Dorothy Payne Whitney (January 23, 1887 – December 14, 1968) was an American-born social activist, philanthropist, publisher and a member of the prominent Whitney family.

Life and work

Whitney was born in Washington, D.C., the daughter of Flora (née Payne) and William Collins Whitney, the United States Secretary of the Navy during the first Cleveland administration from 1885 through 1889. Flora was the daughter of Senator Henry B. Payne of Ohio[1] and sister of Colonel Oliver Hazard Payne, later treasurer of the Standard Oil Company. She attended the Chapin School. At age 17, she came into a major inheritance, approximately $15,000,000 (equivalent to $408,555,556 in 2017 dollars), following the death of her extremely wealthy father.[2][3]

One of the wealthiest women in America in the early 20th century, Dorothy Whitney Straight was a philanthropist and social activist who supported women's trade unions and educational and charitable organizations such as the Junior League of New York. She became the first president of the Association of Junior Leagues International in 1921. Together with her husband, she founded the weekly magazine The New Republic and the New School for Social Research in New York City.[4]

Records of Dorothy Payne Whitney in New York City reveal the extent of her philanthropic work. She was a benefactor of the arts, feminist, and pacifist causes, as well as social and labour reform. She lent financial support to progressive alternative education plus scholarly research. In 1937, she created the William C. Whitney Foundation in her father's name.[4]

Personal life

Dorothy's New York residence at 1130 Fifth Avenue

First marriage

Her first marriage in 1911 was to Willard Dickerman Straight (1880–1918), the son of Henry H. Straight, from Oswego, New York, who went to Cornell University and by the age of 30 was a powerful man amongst the international community trading in Peking, China.[5] Together, they had three children:

Willard Straight Hall at Cornell, opened in 1925.

Straight died at the age of 38 of influenza during the 1918 pandemic while serving with the United States Army in France during World War I.[10] Straight's will requested his wife to continue his philanthropic work in support of Cornell and in 1925 she built Willard Straight Hall, a student union building dedicated to her late husband's memory.[11]

Second marriage

In 1920, she met Leonard Knight Elmhirst (1893–1974), an Englishman from a Yorkshire landowning family, who was then studying agriculture at Cornell University, and was seeking support for Cornell's Cosmopolitan Club which provided amenities for foreign students.[11] They married in April 1925, and embarked on ambitious plans to recreate rural community life at Dartington Hall in Devon.[2] Together, they had two children:

  • Ruth Elmhirst (1926-1986), who married Maurice Ash (1917–2003) in 1947[12][13]
  • William Elmhirst (born 1929)

At Dartington she led the artistic developments, founding Dartington College of Arts and Dartington International Summer School — although she and Leonard also continued their worldwide interests. On April 26, 1935, she renounced her United States citizenship.[14]

Dorothy Payne Whitney Elmhirst died on December 14, 1968.[15]


Dorothy was known for building the Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University, founding The New Republic, founding New School for Social Research, being the founding president of Association of Junior Leagues International, founding the William C. Whitney Foundation, renovating Dartington Hall and its gardens, founding the Dartington Hall Trust, founding the Dartington Hall School, founding the Dartington College of Arts, and hosting the Dartington International Summer School from 1953.[4]


  1. ^ Newspaper Enterprise Association (1914). The World Almanac & Book of Facts. Newspaper Enterprise Association. p. 662. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "MRS. ELMHIRST ENDS CITIZENSHIP IN U.S.; Whitney Heiress, Wife of a British Subject, Renounces Status as American." The New York Times. 26 April 1935. Retrieved 7 February 2017. 
  3. ^ "HALF OF THE WHITNEY ESTATE TO ELDER SON; Payne, Under the Will, Receives Only a Tenth Part. STEPCHILDREN GET $500,000 Three-tenths Are Bequeathed to Dorothy and One-tenth to Pauline, Now Mrs. Paget. HALF OF THE WHITNEY ESTATE TO ELDER SON". The New York Times. 25 February 1904. Retrieved 7 February 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c Galbraith, John Kenneth (27 July 1980). "Progressive Money; Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 February 2017. 
  5. ^ "Willard Straight, who is to marry Dorthy Whitney. A Career That Reads Like a Romance Is That of the Missionary's Son Who Became a Figure in Finance, Politics and International Affairs, and Who Won the Love of Two Heiresses". New York Times. July 30, 1911. Retrieved 2010-03-22. Willard D.Straight, the handsome young American diplomat who has had a career in the Far East that Midas himself might have envied, who has, within the past year, obtained millions for the houses of Morgan and Rockefeller, is now, for the first time in his eventful life, on the fair road to fortune in his own right. 
  6. ^ "Whitney Straight to Wed in England". The New York Times. April 11, 1935. Retrieved 3 February 2016. 
  7. ^ "Peter Cookson, 76, A Writer, Producer And Stage Actor" The New York Times, January 8, 1990
  8. ^ "Peter Cookson Broadway" playbillvault.com, accessed September 16, 2015
  9. ^ "Michael Straight". The Daily Telegraph. January 7, 2004. Retrieved March 22, 2010. Michael Straight, who has died aged 87, was the former Soviet spy responsible for telling MI5 that Anthony Blunt — whose lover he had briefly been at Cambridge in the 1930s — was a mole. 
  10. ^ MAJ. W.D. STRAIGHT IS DEAD IN PARIS - Financier and Diplomat Victim of Pneumonia While on War Mission with Col. House. BEGAN LIFE AS A POOR BOY Son of Missionary to Japan and China, He Won International Fame—Tributes Here. Chosen by E.H. Harriman Associated With J.P. Morgan & Co. - The New York Times December 2, 1918; accessed Dec 6, 2015
  11. ^ a b "Mrs. Willard D. Straight to Remarry Today; Her Fiance Is L.K. Elmhirst, a Pastor's Son". The New York Times. 3 April 1925. Retrieved 7 February 2017. 
  12. ^ Berthoud, Roger (January 27, 2003). "Maurice Ash Innovative farmer, and fighter for civic and environmental causes". The Independent. Retrieved 28 March 2016. 
  13. ^ Caddy, Kate. "Ruth and Maurice Ash". dartington.org. Dartington. Retrieved 28 March 2016. 
  14. ^ "Whitney Heiress, Wife of a British Subject, Renounces Status as American". The New York Times. April 26, 1935. Retrieved December 12, 2008. Mrs. Dorothy Payne Whitney Elmhirst, the former Mrs. Willard Straight, renounced her United States citizenship yesterday in an affidavit filed with Federal Judge William Bondy. 
  15. ^ "Dorothy Elmhirst, a Founder of New Republic, Dies". The New York Times. December 16, 1968. Retrieved December 12, 2008. London, Dec. 15—Mrs. Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight Elmhirst, philanthropist, pioneer in progressive education and suffragist, died last night at Dartington Hall near ... 

Further reading