Willard Dickerman Straight

This extraordinary story about extraordinary people begins at the turn of the century. It is a very American story--about ideals, ambition, success, love, and marriage--that has its roots at a time when many believed anything was possible in America. The story starts with an orphan boy of ordinary means who used his determination and talent to realize the American Dream and more.

The orphan boy was Willard Dickerman Straight from Oswego, New York. He was seventeen when he entered Cornell University in 1897. There were about two thousand students at Cornell then. They lived in fraternity houses or boarded with families in town. Straight joined Delta Tau Delta, and lived in the chapter house on the corner of Edgemoor and Stewart avenues during his four years at Cornell.

Straight entered the College of Architecture at Cornell, not because he had his heart set on becoming an architect, but because, with his talent and interest in drawing, it seemed a logical choice. His activities on campus reflected the different aspects of his personality: as artistic, imaginative bent with a keen sense on fun and the ambition to get things done. He contributed sketches to the comic periodical the Widow; wrote articles for the Cornell Era, a more sober literary publication; became art editor of the Cornellian; and by his senior year was editor and chief of the Cornell Era. He enlivened the party scene with his guitar and good tenor voice. Straight organized the first Spring Day, a circus like fair with sideshows, to make money for the depleted athletic fund. It was his idea to start a distinctive College of Architecture event, which evolved into the popular Green Dragon Day. During his senior year he was president of the Savage Club and was elected to Sphinx Head, membership in which was reserved for the most respected men of the senior class.

After Straight graduated from Cornell in 1901, he took a job with the Maritime Customs Service in Nanking. He learned the language quickly and became familiar with Chinese people of all ranks and with the international colony of diplomats and businessmen in Peking. By the age of 30, Straight was believed to be one of the most powerful men in the Far East, earning as much as the President of the United States.

At a dinner party in 1906, Straight was introduced to Dorothy Payne Whitney, heiress to the Whitney fortune. When Dorothy and her party visited Peking in 1909, friendship turned to romance. Willard pursued Dorothy relentlessly with letters and flowers. He finally won her in 1911.


Cofer, R. H. 1990. The Straight story: an informal history of Willard Straight Hall  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University