He was a man of big frame, alert and decisive in his movements, and a ready talker; in business he was given much to living in the clouds--a born speculator--emphatically a "boomer." His sympathies were generous, at times emotional; it is said that he has even been known to weep when discussing his fine collection of Madonnas. He showed this personal side in his lifelong friendship and business association with William L. Elkins, a man much inferior to him in ability. Indeed, Elkins's great fortune was little more than a free gift from Widener, who carried him as a partner in all his deals. Elkins became Widener's bondsman when the latter entered the City Treasurer's office; the two men lived near each other on the same street, and this association was cemented when Widener's oldest son married Elkins's daughter. Elkins had started life as an entry clerk in a grocery store, had made money in the butter and egg business, had "struck oil" at Titusville in 1862, and had succeeded in exchanging his holdings for a block of Standard Oil stock. He too became a Philadelphia politician, but he had certain hard qualities--he was close-fisted, slow, plodding--that prevented him from achieving much success.
For the other members of this group we must now change the scene to New York City. In the early eighties certain powerful interests had formed plans for controlling the New York transit fields. Prominent among them was William Collins Whitney, a very different type of man from the Philadelphians. Born in Conway, Massachusetts, in 1841, he came from a long line of distinguished and intellectual New Englanders. At Yale his wonderful mental gifts raised him far above his fellows; he divided all scholastic honors there with his classmate, William Graham Sumner, afterwards Yale's great political economist. Soon after graduation Whitney came to New York and rapidly forged ahead as a lawyer. Brilliant, polished, suave, he early displayed those qualities which afterward made him the master mind of presidential Cabinets and the maker of American Presidents. Physically handsome, loved by most men and all women, he soon acquired a social standing that amounted almost to a dictatorship. His early political activities had greatly benefited New York. He became a member of that group which, under the leadership of Joseph H. Choate and Samuel J. Tilden, accomplished the downfall of William M. Tweed. Whitney remained Tilden's political protege for several years. Though highbred and luxury-loving, as a young man he was not averse to hard political work, and many old-timers still remember the days when "Bill" Whitney delivered cart-tail harangues on the lower east side. By 1884 he had become the most prominent Democrat in New York--always a foe to Tammany--and as such he contributed largely to Cleveland's first election, became Secretary of the Navy in Cleveland's cabinet and that great President's close friend and adviser. As Secretary of the Navy, Whitney, who found the fleet composed of a few useless hulks left over from the days of Farragut, created the fighting force that did such efficient service in the Spanish War. The fact that the United States is now the third naval power is largely owing to these early activities of Whitney.
Certainly all this national service forms a strange prelude to Whitney's activities in the public utilities of New York and other cities. Had he died, indeed, in his fiftieth year, his name would be renowned today as a worker for the highest ideals of American citizenship. What suddenly made him turn his back upon his past, join his former enemies in Tammany Hall, and engage in these great speculative enterprises? The simplest explanation is that, with his ability and ambition, Whitney had the luxurious tastes of a Medici. At the height of his career his financial success found expression in a magnificent house which he established on Fifth Avenue. Its furnishings were one of the wonders of New York. Whitney ransacked the art treasures of Europe, stripped medieval castles of their carvings and tapestries, ripped whole staircases and ceilings from the repose of centuries, and relaid them in this abode of splendor, and here he entertained with a lavishness that astounded New York.