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Driving Mrs. Whitney

Although Hendrickson is remembered in Alaska primarily for his preppy wardrobe, love of tennis, and ability to charm Ermalee Hickel (known as the Nancy Reagan of Juneau), he is also enormously ambitious. "John is motivated by a desire to do business deals on a big scale," says Shoup. "What he brought was a Republican business sense, and I think Marylou appreciates that."

His savvy negotiations over Mrs. Whitney's Adirondacks holdings won him new respect both inside and outside the family. The Whitneys wanted either to develop the land, which environmental groups regarded as the "jewel of the Adirondacks," or to sell it to the state of New York. But the property was one of only two dozen areas in the country that has enough wild terrain to protect native ecosystems.

By 1996, the Whitneys had been paying taxes on the property for more than a century, and they were ready for some return. Of course, selling it to the state would make everybody happy, if the right price could be arranged. In the late eighties, Marylou was on the verge of closing a deal, but it reportedly fell through because she felt that then-governor Mario Cuomo wasn't paying her enough attention.

In the latest round of talks, which ended successfully late last year, John would prove to be Marylou's not-so-secret weapon. He helped develop a plan for 40 exclusive shoreline estates on the western stretch of Whitney's 51,000-acre property. Such a development would have been the end of the wilderness, and Hendrickson's unbridled enthusiasm for the project terrified environmental groups that opposed it. So did his rhetoric. Hendrickson extolled private-property rights in language that would have gladdened the hearts of the robber barons who built the "great camps" of the Adirondacks. In one angry outburst, he castigated the sainted environmentalist Bob Marshall, who trekked around the country designating wilderness land, as "the greatest trespasser in American history."

People who had anticipated that John would be Marylou's lap dog quickly found out he was her Rottweiler. He negotiated with the Pataki administration and, either by design or luck, so terrorized the Sierra Club and Adirondack Council, the state's two leading environmental groups, that they sent a message to Albany: "Give this nut what he wants." "Some people might say I'm Satan himself," chuckles Hendrickson. But it worked: The State of New York, which originally offered around $7 million, finally made an offer Marylou was willing to accept -- $17.1 million.

"If you were Marylou Whitney," said an environmental leader, "you'd want somebody like Hendrickson to do the dirty work." John doesn't just know how to turn the charm on -- he can turn it off, as well. "He could run the gamut from 'I'm going to punch you out' to 'I'm pleased to call you a friend' in the same conversation," said one man, who described negotiations punctuated with foot-stamping and screaming. Even so, he conceded that Hendrickson's terrifying tantrums probably earned his wife an additional $10 million.

Was it a good-cop, bad-cop thing? Marylou is perplexed by the question. "We worked together," she purrs, "and, yes, John did do the dirty work. But isn't that what a man does? John protects me and looks after me. How many girls have that today?" Hendrickson also wins high marks from Hobbs: "The kind of thing John did in the Adirondacks is the kind of thing Uncle Sonny might have done as a young man."

Even Chris Ballantyne of the Sierra Club, who staged a black-tie protest with "tasteful signs" at last year's Whitney Gala, admits he's intrigued by the John-and-Marylou team. "He's young and driven, and she wants to be young and is even more driven than he is," Ballantyne said. "How many men in the short time we've been married have made $27 million for their wives?" asks Marylou, rhetorically. "Not that we need money. John and I have a little Trappist cabin in the Adirondacks, and we have so much fun there that we've said that we could live there."

Of course, in reality, they spend the year traveling by private jet among Marylou's houses. "She says she has seven, but I've counted and there are eleven," says John. The roster includes a house in Majorca, a sprawling farmhouse in Kentucky, and a new house in Longboat Key, Florida. She sold her estate in Palm Beach shortly after Sonny died. Marylou and John try to spend the month of June in Alaska, where he still owns a condo and she has built yet another new house overlooking a bay. They also recently went on safari in Kenya, and a photograph in an album on the Cady Hill sun porch shows Marylou, Joan Rivers, and Blaine Trump standing on one leg in imitation of a nearby flock of Kenyan flamingos. (Not all their trips are as lavish. Early in their relationship, John paid to take Marylou on an economy cruise around Alaska, one that happened to be filled with a large number of retirees. Marylou was gracious, but not impressed. For one thing, says John, she was not used to queuing up for food and shuffleboard. Also, she found their fellow travelers a bit, well, old. "Marylou's not used to old people," John explained.)

Saratoga is Marylou's principal address and the place where she votes. When she's away, two of her five children -- Hobbs Hosford and Heather Mabee -- step in to take over her myriad social obligations. John and Marylou are devoted grandparents. "He gets down on the floor and roughhouses with the boys," says Hobbs. Mabee's children tease their young step-grandfather by calling him Grandpa John. Of course, no one would dare call Marylou Grandma; to the children, says John, "she's Auntie Mame."

During their courtship, the couple discussed adopting a child, but decided they didn't want to be tied down. "We want to see the world," says John, adding that Marylou had already "done" motherhood. M'Lou, Marylou's oldest daughter, lives in England with her second husband. Cornelia Vanderbilt Whitney, her only child with Sonny, is an art instructor and divorced mother of one who lives in Ithaca. While Marylou remains close to her four other children, her relations with her younger son, Hank Hosford, have been strained. Insiders say that Marylou's long-troubled relationship with Hank suffered when he chose as his first wife a colorful New Orleans debutante named Lanier Long, who was inevitably described as "a junior Marylou." Not surprisingly, "Marylou hated her on sight," says a friend of the family. The two divorced in 1996, and following his mother's lead, Hank moved to Anchorage, where he recently became engaged to the ex-wife of a prominent local millionaire.

Hank enjoyed a brief rapprochement with his mother while she and John were dating. "He would talk about how his mother was carrying on with her young boyfriend. He wasn't threatened or offended. He was simply amazed," says a New Orleans friend. "He stayed in the next room in a hotel, and it was a very physical relationship."

It is tempting to wonder what Sonny Whitney, a man so possessive that he reportedly was jealous of Marylou's love scene with Lee Marvin in her one movie, The Missouri Traveler (which Sonny produced), would make of his wife's new life. He was a man of black moods who once, according to a family member, became convinced that one of his three other wives was in cahoots with the butler to put cyanide in his coffee. What would Sonny think?

"I have to tell you, that's very interesting," says Marylou. "When Sonny Whitney was sick, he used to say to me, 'You shouldn't be stuck out here with an old man. You need a young man, and I just hope you find him.' " She says she found John in part because, after Sonny died, she wanted to "go back to what was wonderful when we started life together. We went on our honeymoon on dogsleds -- crazy way to honeymoon -- and when Sonny died, I thought, I want to go mushing again."

"I toast Mr. Whitney when we're alone," says John. "I toast him for the wonderful life he gave Marylou and because he had great taste in women." They have gone together to Whitney's grave in Greenridge Cemetery in Saratoga, and both seem to regard themselves as keepers of the flame. John wants to find somebody to write a book or do a Biography segment on him, and for Marylou the sine qua non of the Adirondacks sale was that the state be willing to call its new acquisition the William C. Whitney Park, after Sonny's grandfather, New York street-car magnate and secretary of the Navy under Grover Cleveland. (Endearingly uninfected by political correctness, Marylou, an ardent Republican, horrified Albany legislators when the deal was announced, by noting, in a long and impassioned speech, that Whitney was "the first white man" to explore the region and that the Whitneys had "brought religion" to the Iroquois.)

Of course, what everybody wants to know is what kind of prenup the lovebirds have. The usually chatty John has played this close to the vest. He will only say that it was he who insisted on something in writing, because, "if anything happens, I don't want Marylou to come after my tennis racquets." But for now at least, Mrs. Whitney considers herself to be "the luckiest girl in the world." "Marylou," an intimate recently remarked, "you did such a perfect funeral for Sonny. I'm sure you'll do the same for John."