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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
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.
Although the odds were against them, counsel for the contestant were not without their backers. Scott Lord, fresh from a term in Congress, had been the law partner of Senator Roscoe Conkling and was an experienced infighter. Uninhibited by legal niceties, he was a particularly good man in a will contest. His colleague, Ethan Alien, had served for a number of years earlier in his career as a United States district attorney.
As a pinch hitter of formidable endowment when legal eloquence was in order, the contestant had retained the services of Jeremiah S. Black, a former chief justice of the supreme court of Pennsylvania and a Cabinet member under both Buchanan and Lincoln. Judge Black had the reputation of being the most magnificent orator at the American bar. His snow-white, shaggy eyebrows belied the bright auburn wig he customarily wore. Twirling a silver tobacco box on the end of an enormous chain and followed by a Negro valet, Judge Black was a familiar figure in courtrooms throughout the nation. The power of his argument was said to rise with the number of spittoons he filled.