George Whittell, Jr., was born in San Francisco on September 28, 1881, to George Whittell, Sr., and Anna Luning Whittell. One of twins, George Jr.'s brother, Nicholas, died at the age of three of diptheria. Born into great wealth, Whittell barreled through life at full-throttle, collecting exotic animals, elegant automobiles and boats, beautiful women, contentious lawsuits and more than 20 miles of Lake Tahoe's Nevada shoreline along the way. He was one of the more notorious playboys of California and Nevada, indulging in a succession of marriages and liaisons that fueled the region's gossip mills. A recluse in his later years, Whittell shunned publicity, and, in doing so, inspired speculation about his every move. By the time of his death in 1969, he had become the stuff of legend.
George's two immigrant grandfathers shrewdly exploited Gold Rush opportunities, laying the foundation for a financial empire. Hugh Whittell immigrated to America from Ireland in 1828 and came west on a steamship from his home in New York in 1849 following the discovery of gold in California. Nicholas Luning also arrived in San Francisco in 1849 and both quickly tapped into the vibrant economy. Hugh "grubstaked" the miners, doing well on his investments in mining claims. Nicholas opened a bank which specialized in loans to merchants facing financial emergencies. Both invested heavily in San Francisco real estate. Luning also represented the Crocker and Flood families in their rail and land dealings and helped found the San Francisco Water Company, precursor of the company known today as Pacific Gas and Electric.
The Whittell and Luning fortunes were brought together in 1879 with the marriage of Hugh's son, George, and Nicholas' daughter, Anna. Upon her father's death in 1890, Anna Luning Whittell inherited over $9 million, enabling her husband George to continue the creation of his own financial empire of real estate and railroads. A shrewd investor in his own right, the elder George Whittell was also cutthroat business manager and became a master of the 19th century's gilded art of manipulation.
Shortly after George, Jr., was born his parents built a showplace mansion on San Francisco's Nob Hill. He attended high school there but following graduation he initially refused the college education his parents felt was so important. He left home instead to join the Barnum and Bailey Circus, without his parents' approval. There he met a young animal trainer named Frank Buck. The two men started a safari business with George's rather substantial allowance and staged a series of trips to Africa to capture wild animals for the circus. It was during these experiences with the circus and in Africa that George developed a lifelong passion for wild animals, particularly the big cats. George, at the insistence of his mother, returned to the rarified airs of Nob Hill after a few years and Frank Buck went on to become the world famous "Bring 'Em Back Alive Buck", animal trainer extraordinaire.
Upon Junior's return to San Francisco he continued a penchant for self-indulgence and began an unflattering habit of embarrassing his parents. In 1903, after George, Sr., and Anna had arranged a marriage for their twenty-one year old son to the daughter of another prominent San Francisco couple, he shocked them by eloping with a chorus girl. Whittell, Sr., felt compelled to pay sufficient money to county officials and the bride to annul the inappropriate match, silence all involved and clear the record. To the parents' dismay the cover-up failed and the incident exploded into a public scandal. George's taste for unsuitable women continued when he fell in love with Josephine Cunningham, a member of the well-known stage group, the Floradora Sextet. Despite his parents' disapproval and their best attempts to thwart the romance, George and Josie were married, again shocking San Francisco high society. A temporary halt to his allowance, his roving eye and reputation as a playboy soon brought his second marriage to an end. Josie Cunningham went on to appear in over 60 Hollywood movies as a character actress.
In 1922, George's father died, leaving the 40-year old an inheritance worth roughly $30 million. He managed his investments wisely, growing his fortune throughout the "Roaring Twenties". Perhaps his shrewdest move, however, was to liquidate about $50 million in stock holdings in early 1929, thereby insulating himself from (and, some say, helping precipitate) the crash of the stock market in October of that year. Following the economic collapse George was one of the wealthiest men in California.
Also in 1929, George began a love affair with the fastest, most elegant passenger car of the day, the Duesenberg - ordering not one, but two, of the expensive, custom-built automobiles. He would eventually own five. In another pivotal event that year, George's ex-wife Josie gave him a lion cub, who he named Bill. The lion became George's closest friend and companion, traveling with the millionaire everywhere he went, including nightclubs and eventually the Thunderbird Lodge. Bill particularly enjoyed his rides in George's Murphy convertible roadster, perching his chin or paws on the windshield, mane flying in the breeze.
In the early 1930's George formed a Nevada-based business to manage certain investments and established an official residence in Reno to help him avoid the rapidly increasing California income and estate taxes. There he heard of some property at Lake Tahoe being offered for sale by the Carson & Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company and other landholders who had not fared well in the stock market crash. Eventually Whittell acquired from them over 40,000 acres of land on the Nevada side of the lake, including more than 20 miles of the shoreline.
Though he originally planned several large developments at Lake Tahoe, including casinos at Sand Harbor and Zephyr Cove, his first priority was a summer retreat for himself. Construction of that lakefront estate, the Thunderbird Lodge, began in 1936 and was completed in 1939, along with the fabulous yacht, Thunderbird, commissioned by George specifically to get him to and from the Lodge. At that time in his life, however, George was growing somewhat reclusive and after spending several summers at Lake Tahoe, began to value his privacy more and more. The estate included a 600' long tunnel just to permit George to move from the Boathouse to the main residence without being seen. He abandoned plans for the commercial developments, withdrew from the Tahoe community and was rarely seen, preferring the seclusion of his miles of undeveloped shoreline. Elia, with whom his marriage had evolved into one of convenience, considered the Thunderbird Lodge far too rustic for her tastes. When George headed off to Tahoe from their Woodside estate for the summer, Elia would go to Paris to spend time with her friends.
In his sixties, Whittell's fondness for animals increased and his toleration of people waned. From his private zoo at Woodside he brought his favorite four-legged friends to Tahoe for the summer, including Mingo, the elephant. He did maintain a small group of associates who joined him at the Thunderbird Lodge for high stakes card games and all-night drinking parties, but otherwise remained elusive, much preferring the companionship of his animals. The Card House, built especially for his poker games, hosted the likes of baseball legend Ty Cobb and purportedly fellow recluse Howard Hughes.
In his seventies, Whittell suffered a broken leg when one of his lions fell on him and refused surgery to repair the severely fractured bone. As a result he spent the last decade of his life confined to a wheelchair. George and Elia would spend weekends together at Woodside when they were not in Tahoe or Paris, but the elderly tycoon preferred long hours at the Thunderbird Lodge simply gazing out at the lake or in the company of more than 40 birds, mostly chatty mynahs, in the aviary constructed on the front porch of the residence.
Following his death on April 18, 1969 at the age of 87, George Whittell left quite a legacy, particularly in public lands at Lake Tahoe and bequests to animal rights organizations. His remains were interred in the family crypt at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California. Flamboyant to the end, Whittell requested that he be buried in his favorite ermine coat.
Much of the above information is taken from the publication "Castle in the Sky", courtesy of Ronald and Susan James. To purchase this elegant and informative book online, click here.