Gertrude Whitney, the great grand daughter of the shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, married Harry Payne Whitney, and the family fortunes each of them had inherited allowed them to help found the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and as a result the museum was named after the Whitney family name.
Gertrude was the eldest daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II [1843-1899] and his wife Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. Gertrude’s older sister had died at age 5, a year before Gertrude was born. So Gertrude’s arrival was a doubly happy event in the Vanderbilt household. Gertrude’s grandfather was William Henry Vanderbilt [1821-1885], the son of the original Cornelius Vanderbilt. William Henry Vanderbilt successfully expanded the Vanderbilt railway fortune of the family, and contributed probably as much or more to the future wealth of the family than his father had done earlier.
Gertrude idolized her older brothers, Cornelius [1873-1942] and William [?]. Her two younger brothers were Alfred [1877-1915] and Reginald [1880-1925]. As the only girl among four boys she felt out of place, and as a child longed to be a boy. As a result she developed a strong individual personality that would stay with her throughout her life.
On August 25, 1896, Gertrude married Harry Payne Whitney, the son of William C. Whitney, a prominent attorney. Harry’s mother was the daughter of a Standard Oil Company executive who had been able to accumulate considerable wealth during his business career. As a result Gertrude entered a marriage with substantial wealth on both sides of the marriage partners.
Gertrude had always had a passion for art, but had never acted on that passion. During a trip to Europe in 1901, and the resultant exposure to European art museums, reactivated Gertrude’s passion for art. She was particularly interested in sculpture, studied art, and became a sculptress herself. Soon thereafter she became a patron of the arts, promoted the advancement of women in the arts, and organized exhibitions for promising artists. The fountain in the patio of the Pan American building in Washington, D. C. is one of Gertrude’s best known sculptures.
Gertrude’s major and lasting accomplishment of her life was the founding of the Whitney Museum for American Art in 1930. Together with her husband Harry P. Whitney they made a major gift that made it possible for the Whitney Museum of American Art to be established.
The other major incident in Gloria’s life was her involvement in the custody court battle, in 1934, for her niece Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, the future artist, actress, socialite, and founder of the designer jeans and clothing empire. At the time of the custody battle Gloria was only ten years old. Her father had passed away in 1925 and her mother, Gloria Mercedes Morgan [1904-1965], was considered unfit to be a mother and a guardian. Gloria’s mother eventually lost custody of her and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, became her guardian, with certain rights remaining with Gloria’s mother. But litigation continued for many years until eventually Gloria became old enough to decide her own fate.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney passed away on April 18, 1942 after a long illness. She had been suffering from a bacterial disease. The couple’s surviving children were Flora Payne Whitney , Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney  and Barbara Vanderbilt Whitney .
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney [1875-1942],l (City University of New York)
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