Obituary: Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney

Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, philanthropist, racehorse owner and breeder, financier, born Rosslyn New York 20 February 1899, Chairman Pan American Airways 1931-41, Chairman Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co 1931-64, married 1923 Marie Norton (marriage dissolved 1929), 1931 Gladys Hopkins (marriage dissolved 1941), 1941 Eleanor Searle (marriage dissolved 1958), 1958 Marie Louise Hosford, died Saratoga Springs New York 13 December 1992.

CORNELIUS Vanderbilt Whitney inherited an estimated dollars 20m in 1930, at the age of 31, and lived a life as diverse as it was rich. From the time, aged 22, he borrowed dollars 3,000 to salvage a mining venture written off by his father and cashed it in for dollars 500,000 three years on, 'Sonny', as he was popularly known, served notice he intended to leave his own print on the legacies of the Whitney and Vanderbilt dynasties.

Pride in his achievements came to light in his autobiography, published in 1977, in which he outlined at some length how he laboured in the minefields. A noted party-goer and playboy in his twenties, Whitney showed he retained plenty of his youthful flamboyance in titling the book Live a Year with a Millionaire. His father, Harry Payne Whitney, was the son of William C. Whitney, Secretary to the US Navy under President Cleveland and founder of the family fortune, ostensibly in oil and tobacco. They were direct descendents of Ali Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. Gertrude Vanderbilt, Whitney's mother, was a great-granddaughter of the shipping and railroad magnate 'Commodore' Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Whitney attended Groton School, in New York, before entering Yale, where his sporting prowess saw him coloured at rowing, squash, tennis and polo. On leaving Yale Whitney worked down the mines before recognising the potential of a national airline. Merging several small companies, Whitney joined forces with Juan Trippe to establish Avco, the forerunner of Pan American Airways, installing himself as chairman for a decade from 1931.

In spite of a reputation as mainstay of the social sets in New York and Long Island, Whitney retained anonymity from the public eye, principally on account of the exploits of his cousin John Hay Whitney, US Ambassador to Britain and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune.

Whitney sold his stake in Pan Am at the onset of the Second World War. He enlisted and served in the Pacific, India and the Middle East, where he was decorated and rose to the rank of colonel.

Already he displayed an endearing affection for horse racing, buying his father's thoroughbreds for dollars 1.3m in 1930. The Whitney Farm, in Kentucky, was one of his seven houses around the world and the scene of a traditional Kentucky Derby-eve party. The leading racehorse owner in the United States on five occasions, Whitney never realised a burning ambition to win the Kentucky Derby, although his father's silks were galloped to victory in 1915 by the filly Regret.

After the war Whitney accepted the post of first assistant secretary to the US Air Force under Truman's presidency, having failed to make Congress as a Democrat in 1932. Progressing to Under-Secretary to the Department of Commerce in 1949, Whitney was dispatched as presidential envoy to Britain, Italy, Luxembourg and Spain the following year.

His love for Spain embroiled him in the Watergate scandal in 1973, when it emerged he had donated dollars 250,000 to Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. Whitney gave evidence to the Grand Jury investigating Nixon's affairs, and while the contribution was legal, it was given on the understanding that his name would never be revealed.

Six months later, for reasons undisclosed, the money was returned with Whitney insisting his interest in the Spanish Ambassador's post and the large donation were not connected. The posting never materialised.

He met his fourth wife, Marie Louise 'Marylou' Hosford, during filming of the movie Missouri Traveller; she was the leading lady and he the producer. Between them they wiled away their days at the races until Whitney sold his bloodstock interests in 1984. With 176 Stakes victories to his name, he owned more high-class winners than anyone else in America's long horse racing history.

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