Why one of America’s most famous families reunited in West Palm Beach

Updated Jan 31, 2018
A self portrait sculpture by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (foreground) with a painting of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by Robert Henri at the Norton Museum of Art. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Name tags might have helped.

When descendents of sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney  gathered for a reception at the Norton Museum of Art for the first exhibit of her work in 75 years, not everyone was sure who was whom or from which of the tangled branches of hundreds of Whitneys or Vanderbilts they descended.

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“It’s a tricky, fun game of who’s who,” said Gertrude’s great-granddaughter, Maria-Flora Miller.

“I just assume everyone is related to us until proven otherwise,” joked her half-sister, Penelope Miller of New York, another of Gertrude’s great-granddaughters.

How they were related to the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art (and a central figure in a scandalous 1934 custody trial over her niece, Gloria Vanderbilt) was a trifle murky for some, along with the necessary number of “greats” before the “grands,” or whether a name should be trailed by a II or a III.

When master of ceremonies John LeBoutillier, a former Congressman from New York and one of Gertrude’s great-grandsons, flubbed a name, he cracked, “With these divorces, it’s hard to keep track.”

Outshining everyone, of every generation, was 92-year-old Marylou Whitney Hendrickson, of Palm Beach, the always merry widow of Gertrude’s polo-playing son, Sonny, and a woman whose ageless luster was augmented by the sizable diamonds winking from her neck, ears and wrists.

While several family members said they had a Gertrude statue or three at one home or another, none had ever seen a curated collection her work, most of it completed from 1910 to 1940.

They gathered hoping the exhibit would burnish Gertrude’s reputation as an artist, adding to her legacy as one of America’s greatest art patrons and an early champion of modern American artists.

“She blazed a trail for women and American artists,” said Penelope Miller.

Marylou Whitney Hendrickson, widow of artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s son, Sonny, laughs with the artists’s great-granddaughters Maria-Flora Miller, Penelope Miller and Whitney Miller during a Norton Museum of Art reception honoring the artist. Curator Ellen Roberts is at left rear. Submitted by Norton Museum of Art Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Gertrude’s grandson Lev Miller, a retired Palm Beach architect, horseman and former owner of the Peter Dinkel’s 1970s-era Palm Beach disco, was the only family member present who had known Gertrude, a woman he remembered as being “unusual.”

Lev Miller, the de facto curator of family lore, recalled staying at her Newport, Rhode Island mansion, “The Reefs,” during the powerful 1938 hurricane.

“She told me to stay away from the windows, so of course, being an 8 year-old boy, the first thing I did was run to the windows. Her studio was cantilevered over the Cliff Walk. I watched it being floated off the cliff and out to the ocean, with everything in it,” Miller said.

Gertrude was the daughter of the fabulously wealthy railroad owner Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and she married the equally rich sportsman Harry Payne Whitney. Harry proposed to 21-year-old Gertrude while staying at Henry Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach, after she arrived in her family’s private railroad car.

Not long after this picture was taken in 1896, Harry Payne Whitney, third from right, would propose to Gertrude Vanderbilt, fifth from right, while staying at the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach. Gertrude’s father, Cornelius Vanderbilt II is at right. The train pulled the Vanderbilt family’s private railroad car across the train bridge to the resort town. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County. Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

By age 27, Gertrude had three children, but she couldn’t breathe in the thin air of society’s stratosphere, where she felt embalmed by luxury and imprisoned by the expectations of her social position.

“I pity above all that class of people who have no necessity to work,” she once wrote. “They have fallen from the world of action and feeling into a state of immobility and unrest … the dregs of humanity.”

Gertrude was determined to become a serious artist, an occupation viewed with horror by her family.

Admiring a classical nude was one thing, but a Vanderbilt who spent her days molding, among other things, male genitalia out of clay? Unthinkable.

Pearls, ropes of them, all perfectly matched, must have been clutched in many of New York’s Edwardian parlors.

When she opened a studio on Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Alley, a 1907 newspaper headline blared: “Daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt Will Live in Dingy New York Alley.”

“She was very avant garde, very ahead of her time,” said Susie Humes of Wellington, one of Gertrude’s great-granddaughters, and a well-known horse show judge. “She’d seen that (society) life and wanted something different. She wanted something of her own.”

Gertrude was a prolific writer of journals, letters and even a few novels, housed in the Smithsonian’s archives, which Ellen Roberts, the Norton’s curator of American Art, used as background for the show’s catalog.

Gertrude told the New York Times in a 1919 story titled “Poor Little Rich Girl and Her Art, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney’s Struggles to Be Taken Seriously as a Sculptor Without Having Starved in a Garret,” about struggling with two counts against her: being a woman and being wealthy.

“Let a woman who does not have to work for her livelihood take a studio to do the work in which she is most intensely interested and she is greeted by a chorus of horror-stricken voices, a knowing lifting of the eyebrows, or a twist of the mouth that is equally expressive. And much more condemnatory.”

For a time, she tried to live two lives. Uptown, she played the hostess, the unimpeachable mother, the stalwart wife of a polo-loving, philandering husband (she had her dalliances, as well.) But downtown and in her beloved France, she could be herself: free, Bohemian and driven, living for her art and befriending other artists, whose work she bought.

Slim with a long Modigliano-like face, Gertrude was drawn, painted or photographed by John Singer Sargent, Baron de Meyer, Robert Henri and Edward Steichen, often in elaborate costumes.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney working at her Greenwich Village studio in 1919. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

In 1911, Auguste Rodin, the most famous sculptor of his time, visited her Paris studio, offering approving critiques and leaving behind two clay figures he made on the spot.

“She has the gift. I think that she will go very far,” Rodin wrote afterward.

Gertrude’s grandson, Lev Miller, found the crumbling models years later when he closed her home in the 16th arrondissement.

“They were too fragile to bring back to the States, so we sold them in Paris,” he said.

Despite her husband’s disdain for her obsession, Gertrude persevered.

“Never expect Harry to take your work seriously,” she once wrote to a friend and fellow artist. “It never has made any difference to him that I feel as I do about art and it never will except as source of annoyance.”

In 1914, she won the competition to create a memorial to those lost on the Titanic. She created a male figure with arms flung wide, which looks as if it could be James Cameron’s inspiration for the “I’m King of the World” scene in the Titanic movie.

Her money allowed her to have the best supplies and multiple studios. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she had no problem affording the cost of having her figures rendered in bronze or stone.

When she didn’t like the spot Cody, Wyoming city officials had chosen for her Buffalo Bill monument, she purchased 40 acres overlooking a picturesque canyon and hired her own architect to construct the statue’s base.

As her reputation and her commissions increased, Gertrude became concerned about the war in Europe, especially its effect on France. She spent a month in 1914 volunteering at a hospital outside Paris, then established her own hospital for wounded soldiers nearby. Her Red Cross uniform is part of the Norton exhibit.

The sketches she made of horrifically injured soldiers became the basis of a searing new realism in a series of smaller war sculptures.

Her most famous war memorial was the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) Memorial to the landing of U.S. troops in Saint-Nazaire, France, which turned the tide of the war. More than 30 feet above the town’s harbor, Gertrude perched a doughboy holding a sword on the outspread wings of a just-landed, rescuing American eagle.

Although the Nazis destroyed it in 1940, it was rebuilt in 1989.

While she worked on her own art, Gertrude also collected the work of her friends and contemporaries. In 1929, when she offered nearly 600 modern American works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art — and whose conservative curator turned her down — they became the foundation of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The most scandalous event of Gertrude’s life isn’t mentioned in the Norton’s exhibit.

In 1934, Gertrude, then 59, sued for custody of her 10-year-old niece, Gloria Vanderbilt, the future artist, founder of a jeans empire and mother of CNN newsman Anderson Cooper.

The Depression-weary public gobbled up juicy tidbits from the sensational trial that depicted the young girl’s widowed mother, also named Gloria, as a greedy, neglectful parent and immoral woman. Her dead husband, Gertrude’s younger brother, Reginald, was portrayed as a drunken spendthrift who plowed through his $15.5 million inheritance by the time he died of liver failure at age 42.

Not surprisingly, Gertrude was awarded custody of her niece. In the 1982 TV movie, “Little Gloria….Happy At Last..” Angela Lansbury played Gertrude.

For decades, Gertrude’s art paled compared to what curator Roberts calls “her visionary reputation as a collector and founder of the first museum in the world focused on American art.”

But as always with Gertrude, there is more than meets the eye.

In the years before women could vote, she proved that women could be serious artists, making lasting art.

Says her proud great-granddaughter, Penelope Miller, “I hope that this exhibit helps people understand how incredible she was.”