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A Murphy-bodied Duesenberg Model J fit for a… mistress?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1930 Duesenberg Model J Sport Berline by Murphy. Photos by Brian Henniker, copyright and courtesy of Gooding & Company.

George Whittell Jr. was Duesenberg’s best customer, purchasing a total of seven Model Js during the automobile’s 1929-’37 production run. Three of these were purchased for the use of his “lady friends,” a polite way of saying mistresses, but of these, only one – the custom Murphy-bodied 1930 Duesenberg Model J Sport Berline seen here – was presented as a gift, to Jessie McDonald of Los Angeles, California. This August, the “Whittell Mistress Car” heads to auction in Pebble Beach, California, one of the offerings from the Gooding & Company catalog.

Born in 1881 to a family of means in San Francisco, Whittell never had to work a day in his life. His grandfathers had earned their fortunes in banking and in the California gold rush, and his own father had grown the family fortune by founding Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and investing in real estate and railroads. Whittell seemed destined for a life of privilege and comfort – except he refused to play by society’s rules, or those of his parents.

1930 Duesenberg Model J

Following high school, Whittell literally ran away to join the circus, traveling to Florida to sign up with Barnum & Bailey. There, he learned to work with exotic animals, which became one of many life-long passions. When life on the road no longer amused him, Whittell founded a business procuring wild animals for circuses, which was little more than an excuse to bum around Africa on an extended safari.

When his parents demanded he return to San Francisco for an arranged marriage with a society equal, Whittell beat them to the punch by marrying a show girl instead. Enraged and humiliated, his father paid to have the marriage annulled, so the younger Whittell quickly married another dancer, this time a member of “The Floradora Sextets.” This marriage ended shortly after, when her husband’s allowance was cut and the good times became increasingly infrequent.

Whittell – who spoke seven languages fluently – was living in Paris when World War I broke out, and felt obligated to join the fight. To keep him out of harm’s way, his parents purchased an officer’s commission in the Italian Army, where Whittell served as a captain and ambulance driver. Later, he joined the French Army, and when America entered the fight in 1917, the U.S. Army. Whittell was wounded (and honored for his valor) near the war’s end, and spent time recovering in a French hospital. There, he met Elia Pascal, a young nurse who would ultimately become his third wife, in 1919. This time, Wittell’s parents reportedly gave their blessing to the union.

1930 Duesenberg Model J

Whittell’s father died in 1922, leaving him with a staggering fortune of roughly $30 million (nearly a half-billion dollars today). Through dumb luck or sheer intelligence, Whittell predicted the October 1929 crash of the New York Stock Exchange, selling $50 million worth of stock just months before the market bottomed out. That left him one of the wealthiest men in the world, free to carry on his lavish lifestyle even while others formerly of wealth lost everything.

Whittell’s third marriage, to Elia, lasted the remainder of his life, but so did his boozing and womanizing ways. The historical record is vague on his exact relationship with McDonald, but she must have been more than a passing fancy or temporary obsession to receive so lavish a gift as a custom-bodied Duesenberg Model J.

1930 Duesenberg Model J

The Sport Berline body worn by this automobile is credited to Franklin Hershey, a young designer who’d joined coachbuilder Murphy straight out of college, in 1930. Some styling traits – such as the narrow “Clear Vision” a-pillars – are seen on other Murphy bodies, but the wrap-around doors, which intrude into the roof, are seen for the first time on this body.  The steeply raked windshield, integrated trunk and center-opening doors add to the car’s sporty appearance, but its construction also makes this Murphy creation extremely rare.

Instead of using wood framing to support body panels, Murphy experimented with the use of cast aluminum structures and mounting brackets to hang body panels. The resulting bodies (a few Duesenbergs, including this one, plus at least one Bentley) were lighter and stronger than those constructed with the use of lumber, though it would be take years for this construction method to become commonplace.

Chassis 2305 left the factory as a long-wheelbase (153.5-inch) model, powered by Duesenberg’s 420-cu.in. inline eight-cylinder engine. Thanks in part to dual overhead-camshafts and the use of four valves per cylinder in a cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers, the Model J engine produced 265 horsepower. A supercharged SJ variant, introduced in May 1932, added another 55 hp, and the upgrade proved popular with existing Model Js (though not the Whittell Mistress Car).

1930 Duesenberg Model J

McDonald kept chassis 2305 into the late 1930s, and in the decades since, the car has been owned primarily by serious collectors, which accounts for its impressive originality. Today, the Duesenberg retains the same body, chassis, and engine as when new, and was restored by marque authority Chris Charlton in 1998. The one-off Sport Berline has crossed the auction block twice in the past 15 years, selling for $1.65 million in 2006 and $1.705 million in 2010 (and beating the pre-auction estimate each time). When it heads across the stage this August in Pebble Beach, Gooding & Company predicts a selling price of $2.0 million – $2.5 million.

The 2019 Pebble Beach sale takes place on August 16-17, at the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center. For additional details, visit GoodingCo.com.