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Driving Mrs. Whitney


Indeed. While Marylou was in her third decade of reigning as the queen of Saratoga, John was reigning elsewhere -- as the Junior Prom king of West High in Anchorage, Alaska. She made her first marriage, to Frank Hosford, the alcoholic heir to the John Deere fortune, in 1948, nearly two decades before John was born. In 1958, after divorcing Hosford, she married Sonny Whitney in a ceremony at the El Ranch-O-Tel in Carson City, Nevada. "Marylou wooed Sonny with her cookbook," claims one longtime friend. "She played the role of the simple girl from the Midwest who loved to cook. He wanted to be fussed over."

She was born Marie Louise Schroeder of Kansas City. Her father, Harry R. Schroeder, was an ambitious accountant who attended law school at night with Harry Truman. Marie Jean, Marylou's mother, was a housewife. Marylou graduated from Southwest High School and went to the University of Iowa, but had to come home and get a job after her father died. She got the perfect one: flirtatious wartime disc jockey at station KCKN. "I created a show for servicemen called 'Private Smiles,' " she says. "We played Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra, and it was very popular and made me kind of a star. In those days, there was something called a Hooper Rating, and I had a higher Hooper Rating in that area than Bob Hope." After a year, the ambitious anchor moved to New York. "She walked into '21' on the arm of Teddy Howard, the theatrical press agent, and three men at the bar were instantly interested," says Richard Cowell of Palm Beach, one of the men at the bar. "She was unquestionably glamorous." Marylou also set about burnishing her social history. Howard, who worked for her, spread the word that she was an aspiring actress from "a very prominent family." Though she didn't make it as an actress, people say she seemed more interested in marrying a rich man and enjoying herself anyway. "She was a fun-loving girl at all the parties," remembers Brownie McLean of Palm Beach, another fun-loving girl of the era. A bit of a publicity hound, Marylou was adept at handling reporters. "Tell them everything, but don't tell them anything," she once advised an intimate. In a colorful, ink-garnering moment, the petite, blue-eyed Marylou rode a horse up to El Morocco in 1947 and hitched it outside while she partied.

In 1992 after 34 years of marriage, Sonny Whitney died at the age of 93, leaving Marylou his entire $100 million estate. After a few months, the high-spirited Marylou, who had dutifully nursed her husband through his last ailing years, threw herself headlong into society. It was not long before "Page Six" reported that the "ageless beauty" was dangling several men, ranging in age from 30 to 70. "Oh, yes!" Marylou confirms brightly. "There were lots! But John was the only one who counted."

Well, there was young Robert Rosato, also in his thirties. In a delicious vignette in its "Uncensored" column, W magazine reported in October 1995 that on spotting Rosato coming into a party, Marylou sprinted across a crowded room and screamed "He's mine!" They were later seen kissing, and the next night, after Marylou switched place cards to be next to Rosato, they were observed heading in the direction of Cady Hill. (Mrs. Whitney denies that she and Rosato were anything but friends.)

By the time she met John, in 1994, he was also on the rebound. His seven-year romance with Dorrea Kelley, a striking African-American doctor's aide, had just ended. "John was yearning for love," says a friend of his from that time. Hendrickson was working as an aide to Alaska's then-governor, Wally Hickel, and it was the governor who introduced him to Marylou. Hickel and his wife Ermalee had been friends with the Whitneys ever since Hickel had served as secretary of the Interior in the Nixon administration. Marylou, the enthusiastic sponsor of an Alaskan dogsled team, was in Anchorage, and Hickel asked John to make up a fourth for dinner. As usual, Hendrickson got stuck driving. "I'm looking through the rearview window and I'm thinking, 'Wow! This is a beautiful woman!' " John recalls. Adds Marylou, "That was the day my life began again."

He insists that he didn't know how rich -- or how old -- Marylou was. "I thought she was 52 or 53," he says, "but please don't print that. Marylou would be angry that I thought she was that old.' " On their first date, recalls John "we stayed up until three o'clock in the morning, talking about the meaning of life."

A few months later, Marylou was cooking her famous apple brown Betty in the kitchen of Hendrickson's two-bedroom condo in Anchorage. But they didn't tell many people about their burgeoning romance. "The secrecy lasted a long time," says Anchorage lawyer David Shoup. "But as soon as we got to know Marylou, our apprehension dropped away. They act just like my girlfriend and I act. I think that John is very much in love with Marylou." As word filtered out about the improbable romance, the couple sought to handle the age difference with humor -- at least once going too far.

This was the time they staged a skit for unsuspecting Albany Times Union reporter Paul Grondahl, who had driven out to interview the love birds at Cady Hill. The butler met him with a tray of cucumber sandwiches, and then Marylou, $100 bills peeping from her cleavage, pushed John into the library in a wheel chair. Ghastly stage makeup had transformed him into an old man. "Every girl needs a sugar daddy," Marylou cooed, wriggling into John's lap. During the interview following this bizarre parlor performance, Grondahl asked John what he'd do if somebody mistook Marylou for his mother. "I'd say, 'I hope she spanks me,' " he giggled. Every word was duly reported in the next day's paper.

Some in Saratoga thought that their queen had embarrassed herself, and Marylou, who craves the spotlight, temporarily took a lower profile. This embarrassing episode, however, didn't cool her ardor for John. She announced their engagement several months before he got around to formally asking her to marry him. But when it finally came, the proposal scene -- Buckingham Palace, no less -- was worthy of one of Marylou's own theme parties. They were attending a reception hosted by Prince Philip. John feigned an etiquette problem to get Marylou away from the crowd and alone with him in the Blue Drawing Room, where the royals assemble before going onto the balcony to wave to the crowds. "I said, 'Marylou, you are the queen of my heart, and I want you to be my bride.' "

Her reply? "Yes! Yes! Yes!" Before returning to the reception to receive the congratulations of Prince Philip, John slipped a 13-karat diamond-and-sapphire ring of his own design on her finger. They were married on a mountaintop in Alaska in October 1997, with Wally Hickel officiating. Christmas that year was notable for Marylou's now-famous cards that showed the couple -- with toothy white smiles -- on a dogsled in Alaska and bore the caption MARYLOU WHITNEY HAS A NEW DRIVER!

Driving Mrs. Whitney is obviously a lot of fun, but marriage to a rich older woman isn't always easy. Marylou, after all, is older than her mother-in-law, and John is younger than all his stepchildren. "She knows what I had to go through," John says. "What they say about me, they said about her when she married Sonny Whitney. I don't let wrinkled souls bother me." If John is acting, he's fooled a lot of people. "He's obsessed with her," reports one of Hendrickson's friends. "You can't talk to him five minutes without his bringing her up." Marianne Strong, Marylou's literary agent and her friend of 40 years, notes that "an electric current runs back and forth between them."

As it turned out, Marylou may have been as smart in picking her third husband as she was in picking her second. She needed somebody to negotiate the long-delayed sale of 15,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks and, in general, to help with Whitney Industries, which manages the family's lumber-and-gravel business and a sprawling property in the Adirondacks. Shortly after their marriage, Marylou appointed John president of Whitney Industries, replacing Hobbs Hosford, her elder son, who became the company's treasurer. The delicate arrangement seems to have worked without jealousy or friction. "I'm the numbers cruncher and John's the one who makes calls and gets things done," says the 48-year-old Hosford. "Maybe I'm flattering myself, but I see John more as a friend than a stepfather. I certainly don't call him Dad."

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