Unexpected Facts About Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, A Not-So-Typical Rich Girl

August 18, 2023 | J. Clarke

Unexpected Facts About Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, A Not-So-Typical Rich Girl

Most people don’t give two licks about the problems of the wealthy one percent, and with valid reason. After all, what’s to complain about when you can afford whatever your heart desires? But things aren’t always what they seem. And when it comes to the life of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the truth glitters much less than gold.

1. Her Daddy Made Bank

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was born into a life of pure luxury. You guessed it, she hailed from that Vanderbilt family, one of the very richest families in the US. Born in 1875 in New York City, her family’s status should have set her up for life. Unfortunately, she’d find out that more money often equals more problems.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney looking at front - circa 1909Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

2. Her Childhood Was Unfair

Gertrude’s parents had five children before her—four sons and one daughter. Her older sister died before she was born, making Gertrude the oldest daughter of the family. Her parents rejoiced over another daughter, but she herself didn’t feel all that happy. As she discovered, the rules for her and her brothers differed wildly.

Painting of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (13 years) ,looking at front  - 1888John Everett Millais, Wikimedia Commons

3. The Pressure Was On

The unequal expectations for men and women weighed on Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney even in her youth. Standards of women’s propriety and behavior, and often men’s lack thereof, only escalated within her closed circle of high society. Her mother kept a close eye on her, often in an overbearing way. Probably because she didn’t like Gertrude’s behavior at all.

Painting of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II,seating and looking at side - 1880Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, Wikimedia Commons

4. She Ran With The Boys

In her journals later in life, Gertrude remembered looking up to her four older brothers. She enjoyed summers playing with them and their friends in her family’s lavish summer homes. Idolizing older siblings is pretty normal—but for Gertrude, it had a dark side. 

Her mother disapproved, especially when her daughter took things a step too far.

Gertrude Vanderbilt is looking at camera and smiling - 1911Campbell's Studios, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Cut It Off

Little Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney didn’t just want to play with the boys, she wanted to be a boy. She found it unfair that they got to do more than she did, and at four years old, figured out an easy fix. She cut her hair off to turn herself into a boy. Her mother flipped.

She punished her daughter, but Gertrude’s unexpected behavior only continued.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is dancing in the room - 1913Adolf de Meyer, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Wasn’t Easy

A young woman with a large sum behind her name, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had her pick of the litter for boyfriends in her late teenage years. The choice didn’t come easy. Her status forced her to consider her future partner’s status, and whether or not they wanted her or her money. Maybe that clues us into why she did exactly the opposite of the traditional.

Photo of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney ,looking at side.Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

7. She Came Out (Kind of)

During this time, girls often celebrated their journey into womanhood with something like a sweet sixteen or debutante ball today. As a young lady of high society, Gertrude likely had an opulent event, with many young men looking on adoringly. But she didn’t look their way—for a scandalous reason. She was occupied with the romantic interest of a different kind…with another young woman.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney holding a peacock feather fan. - 1917Adolf De Meyer, Wikimedia Commons

8. She Fell Hard

People rarely engaged in that kind of relationship at this time, not publicly at least. Society frowned upon the behavior, which explains the mostly secret love affair between Gertrude and Esther Hunt. The young women likely fell in love at her home, where Hunt’s father served as an architect. And it was more than puppy love.

Painting of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in Bakst Costume - 1911Howard Gardiner Cushing, Wikimedia Commons

9. They Went Too Far

Reportedly, the two young women corresponded with several love letters over a significant period of time. They even had a bit of a physical relationship. In fact, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney fondly recalled one of their kisses as one of the “thrills of my life.” When Gertrude's mother discovered the depths of the girls’ affair, however, the relationship came crashing to an end.

B&W photo of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is looking at side.Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

10. She Was Forced To Be “Normal”

Already highly concerned with her daughter’s image, we can only imagine her mother’s shock at the affair. She banned her daughter from seeing Esther, and deemed that the end of the whole thing. Teenagers tend to be headstrong about young love, and Esther kept on writing letters. Gertrude’s reaction, however, was unexpected. 

Alice Claypole Gwynne Vanderbilt And Daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt, Newport 1895Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Did The “Right” Thing

By some accounts, Gertrude turned her attention to several male interests, and all without sullying her good name. She settled on Harry Whitney. He didn’t have quite as much money as her family did, but his fortune was nothing to turn your nose at. With money coming in from oil, banking, and more, he made a fitting match—or, he was supposed to anyway.

Portrait of Harry Payne Whitney looking at side - 1901Unknown photographer, Wikimedia Commons

12. She Didn’t Fit In

Once married, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney turned her attention to fulfilling the role of a dutiful socialite wife. She birthed her first child a year after marrying, and her second two years later. Gertrude played her part in throwing and attending extravagant events. She must have done it well, too, considering the shock twist that came next in her life.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is looking down on dark background - circa 1920Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

13. She Was A Daddy’s Girl

When her father passed in 1899, an unusual decision came to light. Rather than leaving the family fortune to one of her several older brothers, he left it all to her. This made a very unique move at the time, as men held far more status than women in most arenas. She managed to leave her father impressed, but her husband proved a harder judge.

Portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt II ,looking at front  - 1890John Singer Sargent, Wikimedia Commons

14. Her Husband Made Himself Scarce

While Gertrude busied herself attending to her new family image, her new husband spent copious amounts of time with his father. The two indulged in rich man’s play, making investments, playing polo, and buying expensive racehorses. Gertrude likely felt the sting of his rejection—but he had even more hurtful things in store for her.

Regret (the horse) with trainer James Rowe (left) and owner Harry Payne Whitney. - 1915Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

15. Her Husband Was A Playboy

Gertrude’s marriage to Harry started as a fairy tale—but it quickly turned into a horror story. Harry had a heck of a wandering eye. With all his money and assets, he likely appealed to just about any woman in want of a good time. Unfortunately for Gertrude, she actually felt deeply in love with her husband, and struggled with his affairs. A trip to the other side of the world eventually changed everything.

Harry Payne Whitney is looking at side - 1924National Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia Commons

16. She Fell In Love Again

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her husband visited Paris in 1901, leaving the children behind. She used the time to herself to discover a new love—art. France’s fine art and artists inspired her, and she decided to pursue her own passion for art, especially sculpture. She threw herself into these pursuits, but not without another try at making her marriage better.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is looking some art - circa 1920Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

17. She Used A Baby

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney birthed her third child, Barbara, in 1903. According to some notes in her journals from the time, it seems she did so in an attempt to reignite her husband's love and interest in her. She also threw herself into more charity work, hoping to win his attention. Try as she might, her husband turned out to be quite unphased.

B&W portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney wearing white pearls on her neck - 1921Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

18. She Sank Into Depression

Gertrude struggled after having her last baby. Her husband’s unaffected demeanor likely didn’t help at all. Neither did her suspicions (which were most likely correct) that he continued to mess around with other women. She turned back to art—but it brought more problems than expected.

B&W Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Headshot - 1910Archives of American Art, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Wasn’t Man Enough

If Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney paid more attention to the customs of the time than her own desires, we’d likely know nothing of her art. Men dominated the art scene in the early 1900s, making it difficult for any woman to succeed widely in that arena. In short, she had a much longer climb to the top than her male counterparts. But that wasn’t the only issue.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney wearing big black feather hat is looking at side.Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

20. Her Money Made Things Harder

Surprisingly, her massive wealth gave her another mountain to overcome. As a woman of great status, many onlookers considered her interest in art just another rich person's vice. Furthermore, when she began doing art, the idea of her being paid for it upset artists in need, while her refusing payment devalued the whole business. It all seemed lose-lose.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is smiling and looking at side - 1921Alfred Cheney Johnston, Wikimedia Commons

21. Her Mother Hated Her Choice

The pressure from the outside mounted as she pursued a career in art, but the pressure from within her family mounted as well. Her mother’s opinionated voice rang in her ears, calling the whole thing inappropriate. The very idea of her daughter painting unclothed bodies disturbed her. Gertrude’s husband didn’t feel too keen on it either.

Portrait of Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt wearing dress with fur coat ,looking at side.Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

22. Her Husband Tired Of Her

Whitney didn’t find any interest in Gertrude’s artistic pursuits, and allegedly found her wholehearted dedication to the arts to be a nuisance. This isn’t surprising, as he likely expected a typical socialite wife when he married her. Still, with no major support on either end, Gertrude still did things her own way, no matter how unusual.

B&W photo of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is making a sculpture in workshop - 1920Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

23. She Faked It

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney used her resources to study her craft and learn from great artists. Her work paid off, with her first commission being displayed at the Pan American Exposition in New York in 1901. Rather than having her status affect her work, she came up with a plan. Whitney produced the sculpture under a pseudonym. Considering the sculpture itself, she probably had other reasons to be secretive.

Patio And Central Fountain, Pan American Union - between 1910-1915Detroit Publishing Co., Wikimedia Commons

24. She Loved The Body

Aspiration, Gertrude’s first commission, featured the intricacies of the male body—completely in the buff. The thing is, artists often portrayed the uncovered human body during that era. However, Gertrude’s womanhood complicated things. And when she eventually did begin creating under her own name, her situation got even stickier.Caryatid - Sculpture ,cast 1913 Bronze - Gertrude Vanderbilt WhitneyGertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Made The Hot Gossip

The lives of the New York elite made excellent fodder for the American gossip mills at the time. Even well-known papers like the New York Times chronicled the lives of the rich for entertainment. As such, when Gertrude opened an art studio in a New York alley in 1907, she caused quite the stir. She was more than just a rich girl, and continued to prove it.

Gallery with paintings in the original Whitney Museum of American Art  - 1937Whitney Museum of American Art, Wikimedia Commons

26. She Did What She Wanted

Gertrude’s growing success within the world of art emboldened her as she continued to push boundaries. While critics questioned the politics of a woman painting very accurate anatomical depictions, she made another splash with a sculpture for the Daughters of the American Revolution outlining a woman’s curvy body. She didn’t shy away from her own body, either.

The Founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution - 1929AgnosticPreachersKid, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

27. Her Outfits Made A Statement

Considering her tomboyish childhood years, her more seductive young womanhood bears noting. In the musings of her granddaughter down the years, Gertrude is remembered as someone who “loved sensuous clothes”. This couldn’t have been particularly unusual for women of the time, but her elevation of this self-love likely was.

Gertrude Vanderbilt wearing white dress and looking at camera - 1913Adolf de Meyer, Wikimedia Commons

28. She Put Herself on Display

In 1916, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney personally requested a painting of herself from artist Robert Henri. The painting shows her reclined on a chair in a very luxurious, silky set of pajamas. By today’s standards, she looks like a perfectly presentable and modest individual. But by the standards of her time, the picture looked perfectly scandalous.

Painting of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney seating on the sofa and looking at front  - 1916Robert Henri, Wikimedia Commons

29. Her Husband Couldn’t Stand It

When Harry Whitney saw the painting of his wife, his reaction was brutal. He outright refused to let his wife display this painting of her in their home, probably thinking it totally lewd. Seems like he couldn’t quite take what he dished out, considering continuing reports of his trysts with other women. Still, though her marriage was a lot less than perfect, her relationship with art continued to burn bright.

Harry Payne Whitney, Jr is looking at side - 1924National Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia Commons

30. Tragedy Inspired Her

As her family and critics went on disparaging her efforts, worldwide catastrophe motivated Gertrude to carry on with her passion. When WWI began, she invested her wealth in charity. Her art reflected her work, making it more true to life. Her money protected her from many of the war’s effects, but it couldn’t save her from all disasters.

"Engineers" - First World War sculpture by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney - 1919Roberts, Mary Fanton, Wikimedia Commons

31. She Lost Her Brother

The sinking of the Lusitania, a commercial British liner, rocked the Americas in 1915. The many American casualties became part of the US’s reasons for entering the battle. Sadly, Gertrude lost one of her brothers, Alfred Vanderbilt, from this unexpected tragedy. Interestingly enough, though, another famous “sinking” contributed to her career’s peak.

Portrait of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt looking at front - 1907Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

32. She Hit It Big With A Misfortune

In 1914, Gertrude debuted her sculpture memorial to the Titanic. Although her memorial didn’t make it to its current place of honor in Washington DC until decades later, it’s considered the greatest work of her career. Her own acclaim secured, she didn’t rest on her laurels. Instead, she used her interests to shock the uppity occupants of her social class.

Memorial to the men who perished on the Titanic - Gertrude Vanderbilt WhitneyMarjory Collins, Wikimedia Commons

33. She Loved A Misfit

Others like her preferred to keep to their wealthy inner circles, but Gertrude made it her mission to seek out those the art scene typically left out. She opened a studio club for young artists and used her own money to fund supplies, lodging, and more in their interests. As far as some critics were concerned, though, Gertrude was barking up the wrong tree.

Stone masons work on the Titanic Memorial.- 1916John Horrigan, CC BY-SA 4.0 , Wikimedia Commons

34. She Played for the Home Team

The artists that critics considered great at the time hailed from everywhere but the United States. That made Gertrude’s desire to fund and support young American artists seem gauche at best and totally wasteful at worst. This didn’t faze her, but her philanthropy and achievement wasn’t enough for some people.

Photo of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Holding Parrot - 1914John Horrigan, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

35. She Tried To Give Back

By 1929, Gertrude’s collection included hundreds of pieces of American artwork. She hated that she kept most of her pieces stored, with no opportunity for people to appreciate them. She considered adding an entire wing to her mansion to display them, but came up with what seemed like a more charitable idea—or so she thought.

Head Of A Spanish Peasant - Sculpture Bronze - Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney - 1911Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Wikimedia Commons

36. They Turned Her Down Cold

Gertrude hoped to give her collection away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with a hefty endowment fund. Likely excited about her gift, she sent word to the museum’s director. His response was cruel. Reportedly, he didn’t even listen to the whole proposal before turning down her American “art.” She took the refusal personally.

B&W photo of Metropolitan Museum of Art - 1914Irving Underhill, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Did It Herself

Gertrude had more than proved her status as both an artist and appreciator of the arts. So with this denial, she decided to turn lemons into lemon cake, opening the Whitney Museum of American Art. With most of her time seemingly spent on her work as an artist and benefactress, the next major event of her life likely shook her up.

Door to the original Whitney Museum of American Art  - 1937Whitney Museum of American Art, Wikimedia Commons

38. She Lost Her Husband

In just a year following the museum’s denial of her contribution, her husband became very ill. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia. He never recovered, passing in 1930 and leaving her a huge inheritance. The aftermath was devastating. The depths of her grief remained private as she continued her work with art, until one extremely juicy scandal drew all the attention away from any of her good work.

Harry Payne Whitney is singing outside - 1914Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

39. Her Family Had Issues

Every family deals with some difficulties, but with the kind of money in the Vanderbilt family, many issues escalated to new heights. One such issue became the talk of the day, with newspapers going crazy over the custody battle of Gertrude’s niece, Gloria. When the sordid details finally came to the light, the fallout seemed a long time coming.

B&W photo of Gloria Vanderbilt looking at camera - 1959United States Steel Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

40. She Picked Up the Slack

As the oldest sister of her siblings, Gertrude became a bit of a matriarch of the family. Many of the family’s children spent time in her home, including her niece, Gloria. This didn’t cause much of a problem, until Gloria’s father (Gertrude’s brother) died, leaving her in the care of her mother. Gertrude did not approve.

Gloria Morgan-Vanderbilt looking at her daughter Gloria Vanderbilt - 1928http://www.sanfranciscosentinel.com/?p=8668, Wikimedia Commons

41. She Couldn’t Stand Her

Gloria’s mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt made generous use of her cut of her deceased husband’s money. Neither Gertrude nor her family liked the way she lived lavishly after her husband’s death, with her flashy and frequent travels between Europe and New York. It’s no surprise the way Gertrude pounced when a devious opportunity presented itself.

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt is looking at side - 1924Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

42. She Plotted Against Her Sister In Law

When Gloria fell ill, her mother brought her back to New York and left her there in Gertrude’s care. She took off to Europe for many months, and the child remained with her aunt while she recovered from her tonsillectomy. That's when things got shady. The Vanderbilts considerably reduced Gloria’s mother’s allowance. And when she returned to New York, the situation worsened.

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt wearing white suit and necklace on her neck - 1955Campana, Wikimedia Commons

43. Somebody Lied

The details here get a little murky. Some reports claim Gloria’s mother simply attempted to take her daughter back with her to Europe, and Gertrude refused to let her go. Others say Gertrude actually took Gloria from her mother while they were in Central Park and wouldn’t give her back. Either way, it became a serious court issue in 1934.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is dancing in the room - 1909Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

44. They Tore Each Other Apart

In a custody case that kept the papers lined with the gossip of the rich and famous for weeks, Gertrude and her family did everything they could to present Gloria’s mother as unfit to parent. They lined up witnesses who claimed she was a carouser, more interested in living it up than caring for her daughter. Morgan Vanderbilt’s former nurse described her as a "lazy, loose ... woman" who was "indifferent to rats and vermin that swarmed in her house and cruel to her child" on the witness stand.

B&W photo of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is looking at mirror - 1913Adolf de Meyer, Wikimedia Commons

45. An Accusation Silenced The Courtroom

Maria Caillot, a Parisian maid who’d served Morgan Vanderbilt in Paris, made a far more scandalous accusation. She accused Morgan Vanderbilt of being in a lesbian relationship with Lady Nada Milford Haven. The maid claimed she had caught the pair in bed together, making love. The courtroom was silent, before it finally broke out into chaos. 

Gloria’s mother gave quite the rebuttal, however.

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt FactsWikimedia Commons

46. They Called Her Obsessed

By Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s account, Gertrude just wanted another baby chick to add to her nest, already bursting at the seams. In fact, her lawyer argued that she had “a mania for bringing up children”. The fact that eight of her grandchildren lived in her home definitely gave that some leverage. But Gertrude didn’t let up.

B&W portrait of Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt in black dress is looking at camera - 1933Dorothy Wilding, Wikimedia Commons

47. She Made Her Niece Lie

Little Gloria's custody trial was so sensitive that the judge frequently forced everyone to exit the room. This was so she could give her testimony without family members pressuring her. In these closed-door meetings, bystanders frequently heard wailing and crying coming from inside the courtroom—and even though these were private sessions, the press got ahold of one tragic detail.

In one such communique, little Gloria apparently admitted to the judge that she was lonely when she was with her mother, and that she wished she could go live with her aunt instead. At the end of it all, Gertrude won custody of her niece—but it didn't quite go as planned. 

B&W photo of Gloria Vanderbilt holding her hair ,looking at camera.Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons

48. She Wanted Too Much

Life with Gertrude turned out not to be all Gloria hoped for. Her existence with her mother had kept her moving around a lot, whereas life with her aunt proved much more mundane. Unfortunately, Gloria eventually grew to publicly admit that Gertrude raised her very strictly, and without much affection. It didn’t end well, either.

B&W portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney looking at front - 1914Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

49. She Pushed Her Away

By 17, Gloria was done with her life of stability. She left school without graduating, and left her aunt’s home without permission to return to life with her mother. She even married a man much older than her, much like her mother did. Gertrude’s response to this remains unreported, but she continued on with the one love that never failed her—art.

Portrait of Gloria Vanderbilt smiling and looking at camera - 1967Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

50. She Chose Herself

All dissenters and criticism considered, Gertrude persisted in doing things her own way. She won several honors over the course of her life, both for her own art and for her service and benevolence to other artists. Just a few years short of 70, Gertrude’s heart issues brought her life to an end in 1942. Her work didn’t go with her.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is seating on the chair and looking at site - 1900Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

51. Her Legacy Continues

Gertrude’s daughter, Flora, took over the care and management of the Whitney Museum in her mother’s absence. While not celebrated as such during her life, it served as the first museum to widely feature works by American artists. She is responsible not only for leaving her own artistic mark on the world, but making sure many others could too.

Flora Payne Whitney ,looking at side - circa 1915-1920Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

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