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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
The crowded courtroom, tense with anticipation of the degrading arts that would be revealed, was stunned into glum silence when ex-Congressman Scott Lord, chief of counsel for the contestants, rose to his feet and abruptly announced that he had been instructed by his clients to withdraw their objections to the probate of the will. Although apparently quite as bewildered as the spectators, Surrogate Calvin recovered sufficiently to admit the will to probate. Mr. Lord told reporters later that he knew nothing of any settlement. All he knew was that late on the previous day he had received a note from his clients ordering him to withdraw the objections. It had come as a complete surprise to him, he said, and, judging from his manner, as a considerable shock. After all, as one indignant but anonymous member of the bar exclaimed to reporters, “It’s highway robbery. It robs the profession of a million dollars!”
The contestants themselves were not in court when Mr. Lord made his devastating announcement. William, already launched on the career of bad relations with the press that was to culminate some years later in his famous misinterpreted remark, “the public be damned,” hastily retreated to his private office in Grand Central Depot and refused to issue any statement whatsoever. There were, of course, the usual “friends of the family and other reliable sources” who scoffed at the idea of any compromise settlement but were confident that William would treat his brother and sisters munificently once the will was probated and the fortune was legally clenched in his fist. The real reason for the last-minute withdrawal, they insisted, was simply and obviously Cornelius’ reluctance to expose the lurid details of his private life to public scrutiny. Cornelius himself, when finally tracked down, was not in the mood to see reporters either. A friend quoted him as insisting that he had absolutely nothing to say regarding a settlement.
Two months went by in which rumors of a compromise settlement mounted. Finally, on May 14, the rumors seemed substantiated when Cornelius went into state supreme court and filed a complaint against his brother for failure to keep an agreement allegedly made on March 12, the day before the anticlimax previously enacted in Surrogate Calvin’s courtroom. Cornelius claimed that he had been promised one million dollars if he withdrew his objections to the will. Spokesmen for William refused to comment, pointing out how improper it would be to do so now that the matter was in litigation. William himself was not available. He was on the high seas bound for England when Cornelius filed his complaint. According to some of the usual informed sources, the purpose of the trip was to pacify two of his sisters living abroad, who were now claiming that they had not been properly represented at the probate proceedings. Whatever the reason for the trip, before William could return, Mrs. La Bau was back in surrogate’s court, demanding (as was her right within a year) that probate be reopened and the will proved anew. Mrs. Alien, the other of the three original contestants, had dropped out, apparently feeling that she could rely on her brother’s munificence. Cornelius Jeremiah could not be a legal party to Mrs. La Bau’s action because of his pending suit in supreme court, although he undoubtedly gave her all the moral support he could muster. Surrogate Calvin put the case on his calendar for July 12, and the expectations of press and public again ran high.
Interest in the case as a public spectacle became even greater when the rosters of opposing counsel were made known. In those days, when the county courthouse still provided the nation with one of its staple brands of popular entertainment, legal luminaries enjoyed a public renown somewhat comparable to that accorded today to ballplayers, prizefighters, and television performers. Their strategy in conducting a case, their skill in cross-examination, and their forensic ability were all highly and learnedly appreciated by large numbers of courtroom buffs. Among connoisseurs of legal form, counsel for the proponents of the will (William, two of his sons, and a nephew) were generally rated the pretrial favorites. Henry L. Clinton, their field captain, had distinguished himself for many years in the criminal courts of New York State by an uncanny ability to obtain acquittals for unfortunately situated defendants. A client seen with blood on his hands in the immediate vicinity of the corpus delicti did not daunt Mr. Clinton, and his talent for confusing prosecution witnesses and discrediting their testimony was expected to be useful to William H. Vanderbilt in this case.
The master strategist of William’s defense of the will was George F. Comstock, a former chief justice of New York State’s highest tribunal, the court of appeals, whose opinions are still quoted. Less spectacular than Mr. Clinton, Judge Comstock was a lawyer’s lawyer, ranked by many of his contemporaries as the greatest legal mind of his day. What was more, he looked the part. He was tall and spare, with an impressive mane of silvery hair; his mere presence in a courtroom was said to give weight to his client’s case.
Joseph Hodges Choate was the reserve force of proponent’s legal team. He was somewhat younger and less experienced than his two illustrious colleagues but was already renowned for the role he had played a few years earlier in liberating New York from the grip of Boss Tweed.