Driving Mrs. Whitney

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.”

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.”

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.”

Driving Mrs. Whitney