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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, graduating in 1926, after which he spent one year at Oxford. The death of his father in 1927 necessitated his return to the US to manage the family fortune and affairs.
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. Whitney established his eponymous venture capital company in 1946; in that same year he established the philanthropic John Hay Whitney Foundation. From 1957-1961 Whitney served as Ambassador to Great Britain at the request of his friend and golf partner President Eisenhower.
When the US entered World War II, John Hay Whitney attended officer's candidate school and became a captain in the army air forces. In 1944, as a colonel, he was captured by the Germans while on a mission in southern France. Held for 18 days, he escaped from a train taking prisoners to camps in Germany, and was subsequently rescued by French Resistance fighters.
Whitney married twice, first to Mary Elizabeth Altemus, from whom he was divorced in 1940. In 1942 he married Betsey Cushing Roosevelt, former wife of James Roosevelt, the eldest son of President Franklin Roosevelt. Whitney adopted her two daughters, Sara Wilford and Kate Whitney.
A polo player and horseman, Whitney shared a horse farm in Kentucky with his sister, Joan Whitney Payson, and was an active breeder and racer. He acted as chairman of the American Thoroughbred Breeders Association, served as steward of the Jockey Club, was a member of the New York State Racing Commission and participated in several other racing associations. Whitney owned properties in New York, Connecticut, Georgia and London.
The Whitney art collection, including masterpieces of Impressionism and post-Impressionism, was displayed in his 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 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. During her marriage to James Roosevelt, Betsey often served as hostess at the White House. 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.