The Realms Of Gould
The notorious financier’s properties included railroads, yachts, and newspapers, but none was more precious to him than Lyndhurst, the family castle on the Hudson. It would have distressed him to know that it now belongs to you and me
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
On December 4, 1898, Frank Jay Gould celebrated his twenty-first birthday by collecting some $3,500,000 in cash and securities in payment of the income that had been accumulating in the trust for his benefit since his father’s death in 1892. On the same day, Lyndhurst became a minor and somewhat bothersome asset of the estate. Valued at six hundred thousand dollars in the transfer tax appraisal, it now fell into the same unproductive category as the mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery and the Atalanta , each valued at one hundred thousand dollars. Lyndhurst and the Atalanta were not only unproductive; they were costly to maintain, and it was the duty of the executors to dispose of them as quickly as possible.
For months the fate of Lyndhurst was uncertain. To Helen it was a sacred trust to which they all owed allegiance; as a tribute to the memory of their father and mother, it must remain in the family forever. But the family unity that Jay Gould had hoped to establish by the equal division of his fortune had already been seriously disrupted by frictions arising from George’s arrogant usurpation of the major titles and perquisites of the GouloV far-flung empire. George himself, although he was the eldest son, was not interested in Lyndhurst. He and Edith, in their campaign for social acceptance, were already enthroned at Georgian Court, in Lakewood, New Jersey, then described as the most magnificent country estate in America. Edwin, Howard, Frank, and Anna had grandiose housing plans of their own, and Helen was desolated to learn that there was no lawful way in which Lyndhurst could remain on the books of the estate with her in possession.
Early in 1899 Helen moved out of Lyndhurst—at least officially. Actually, legal guardians for infant remaindermen of the trust funds would later claim that she had never given up possession, and that expenses for which she was liable had been improperly charged to the principal of the estate. It is a fact that during the period from January to August of 1899, when Lyndhurst was supposedly vacant, its maintenance cost the estate over sixteen thousand dollars. This included wages for gardeners, farmhands, a coachman, and a groom, and feed for horses, cows, and dogs. Even when inflated into the depreciated dollars of 1970, this outlay now seems hardly commensurate with the grandeur of Lyndhurst and the wealth of the Goulds. Nevertheless, although there was no gush of money going down the drain, Lyndhurst was the steady drip of a leaky faucet, and its retention by the estate would have been a fiduciary dereliction that even trustees as notably lax as George, Edwin, Helen, and Howard Gould could not countenance.
Fortunately for Lyndhurst, however, Helen was obsessed by a dread of parting with anything her father had ever owned or used, be it nondividend-paying stock in one of the rickety tributary roads of the Gould system or an unfashionable neo-Gothic mansion in a socially declining neighborhood. As long as she lived, she would never permit anyone but herself to sleep in his bed. No stranger wouldoccupy Lyndhurst : she would buy it herself.
The traumatic experience she must have undergone while its fate was being debated was revealed years later when she appeared before a referee appointed by the Supreme Court of New York to defend her acts as a cotrustee of her father’s estate. Under cross-examination she became almost hysterical in refusing to answer questions regarding her alleged improper occupancy of Lyndhurst after Frank became twenty-one, and legal eyebrows were raised by her unshakable insistence that she had not the faintest idea of what she had paid for it. Yet, incredible though it may seem to most of us, it is not altogether impossible that a lady with an income ranging between five and seven hundred thousand dollars a year, when income taxes were still only a faint cloud on the horizon, may have been unable to recall what she had paid for a house. It had been a complicated and somewhat bitter transaction extending over nearly six years, from the time she made a down payment of one hundred thousand dollars in 1899, before a definite price had been agreed upon, until she made a final payment of $37,585.41 on February 3, 1905. In the interim she had paid off five interest-bearing notes amounting to $244,847.41, for a total payment of $382,432.82.
Although Edwin Gould testified that the price was an average of appraisals made by three qualified realtors, several of the crusty guardians at law of her numerous nephews and nieces did not think that it was enough. For Helen Gould, whatever the price she had paid for Lyndhurst, it was exactly that much more than she had wanted to pay or that she felt she should have paid. In the unlikely event that she ever questioned the infallibility of her father, it would have to have been because he had not left Lyndhurst to her outright.
Helen Gould reigned as absolute queen of Lyndhurst for over forty years. Early in her career as the Miss Gould she won national acclaim as the ardent patroness of innumerable morally uplifting and worthy causes. For many years, according to family tradition, she gave away more than half of her income. In private, constantly attended by a retinue of female relatives, friends, and servants, she lived in an almost perpetual state of shock and maidenly confusion over the disastrous marriages and scandalous affairs of Howard and Frank. But she still took a childish delight in private-car inspection trips of Gould railroads and in the homage of operating officials who rolled out the red carpet to greet her along the way.