Betsey Maria Cushing (1908 - 1998)

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Nicknames: "Whitney", "Rooseveld"
Birthplace: Baltimore, MD, USA
Death: Died in Manhasset, Nassau, NY, USA
Managed by: Arik Vladimir Russell
Last Updated:

About Betsey Maria Cushing

Betsey Cushing Roosevelt Whitney, the widow of John Hay (Jock) Whitney, the first wife of James Roosevelt and the last of the three glamorous Cushing sisters of Boston, died Wednesday, March 25, at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. She was 89.

In recent years, in failing health, Mrs. Whitney, a prominent philanthropist in medicine and art, spent most of her time at Greentree, one of the most magnificent private residences in the country, situated on 438 acres in Manhasset, on Long Island's Gold Coast. Mrs. Whitney was the second-born of the three Cushing sisters, who were renowned in the 1930s and '40s for their brilliant marriages into some of the most prominent families in the country. She inherited the bulk of one of the great American fortunes when Jock Whitney – sportsman, financier, publisher of The New York Herald Tribune, philanthropist, political mover and shaker, and ambassador to Britain – died in 1982. In 1990, Forbes magazine estimated her wealth at $700 million.

BEAUTY, CHARM: From their debutante days, she and her sisters were celebrated by society chroniclers for their beauty and charm. Her older sister, Mary (Minnie) Cushing, was married to Vincent Astor, the wealthy real estate owner, and after a divorce, to James Whitney Fosburgh, an artist. She died in 1978 at 72. Barbara (Babe) Cushing, the youngest, was married to Stanley Mortimer Jr., a grandson of one of the founders of Standard Oil, and after a divorce, to William S. Paley, the legendary founder and chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Babe Paley, a perennial name on the world's best-dressed list and a glittering figure in society, also died in 1978, at 62, four months before her older sister.

Betsey Maria Cushing was born in Baltimore on May 18, 1908. Her father was Dr. Harvey Cushing, a famous neurosurgeon who was a professor of surgery at various times at Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Yale Universities. Her mother was Katherine Crowell Cushing, who was from a socially prominent family in Cleveland.

There were also two brothers, William and Henry, neither of whom survives.

Betsey Cushing met James Roosevelt, the eldest son of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, when she was 22.

The young Mrs. Roosevelt was said to be the president's favorite daughter-in-law, but she enjoyed no such preference from Eleanor Roosevelt and was, in turn, not fond of her mother-in-law. Betsey Roosevelt was often the hostess at the White House when Eleanor Roosevelt was absent. She was very much in the forefront on a summer day in 1939 when the president entertained King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at a picnic in Hyde Park, N.Y., at which the king ate his first hot dog. Later that day, when the president took the king and queen for a drive along the Hudson River, the president asked Betsey Roosevelt to go along for company in the car.

Even as a member of the president's family circle, Betsey Roosevelt preferred a private life, and she did her best to shield her two daughters, Sara and Kate, from the public eye.

DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE: In November 1938, James Roosevelt left the government and went to Hollywood to work in the movie business as an aide to Samuel Goldwyn. His wife followed him, but they separated, and early in 1940 it was disclosed that they were to be divorced. Roosevelt filed for divorce on grounds of desertion, and his wife filed a cross-complaint on grounds of desertion and cruelty.

In March 1940, Mrs. Roosevelt obtained a divorce decree. She was given custody of the children, child support, a settlement and further payments until she remarried.

Early in 1942, rumors of a romance between Betsey Cushing Roosevelt and Jock Whitney began circulating in New York, Boston and Washington. He had been divorced in 1940 after 10 years of marriage to the former Mary Elizabeth Altemus.

The couple were married in a small, informal ceremony on March 1, 1942, in her widowed mother's East 86th Street apartment. The bride was 33 and the bridegroom 37.

In 1949, Whitney formally adopted his wife's two daughters. The Whitneys moved to London in 1957, when President Eisenhower named Whitney ambassador to the Court of St. James. Mrs. Whitney renewed her friendship with the queen mother, whom she had met on the royal couple's 1939 visit to America. Both ambassador and Mrs. Whitney became close to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who, in a departure from the usual procedure, addressed them by their first names.

The residences that Mrs. Whitney had at her disposal over the years included, in addition to Greentree on Long Island and the plantation in Georgia, a town house and an elegant apartment in Manhattan; a large summer house on Fishers Island near New London, Conn.; a 12-room house in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., which the Whitneys used when they attended horse races there; a golfing cottage in Augusta, Ga., and a spacious house in Surrey, England, not far from the Ascot racecourse.

In addition, the Whitneys shared a renowned Kentucky horse farm, which also bore the name Greentree, with Whitney's sister, Joan Whitney Payson. It was later sold.

Mrs. Whitney established the Greentree Foundation in 1983 to assist local community groups, and she was its president. She was a benefactor of North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, built in the early 1950s on 15 acres donated by Whitney and Mrs. Payson. Mrs. Whitney was also involved with the Museum of Modern Art, Yale University and New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. The Modern received eight major paintings, by artists like Utrillo, Picasso and Seurat, from Whitney's estate, and Yale received six paintings, valued at $5 million at that time. New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center received a $15 million gift.

CHARITABLE: After her husband's death in 1982, Mrs. Whitney donated $8 million to the Yale Medical School, then the largest gift in the school's history. The National Gallery of Art in Washington acquired nine important American and French paintings, which had been placed in a charitable trust during Whitney's lifetime. The trust also gave $2 million for future acquisitions, and Mrs. Whitney chose a Toulouse-Lautrec painting from her husband's collection, "Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in 'Chilperic,'" to give the gallery in his memory.

Mrs. Whitney 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 "At the Moulin de la Galette." It brought $78.1 million, then a record auction price for Impressionist art and the second-highest price for any artwork sold at auction.

Among Mrs. Whitney's 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.

Mrs. Whitney is survived by her daughters, Kate Whitney and Sara Wilford, both of Manhattan; eight grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.

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