Joseph E. Widener

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Joseph Early Widener
Joseph E Widener by Augustus John 1921.jpg
1921 portrait by Augustus John.
Born(1871-08-19)August 19, 1871
DiedOctober 26, 1943(1943-10-26) (aged 72)
Resting place Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
Education Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania
OccupationBusinessman, horseman, art collector, philanthropist
Spouse(s)Eleanor Holmes Pancoast
Children1. Peter Arrell Browne Widener II
2. Josephine "Fifi" Widener Leidy Holden Wichfeld Bigelow
Parent(s) Peter A. B. Widener &
Hannah Josephine Dunton

Joseph Early Widener (August 19, 1871 October 26, 1943) was a wealthy American art collector who was a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A major figure in thoroughbred horse racing, he was head of New York's Belmont Park and builder of Miami, Florida's Hialeah Park racetrack.


Early life

Widener was born in Philadelphia, the second son of the extremely wealthy transportation and real estate magnate Peter A. B. Widener (1834 1915) and Hannah Josephine Dunton (1836 1896). His older brother was George Dunton Widener. Joseph Widener attended Harvard University, and for a short time studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thoroughbred horse racing

Joseph Widener used his great wealth to pursue his interest in Thoroughbred horse racing on a large scale. Not only did he become an owner of a large stable of racehorses, Widener acquired the Elmendorf Farm in Lexington, Kentucky and the Belmont Park racetrack in New York, plus he built Hialeah Park racetrack in Miami, Florida.

In 1901, thirty-year-old Joseph Widener began purchasing Thoroughbred horses to compete in both flat racing and steeplechase events. He hired future U.S. Racing Hall of Fame horse trainer, J. Howard Lewis. For the next four decades they combined to race fourteen Champions, two in flat racing and twelve Steeplechase Champions. Widener's steeplechase horses won numerous important races including three editions of the American Grand National with Relluf (1914), Arc Light (1929), and Bushranger (1936). His steeplechasers Bushranger and Fairmount were both elected to the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame.

Following the death of August Belmont Jr., Joseph Widener and friends W. Averell Harriman and George Herbert Walker, purchased much of Belmont's Thoroughbred breeding stock. For his Elmendorf Farm breeding operation, Widener acquired Belmont's very important sire Fair Play and the broodmare Mahubah, the parents of Man o' War. He also purchased a son of Fair Play named Chance Shot who would go on to win the 1927 Belmont Stakes and following the 1929 death of Fair Play would become Elmendorf Farm's leading sire. Widener had a life-size statue of Fair Play erected by his grave at Elmendorf Farm.

As part of the selloff of the August Belmont Jr. estate, in 1925 Joseph Widener also acquired majority control of Belmont Park in Elmont, New York and would serve as the race track's president until 1939 when failing health necessitated his stepping down.

In 1930, he imported the stallion Sickle from Lord Derby in England who came to visit the U.S. that year and was Widener's guest at the 1930 Kentucky Derby. A son of the very important sire Phalaris, Sickle would produce 45 Graded stakes race winners and be the leading sire in North America in 1936 and 1938.

Following Chance Shot's win in the 1927 Belmont Stakes, Widener's racing stable won the race two more times with Hurryoff in 1933 and with a son of Chance Shot in 1934 named Peace Chance. He also had five horses compete in the Kentucky Derby with his best finishes a second place earned by Osmand in 1927 and by Brevity in 1936.

Joseph Widener's father had had business interests in France and like other wealthy elite Americans of that era, maintained a place in fashionable Paris. In addition to racing horses in the United States, Widener also kept a stable of Thoroughbreds in France. Competing in French grass racing, his horses won the 1923 and 1926 editions of the Prix La Rochette and the 1923, 1924, and 1937 runnings of the Prix d'Aumale.

Widener also owned English Hackney horses who competed at various shows.

Personal life

He married Eleanor ″Ella″ Holmes Pancoast (1874–1929) with whom he had two children:

Joseph Widener raised his family at Lynnewood Hall, his father's 110-room Georgian-style mansion in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Designed by Horace Trumbauer and Jacques Greber, the mansion, along with its extensive and important art collection, was part of the huge fortune he inherited.

In poor health for several years, Joseph Early Widener died at his Lynnewood Hall estate in 1943 and was interred in the Widener family mausoleum, Section K, Lot 338 at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. [2]

Hialeah Park

In 1930, Joseph Widener built a 40,000-square-foot (3,700 m2) mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. [3] where he would spend a good part of most winters. That same year, he purchased a controlling interest in the Miami Jockey Club and in 1931 renovated Hialeah Park. Hailed as one of the most beautiful Thoroughbred race tracks in the world, in 1979 Hialeah Park was listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places. Major races here were the Widener Handicap inaugurated in 1936, and the Flamingo Stakes, an important stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby for 3-year-old horses. Following Widener's death, ownership of the facility changed hands several times and after running into financial difficulties it closed in 2001.

Art collection

Joseph Widener added to the extensive and valuable art collection he had inherited from his father. His collection included a dozen or more works by Rembrandt as well as those by Johannes Vermeer, Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and others. In 1939, Widener made a number of donations from his assorted collections including manuscripts of historical and artistic importance given to the Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia. However, his most important philanthropic endeavor was as a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. Widener's 1939 donation of a vast collection was announced by U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Gallery's opening ceremony. Known as the Widener Collection, the more than 2,000 sculptures, paintings, decorative art, and porcelains went on display in 1942. Joseph Widener's own 1921 portrait by Augustus John hangs in the National Gallery of Art.

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  1. National Gallery of Art
  2. "Joseph Early Widener". Retrieved 25 June 2020.
  3. "In Palm Beach, the Ultraluxury Market Is Sizzling". New York Times . 2001-08-05. Retrieved 2008-08-10.