Dorothy Payne Whitney

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Dorothy Payne Whitney in 1915

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

Life and work[edit]

Whitney was born in Washington, DC, the daughter of Flora (Payne) and businessman and statesman William Collins Whitney. At age 17, she came into a major inheritance following the death of her extremely wealthy father.

Her first marriage in 1911 was to Willard Dickerman Straight (1880–1918) an orphan 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. He died at the age of thirty-eight of influenza during the great epidemic 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.

One of the wealthiest women in America in the early 20th century, Dorothy Whitney Straight was a philanthropist, social activist, supporting women's trade unions, educational and charitable organisations such as the Junior League of New York, becoming the first president of the Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. in 1921. She was also a founder with her husband of the weekly magazine The New Republic and the New School for Social Research.

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 in her father's name the William C. Whitney Foundation.

It was through the Cornell connection that in 1920 she met Leonard Knight Elmhirst, 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. At Dartington she led the artistic developments, although she and Leonard also continued their world wide interests. On April 26, 1935 she renounced her United States citizenship.[1] She died on December 14, 1968.[2]


With Willard Dickerman Straight:

With Leonard K. Elmhirst:

  • Ruth Elmhirst
  • William Elmhirst


  1. ^ "Whitney Heiress, Wife of a British Subject, Renounces Status as American.". New York Times. April 26, 1935. Retrieved 2008-12-12. 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. 
  2. ^ "Dorothy Elmhirst, a Founder of New Republic, Dies". New York Times. December 16, 1968. Retrieved 2008-12-12. London, Dec. 15—Mrs. Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight Elmhirst, philanthropist, pioneer in progressive education and suffragist, died last night at Dartington Hall near ... 
  3. ^ "Michael Straight". The Telegraph. January 7, 2004. Retrieved 2010-03-22. 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. ... 

Further reading[edit]

  • Anonymous, Dartington, Webber & Bower, 1982
  • Young, Michael, The Elmhirsts Of Dartington, The Creation Of A Utopian Community, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982
  • The Straight and Its Origin by Leonard K. Elmhirst; published by Willard Straight Hall, 1975.