#TBT: Marylou Memories

In March 1985, I got it in my head that the reigning queen of Saratoga Springs society, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt “Marylou” Whitney, was about to ruin my summer.

I was then PR director for The House of Seagram, Ltd, the global drinks company headquartered in Manhattan. That month, I told my masters that if we sponsored Marylou’s annual gala, we’d get a lot of publicity. My boss provided a substantial budget. Off to Saratoga I went.

On the train from New York to Albany, I wondered, What could I have been thinking? Apropos of nothing, I concluded that Mrs. Whitney would be imperious and demanding and I would feel her wrath. I was, of course, completely, stunningly wrong.

After meeting her representatives in Saratoga, Marylou invited me the next week to lunch at the posh apartment she and her then-husband, “Sonny,” shared at 59th and 5th. The building’s extravagant lobby smelled of Stargazer Lilies and featured a private elevator that whooshed me up to the couple’s grand marble foyer, which a uniformed doorman called the “foy-YAY,” and where Mrs. Whitney greeted me warmly and insisted I call her Marylou. “Everybody does,” she said, smiling.

We were to test cocktail recipes she’d created for the gala using Seagram products. She landed on “The Saratoga Sparkler,” which contained Great Western Champagne, simple syrup, three dashes of bitters and a cube of brown sugar.

At some point, Sonny, in a tie and bespoke suit, descended the curved marble staircase and, like his wife, greeted me warmly. He was fixated on an accomplishment he was quite proud of: The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He was a founder, a major donor and the driving force behind it. I promised him I’d pop in some day and see the place.

Marylou’s Saratoga soirée that year was just like every one she held—glittering and full of glorious people-watching.

Through a happy turn of events, I’m now a member of the visitors staff at the racing museum. I sometimes wonder if Marylou and Sonny might find that mildly amusing.

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