John Hay (Jock) Whitney (1904-82) moved in rarefied circles during his lifetime and this tradition will continue posthumously following Whitney’s induction into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.
Whitney’s entry into U.S. thoroughbred horse racing immortality, as a Pillar of the Turf, came after a Hall of Fame selection committee voted to bestow this honor on Whitney, a longtime Manhasset resident, and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (1912-99). Only four others have been given this designation.
“He was an extraordinary man,” said Peter di Bonaventura, Whitney’s 57-year-old grandson, who will be in attendance when the 2015 Hall of Fame induction ceremony takes place on Friday, Aug. 7, at 10:30 a.m., at Fasig-Tipton, in Saratoga Springs, NY. Whitney, while having no children of his own, wed Betsey Cushing and adopted her two daughters from a previous marriage, Sara and Kate. Sara is di Bonaventura’s mother.
Born into great wealth, Whitney and his sister, Joan Whitney Payson, the first owner of the New York Mets, grew up on their family’s Greentree estate in Manhasset, which remains one of the largest privately held properties in Nassau County. John and Joan’s mother, Helen Hay Whitney, left to her children upon her death in the mid-1940s the family’s Greentree Stud, through which the Whitneys’ bred, owned and raced some of the 20th century’s top thoroughbreds under their Greentree Stable banner. Hay Whitney lived to see two of her horses win the Belmont Stakes, Twenty Grand (1931) and Shut Out (1942). Her son and daughter were in the winner’s circle for two other Greentree Belmont victories. One was Capot (1949) and the other was Stage Door Johnny (1968). John Hay Whitney also made his mark in the sport through his service to The Jockey Club and the American Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association.
Before speaking with di Bonaventura, I read Jock: The Life and Times of John Hay Whitney, a biography written by E.J. Kahn, Jr. and published a year before Whitney’s death. While the book needed a stronger editor, it effectively chronicled Whitney’s philanthropy and his role in financing the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind, as well as the career of a promising boxer, Abe Simon, before it soared. Simon would eventually lose two heavyweight championship bouts to Joe Louis. Moreover, J.H. Whitney & Company, which Whitney ran out of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, was a pioneering venture capital firm which employed upwards of 40 people. Its success allowed the Yale University graduate to purchase the New York Herald Tribune, a daily newspaper which di Bonaventura said was his late grandfather’s favorite endeavor. Once a rival to The New York Times, the Herald Tribune closed its doors in 1966.
Before his foray into New York City’s newspaper wars, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Whitney as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1957, and he and Mrs. Whitney spent the next four years in London, as did some members of his family.
“That’s one of the reasons I was born in England,” stated di Bonaventura. Raised in the United States, he lives today in Fairfield, CT., not far from another Hall of Fame where a relative of his is honored.
Joan Whitney Payson, the sister of di Bonaventura’s grandfather, died in 1975. Six years later, Payson and Casey Stengel, the Mets’ first manager, were inducted into the New York Mets’ Hall of Fame, which is housed at Citi Field in Flushing.
Mike Barry, vice president of media relations for an insurance industry trade group, has worked in government and journalism. He can be reached at email@example.com.