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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
Oakey Hall, the debonair ex-mayor who turned his varied talents to playwrighting after his political career had been brought to an untimely end by the disclosure that he was a member in good standing of the Tweed Ring, came to the stand to tell the inside story of how the heroic statue of the Commodore, which then decorated the façade of the St. John’s Park freight terminal and which now graces the southern approaches to Grand Central Terminal, had been paid for. It had cost $100,000 which ostensibly had been raised by public subscription; actually, according to Mr. Hall, the decedent had had to foot the entire bill himself. These two incidents, Mr. Lord contended, were proof of the old man’s mania for fame.
In mid-December, with the trial more than a month old and with public interest commencing to languish, Mr. Lord, like a good showman, suddenly shifted his attack from the public to the private life of the deceased and his family. He sought permission to add the names of Mrs. Frank Vanderbilt, the bereaved widow, and her mother, Mrs. Crawford, to that of William Henry Vanderbilt as parties to the alleged conspiracy to influence the testator. In support of his motion, Mr. Lord revealed that the two ladies had actually been named in the original allegation when it was first prepared but that their names had been stricken out by Mrs. La Bau from motives of delicacy. Since then, however, such strong evidence of their complicity had been obtained that his client was forced to suppress any such sentiments in the interests of justice. Public interest was revived, and Mr. Clinton was more infuriated than ever. He denounced the motion as “an effort to build up a case by defamation of the living and the dead.” It was another attempt, Mr. Clinton said, “to prove impossible facts by incredible witnesses.” But it was to no avail. Surrogate Calvin said he would have to grant the motion as he must assume it to be in good faith. The idea of assuming anything good on the part of opposing counsel was more than Mr. Clinton could bear. He was so incensed that he defied the Surrogate’s admonishments to temper his remarks. He openly accused Mr. Lord of trying his case in the newspapers by scurrilous allegations because his witnesses were either nonexistent or so worthless that he did not dare to call them.
This was not a nice thing to say of a fellow member of the bar, and Mr. Lord was, to all appearances, genuinely indignant. Nevertheless, it was hard to deny that very little evidence had thus far been produced that would invalidate the will. The contestant’s lawyers seemed simply to be piling one scandalous allegation upon another until William Henry should capitulate in order to save the family name. For a legalized blackmailing operation of this sort, the offers of counsel to prove an allegation were just as effective as the sworn testimony of reputable witnesses. The press could be relied upon to publish the sordid details in its news columns as it salved its conscience with pious editorials defending “the sanctities of private life” and castigating those who violated them. William Henry himself was accused of unnatural greed in permitting the family name to be dragged through the mire. But, in spite of it all, William showed no sign of loosening his grasp on all his “rest, residue and remainder.”
In the light of later events it would seem that Mr. Lord had really been conducting a delaying action until his star witnesses either could be found or, having been found, could be prevailed upon to appear. But now, apparently goaded beyond endurance by Mr. Clinton’s unkind accusations, he unlimbered his heavy artillery. The opening barrage was the testimony of Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, the chief victim of the alleged conspiracy engineered by his brother William. When his name was called by Mr. Lord, there was a ripple of excitement in the crowded courtroom. Now, surely, the skeletons supposedly rattling in the family closet would dance merrily into public view.
“Young Corneel,” as he was familiarly known, was, alas, one of the skeletons himself. From contemporary accounts, he must have looked the part. He was tall and gaunt and badly stooped, and a dank goatee added a satanic touch to his cadaverous features. Even the languid manner which he affected, and which was then de rigueur for men about town and scions of wealth, was impaired by a disjointed twitchiness of movement. For him to take the stand was either an act of considerable moral courage or irrefutable evidence that he was every bit the fool his father had thought him to be.