Why few people know who Richard Whitney was or what his crime was

tags: FDR, Richard Whitney

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, is the author of nine books and a contributor to NBC News and “PBS NewsHour.” Follow him on Twitter at @BeschlossDC.

In August 1941, Richard Whitney, the former financier and New York Stock Exchange president, emerged from prison at Sing Sing, on parole after serving three years of a five- to 10-year sentence for grand larceny.

Whitney had stolen from the New York Yacht Club and from Harvard (where, as a member of the class of 1911, he had rowed for the crew team); from his wife’s family estate; as well as from the widows and children who depended on the Stock Exchange Gratuity Fund, of which he was trustee.

Dick Whitney had once been hailed as a “Great White Knight” of Wall Street. At the start of the terrifying market plunge of October 1929, he had bravely helped shore up the market by parading around the exchange floor, placing bids for shares of U.S. Steel, as well as other blue-chip holdings.

In the early 1930s, the top-hatted Whitney had a reputation as a “perfect snob,” quietly blocking Jewish aspirants from reaching important positions in his exchange. With a thoroughbred-horse-and-cattle farm in Far Hills, N.J. — he was also president of the Essex Fox Hounds — and a five-story, red brick townhouse at 115 East 73rd Street, his lifestyle required a formidable cash flow. And soon he found himself in severe debt.

Evidently intrigued that his Harvard schoolmate Joseph P. Kennedy, who had followed him by a year, had made millions selling Gordon’s Dry Gin and Haig & Haig Scotch, Whitney tried to achieve a similar trick — while Prohibition was winking out in 1933 — with Jersey Lightning applejack and Canadian rye. But these and other more fly-by-night gambits failed, and Whitney started his secret life of crime.

Both Whitney and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was six years his senior, were born into the old American, Northeastern, Protestant, moneyed patriciate; both had attended Groton School and Harvard. This shared inheritance, however, didn’t keep Whitney from leading a fierce campaign, summoning his full throw-weight as chief of the New York Stock Exchange, to attack Roosevelt’s proposed Wall Street regulations...

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