Whitney was born Mary Ann Chase in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was adopted by the Whitney family, who changed her name to Grace Elaine. She started her entertainment career as a "girl singer" on Detroit's WJR radio at the age of fourteen. After she left home, she began to call herself Lee Whitney, eventually becoming known as Grace Lee Whitney. In her late teens, she moved to Chicago and where she opened in nightclubs for Billie Holiday and Buddy Rich, and toured with the Spike Jones and Fred Waring Bands.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry cast Whitney in the role of Yeoman Janice Rand, the personal assistant to Captain James T. Kirk, in 1966. Whitney said: "I was on diet pills trying to stay thin—and I was very thin. They wanted you to fit into the uniforms and I couldn't quite so I went on amphetamines." Whitney appeared in eight of the first thirteen episodes, after which she was released from contract. She had claimed that, while still under contract, she was sexually assaulted by an executive associated with the series. Later, in a public interview, she stated that Leonard Nimoy had been her main source of support during that time. She went into more details about the assault in her book The Longest Trek, but refused to name the executive, saying in the book, "This is my story, not his."
In a later interview, she said of her termination from the series:
They wanted William Shatner to have romances in each episode with a different person, because for him to be stuck with one woman was not good for him and it wasn't good for the audience. That's what they told me, so I was written out. There were two blond girls and one black girl. Nichelle was a more important character and couldn't be written out. Everything's political in America. One of the blondes had to go. The other one was engaged to the boss, so guess who went? I just about killed myself. I drank, that's what we do, we drink to get rid of pain. I was really mad. My God, was I bitter.
Whitney returned to the Star Trek franchise in the 1970s after DeForest Kelley saw Whitney on the unemployment line and told her that fans had been asking for her at fan conventions.
Whitney reprised her role as Janice Rand, who had received a promotion to chief petty officer in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). She also appeared in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), with another promotion, as Lieutenant Commander Janice Rand. Five years later, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the franchise, she returned in the 1996 Star Trek: Voyager episode "Flashback", along with George Takei. She reprised her role in two internet Star Trek episodes: "Star Trek: New Voyages" and "Star Trek: Of Gods and Men". "New Voyages" premiered on August 24, 2007, while "Of Gods and Men" made its debut in late 2007.
Whitney debuted on Broadway in Top Banana, with Phil Silvers and Kaye Ballard, playing Miss Holland. Following the successful run of the show, she joined the cast in Hollywood, where she recreated the role in the 1954 movie of the same name. While in Los Angeles, Whitney auditioned for and was cast in the starring role of Lucy Brown in the national tour of The Threepenny Opera, taking over the role from Bea Arthur, who had played the part in New York off-Broadway.
Whitney was cast as a member of the all-female band in Billy Wilder's comedy Some Like It Hot (1959). She shared several scenes with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe, including the famed "upper berth" sequence. She had uncredited roles in House of Wax (1953), Top Banana (1954), The Naked and the Dead (1958), and Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Whitney was credited as Tracey Phillips in the drama A Public Affair (1962), and as Texas Rose in the western The Man from Galveston (1963). Billy Wilder then gave her the featured role of "Kiki the Cossack" in Irma la Douce (1963).
Whitney made more than a hundred television appearances following her television dramatic debut in Cowboy G-Men in 1953. She appeared on episodes of The Real McCoys, Wagon Train, The Islanders, Hennesey, The Roaring 20s, Gunsmoke, Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, 77 Sunset Strip, Bewitched, Mike Hammer, Batman, The Untouchables, and Hawaiian Eye.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Whitney was a frequent semi-regular on between 80 and 100 live television shows including You Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx in 1953, The Red Skelton Show, The Jimmy Durante Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show, largely appearing in gag sketches. From 1957 to 1958, she appeared as a "Vanna-type adornment" on the popular daytime show Queen for a Day.
Other appearances included an episode of The Outer Limits, "Controlled Experiment", co-starring Barry Morse and Carroll O'Connor, Mannix, Death Valley Days, The Big Valley, and The Virginian. In 1962, she appeared in the episode of The Rifleman entitled "The Tin Horn". In 1964, she played the Marilyn Monroe lookalike character Babs Livingston on Bewitched in the episode "It Shouldn't Happen to a Dog".
Whitney played the historical figure Nellie Cashman, then a restaurateur, in the 1969 episode, "The Angel of Tombstone" of the syndicated western series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Robert Taylor not long before his death. In the story line, Cashman and several men from Tombstone, Arizona, travel to Baja California in search of gold found by a Mexican prospector. On reaching the site, Cashman learns how a Catholic mission has been quietly financing its charitable work. Gregg Barton, Tris Coffin, and Joaquin Martinez also guest starred in this episode.
Her roles in the 1970s included The Bold Ones, Cannon, and Hart to Hart. In 1983, she had a small part in the television film The Kid with the 200 I.Q., with Gary Coleman. In 1998, she appeared in an episode of Diagnosis: Murder, which reunited her with her old Star Trek cast-mates George Takei, Walter Koenig and Majel Barrett Roddenberry.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Whitney sang with a number of orchestras and bands, including the Keith Williams Orchestra. Later, she concentrated on jazz/pop vocalizing while fronting for the band Star. In the 1970s, with her then-husband, Jack Dale, she wrote a number of Star Trek-related songs. A 45 rpm record was released in 1976 with the songs "Disco Trekkin’" (A side) and "Star Child" (B side). She recorded such tunes as "Charlie X", "Miri", "Enemy Within" and "USS Enterprise". Many of these songs were released in the 1990s on cassette tape: Light at the End of the Tunnel in 1996 and Yeoman Rand Sings! in 1999.
Whitney's autobiography, The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy, was released in 1998 (ISBN 1-884956-05-X). Along with her hiring and firing from Star Trek, the book recounts her work as the first Chicken of the Sea mermaid as well as her struggles with and eventual recovery from alcohol and substance abuse.
Whitney had two sons, Scott and Jonathan Dweck. She moved to Coarsegold, California, in 1993 to be close to Jonathan, and she “continued her fellowship work in Fresno and Madera [counties], completely dedicating her life to helping herself and others find daily sobriety and a higher power out of addiction.” Jonathan Dweck said his mother wanted to be known more as a survivor of addiction than as a Star Trek cast member.
Whitney died of natural causes at her home in Coarsegold on May 1, 2015. She was 85 years old.Top Banana (1954) – Miss Holland (uncredited)
The Naked and the Dead (1958) – Girl in Dream Sequence (uncredited)
Some Like It Hot (1959) – Rosella (uncredited)
Pocketful of Miracles (1961) – Queenie's 'Broad' in Black Dress (uncredited)
A Public Affair (1962) – Tracey Phillips
Critic's Choice (1963) – Uncredited minor role
The Man from Galveston (1963) – Texas Rose
Irma la Douce (1963) – Kiki the Cossack
Star Trek (1966, TV) – Yeoman Janice Rand
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – Transporter Chief Janice Rand
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) – Woman in Cafeteria
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – Commander Janice Rand
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) – Excelsior Communications Officer
Star Trek: Voyager (1996, TV) – Lt. Commander Janice Rand
Star Trek: New Voyages (2007, web series) – Lt. Commander Janice Rand
Star Trek: Of Gods and Men (2007) – Commander Janice Rand (final film role)