Stories Of Marylou, Saratoga’s Patron ‘Saint’

by | 08.31.2019 | 10:43am
Whitney at Saratoga in 1977. Photo courtesy Keeneland Library, Photo Communications

The third Saturday in July dawned steamy and oppressive at Saratoga. Horses trained on the Oklahoma, strolled around Clare Court, breezed in front of the grandstand, and then the grounds fell quiet. Where there should have been coolers and crowds sipping beer in the backyard, the air was still. The bugle did not sound the call to post. The paddock bell was silent. Horses did not run on this, the day after the Queen of Saratoga died. 

Of course, the track wasn't dark because Marylou Whitney died – it was a well-considered move by track management to avoid racing in extreme heat — but in a way, close friends and family said, it was only fitting. It would have felt wrong, they thought, to look down on brightly-colored silks and jigging horses when the whole town would be in mourning. In fact, had Saratoga not opened its meet early this year, the date of her death would have fallen on opening day. Marylou always knew how to make a dramatic entrance to a party, and she knew how to leave one, too. 

In the wake of her departure, obituaries ran across the country immortalizing her work for charitable causes, her accomplishments as a breeder, glamorous career as a socialite, and they credited her with making Saratoga Springs the city it is today. 

Whitney's role in turning Saratoga into the mecca for East Coast racing in summer was not happenstance. It was carefully planned at dinner tables all over New York, an ongoing project designed to use her very particular set of skills. 

When Whitney went to work on it in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Saratoga was not the same town it was today, with its crowded sidewalks on Broadway every summer evening and a line of patrons waiting to get into the Union Avenue gate on a Wednesday. The track also wasn't at its lowest point in history, either. Saratoga had gone through a rough patch in the late 1890s when New York outlawed bookmaking and was quietly sold in 1901 to a group that included William Collins Whitney. Racing recovered there, but not as well as it did at the tracks closer to the city.

“The numbers downstate were astronomical,” said Michael Veitch, author, historian and longtime Saratoga resident. “The money made downstate was put in a kind of reserve so they could finance Saratoga for the 24 days here.” 

A state law passed by a narrow margin in the mid-1950s gave Saratoga exclusive rights to run for its 24 appointed days, removing the possibility of competition for horses from the tracks downstate. By the time Marylou Hosford married C.V. “Sonny” Whitney (grandson to William Collins Whitney) in 1958, Saratoga had stabilized somewhat. Horses were making the long haul north to the Adirondacks. There were some empty storefronts and long-standing small businesses supported by locals. People were going to the races, but they were mostly locals and members of The Reading Room.

“Really, they had no interest in having any more tourists at the track,” said Maureen Lewi, close friend to Whitney and longtime Saratoga resident. “It was being run by some old-time families and they kind of liked it the way it was. I think people did want to build up, certainly have businesses here. But it was certainly a transition period.” 

Horse racing had been the unofficial family business for Sonny Whitney. He told Sports Illustrated in 1961, “I would never have gone into it in the first place if it weren't for the family tradition.” 

Whitney took over his grandfather's stable in 1930, briefly quit racing seven years later when his business interest in Hollywood and Pan American Airlines heated up, and then came back again. 

“I went back into racing more out of a sense of duty than anything else,” Whitney told SI. “I had never been particularly excited about it, but both my father and grandfather had loved the sport, and they had devoted great care to building up our bloodlines and breeding stock.”

He cautioned his wife in no uncertain terms to stay out of the business of horse ownership herself but could not prevent her being drawn to Thoroughbreds. 

Born Mary Louise Schroeder, she was an actress who everyone called “Marylou” when she and Sonny met on the set of “The Missouri Traveler,” a Western drama Sonny's production company financed. A native of Kansas City, Marylou's acting career was brief, but she always had all the ingredients to become a celebrity – she was charismatic and charming, with the ability to make anyone feel at ease. Her aesthetic and sense of design meant her homes, parties, and wardrobe were stylish as could be. She could be media-ready in a moment, speaking off-the-cuff with poise and a sharp wit that made for good copy. 

Whitney with Kentucky Gov. Louie B. Nunn at a Whitney party in Kentucky, 1971

The more time Whitney spent at the Cady Hill estate in Saratoga Springs and at the races with Sonny, the more convinced she became that Saratoga could be so much more than it was. Enter Ed Lewi, public relations expert.

Lewi had been the promoter for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games and later became head of public relations for Saratoga Race Course. He and Whitney were of the same instinct: press attention was the first step in reminding the public about a racetrack's existence. But just any press attention wouldn't do. 

“They were happy Saratoga was on the sports pages, but you have to be on the travel pages, and the lifestyle and social pages and the feature pages if you want to attract people,” said Maureen Lewi, who was married to Ed Lewi for 40 years, until his death in 2015. “She was game for literally anything and everything that would bring attention to Saratoga because that was the point – bring it back. She'd read about the old days and what a wonderful place it was and it was because people had great times here.” 

Thanks to her time in Hollywood and her marriage to Sonny, Whitney had rubbed elbows with a wide range of celebrities through the years. As a frequent flyer in the society pages herself, she also knew that reporters and photographers followed wherever they thought a star may appear, and they couldn't help but capture some of the ambiance in the process. Whitney went into full hostess mode, throwing enormous galas around the Whitney and Travers weekends, but also hosting smaller groups of her famous friends at Cady Hill throughout the meet, where they could enjoy more privacy. 

Maureen Lewi remembers sitting at conspiratorial dinners in the off-season with Whitney and Ed Lewi as they laid out their calendars for the summer. They were always brainstorming, looking for the next theatrical stunt they could pull to get the town buzzing.

“Both my husband and Marylou were really creative and had what I called outlandish ideas about what to do and how to do it,” Maureen said. “Ed was in the PR business and he felt that whatever it was that was opening in Saratoga, the track, a bank, a supermarket – you have to be more than a supermarket, you have to be more than a racetrack. 

“Marylou was the most fun person I knew. In fact, on Ed's gravestone we have written, 'If it's not fun, don't do it' because that's what he said all the time.” 

The Whitney Gala, which was held at the Canfield Casino in Congress Park in its early years, was always themed and Whitney jumped into the theme with both feet. There was the Wizard of Oz year, where she walked down a temporary yellow brick road to her party. There was the Cinderella year, when she came to the party in a horse-drawn pumpkin. There was the Breakfast at Tiffany's year when she arrived in a yellow cab. One year the theme was 'Showboat' and ladies were asked to carry parasols while meandering through entryways of ship's ropes and tacked trunks while leaning on ship's railings. A wintry theme saw fir trees painted with snow and actual champion ice skaters performing on plastic ice. Another time, Whitney dropped out of the sky in a hot air balloon. Her actress's sense for anticipation and drama was on full display.

The strategy worked. Walter Cronkite, Ginger Rogers, Susan Lucci, Joan Rivers, Mary Ann Mobley all appeared in Saratoga Springs and reporters from newspapers, magazines, and television followed. Whitney made sure all of them had such a fabulous time they'd look forward to the next time – including the press. 

“NBC Nightly News were coming in to do what we thought would be a two or three minute piece,” said Lewi. “Well, they met Marylou and she tap danced for them in her driveway. She showed them all these different places. They ended up staying and filming for over a week and we ended up with a three-part series on NBC Nightly News. They just fell in love with her. The producer called down to New York and said, 'We really have something here.'”

Vanity Fair and Town and Country showed up to do short stories and somehow, Whitney ended up on their covers. When the television series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous contacted Lewi suggesting they wanted to tour Saratoga's oldest houses, Lewi called Whitney. Sure, Whitney said, but I don't know anything about those houses. They borrowed the 1933 maroon Duesenberg convertible that had belonged to Greta Garbo from a collector and tossed Whitney and the camera crew inside. They made cue cards, and after a quick read, Whitney was cruising down Broadway, pointing out the gingerbread on the eaves of one building or another as if she conducted tours in antique convertibles every day.

Whitney and Dr. Ben Roach at the 1975 Saratoga sale

The memory that seems to stand out for everyone is Whitney's appearance in the Floral Fete, a celebration held to mark the 150th anniversary of the track. The Fete was a recreation of a parade held more than a century before, similar to the Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Year's Day. Cars, carriages and bicycles were coated in real flowers, requiring painstaking work and special plantings nurtured along to produce their best blooms in August. Whitney's instinct about the spectacle was right – Lewi remembers some 30,000 people crowding the streets to see the blossom-laden vehicles pull slowly by.

Marylou would tell the media in her later years that Sonny asked her to do what she could to make Saratoga the showplace they both thought it should be, but she may not have given herself enough credit. It would have been so easy, upon his death in 1992, to wash her hands of the project, but she didn't. By then, horses were in her blood, too.

“She always thought the beauty of the horses should speak for itself and the setting of Saratoga at the foothills of the Adirondacks should speak for itself,” said John Hendrickson, who married Whitney in 1997. “She had a lot of loves, but this was her first love – Saratoga.”

Whitney also had a sense that there should be more to Saratoga than the racetrack and this, combined with her interest in the arts, prompted her to help found the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the National Museum of Dance, both of which draw visitors outside racing. Whitney and Hendrickson were also devoted to the Saratoga YMCA, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and the Saratoga Hospital. 

After four decades of hosting the Whitney Gala, Whitney took a look around Saratoga Springs. The town had become a destination not just for horses and their connections, but for tourists. Two-dollar bettors filled the Backyard, as the picnic area at the track is called. When it came to making Saratoga “The Summer Place to Be” (a moniker she and Lewi had coined), her work was done. Then she turned an eye to the grooms who held horses in the Saratoga paddock. That, family says, is where she realized her help was needed. 

The money that had gone into the Whitney Gala was reallocated, along with funding from fellow owners John Oxley, Tracy Farmer, and Lewi to backstretch employee services. The calendar is now packed with activities, dinners, language lessons, and events for the people who live and work at the track. Whitney and Hendrickson famously attended many of the dinners, where dozens gathered to speak with them and give thanks. Whitney always made sure the meals included colorful tablecloths, decorations, and music – all the essential markings of her own Sunday dinner.

Michael Veitch and his wife Gail participated in some of the early programs available at the recreation center on the Oklahoma Training Track campus, giving occasional speeches or otherwise helping out from time to time.

John Henderickson and Marylou Whitney

“One night Gail and I walked out of there,” Veitch recalled. “It's about 10 o'clock and they're playing soccer under the lights on that field and the black limousine pulls up and idles along the side of the soccer field. The window rolls down and Marylou looks out and surveys the whole thing. The reason I'm so touched by that is that very often, people who are philanthropic are very happy to give, but that's kind of the end of it. Instead, she wanted to see that things were going ok. That was Marylou.”

Lewi and Hendrickson have continued to attend backstretch events since Whitney's death, and at those events, as in their own houses, there's been a note of quiet mourning since that dark Saturday. 

“One guy said to me, 'We lost the one person who always stood up for us,'” said Lewi. “And I said, 'Yes you did.' 

“And he said, 'Well, she's no longer Marylou to us. She's Saint Marylou.'”

Lewi said she'll never forget the experience of walking Saratoga's Backyard with Whitney. The crowd of racegoers could be diverse – horseplayers chewing cigars, couples with young children, tanned college students in t-shirts on their fourth beer. All of them stopped watching television screens or reading programs and called out, a chorus of New York accents chanting “Marylou! Hey, Marylou!” It was the one time, Lewi said, it almost didn't matter that her last name was Whitney. 

“I'm not sure that she ever really understood the extent that people adored her,” said Lewi.

“I could see it when we walked through the crowd. People were starstruck. For her, I'm not sure she saw all that because she was too busy asking how people were. 

“I don't think she realized when she left us, what a hole she would leave.” 

There can be no doubt for everyone – the fan, the turf writer, the groom, the owner in the reserved boxes – that Saratoga will never be the same again. The best we can do is to continue on the way Hendrickson says he will – with her vision for Saratoga, and for racing. 

“I knew her 26 years and every day I woke up thinking, 'How can I make her life better?'” he said. “When you go to sleep and wake up with someone every day for 26 years, you have the same dreams. We had the same dreams. I'm going to continue to wake up every day and ask myself how I can honor her memory.”

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