Whitney, Helen Hay (1876–1944)

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Whitney, Helen Hay (1876–1944)

American sportswoman and philanthropist who founded the Greentree Stable which produced numerous thoroughbreds including the 1931 Kentucky Derby winner Twenty Grand . Name variations: Mrs. Payne Whitney. Born Helen Hay on March 11, 1876, in New York; died in September 1944 in New York; daughter of John Hay (1838–1905, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and U.S. secretary of state to presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt) and Clara Louise (Stone) Hay; sister of Alice Hay Wadsworth Boyd ; attended Miss Masters' School, Dobbs Ferry, New York; married Payne Whitney (a financier), on February 6, 1902 (died 1927): children: Joan Whitney Payson (1903–1975); Jock Whitney.

Known as the "first Lady of the American Turf" because of her lifelong interest in horse racing, Helen Hay Whitney was the daughter of Clara Stone Hay and John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and U.S. secretary of state to two presidents. After graduating from the exclusive Miss Masters' School, Whitney wrote several volumes of poetry, which so delighted her father that he had them published. Her writing career was cut short, however, by her marriage in 1902 to financier Payne Whitney. The wedding ceremony was a major social event in Washington; among the guests were President Theodore Roosevelt and his entire Cabinet. "The church was so crowded that one could not move without jostling a senator or dignitary of even higher rank," writes W.A. Swanberg. "Ambassadors from all nations were present, including the Wus from China and the Takahiras from Japan." Among the wedding gifts were a Fifth Avenue house, a yacht, and some impressive diamond jewelry.

Whitney purchased her first horse—a steeplechaser named Web Carter—in 1909 and by the mid-1920s had established Greentree Stable in Red Bank, New Jersey, a 150-acre facility recognized as one of the country's major stables and the largest run by a woman. It was also among the top money-winners in the country, particularly in 1931, when Whitney's horse Twenty Grand won the Kentucky Derby. Whitney sometimes found it necessary to use her wealth and power to protect her interests. She fought New York governor Charles Evans Hughes in his attempt to enact anti-gambling legislation in the state, and in 1939, she led the call for the legalization of parimutuel betting.

Whitney also supported a number of charitable organizations, including the New York Hospital and the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. Beginning in 1919, she hosted an annual Greentree Fair at her estate in Manhasset, New York, to benefit the Family Welfare Association of Nassau County and the New York Hospital. Following the death of her husband in 1927, she and her children donated money to Yale University for the construction of a new gymnasium in his memory. Whitney also served as honorary vice president of the Horticultural Society of New York. Helen Hay Whitney died in September 1944 in New York.


Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Vol. 23. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Whitney, Helen Hay (1876–1944)

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