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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
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.
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.