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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 next day, promptly at noon, the bereaved family gathered in the home of William K. Thorn, a sonin-law of sufficient independent wealth to be on reasonably good terms with all factions, to hear Judge Charles A. Rapallo read decedent’s last will and testament. In the macabre gloom customary in the parlors of that era, with the austere and venerable Judge Rapallo presiding, it must indeed have been a grimly momentous occasion in the lives of the two sons and eight daughters who had grown old awaiting it. Phoebe Jane, the eldest, who was sixty-two, barely survived it.
“I Cornelius Vanderbilt, of the City of New York, do make and publish my last will and testament as follows …” Thus commenced the document which would dispose of all the vast accumulation of worldly goods of which decedent had died possessed. First, he gave to his beloved wife, Frank A. Vanderbilt, the sum of !$500,000 in five per cent bonds of the United States of America, with the stipulation that this bequest was in fulfillment of an antenuptial contract in which Mrs. Vanderbilt had agreed to waive her dower rights. He also gave to said wife the house and lot at H) Washington Place, complete with stables and all appurtenances thereto, two carriages, and one pair of carriage horses.
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.