George Whittell Jr.

Photograph courtesy of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Organization.

George Whittell, one of the wealthiest men in the West Coast, moved to Nevada because he liked its tax structure better than that of California. He was a film enthusiast.

Photograph courtesy of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Organization.

Born in Paris, the stylish Elia Whittell was George Whittell's life-long wife. She married the injured Captain after nursing him to health during World War I.

Photograph courtesy of the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Organization.

George Whittell used the title of Captain from serving in the U. S. Army during World War I. Coincidentally, he loved yachts, so the designation served him well for the rest of his life.

George Whittell Jr. was born in 1881 to one of San Francisco's wealthiest families. He never worked a day in his life, instead choosing to live off the interest generated by the millions he inherited from his parents, George Sr. and Anna Whittell. His enormous assets allowed him to purchase the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe where he built the Thunderbird Lodge in the 1930s.

Whittell defied the conventions of high society. As a teenager in the late 1890s, he resisted a formal education, traveling instead with the Barnum and Bailey Circus where he developed a lifelong love for wild animals. In 1903, Whittell shocked his parents when he married chorus girl Florence Boyere. Shortly after his father purchased an annulment of the union, "Junior" married another dancer, Josie Cunningham. She filed for divorce two years later.

Looking for more adventure, Whittell served as an ambulance driver and a U.S. Army captain in WWI. After the war, he returned to San Francisco with his French wife, Elia Pascal. His behavior had not changed from his pre-war days, and Whittell spent the remainder of the 1920s drifting from one party to the next. He also began investing in a collection of luxury Duesenberg automobiles.

Several months before Wall Street's Great Crash of 1929, Whittell liquidated $50 million in stocks and moved his fortune from California to Nevada, a state regarded as a tax haven for affluent Americans. Shortly after his arrival, Whittell purchased most of the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. In 1936, he commissioned prominent Reno architect Frederick DeLongchamps to design the Thunderbird Lodge, just south of Sand Harbor. Completed in 1938, the stone hideaway featured a six-hundred-foot tunnel connecting the mansion with the boathouse where Whittell berthed his fifty-five-foot mahogany yacht, Thunderbird.

Increasingly reclusive, Whittell refused to develop his Lake Tahoe holdings. He donated land to the University of Nevada and Zephyr Cove, where a high school bears his name.

George Whittell died on April 18, 1969 with Elia at his side. The multi-millionaire tycoon left a legacy of pristine shoreline along with many colorful stories surrounding his tenure in the Silver State.

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