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 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.
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.
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.
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. Together, they had three children:
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. 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.
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. They married in April 1925, and embarked on ambitious plans to recreate rural community life at Dartington Hall in Devon. Together, they had two children:
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.
Dorothy Payne Whitney Elmhirst died on December 14, 1968.
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.
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.
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.
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.
London, Dec. 15—Mrs. Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight Elmhirst, philanthropist, pioneer in progressive education and suffragist, died last night at Dartington Hall near ...