One wonders what could have been if Whitney Bourne, a WASP socialite, truly wanted to become a movie star. Yes, it’s a road paved with obstacles and takes a tremendous amount of courage and willpower, is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are plentiful for those who stay for the ride and manage to keep themselves in line. Whitney, unfortunately, did not go the whole way. IMHO, she was an incredibly beautiful, talented woman who had it all to succeed, but her breeding never really let her go to the lengths she otherwise could have.
Helen Whitney Bourne was born on May 6, 1914/1913 in New York City to George Galt Bourne, the son of a sewing machine magnate, and his first wife, Helen Whitney. She was born to the crem de la crem of New York society, and as a female offspring, was designed to be a socialite from her very first breath. G.G. Bourne was a partner in the stock brokerage firm of Talcott, Porter & Co.
Her parents divorced in 1924, with both of her them remarrying – her father to Nancy Atterbury Potter, and her mother to the immensely wealthy Harvey D Gibson. Gibson was formerly wed to Carrie Hastings Curtis, but had no children. They lived in Oyster Bay, Nassau, New York with seven (!!!) servants.
“Whitney Bourne is the authentic personification of smart Park Avenue in 1933. Sleek, sophisticated and very modern, she suggests wit, glitter, sparking conversation and a sip of champagne. To simple clothes she give s a wise interpretation and in evening attire she is enchanting.”
Helen was a passionate skier and went skiing to San Moritz often, and was adept at playing both golf and tennis, winning tournaments in both games. Whitney was a reining queen of Palm Springs societya in cca. 1934. Yet, her desire to act outweighed her lofty lifestyle as an socialite, and, by 1932, her beauty warranted her a half hearted run of Broadway, which lost her a position in the social register. Her parents tried to get the silly idea out of her head, and sent her to a Paris convent, but it did nothing to hamper her spirits, and Whitney was back acting again in New York.
Under the contract with MacArhur and Hecht, she went started movie acting in 1934.
Whitney had a pretty decent career in Hollywood standards. No, she will never make the annals of Hollywood history, but was she credited in all of her appearances (except one)? She was. Did she play leads? She did. She she get the publicity? Yes.
Whitney’s film career lasted for five years and she averaged two movies per year, so her total output is 10 features. No, it’s impossible to find a hit or indeed a well known film among those, but the majority of them were under the pole, less known movies of decent quality, with interesting plots and dependable actors.
Whitney had the honor of appearing in the movies directed, written ad produced b the great writing team, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. While as writers they were some of the best things ever to get out of Hollywood, as a director/producer duo they left much to be desired. So, out of the 5 movies they made, only 2 are worth a dime. Whitney made her debut in such a movie – Crime Without Passion. An interesting spin off to the eternal crime and punishment concept, it is a tightly plotted, well executed movie with a superb performance by Claude Rains. Whitney is nice looking, very elegant and elusive as Kathy Costello. The movie is Rain’s all the way, thus there is no real opportunity for Whitney to truly shine as an thespian – in addition to this, she was overshadowed by Margo, also making her movie debut, giving a very uneven performance as the female lead. All this aside, it was a good start for a potentially notable Hollywood career.
Just as Crime without passion was a good (if a bit pretentious) movie, Whitney’s next one, again by MacArthur/Hecht, was a complete dud. Once in a Blue Moon is a proverbial hot mess, with tons of things mashed together with no common sense, so the less said about it, the better.
She had an uncredited short appearance in The Prisoner of Shark Island , a less known but fine movie by John Ford. In the meantime, Whitney went to London to appear in several stage shows, and by the way made a movie, Head Over Heels in Love, a low budgeted musical starring Jessie Matthews.
After returning tot he States, as a contractee for RKO, Whitney appeared in a string of their movies. An aviation movie dealing with professional fliers, Flight from Glory was a mediocre potboiler with an extraordinary villain, and Whitney played the only female in the cast. Living on Love, a considered lost for decades, was a weaker remake of Rafter Romance, but it still retained the fluffy, happy feeling of the original. Double Danger, where Preston Foster plays a jewel thief, showcased Whitney at what she did best – looking regal, fabulous and elegant with people surrounding her who behaved and looked the same way. No big artistic achievements, but it gets the wheels rolling.
Blind Alibi, Whitney’s last leading role, could have been a goo movie – but it’s not. Aside for the thin budget, it is ruined by an implausible story and an absolute precedence on showing off the studios canine star, Ace the Wonder Dog. Whitney and the male lead, the rather wooden Richard Dix, have some deliciously witty repartee lines in the beginning as a feuding couple, before the movie turns into a over-the-top farce with Dix having to impersonate a blind man with Ace as his watch dog. The movie shows just how deadpan serious and powerful Whitney could be an woman fighting for her own, and how easily she gained the upper hand with her effortless charm and charisma. Sadly, none of this was to be taken advantage of.
Whitney only appeared in supports from then on. The Mad Miss Manton is an entertaining romp with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, not the best effort for either, but it is the type of small movie everyone enjoys watching.
Beauty for the Asking is a a typical women empowerment movie, as it still falls into the Hollywood paradigm, unable to truly show liberated women without men. The story o two girls who get rich via their hard work a man both love still puts more emphasis on romance instead on the action, but it’s not a bad one all around and Lucille Ball gives a spirited, fine performance.
Whitney retired from the movies that year, and never acted again.
Whitney was the perfect marriage material in the 1930s and 1940s – there was nothing not to like about her – she was from a blue blood family on both sides, wealthy, well bred and read, adept at sports, an elegant dresser, drop dead gorgeous, and very charming. Naturally, boys and men came crashing through the door the moment she had her social debut. She also gained plenty of press during 1930s. Information about her clothing and habits sprung like weed from he papers. For instance, it was revealed she had a passion for heavy, moody music, and that she ties her ribbons on top of her head, like a schoolgirl. She was likened to Doris Duke (only a slight resemblance is visible). She lived in a swanky Bel Air mansion during her Hollywood years.
Among her earliest beaus were man from her own social caste, Woolworth Donahue, and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, in cca. 1934/1935.
In early 1937, she was the target of the socially upward mobile bogus prince, David Mdvani, who married a string of wealthy women. Luckily, she did not fall for his hollow charm. By May, she was dating actor Douglas Montgomery. In July, she switched to Miles Mander, a well known English director who gave Madeleine Carroll her first chance at stardom (the guy had great taste in women!). Her next was Robert Wyler, brother of William, in October 1937.
Whitney married Stanton Griffins, multi millionaire producer/ambassador to the UK in July 1939. They surprised everyone, to put it mildly. For one thing, Stanton was almost 25 years her senior, and for the other, Whitney had a bevy of suitors before, and never was Stanton a leading contender. All this aside, Whitney chose well, as Stanton was very wealthy, socially prominent and seemed genuinely in love with her. They honeymooned in Europe, England and France to be more precise.
Stanton was born in Boston, Suffolk County, Mass., on May 2, 1887. He was a Democrat, served in the U.S. Army during World War I, and was to have the ambassadorial position in several countries: Poland, 1947-48; Egypt, 1948-49; Argentina, 1949-50; Spain, 1951-52.
Whitney gave up movies to become a society matron, a lively, free spirited one, giving away lavish soirees and getting medals in water skiing championships.
For whatever reason, the marriage did not work out, and by October 1940 they were divorced. Yet, on a peculiar note, they remained in extremely cordial relations, and there were rumors every once in a while that Stanton and Whitney could re-marry, as they went out socially for years. Rumors were especially persistent in cca. 1951, but they never did, as both moved to on to other marital partners.
During her divorce sojourn in Reno, Whitney joined the Reno Red Cross, and worked for the war relief. She even ended up in Liverpool at some point during the war, working as a nurse and giving out coffee and doughnuts to soldiers. There she met her co-star, Van Helfin. The press also noted how she gave a pint of blood for the British red Cross and fainted afterwards!
Ever for a girl of Whitney’s stature, manor born, famous and wealthy, Rockfeller was an object of awe due to his family lineage. Things moved fast from there, and Whitney was again mentioned in the marriage columns in the papers, this time as a possible marital bet with Rockfeller. Things turned around in January 1942 when she had to undergo an appendectomy, and started dating Oren Root, then a lieutenant in the US army. Playing the field, Whitney dated Root and famous comedy writer Charles Butterworth in a parallel for a time, and then shed Butterworth to go back to Rockfeller, all the still maintaining her idyll with Root. Also add Amon Carter, a casual escort, in early 1942.
In May 1946, there were reports she would re-marry Griffis, and PHAM, a month later she was re-married – just not to Stanton, but to Arthur Osgood Choate jr. Again, Whitney choose well – Choate was the son of a well known investment banker, Arthur Osgood Choate Senior, and Anne Hyde, a pioneer girl scout. He served in the army during WW2, and was to become a executive committee chairman of Clark Dodge & Company, investment bankers. They honeymooned in California.
Her only child, a son, Arthur Bourne Coate, was born on April 14, 1948. Yet, by this time, the writing on the wall was clear enough, and even the birth of the baby could not remedy things – Whitney and Choate divorced in 1949.
Stanton dated her even before the ink was dry on her legal papers, but he was also going half steady with the actress Annabella, former wife of Tyrone Power. Whitney dated socialite Jimmy Stewart in 1951.
She married Roy Atwood in 1956. They were separated but not divorced at the time of his death in 1963.
Whitney Bourne Atwood died on December 30, 1988 in New York.