Gentlemen, imagine for a moment that during your college days your charm was enhanced by a family fortune and a physique sculpted by crew and polo. And because you went to Yale, the bright lights of Broadway were just a train ride away. That would have been a lot of temptation to resist, and I doubt that you or I would have dealt with it any better than Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney.
The vamp who snared the college boy was Evan Burrows Fontaine, a protege of dancer Ruth St. Denis who was taught several exotic dances, including the Dance Egyptienne, by St. Denis’ husband, choreographer Ted Shawn. In New York, she appeared in Ziegfeld’s Follies, and in the Ed Wynn Carnival as the Queen of the Nile, catching Sonny Whitney’s eye, with other body parts to follow.
Such was her appeal that she was photographed by Alfred Cheney Johnston, the photographer of young beauties in that era.
Between May of 1919 and October of 1920, Sonny was smitten, entangled, intimate and then, learning that Miss Fontaine was with child, gentleman enough to propose marriage.
The Whitney family lawyers, however, said, “Whoa,” had a sit-down with the young man and informed him that he needed to marry someone more suitable to his station. To Miss Fontaine, they offered $1,000 a month for life, provided she admit in writing that she was a prostitute. She declined the offer, named her newborn Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Jr., and in 1922 sued for $1,000,000 claiming breach of promise.
In court, Whitney’s lawyers pointed out that she was married to another man at the time of her involvement with their client. She said that marriage had been annulled. Whitney’s lawyers responded that her testimony was false. The judge said there was no evidence she’d even had a baby. She lost the case and was arrested the next day for perjury, for fiddling the date of the annulment. The perjury charges were dismissed, but Miss Fontaine learned who she was dealing with. She never made any further headway in the courtroom, or in her career, which was effectively snuffed out.
She drifted into obscurity, while Sonny graduated from Yale in 1922, played polo (winning the U.S. Open on three occasions and eventually giving his name to the C.V. Whitney Cup, one of the most prestigious tournaments in polo today), founded Pan American Airways, turned his family’s fortune into ever greater fortunes, co-produced Gone with the Wind, and married and divorced a series of socially appropriate women while exhibiting what biographer Thomas Parrish described as “the true aristocrat’s disdain of fidelity.”
A long life of doing whatever he wanted, but one wonders if he ever paused, looked back, and sighed wistfully as he thought of Evan Burrows Fontaine.