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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
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.
Mr. Lord was scarcely less courteous in his cross-examination. After a few questions put with a most gingerly circumspection as to Mr. Vanderbilt’s relations with his stepmother (he seemed relieved when assured that they had always been entirely proper), Mr. Lord said quietly that that would be all.
There was a flurry of excitement as the significance of his words became apparent. After it subsided, Mr. Lord told the court that counsel for contestant would submit their case without summing up. Then, in a voice which betrayed repressed emotion, he asked to have stricken from the record everything reflecting upon the character of Mrs. Vanderbilt that had appeared there by their motion, offer, or allegation. To the bewilderment of the spectators, there was a general shaking of hands among opposing counsel, and Mr. Choate made a great point of thanking Mr. Lord for his words on behalf of Mrs. Vanderbilt.
Under the heading “ POSITIVE DETAILS OF THE COMPROMISE ,” the Tribune promptly gave its readers an inside version of why the trial had ended so abruptly. It claimed its facts came from a gentleman described as “one who has been intimately connected with the contestants, but who refuses to have his name mentioned.” This anonymous gentleman was quoted as saying that “the compromise was the result of a conversation between Judge Rapallo and the person who has all along been backing Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., in his suit. I don’t mean his sister, who has stood by him nobly when she might have pocketed her half million and avoided any trouble. This friend of young Vanderbilt told very plainly what it was proposed to show by numerous witnesses not yet examined, and the consequence was that it was agreed that Cornelius was to be paid $1,000,000 and costs of his suit in the Supreme Court, and Mrs. La Bau $1,000,000 plus her expenditures in the contest of the will; and that all testimony of a character derogatory to any member of the Vanderbilt family, past or present, was to be suppressed.”
As later events would show, the Tribune ’s version, though somewhat overly generous, was not too far removed from the truth. The proponents, for instance, acknowledged that William H. Vanderbilt stood ready to fulfill the promises he had made before the contest started, but this, of course, would not be a compromise. It would be simply a matter of “free gifts"—the same kind of gifts William had given to his other sisters on their refusal to contest the will. Even Mr. Lord, speaking for the contestant, maintained tartly that “I know nothing of any compromise.”
Surrogate Calvin gave his decision on March 19, 1879, two weeks after the end of the trial. While all element of doubt as to the outcome had pretty well vanished, it was, nevertheless, an interesting document. In it the Surrogate took considerable pains to castigate the contestant and her counsel severely for what he described as their “persistent effort to uncover to the public gaze the secrets of a parent’s domestic and private life; to belittle his intelligence and his virtues; to distort his providence into meanness; to magnify his eccentricities into dementia, his social foibles into immorality, his business differences into dishonesty and treachery; and to ascribe his diseases to obscene practices.”