Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

What W. A. Swanberg’s biography of William C. Whitney—the first half of Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress—is all about can be summarized by Swanberg’s own comment. “The great fortunes being made in this virtually taxless boom era often required the rich to think anxiously about how to spend enough money to keep from stumbling over it.” His is the story of the “robber barons” of the nineteenth century, of Rockefeller and Morgan and the Vanderbilts and Astors. As Swanberg says, great fortunes were made, and great fortunes were spent, often in an unstated but obvious competition to see who could build a larger house or throw a more elaborate party or give more diamonds as wedding presents.

William Collins Whitney was born in moderate circumstances in 1841, married wealthy Flora Payne, survived her and a second wife, and left $22,906,222 at his death in 1904. (In today’s terms, the dollar figures given here should be multiplied by about ten; thus Whitney’s estate was worth approximately $220 million.) In terms of superfluous, ostentatious consumption, however, Whitney was an also-ran. Certainly, while Flora was alive, the Whitneys threw lavish party after lavish party, but not as lavish or as foolish as some. For example, in 1883, one branch of the Vanderbilts built a house for $2,900,000 in an effort to force recognition of them by Mrs. Astor. A Vanderbilt daughter was provided with a titled European for a husband, the cost to the family was almost $10 million, and both the daughter and her husband hated each other.

Only in one area did Whitney seem to excel. He owned “more land in the states of New York and Massachusetts than anyone except the commonwealths themselves. It took thirteen miles of fence to enclose his Massachusetts property.” Others obviously made more money—Whitney’s brother-in-law left an estate of $178,893,655—built larger and more expensive houses, controlled more corporations, probably watered more stock (although there is question here), and controlled more political deals than did Whitney. He was involved in all these areas, of course, but was not number one in any of them.

Swanberg is not a muckraker, he is not out to bring focus upon Whitney’s shady dealings. When Swanberg discusses Whitney’s monopoly of public transportation in New York City, he says that “even if he entered the traction field with the intention of building an efficient and useful transportation system, somewhere along the line he threw the switch that wheeled him off into wholesale stockjobbery.” That indictment, however, is qualified by the author’s statement that...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)