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Betsey Cushing was born in Baltimore, one of three daughters, each of whom married into powerful families. Her older sister, Minnie, married Vincent Astor and her younger sister, Babe, was married to Standard Oil heir Stanley Mortimer, Jr., and to CBS founder William S. Paley. Betsey was married to James Roosevelt, the eldest son of President Franklin Roosevelt, with whom she had two daughters. During her marriage to James Roosevelt, Betsey often served as hostess at the White House. Following their divorce she married John Hay Whitney in 1942.
John Hay Whitney was born August 17, 1904, the second child of Payne and Helen Hay Whitney. He was the namesake of his maternal grandfather John Hay, who served as secretary to President Lincoln and as Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt. Nicknamed "Jock" from childhood, Whitney attended Groton and Yale. Whitney had a long and varied career which ranged from chairman of the board of Selznick International Pictures (1936-1940), to investment in the Aviation Corporation of America (later Pan American Airlines) to publisher and editor of several newspapers including the New York Herald Tribune. From 1957-1961 Whitney served as Ambassador to Great Britain at the request of his friend and golf partner President Eisenhower.
The Whitney art collection, including masterpieces of Impressionism and post-Impressionism, was displayed in their Manhattan townhouse. From 1961-1979 Whitney served as a trustee of the National Gallery of Art. Shortly after Whitney's death in 1982, the John Hay Whitney Foundation donated nine paintings to the National Gallery of Art, in addition to gifts to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and to Yale University, his alma mater. An exhibition of the Whitney collection was held at the National Gallery of Art in 1983.
Betsey Cushing Whitney was a benefactor of hospitals, and in 1983 established the Greentree Foundation to assist community groups. In 1991 Mrs. Whitney made a partial gift of Toulouse-Lautrec's Marcel Lender Dancing the Bolero in 'Chilpéric' to the National Gallery of Art At her death in 1998 she bequeathed an additional seven paintings to the Gallery.