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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
By December of 1879 Cornelius himself was becoming unhappily restive in the humdrum security of his new existence. Besides, the mere fact of the inaccessibility of the principal of his new trust fund must have had a most disturbing effect upon anyone so sensitive in such matters. Predictably enough, Cornelius’ natural reaction to such frustration was to dash off a typical epistolary effusion, asking that half of the fund be released to him immediately. Alas, William replied that “it would not be a sound exercise of judgment to grant your request, however pleasing it might be to gratify your desire.” Unable or unwilling to grasp the idea that one of the chief purposes of trust funds is to protect beneficiaries against the use of their own judgment, Cornelius now petitioned the Supreme Court of New York to remove William as a trustee on some vague grounds of fiduciary incapacity. The court promptly denied the motion. When Cornelius insisted on appealing, against the advice of his counsel, the decision was affirmed with a severe rebuke for bringing an application having neither law nor facts to justify it. The brief era of good feeling between William and Cornelius had ended and was never to be revived.
For a thwarted ne’er-do-well, life without great expectations was a dismal, downhill affair. Soon Corneel was reappearing once more in his old haunts, where by the curious logic of finance his credit was not as good as it had been when he was scrounging along on an allowance from home, and he was again being harassed by creditors, particularly by Simmons, whose methods of collection could be rather unpleasant. He spent his last night on earth in a gambling house at 12 Ann Street, returning to his rooms in the Glenham Hotel at 6 A.M. of the morning after, worn and bedraggled. Early that afternoon, April 2, 1882, while Sunday crowds promenaded outside on Fifth Avenue, “young Corneel” shot himself to death. It seems now to have been an unnecessarily grim ending to a life which, from any rational point of view, should have continued happily along on a blithe and debonair course.
In his own will Cornelius treated his sisters just as badly as had his father. He left them each $1,000 to buy something in remembrance of him. The bulk of his estate consisted of the disputed $400,000 trust fund, the principal of which he was never able to touch during his life, but which he could dispose of as he wished in his will. Most of it went to his old friend and companion, in good times and bad, George N. Terry. Mrs. La Bau, his staunch comrade-at-arms during the long will contest, was so incensed by this unbrotherly treatment that she now rushed into court with objections to the probate of his will. Later, however, she withdrew them after what was described as “an understanding agreeable to all the parties.”
Early in the Great Will Contest, when Mr. Lord was developing some of his particularly scurrilous irrelevancies about the Commodore’s alleged weakness for assorted females, the Tribune , in an outburst of editorial righteousness, had predicted that “rivers of gold will not wash out the stain … The name Vanderbilt will disappear in shame and ignominy.” Alas for the prescience of editorial writers, the name Vanderbilt, far from disappearing, was transmuted with almost magical celerity into a national symbol of wealth and social status of such potency that later and far richer parvenu families, strive as they might, have never been able to displace it. Even now, when such things no longer really matter, its spell still lingers.
William more than doubled his inheritance, leaving, upon his death in 1885, an estate worth nearly $200,000,000. With twice as much to distribute, he had something for everyone, and there was nothing resembling a wayward son with great expectations to be prudently blighted. In dividing the kitty, William followed the general pattern set by his father. Each of his four daughters received $5,000,000 outright and $5,000,000 in trust, as did his two younger sons, Frederick and George. The two elder sons, Cornelius II and William K., divvied up the remainder, some $130,000,000.
Although this division did not exactly show equal regard for his offspring, there was not even a rumor of a dispute over the will. None of the eight appeared to feel disinherited, as most of the Commodore’s children had in their day. Indeed, it would have been difficult to feel disinherited with a legacy of $10,000,000 in a day when there was no income tax and when a dollar was really a dollar.