Whitney, Flora Payne (1897–1986)
Whitney, Flora Payne (1897–1986)
American sculptor and art patron who was president of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art for 25 years . Name variations: Flora Whitney Miller. Born on July 29, 1897; died in Nassau, New York, on July 17, 1986; eldest of four children (two girls and two boys) of Harry Payne Whitney (1872–1930) and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942); attended the Brearley School, New York; graduated from Foxcroft School, Virginia; married Roderick Tower (1892–1961, a businessman), in 1920 (divorced); married George Macculloch Miller (1887–1972, an artist and businessman), on February 24, 1927; children: (first marriage) Pamela Tower; Whitney Tower; (second marriage) Flora Miller Biddle; Leverett Miller.
Upon the death of her mother Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1942, Flora Payne Whitney took over the stewardship of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which Gertrude had established in 1931 and nurtured through its early years. For Flora Payne Whitney, the Museum "was her adored mother," says Flora's daughter Flora Miller Biddle . "Her longing and then her mourning poured into the Museum, enriching it for more than twenty-five years and holding Gertrude's passionate commitment fast."
Flora Payne Whitney was the eldest of four children born to Harry Payne Whitney and Gertrude Vanderbilt. She enjoyed a privileged but somewhat unpredictable childhood, her schooling frequently interrupted by family trips. At 14, she sojourned with Gertrude to Paris, where she had her own apartment near her mother's, with a maid and governess. "Had lunch with Mamma at her studio. It's awfully nice. I loved my first day in Paris," she wrote in her journal in 1912. In February, she recorded a shopping expedition. "Mamma got two coats and 16 evening dresses, suits, and afternoon dresses…. Then we went to get my clothes. I got 12 dresses, one suit (blue), three hats, and fours coats. I love them all." In her late teens, Flora went through a period of resenting her advantaged existence, feeling that it did not prepare her for a productive life. At the same time, she faulted her mother for not understanding her. "I really feel much worse about not being able to talk to Mamma than anyone thinks I do," she wrote in a letter at age 18. "Oh! It's awful. If only I could—I admire and respect and of course adore Mamma, but there is no companionship at all."
At 19, shortly after graduating from Foxcroft School in Virginia, Whitney fell in love with Quentin Roosevelt, Theodore's youngest son, to whom she became engaged shortly before he went overseas as a World War I pilot in the American Expeditionary Forces. On July 14, 1918, Quentin was shot down and killed in his plane inside the German lines. Flora was devastated by the loss, but found solace in the company of the Roosevelt family. She went to work as a transcriber for Theodore just weeks before his death in 1919. Reeling from a second loss, she stayed with Alice Roosevelt Longworth in Washington, where she worked briefly for the Women's Republican Committee and attempted to keep up with Longworth's frantic social life.
In 1920, Whitney married Roderick Tower, a young oilman who had been a friend of Quentin's. The union produced two children but ended four year later. Following the divorce, Flora spent the summer with her mother in Paris. She began sculpting there and later in New York, exhibiting her work at the Society of Independent Artist and in the Whitney Studio Club's Tenth Anniversary Exhibition. In 1927, she married George Macculloch "Cully" Miller, a talented artist and businessman with whom she had much in common. Cully adored Whitney's children, and the couple added another two, Flora and Leverett. Hoping to raise their family in a "protected, healthy ambiance," they settled into a house in Aiken, South Carolina, given to them by Gertrude. Despite the idyllic setting, Biddle recalls that her parents were frequently absent. "Before World War II, when we were small, they actively sought pleasure, fun, the good life. They ate, drank, and made merry. We often felt left out, and were abandoned to the strict nanny who taught us discipline, restraint, and humility."
After the unexpected death of her mother, Whitney agonized over the museum, closing it briefly, then reopening it while she considered a merger with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was not until 1948 that she abandoned that idea and took over the institution herself. "My mother's decision to keep the Museum was a bold one," writes Biddle. "With fewer resources than her mother had, and mounting costs, she would have to count on her brother Sonny's and sister Barbara [Whitney] 's help…. And my mother would have to provide leadership."
Whitney did provide leadership, without the confidence of her mother but with warmth and enthusiasm. She oversaw moves in 1954 and 1966, the last to its present location on Madison Avenue, in a building designed by the famed architect Marcel Breuer. She also helped to expand the museum's collection and assisted fund-raising projects, often donating money from her own funds. In 1980, she sold a valuable Turner painting (Juliet and Her Nurse) from her own collection and donated a portion of the record proceeds ($6.4 million) to the museum. Like her mother, Whitney also took a great interest in nurturing new artists. "Her kindness tamed Philip Evergood's distrust of the rich and dispelled Charles Burchfield's social inarticulateness," recalled Jack Baur, who was director of the Whitney from 1968 to 1974. "After the latter's one-man show at the Whitney in nineteen fifty-six, Flora took his whole family back to Ten Gracie Square for a champagne dinner and bought his Goldenrod in December. Her spirit played a crucial part in establishing and nourishing the Whitney's policy of supporting living artists. We all loved her."
As age encroached, many of Whitney's duties were taken over by her daughter Flora Biddle. While Biddle had grieved over her mother's absences when she was a child, her work at the Whitney brought the two women closer. Following Whitney's death in the summer of 1986, the Biddles, together with the museum staff, put together a "Flora" memorial scrapbook, containing hundreds of photographs and tributes, and covered in yellow, her favorite color. The book
was presented at a gala in Flora's honor held at her beloved museum. The party also marked a crucial juncture for the Whitney Museum, a time of moving forward and of change, not all of it easy. The museum is now a trustee-run business, no longer dominated by the Whitney family, although Whitney granddaughter Fiona Biddle sits on the board of trustees, representing the fourth generation of Whitney women to have a presence there.
Biddle, Flora Miller. The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made: A Family Memoir. NY: Arcade, 1999.
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, ed. American National Biography. Vol. 23. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts