contributions totaled about $3 million. Not once in all those years did she seek to control the paper's opinions, even during World War II. Bruce Bliven, who succeeded Croly in 1930, noted that the "pacifist position of [The New Republic] must have grated on the Elmhirsts to a high degree, but never once did they make the slightest suggestion that we should alter our course."

Dorothy Payne Whitney died in 1968, at the age of 81, outliving all of her siblings. After a funeral ceremony at the Anglican church in the village, she was cremated and her ashes scattered in her own Dartington garden.


Swanberg, W.A. Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress. NY: Scribner, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Whitney, Dorothy Payne (1887–1968)

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