Wednesday, February 17, 2010



By Polly Guerin

My dear Marylou: I remember it well. It was a pristine summer day in June and I was looking forward to interviewing you at Caty Hill your 135 acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York and there you were in an elegant creamy beige pant suit with a marvelous gold broach perched on the shoulder of your jacket that quite nicely accented your glossy blonde hair. You were a vision of chic yet when children came in from the pool, draped with damp towels; you let them climb on your lap. Your nonchalance was impressive, yet I knew that you were the grand dame of Saratoga Springs. What’s more your charity and benevolence in the cultural and sport areas was legendary. And so the interview took place and I took copious notes of a woman who is truly an amazing diva par excellence, Alaska frontierswoman, Adirondack environmentalist and patron of the arts, horse breeder and racing enthusiast. Let’s raise our champagne glasses as we salute your life and its finest achievements.
You sat behind the great Whitney desk and with your friendly and open manner you gave a most interesting discourse on your current life and activities. Have you been to the races?” you asked me. “I’ve been attending a writer’s conference here in Saratoga I replied, but I haven’t been to the races.” With that Ms. Whitney whipped out a pink booklet and I wondered if I was getting a pink slip dismissal, but no instead, she gave me two complimentary tickets to sit in her royal box at the Saratoga racetrack so that I could view the races first hand like a society lady. Thank goodness I wore a picture hat that day, because fashionable millinery is de rigueur at the race track.
On the eve of the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course, droves of onlookers would turnout to watch who’s who of the horse and society worlds walk the red carpet at Canfield Casino. Everyone, however, awaited the arrival of crucial social figure Marylou Whitney, the philanthropist and grand dame who annually made a spectacular entrance in a themed event that announced the festivities each season. A gala it was in every description, showmanship par excellence, which she put on since 1978 with her late husband Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney, who died in 1991. They had been the king and queen of the horsey set and later Marylou continued producing the gala with her current husband John Hendrickson. As the Queen of Saratoga, Marylou bestowed a magical influence on Saratoga Springs not only through philanthropy but through a huge impact casting the social spotlight on Saratoga’s summer horse village. “Marylou saved this town,” at least that is what people say.
Every year, on the eve of the Whitney race, Marylou costumed herself in keeping with a fantasy theme, such as Snow White or Little Bo Peep or the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. Whether she appeared as a fairytale princess, a flapper era debutante or an Alaskan heroine her entrance was a crowd pleaser for Marylou was much loved by the town as their patron and savior. Although these events had carnival aspects, they were not stuffy affairs, and catered to the local crowd as well with dog and clown acts, fortune tellers and booths set up where people could eat burgers and indulge in make-your-own-sundae tastings. The social elite paid stiff sums for the fundraiser benefits, which included the National Museum of Dance, and for the privilege to attend a private party inside the casino with Marylou and her entourage of celebrity friends.
Nary a lightweight when it came to philanthropy Marylou’s was instrumental in reversing the tide of decline of a seemingly sleepy Saratoga in the 1950s by putting the Saratoga Springs, 150 miles north of New York City, high on the social scene by throwing those high-profile parties that brought celebrities, media, and much-need dollars to the racetrack. Her late husband’s family was a major force in thoroughbred horse racing and in 2003; she made a $100,000 donation to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The “Marylou Whitney Stables owns Bridstone, the 2004 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes winners.
In October 1997, when she was 72 years old Marylou (b. Marie Louise Schroeder 1925) married John Hendrickson, a (then) 32-year-old tennis champ and former aide to Governor Walter Joseph Hickel of Alaska. She met the very-junior John Hendrickson when she was in Alaska helping to ready her dog team for the Iditarod at a dinner party held by Governor Hickel. According to accounts there was an immediate attraction and she began spending a lot more time in Alaska. Hendrickson is no lightweight and had been managing land holdings in Alaska, so it is not surprising that later, as a vice president, he joined Whitney Industries, a lumber and logging business with 51,000 acres of critical Adirondack real estate. As for the glaring age difference between her and Hendrickson, Whitney once said, “He’s basically 31 going on 60. He’s older than me because I newer grew up. Perhaps it is because my father called me ‘Baby.” Hendrickson seems to be assuming a bit of the protector role that her late husband Sonny also played in her life.
Hendrickson’s deft sale of 15,000 acres of Mrs. Whitney’s land in the Adirondacks proved he was more than just a semi-pretty face With John taking the lead some acres were sold to New York State and the acquired lands are called the Willam C. Whitney Wilderness Area. In 2007 Marylou and her husband John Hendrickson donated 250,000 to the Long Lake Library. In celebration of the gift, the library will be renamed The Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Long Lake Library. Together they have followed in the Whitney family’s legendary philanthropy and gave generous donations to the Long Lake Medical Center and the Long Lake United Methodist Church. And as breast cancer activists Marylou and Hendrickson donated $2.5 million for the Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson Center Facility for Women at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center.
Sadly Marylou suffered a stroke in early 2006, which seriously curtailed her celebrated activities in Saratoga. The planned summer gala that traditionally opened the racing season was to be “A Night in Alaska” by dog sled, and for the only woman who’s ever been to the South Pole and the North Pole within a period of four months, ‘A Night in Alaska’ would have been the quintessential event of all times. However, since having a stroke, Marylou has forsaken champagne nights, but the horse town has not forsaken the stalwart Queen of Saratoga and neither has anyone who has any horse sense. We salute her amazing ‘joie de vivre,’ her generous sense of philanthropy, a champion race horse owner and breeder and last but not least for putting Saratoga Springs on the map for future generations.

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