Marylou Whitney has always had a flair for grand entrances, and the one she made on August 7 at the annual Canfield Casino Gala was no exception. A few minutes past seven, a flapper-era Ford Model T rolled up to the casino in Saratoga, New York, squealed to a stop, and discharged its 72-year-old occupant. Mrs. Whitney's sleeveless ivory gown set off a boulder-size emerald necklace; her pink face was framed by swirls of golden cotton-candy hair.
Clutching a young Army cadet with one hand and her chiffon stole with another, she inched her way through the waiting crowd, gamely posing for photographers and signing autographs while glancing impatiently at the car. Suddenly a masked figure, dressed as the Phantom of the Opera, emerged from the rumble seat. Whitney's brand-new, 33-year-old husband, John Hendrickson, rushed to catch up with his wife, amiably tossing plastic party favors to the crowd.
Outside Saratoga's Congress Park, 400 fans had been assembled for hours, anxiously awaiting the newlyweds. Marylou's arrival had always been the high point of the Whitney Gala. Her annual blowout, which she's hosted every year for two decades, marks the opening of the Saratoga Races and sets off a monthlong marathon of parties and balls that make up the frenetic Saratoga Season. In previous years, Mrs. Whitney had arrived in a hot-air balloon or a coronation coach not unlike Queen Elizabeth's.
Today, accompanied by a posse of "celebrity friends" like Susan Lucci, Gary Collins, and former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, the queen of Saratoga spent half an hour in the park amiably chatting up her subjects before making her way into the casino, where 320 select members of the city's elite had anted up sums as large as $5,000 for a more private audience.
But the Whitney Gala is, like Marylou, no stuffy affair. "I do booths so that people can eat. There are steakburgers, omelets, a make-your-own-sundae and -salad bar," she says, sounding like a carnival barker. "I have dog acts, clown acts, and fortune tellers." Every year, Mrs. Whitney costumes herself in keeping with a different fantasy theme, such as Snow White or Little Bo Peep. (One year, Marylou provoked a small panic when, as she danced into Congress Park dressed as Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, a $250,000 emerald popped from her necklace. A local construction worker found the gem and turned it in the next morning. Marylou rewarded him with $5,000 and a seat at the private box at the racetrack.)
For this year's gala, guests were instructed to dress in black or white and Marylou imported a special costumed choir to perform Broadway show tunes. Phantom, noted one droll observer, was the perfect theme for the long-running party, which became a fund-raiser for the National Museum of Dance several years ago. "The only drama that's run longer," quipped Avenue editor David Patrick Columbia, "is Marylou herself."
After ten months of wedded bliss, Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson still can't stop touching each other. A short time before their party, "Mrs. Whitney and John," as their secretaries refer to them, are ensconced in the library at Cady Hill, Marylou's 21-room mansion in Saratoga Springs, a self-contained world with tennis courts, Victorian gardens, walkways that are heated in winter, and even a private chapel on a rise not far from the main house.
"Where do you want my hands, baby?" John leers. Dressed in a crisp gray suit shirt and slathered in shaving lotion, he looks like an immaculately turned out cherub, with love handles he attributes to the tiny heiress's home cooking.
"You can put your hands anywhere," coos Marylou in a whispery, society-girl accent. A husbandly paw sneaks to just below her curvaceous bosom, brushing her tight shocking-pink dress. "You're perking up, aren't you, baby?" Hendrickson says, giving his wife's firm little rump a playful slap. A few minutes earlier, Marylou, running a temperature of 103, was wilting, moaning that she'd die if made to pose in the humidity of the pastel-hued pool house. But if anybody knows the show must go on, it's Marylou Whitney, onetime actress and the fourth and final Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Grabbing a pair of stiletto heels from a hovering secretary, she becomes suddenly animated. On cue, she and John flash practiced, dazzling party smiles for the camera, while a squirming Marylou perches herself on his knee. "Have you been a good girl?" John demands. "Santa," she replies, gazing deeply into his eyes, "bring me something good." Hendrickson scoops his five-foot-four, emerald-dripping wife into his arms. "She's about 50 pounds lighter without her jewelry," he says.
In sleepy Saratoga, 150 miles north of New York City, Marylou Whitney is a megawatt celebrity -- Madonna and Brooke Astor wrapped into one. Assorted Whitneys have lived here for more than a century, and they helped put the town on the social map. When Saratoga began to decline in the late fifties, Marylou was instrumental in reversing the tide by throwing high-profile parties that brought celebrities, media, and much-needed dollars to the racetrack. Her annual ball, an adjunct to the races, is more than a purely social event. "When Marylou is on the scene, there's a spotlight on all of Saratoga," says Terry Meyocks, president of the New York Racing Association. "She's had a huge impact." A couple of years ago, a local radio station sponsored a Marylou-look-alike contest that attracted dozens of contestants, including a notable number of men. There is even a popular song around these parts with the refrain "Marylou, Marylou, come and meet our Marylou." When Mrs. Whitney ambles into a restaurant or party, likely as not, they'll be playing her song.
So when she returned home with a husband 39 years her junior, some of her neighbors were understandably alarmed. "I think people were scared that he was a lightweight, that he was using her for the money, and, worst of all, that he'd steal her away from Saratoga," says one prominent local. But John's genial nature soon won over most of his detractors, and his deft sale of 15,000 acres of Mrs. Whitney's land in the Adirondacks proved he was more than just a semi-pretty face. In any case, he says, he wouldn't dream of abandoning Saratoga. "Marylou saved this town," he says. "At least, that's what people tell me. I wasn't born yet."