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GEORGE WHITTELL JR. was a real piece of work. And, because of his commission, Duesenberg produced another exceptional piece of work, the 1931 Model J Long-Wheelbase Coupe. Such was the tale that when Gooding & Company offered the Whittell Coupe at its 2011 Pebble Beach Auction, this auction house put together a 44-page book on the subject.
Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits from this book, together with my usual Internet sleuthing. Today, we look at the man; tomorrow, the car.
George Whittell, Jr.—A Golden Spoon, Wildly Wielded. George’s father was a California Gold Rush immigrant who amassed real estate and railway assets in San Francisco. Twin sons, George Jr. and Nick, were born in 1882. Nick died at age four, leaving George Jr. sole scion to one of the city’s wealthiest families.
As David Brynan describes in The Whittell Coupe, “Unlike his father, George Jr. did not exhibit a passion for expanding his family’s extensive holdings. Instead, using his status as a scion of a prominent family, George Jr. indulged in personal eccentricities and cultivated decadent tastes, establishing this pattern at an early age.”
Bring ’Em Back Alive. “During school years,” Brynan writes, “Whittell Jr. joined the Barnum and Bailey Circus where he befriended famed wild animal trainer Frank Buck.” The two formed a business importing rare and exotic beasts into the U.S.
George Jr. had a pet lion named Bill as one of his closet companions. For instance, the two appeared at a Half Moon Bay tavern for a celebration on New Year’s Eve 1933.
Other Exotic Wildlife. George Jr. also had a fondness for showgirls and dancers. He married one in 1903; he was 21 at the time. Dad had the marriage annulled and the young lady walked away with $25,000 (figure $658,000 in today’s dollar).
A year later, George Jr. married another showgirl. These two divorced two years later.
Third time was the charm, and she most definitively was not a showgirl: George Jr. drove in the American Ambulance Corps, with meritorious recognition from Belgian, French, and Italian governments. “The Captain” (an earned title he chose to retain throughout his life) also attracted the attention of a beautiful French socialite, Elia Pascal. Her family owned a Loire Valley estate that had been purchased from the Rockefellers. The Captain and Elia were married in 1919.
As noted by Matthew Renda in the Tahoe Quarterly, “The marriage was durable, but elastic…. the couple spent most of their marriage in separate countries, as Pascal preferred to reside in Paris while Whittell is rumored to never have quite rid himself of his affinities for showgirls.”
His father’s death in 1922 left The Captain in charge of family investments, which, according to Brynan, “reportedly included 33 buildings in downtown San Francisco…. After a succession of astute investments, Whittell Jr. liquidated his 50 million dollars in stock holdings just weeks before the stock market crash of 1929.”
The Captain’s Other Adventures. Brynan cites that Whittell’s private menagerie included “greyhounds, cheetahs, giraffes, large snakes, and Mingo, a 600-pound Sumatran elephant.”
On December 8, 1942, the Captain, age 60, tried to enlist in the army. “He was denied,” Matthew Renda notes, “much to his chagrin.”
A Man of Means and Taste. The Captain had what Brynan calls an “unrivalled combination of means and taste.… Throughout his life, Whittell Jr. took a keen interest in the latest technology, particularly vehicles which are, in and of themselves, worthy of discussion.”
One of them, the 1931 Duesenberg Model J Long-Wheelbase Coupe, is tomorrow’s topic here in Part 2. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020