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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
The second clause, consisting of one brief paragraph, rapidly disposed of five of his eight daughters by giving to each of them outright 3250,0Oo in bonds of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad Company. These were nice bonds to own, even without the picture of the Commodore which adorned them, but there may have been outbursts of filial indignation from the recipients, two of whom were already widows, when they and those husbands who were still living realized that this was all they were going to get.
The third clause took care of the three remaining daughters, and though they fared somewhat better than their sisters, they could well have been even more indignant. Their bequests of $300,000, $400,000, and $500,000, respectively, in five per cent government bonds, were securely tied up in trusts from which they were to receive only the income during their lives. Should they die without surviving issue, the principal would revert to the estate and thence to the residuary legatee “hereinafter named.” Not a penny would remain to console a surviving husband in his old age.
With the expectations of the daughters and their husbands written oft so neatly, the Commodore, without even deigning to start a new clause, proceeded to the seemingly more delicate and complex problem of deflating the hopes nourished for a lifetime by his younger son. Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, then in his late forties, had long been in disfavor with his father. The primary reason was not, perhaps, that he was a frequenter of the plush gambling houses and elegant brothels which flourished in that era of extreme feminine prudery, but probably because he had not inherited his parent’s zeal for making and holding money. Ever since young Cornelius could remember, he had been afflicted by a sense of the futility of financial enterprise. The insignificant positions he could obtain and the paltry sums he could earn by his own merits should, he felt, have been as embarrassing to his father as to himself. During the Commodore’s lifetime he had avoided such embarrassment by struggling manfully along on an allowance from home so miserably inadequate that he was frequently forced to borrow money from friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. But now, after his life had been irrevocably blighted by his father’s money, it seemed only fair that he share abundantly in the source of his misfortunes.
Alas, if the old Commodore had had any sympathy for this viewpoint, it was made apparent in his will only to the extent of preventing his son’s life from being further blighted by too much money. After setting up a comparatively modest trust fund of $200,000 in five per cent government bonds, he sternly cautioned his trustees that the income thereof was not to be paid over freely but was to be “applied” by them solely “to the maintenance and support of my son, Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, during his natural life.” Even this miserable pittance was hedged with restrictions, ft was only to be doled out if Cornelius’ behavior was exemplary. Furthermore, any attempt on the son’s part to anticipate, assign, or otherwise encumber this income would result in its being withdrawn from his use entirely. It would “thenceforth, during the residue of his natural life, belong to my residuary legatee.” But the crowning indignity was yet to come. “Upon the decease of my said son, Cornelius J.,” the will continued, “I give and bequeath the last mentioned $200,000 of bonds to my residuary legatee.”
The residuary legatee, as everyone could guess by now, was none other than Cornelius’ elder brother, William Henry. This industrious plodder, who scrupulously avoided the haunts of gentlemen, had impressed his father with his reverence for money and his real talent for holding on to it. Cornelius detested him. But he was to be one of the trustees to whom Cornelius would be accountable for his behavior, and this was utterly intolerable.
Next were several clauses devoted to minor bequests to twenty-two assorted relatives and friends of sums ranging from $4,000 to $50,000, and totalling less than $300,000. Then came the grand climax in the eighth clause, which in its entirety reads as follows: All the rest, residue, and remainder of the properly and estate, real and personal, of every description, and wheresoever situated, of which I may be seized or possessed, and to which I may he entitled at the time of my decease, I give devise, and bequeath unto my son, William H. Vanderbilt, his heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, to his and their own use forever.
Perhaps the full majesty of these redundant legal phrases cannot be properly appreciated without the knowledge that the “residue and remainder” to which they refer was still a little more than one hundred million dollars. The will was dated January 9, 1875, and it was signed, with an awesome abbreviation of testator’s Christian name, “C. Van Derbilt,” a variation of the old Dutch spelling that he favored.
In a codicil made six months after the original will was written, the Commodore took some $11,000,000 worth of New York Central stock away from his residuary legatee, but that step brought no comfort to his eight daughters and his wayward son. If anything, it was the touch needed to complete their humiliation, for this quite significant little bundle of stock was divided among four of ths testator’s sixteen grandsons. Five million went to his namesake and favorite, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and two million to each of the other three. All were sons of the residuary legatee, William Henry Vanderbilt.