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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
“This is not a trifling matter,” Judge Black rumbled, speaking slowly and with apparent embarrassment. “Here is a man eighty years old marrying a woman fifty years his junior, who came here a stranger, after separating from a husband who is still living. That there should have been bitterness felt toward this woman by the Commodore’s daughters, some of whom were already grandmothers, and that this feeling should have turned the heart of the father against them, are natural results. But there was one exception in the family. William H. Vanderbilt encouraged the marriage, and continued to show as much regard for the woman as though she had not done the injury of marrying the Commodore in his dotage. But the aggravation is immense if, in addition to showing the distress and hatred that this marriage caused, we show that it was unlawful, and that, therefore, whatever influence Mrs. Vanderbilt exerted was not only undue, it was unholy. There are words struggling for utterance here that I am compelled to restrain, and I suppose I have made a bungle of it, but your Honor must understand what I mean.”
His Honor, however, apparently as stunned as everyone else in the courtroom, appeared to be beyond understanding. And so, in a voice choking with emotion, Judge Black went on to spell out exactly what he meant. “That a stranger should sell herself to this old man for his money, taking advantage of that weakness of his nature, is not a reason why a will made under such circumstances should be allowed to stand.”
When he had finished, Judge Black sat down and buried his flushed face in his hands. His apparently real embarrassment at what the necessities of the occasion had required him to say about a member of the fair sex was quite as moving as his argument. There was hardly a sound in the courtroom. Even counsel for proponents, though dark with rage, remained strangely silent. But it was all in vain. Surrogate Calvin, once he had regained his judicial poise, hastily sustained proponents’ objection to Mr. Lord’s question, and Bishop McTyeire was permitted to step down.
But the damage had been done, and there was no joy among counsel for proponents at the Surrogate’s decision in their favor. The witness they had called to establish the sterling quality of Mrs. Frankie Vanderbilt’s characterprobably at her own insistence and against their better judgment—had provided opposing counsel with an irresistible opportunity to tarnish it. Judge Black’s eloquent plea, illogical and irrelevant though it may have been, probed through the one weak link in proponents’ case to an excruciatingly sensitive spot. However great William’s reluctance to compromise with his brother and sister, whether from greed or, as seems more likely, from pure cussedness, he had also to consider the feelings of his stepmother. Her good will and co-operation were essential to him, and he did not dare to risk further aspersions upon the propriety of her marriage to his father. As a lady with social ambitions of her own for the future, this was a subject on which she was understandably touchy.
In retrospect it seems clear (as it must have been clear then to any reasonably astute observer of courtroom dramas) that, by the time Judge Black came to the end of his little discourse on the theme of young women who marry very rich and very old men, the contest was really over and that a compromise agreeable to the contestant would be arranged. Even Mrs. La Bau’s vindictive hatred of her stepmother seemed finally to have been appeased. Out of respect for judicial form, the last act had still to be played out, but no one seemed to mind when Surrogate Calvin adjourned the trial for two months in order to catch up with a backlog of other matters urgently demanding his attention. There was, for instance, a lady who had developed a penchant for beating her brother on the head with an umbrella in the corridor outside the Surrogate’s chambers in connection with the probate of their father’s will. In fact, it has been said that the calendar of the Surrogate’s Court in New York has never completely recovered from the effects of the Vanderbilt case.
Thus, it was not until March 4, 1879, that the essential legal buttress of proponents’ case was hammered solidly into place by Charles A. Rapallo, a jurist distinguished by his long service on the state of New York’s court of appeals, the Commodore’s confidential legal adviser for many years, and the man who had been drawing wills for the decedent since 1856. All the wills were substantially the same. William had always been named residuary legatee and Cornelius had always been left with a comparatively small annuity.
The next and final witness for the proponents was William H. Vanderbilt himself. Mr. Vanderbilt was calm and dignified as Mr. Choate conducted his examination in the impressively courteous manner for which he was noted. In reply to Mr. Choate’s respectfully couched questions the witness denied, briefly but emphatically, all the utterances attributed to him by contestant’s witnesses in regard to his influence over his father; he also disclaimed any design to prejudice the Commodore against Corneel or to turn to his own advantage his father’s alleged spiritualist beliefs.