Betsey Roosevelt Whitney
(May 18 1908
, Baltimore, Maryland
– March 25 1998
, Manhasset, New York
), was an American
philanthropist, the ex-wife of James Roosevelt
(the eldest son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt
), and later wife of American millionaire and U.S. Ambassador to the Court of Saint James's
, John Hay Whitney
Betsey Maria Cushing
was the middle daughter of the prominent neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing
and his wife Katharine Crowell Cushing, who hailed from a socially prominent Cleveland
family. Dr. Cushing was descended from Matthew Cushing, an early settler of Hingham, Massachusetts. Dr. Cushing served as professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins
Universities, and the family established itself in Boston
Though Betsey had two brothers, she and her two sisters became well-known in the social world as the "Cushing Sisters", heralded for their charm and beauty from their debutante days onward. She and her sisters were schooled by their social-climbing mother to pursue husbands of wealth and prominence, and coached to become socially acceptable to important men.
The Cushing Sisters
As a result of their mother's coaching to marry well, all three Cushing sisters married into wealth and prominence:
- Mary "Minnie" Cushing, her older sister, married Vincent Astor, the heir of a $200 million fortune, in 1940. She later divorced Astor and married artist James Whitney Fosburgh.
- Her younger sister Barbara (Babe) Cushing was first married to Standard Oil heir, Stanley Mortimer, Jr., before divorcing him and marrying CBS founder William S. Paley. Babe Paley was short-listed as one of the world's best-dressed women by distinguished designers like Mainbocher, and a doyenne of New York society.
Both of Betsey's sisters died of cancer within months of each other in 1978, twenty years before Betsey died.
Marriage to James Roosevelt
Betsey married James Roosevelt
in 1930, when his father was then governor of New York. They had two daughters, Kate and Sarah Whitney. After her father-in-law became President, Betsey was reportedly FDR's favorite daughter-in-law, though she and her mother-in-law Eleanor Roosevelt
did not care for one another.
Her husband served his father as an aide at the White House, and Betsey often stood-in as hostess at the White House when Eleanor was absent. When FDR entertained King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at a picnic at the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York in 1939, Betsey was prominent at the affair, and accompanied FDR as he drove the King and Queen along the Hudson River.
In 1938, James Roosevelt left for Hollywood to work as an aide to Samuel Goldwyn. His wife followed him, but they divorced in 1940. Betsey was granted custody of their daughters Kate and Sara, along with child support, though by biographers' accounts, James had little to no contact with his children, and eventually married three more times.
Marriage to John Hay Whitney
On March 1 1942
Betsey married millionaire John Hay Whitney
, who was formerly married to socialite Elizabeth Altemus
. In 1949, Whitney formally adopted his wife's daughters Kate and Sarah. The Whitneys moved to London
in 1957, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower
named Whitney Ambassador to the Court of St. James
. The Whitneys became close to Queen Elizabeth II
and Prince Philip
, who, in a radical departure from the usual procedure, addressed the Whitneys by their first names.
During the 1970s, Jock Whitney was listed as one of the ten wealthiest men in the world. The residences at their disposal over the years included the Greentree estate on Long Island; a plantation in Georgia; a town house and an elegant apartment in Manhattan; a large summer house on Fishers Island, near New London, Connecticut; a 12-room house in Saratoga Springs, which the Whitneys used when they attended horse races; a golfing cottage in Augusta, Ga.; and a spacious house in Surrey, England, near the Ascot racecourse. In addition, the Whitneys shared a renowned Kentucky horse farm with Whitney's sister.
Philanthropy and Legacy
Betsey established the Greentree Foundation in 1983 to assist local community groups. She was a benefactor of North Shore University Hospital
in Manhasset, built in the early 1950s on 15 acres donated by Whitney. Betsey was also involved with the Museum of Modern Art
(MOMA), Yale University
and New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center
. Among her many public activities over the years were memberships on the boards of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the John Hay Whitney Foundation and the Association for Homemakers Service.
After her husband's death in 1982, Betsey donated $8 million to the Yale Medical School, then the largest gift in the school's history. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. acquired nine important American and French paintings, as well as $2 million for future acquisitions. She herself left $15 million to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in her own will.
Betsey also made art auction history in 1990 by putting up for sale, by Sotheby's, one of Renoir's most famous paintings, the sun-dappled cafe scene Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre. It brought $78.1 million, then a record auction price for Impressionist art and the second-highest price for any artwork sold at auction.
Betsey died on March 25 1998, aged 89, with an estimated personal fortune of $700 million in 1990, according to Forbes magazine. Her estate bequeathed eight major paintings to the National Gallery of Art, including:
- The Sisters: Babe Mortimer Paley, Betsey Roosevelt Whitney, Minnie Astor Fosburgh: The Lives and Times of the Fabulous Cushing Sisters by David Grafton (Villard 1992).
- Last Cushing sister dies: Betsey Whitney outlived husbands, by Enid Nemy, The New York Times, March 26, 1998