Guilford Dudley Jr., former president of Life and Casualty Insurance Co. and a celebrated Nashville socialite, died Thursday night from complications after breaking a bone last week. Dudley was in his mid-90s.
Ambassador to Denmark from 1969 until 1971 under President Richard Nixon, Dudley is known locally for advancing the annual Iroquois Steeplechase, as well as the Swan Ball, founded by his wife Jane.
Dudley, who took pride in his involvement with the Steeplechase, attended this year’s event to present the first Iroquois trophy, which is named after him.
In business circles, Dudley, a Vanderbilt graduate, is best known for redefining Nashville’s corporate and architectural skyline during his tenure at Life and Casualty. He accepted the reins of the company from founder A.M. Burton in 1951 and built it into a much bigger concern by 1968, when it was acquired by American General.
The 1957 grand opening of the downtown L&C tower was a mesmerizing promotion for both L&C and the city – Dudley’s desire to build big made his company’s headquarters the tallest commercial building in the Southeast until the mid-1960s.
"He lived a long and useful life for the community," said retired banker and longtime friend Andrew Benedict, who knew Dudley since at least 1935. "He was a very durable and eternal gentleman."
Dudley was one of the oldest members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and the oldest member of the Belle Meade Country Club in point membership, Benedict said.
"He’s one of the reasons that the steeplechase is so successful here," Benedict said. "He was a very likeable fellow. I’ve lost a great friend."
Local accountant Bill Puryear called Dudley "one of the most extraordinary people here in Nashville."
"He always raised the level of anything he was involved with and generally succeeded," Puryear said. "It’s the first real skyscraper we had. He was a noted sportsman. I played golf with him up until about three years ago. He had one of the most beautiful swings I’ve ever seen. He once told me he was glad I could play with him because he had outlived seven foursomes and didn’t have anybody to play with."
Once described by the Washington Post as a "debonair playboy," Dudley was regarded as a sharp dresser, and he almost always sported a country club blazer.
With a vast network of connections all over the U.S. as well as in Europe, Dudley was a window into the past and the present. "He introduced me to many people," Puryear said. "Only in the past year we found out that I was his fifth cousin. I’m privileged to have known him."
In 1958, Dudley introduced Nashville to Lord Charles Spencer-Churchill, a British consultant and renowned horse breeder.
"He gave me tremendous guidance when I first came to Nashville," Churchill said from his room in The Carlisle Hotel in New York City. "I’ll be indebted to [Guilford] and Jane all my life."
Churchill said Dudley was a great Anglophile and made a lot of friends in the United Kingdom. "One of America’s unique characters and a tremendous patriot, he epitomizes everything that is good about America," he added.
Much of Dudley’s future was defined five years before his birth in 1903 when his father Guilford Dudley Sr., an independent insurance agent, made a major investment in a start-up insurance company called Life & Casualty.
After graduating from Vanderbilt, Dudley Jr. joined the Navy to be a fighter pilot in World War II.
His mother, Anne Dallas Dudley, was the first president of the Nashville Suffragette League. According to Fortunes, Fiddles & Fried Chicken by Bill Carey, in 1914 she dressed young Guilford Jr. up and made him march at the head of a suffragette parade from the state capitol to Centennial Park.
"He never took back, and lived his life to the fullest," said friend Henry Hooker.