Obituary: Betsey Whitney

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BETSEY WHITNEY was among the last of a uniquely American breed of grandes dames, society wives who were more than mere socialites, deriving position and prestige from the marriages they made, but later achieving a status and influence of their own. Twice married, into two of the most famous families in the land, Betsey Whitney was in this sense doubly blessed.

Her life evokes that vanished American establishment of earlier this century, built on great fortunes and old Anglo blood, European by taste and Atlanticist in politics. Born Betsey Cushing to a prominent surgeon in Baltimore, she was the second of three sisters celebrated for their beauty, and for the determination of their mother, Katherine, that they would find husbands from the top drawer of society, either in Europe or America. Each of them did, but none more emphatically than Betsey.

After a brief courtship, she married in 1930 James Roosevelt, the eldest son of the then Governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt. Any doubts Katherine might have harboured about the quality of the match was banished two years later when FDR won the White House. Betsey, the President would say, was his favourite daughter-in-law, and she served frequently as hostess when Eleanor Roosevelt was away. In this capacity she helped entertain the visiting British King and Queen at a picnic at Roosevelt's estate at Hyde Park, New York, in the summer of 1939 - the day when, legend has it, George VI sampled his first hot dog.

The marriage with James Roosevelt, however, collapsed in 1940. Within two years Betsey had become attached to Jock Whitney, scion of one of America's oldest and richest families, already a financier, sportsman, art collector and co-producer of Gone with the Wind, later to become Eisenhower's Ambassador to the Court of St James and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune and the International Herald Tribune.

The years in London from 1957 to 1961 were among Betsey's happiest. "The Jock Whitneys are as down to earth as any people with a quarter of a billion dollars can be," a friend once said. They became friends of the Queen and Prince Philip. Her husband swiftly transferred his involvement with racing across the Atlantic, to the point of buying a house close to Ascot. Jock's death in 1982 made her one of the wealthiest women in America in her own right, heiress to a fortune reckoned in 1990 at $700m, and including such works of art as Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette, which was sold at auction the same year for $78.1m, then the second highest price ever paid for a painting. Her husband had bought it in 1929 for $165,000.

Gradually her public appearances - never frequent in the first place - ceased altogether and Betsey, by now ranked among the 25 richest women in the world, devoted herself to philanthropy. She withdrew to the splendours of the 438-acre Whitney estate at Greentree, on Long Island's Gold Coast, where she was tended by 20 servants and surrounded by Jock's magnificent art collection. A year after his death, she founded the Greentree Foundation to help local community groups.

Later she would endow large sums to leading North-Eastern medical schools. But her most lasting legacy hangs on the walls of American museums: the Utrillos and Picassos she gave to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and her gift to the National Gallery in Washington of Toulouse-Lautrec's Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in "Chilperic", reputedly the finest Lautrec then in private hands. Betsey Whitney died at the North Shore University hospital on Long Island, built on land donated by her husband in the 1950s.

Rupert Cornwell

Betsey Maria Cushing, philanthropist: born Baltimore, Maryland 18 May 1908; married 1930 James Roosevelt (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1940), 1942 John Hay Whitney (died 1982); died Manhasset, New York 25 March 1998.