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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 fact, the Surrogate said, the testimony showed the testator to have been a man of “very vigorous mind and strong nature, but lacking the amenities of education and culture and a delicate respect for the opinions of his fellowmen.” He also dismissed without exception, and with somewhat less rhetorical flourish, every phase of the contestant’s case. The only evidence of a fraudulent conspiracy to influence the testator unduly was the extraordinary testimony of the lady from Poughkeepsie, with her background of unusual domestic arrangements, and of the alcoholically inclined Mrs. Stone. In these cases, due to “the discreditable and fraudulent enterprises in which these two witnesses claimed to have been engaged, and their manner of testifying, their discreditable antecedents and associations, together with the intrinsic improbability of their story,” Surrogate Calvin reached the conclusion that their testimony was unworthy of credit and refused to accept it as a basis for judicial action. Furthermore, he urged those directly interested to pursue and bring the offenders to merited punishment, together with their guilty suborners, for, as he put it, “it is not to be believed that a mere fondness for an odious notoriety was sufficient to call these witnesses from their obscene associations unsolicited.” (Alas for justice and public expectations, the ladies were permitted to resume their accustomed ways unmolested. Any such stern pursuit would only have stirred up more of the unsavory publicity which the Vanderbilts were now so anxious to avoid, and would, in any event, have violated the terms of the treaty of peace.)
An editorial in the Times summed up the whole affair quite succinctly: “The most remarkable feature [of the contest] is the obtuse moral perceptions of the children who have uncovered the nakedness of their parent … The worst feature has been its vulgarity.”
Obtuse moral perceptions or not, these were happy days for Vanderbilts, even poor ones. Cornelius and his sister may have lost a legal battle, but, from their point of view, they had won the war. Although the fruits of their victory were not quite so abundant as was rumored in the press (the version favored by the Times gave $1,000,000 to each, plus $250,000 for counsel and expenses), they were still substantial. All we know definitely is that, in addition to the Commodore’s original bequests, young Corneel received a $400,000 trust fund and some $200,000 in cash. Mrs. La Bau undoubtedly received a comparable amount; and there must also have been considerable sums for legal fees and expenses, but the exact figures of the total settlement disappeared immediately behind the veil of secrecy with which the Vanderbilts now endeavored to conduct their affairs. Considering the general preposterousness of contestant’s case, these sums were munificent indeed. Even Cornelius conceded, in a letter to the Times indignantly protesting against the use of the word “compromise” to describe the settlement, that his brother “acted in a just and magnanimous manner … and displayed a liberality far beyond my expectations.” The rich Vanderbilts, William and his brood, were happily absorbed with the delightful problem of learning how to spend money as ostentatiously as only the Vanderbilts could now afford to spend it.
Happiest of all, perhaps, were the lawyers for both sides. Their combined fees exceeded by a vast margin all thenexisting world’s records for fat legal pickings. Mr. Clinton’s fee was reliably reported to have been at least $300,000; rumor put it as high as $500,000. Whatever it was, he was able to retire and devote the remaining twenty years of his life to writing books about the criminal cases which had been his first and true love. The exact amount of Mr. Lord’s fee has never been made public, but he did well enough to free himself from financial worries for the remainder of his life. Judge Black was said to have received $28,000, fair pay certainly for the few occasions on which he was called upon to display his eloquence. In the long run, however, perhaps it was young Corneel’s bête noire , Chauncey M. Depew, who, although not officially of counsel, topped them all. He entrenched himself so solidly with the Vanderbilt family that he went on to become president of the New York Central and, as a sort of fringe benefit frequently bestowed on prominent industrialists in the days before senators were chosen by popular vote, served two terms in the United States Senate.
The only people concerned with the settlement who seem to have been unhappy were Cornelius’ creditors in Hartford. Weeks went by and they were still anxiously waiting. According to a dispatch from Hartford there were 217 claimants to whom Corneel allegedly owed an aggregate of $75,000. Most of them were paid eventually; luckily for them, payment of all outstanding debts was a condition of the settlement insisted upon by William.