- Historic Sites
The Commodore Left Two Sons
—and America’s greatest fortune up to that time, some $100,000,000. The legal battle that followed, full of tarts and torts and turnabouts, might have been plotted by Dickens
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
“During those months, or at any other time,” Mr. Lord asked, “were you in the habit of frequenting the Fifth Avenue Hotel every morning?”
No, he certainly was not. Of course, he may have been there once or twice during the summer and three or four times during the winter. After all, it would have been quite impossible to avoid it entirely.
In those days, in the seventies and on into the early eighties, the original Fifth Avenue Hotel played a role in New York City that no single hotel was ever to enjoy again. Standing at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue at Twenty-third Street, in the days when the city’s life was centered at the crossing of those avenues, it was the Plaza and the Ritz of the fashionable, the Astor and the Knickerbocker of the theatrical and sporting set, the Algonquin of the literary, and the old Waldorf of the nouveaux riche.
With a weather eye on Mr. Clinton, who was commencing to fret and fume in his seat, Mr. Lord launched his next question. During those two apparently unique months of October and November, 1874, did the witness visit any gambling house, or gambling hell, as it is called? Before Cornelius could reply, Mr. Clinton was on his feet with a strenuous objection. The witness was not a party to the contest of the will and his habits or whereabouts, good, bad, or indifferent, were entirely irrelevant and immaterial. Surrogate Calvin seemed inclined to agree and requested Mr. Lord to reveal where his line of questioning would lead. Counsel for contestant was delighted to explain. Such testimony, he said, was directly related to the foul conspiracy which William H. Vanderbilt, desperate because of his brother’s long abstention from gambling, whoring, and drinking, had cunningly devised in October and November, 1874, in order to hoodwink his aging father. It did not matter that the victim of this vicious plot was the much-maligned Cornelius rather than Mrs. La Bau, the actual contestant. If any part of the will was fraudulently produced, then the whole was a fraud. Surrogate Calvin, after some deliberation, ruled in Lord’s favor. It was the first important victory for Mrs. La Bau’s side, and a murmur of gratification welled up from the section of the courtroom where the contestant’s partisans were gathered. Cornelius returned at once to the stand to answer Mr. Lord’s question triumphantly. No, he had not been in the habit of frequenting gambling houses, or hells, in October and November of the year 1874.
“Or houses of ill-fame?”
“Or of drinking to excess?”
For his last question Mr. Lord lowered his voice to the hushed tone reserved for speaking of the dead to their bereaved ones. How many times had he seen his father during his last illness? He had called at the house two or three times every day during the last three or four months, he replied sorrowfully, but his stepmother had permitted him to see his father only once in all that time.
And now came one of the most eagerly awaited moments of the trial—the ordeal by cross-examination of young Corneel. Mr. Clinton, making no effort to conceal his impatience with filial grief, went to work immediately. There were, as he put it, a few things he was confused about and would like to have cleared up. For instance, had Mr. Vanderbilt ever been in Bloomingdale before his visit there in 1854? Well, yes, he had been there once before—in 1850, when he was about nineteen. Could he tell them a little more about it? Well, he had been down in Washington and he had drawn some money on his father, but his father hadn’t paid it. So the authorities, or whoever it was, communicated with his father and he came on and settled it. Cornelius went back to New York with his father and went into Bloomingdale of his own volition. He did not think he was insane, nor did anyone else. How long had he stayed there? About six months, more or less. Well, he must have liked it then, more or less. What did he do next? After some difficulty the witness recalled that he had gone to work in the law office of Horace Clark, his brother-in-law. In what capacity? “I could not tell,” Cornelius replied languidly, and Mr. Clinton suggested that possibly he had not been there long enough for it to be determined. And then what did he do? He went into the leather business with William F. Miller 8c Co. at the head of Gold Street. How long had he lasted there? About three months. Why had he left? He did not care to stay. No, he was not requested to leave. He had left voluntarily. He simply did not relish the business very much. And then what? Well, after his marriage, he had run the farm his father had given him. But that was five or six years later, wasn’t it? He supposed it was, more or less.
Mr. Clinton seemed quite perplexed about the witness’ name. Hadn’t he been christened Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt and not Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.? Inasmuch as he was only a few weeks old at the time, the witness said he really couldn’t recollect whether he had or not. It got quite a laugh from the spectators, but Mr. Clinton, who was not amused, persisted. What was his real name? Well, his mother said it was Cornelius, Jr., and his father said it was Cornelius Jeremiah. To save any trouble about the matter he used both of the names.