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John Hay Whitney
Philanthropist, Film Producer, and Father of the Crew Cut

Twenty years ago, Yale lost of one of the university’s greatest benefactors, John Hay Whitney. President Giamatti, in summing up Whitney’s “unparalleled” contributions, said: “He devoted himself to, and changed the face of, this university—always for the better.”

“Jock” Whitney was born in 1904 and entered Yale in the Class of 1926, where his major activities were the Dramat and rowing. The stroke of the university crew in junior and senior years, Whitney became part of crew history by inspiring the coining of the term “crew cut.”

With his family, “Jock” Whitney gave Yale the Payne Whitney Gymnasium.

According to Yale–New Haven lore, Jock walked into a local barbershop and asked for a short “Hindenburg” military cut to maximize his rowing performance. Because German words were still unpopular in the aftermath of World War I, the barber suggested that it would be better to give the style a new name. To honor Yale oarsmen, they called it a “crew cut.”

After graduation, Whitney went on to study at Oxford, but he returned home when his father, Payne Whitney, Class of 1898, died in 1927. With his family, he gave the Payne Whitney Gymnasium to the university as a memorial to his father.

Whitney pursued a number of careers with success and style. He financed Broadway plays, founded Pioneer Pictures to launch the new Technicolor process, and in 1935, joined with David O. Selznick and others to form Selznick International Pictures. The company produced a series of classic films, including A Star is Born, Rebecca, and Gone With the Wind.

During World War II, Whitney, an Air Force colonel, was taken prisoner in southern France, but he escaped from his German captors while the train he was riding in came under Allied fire. Afterwards, he served as an adviser in the Eisenhower administration, and in 1957, he achieved the career goal stated in his class book when he was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Government service was a family tradition. Both of his grandfathers had been Cabinet members; one was also ambassador to Great Britain. In his own ambassadorial tenure, John Hay Whitney was credited with improving Anglo-American relations, which had deteriorated after the Suez Crisis.

Whitney then moved to the publishing world, buying the New York Herald Tribune in 1958. Whitney Communications Corporation also owned and operated numerous magazines, newspapers, and broadcasting stations.

An outstanding polo player, Whitney continued his family’s interest in horses, operating the Greentree Stud breeding farm in Kentucky and owning many racehorses. An avid art collector of French and American works, he was closely associated with the development of the Museum of Modern Art.

Bart Giamatti was the first John Hay Whitney Professor of History.

Whitney was a dedicated philanthropist. In 1946 he established the John Hay Whitney Foundation to fund innovative educational and minority-directed community projects. He gave Yale his expertise and time, serving as a Corporation Fellow from 1955 to 1973 and Senior Fellow for the final three years. Whitney’s major gifts to the university include, in addition to the gymnasium, the land occupied by Morse and Stiles colleges, the Whitney Humanities Center, and the renovation of the Old Campus. A gift from his widow, Betsey Cushing Whitney, daughter of Harvey Cushing, Class of 1891, supported a major renovation and expansion of the Yale Medical Library, which was renamed the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library in 1990.

On the 50th anniversary of Whitney’s graduation, his senior society, Scroll and Key, launched a campaign to endow a professorship in his honor. In 1977 A. Bartlett Giamatti became the first incumbent of the John Hay Whitney chair; historian Frank Turner currently holds the position.  the end


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