The Realms Of Gould

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As impervious to reason as when she had been a schoolgirl who would have married a handsome young actor if George and Helen had not forcefully intervened, the Duchesse came flying to the rescue of Lyndhurst by buying it from her sister’s estate. The price she paid— $277,635—was, perhaps, more than fair. Yet practical wisdom to the contrary, the Duchesse’s sentimental gesture was to prove a sound investment, financially as well as emotionally. And Lyndhurst, at last, had as mistress a real duchesse to match its architectural glories.

Each year, accompanied by her beloved Pekingese, the Duchesse came back to spend six months in the nostalgic surroundings of her childhood. Faithfully installing herself in the small tower bedroom with the oriel window which had been hers as a little girl, she grew older and lonelier and more sentimental. Her brother Frank died in 1956, and Howard in 1959. The little dogs died, too, one by one, and were lovingly buried in elaborate leaden caskets. But Anna lived on, the last of the Goulds who had grown up at Lyndhurst. In the summer of 1961, with her health failing badly, she returned to France to be with her daughter and grandchildren. When she said farewell to Lyndhurst, it was a sad parting, for she knew she would never return, and its fate weighed heavily upon her. Two years before, when she had made her last will and testament, she had left Lyndhurst to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to be permanently maintained “as a non-profit museum in memory of my mother, Helen D. Gould, and my father, Jay Gould.” She had also left a substantial endowment fund to provide for its maintenance. But since then the opposition both of her heirs and of Tarrytown itself to such a bequest had confused and upset her.

Among the citizens of Irvington and Tarrytown, who referred unkindly to the Duchesse as a “mystery woman” because she wished to shut out the present and live in the past and could, when necessary, be quite disagreeable about it, the ultimate fate of Lyndhurst had long been the subject of speculation. The Duchesse was the largest residential taxpayer in the community, and her 550 acres were surpassed in size only by the 3,500 acres of the Rockefellers’ sequestered demesne at Pocantico Hills. Citizens shuddered at the thought of acreage so desirable for commercial and residential exploitation being permanently removed from the tax rolls.

“Green property,” as such tax-exempt oases of undeveloped real estate are sometimes covetously known, is all very well, but frequently, as the Tarrytown Daily News pointed out, the “green that counts most is in Uncle Sam’s currency.” When word of the Duchesse’s death finally came, late in November, 1961, the News wasted little time on the customary amenities. A banner headline across the front page proclaimed, “ MYSTERY WOMAN’S WILL CASTS TAX SHADOW ,” and the obituary itself was concerned less with the fabled life of the deceased than with the fact that Lyndhurst had been bequeathed to a tax-exempt institution. The News , however, did offer its readers a ray of hope—and a gentle pat on its own back. The Duchesse, for all of her aloofness, was known to have been an ardent follower of the paper and, due to its “convincing editorials,” was reliably reported to have said that she did not wish to do anything that might “hurt” the community. Thus, the News was banking heavily on a later will from which any well-intentioned but misguided bequest of Lyndhurst away from the family would be eliminated.

The great expectations of the Daily News were, alas, to be only partially fulfilled. The Duchesse had never quite gotten around to making a new will. During the last year of her life she had suffered severely from an affliction—prevalent especially among rich, infirm, and elderly females—that thrives in an environment of idle, self-seeking children, poor relations, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and overly solicitous gossips. Although it is a disease to which no name has ever been given, its symptoms are none the less acute: excessive vanity, pique, sentimentality, and indecision appear in a chronic rash of codicils.

Between January 25, 1961, and November 23, 1961, the Duchesse added five codicils to her original will of September 10, 1959. In the final codicil, made five days before her death, she revoked her original bequest of Lyndhurst to the National Trust and left it to be divided among her Talleyrand daughter and her four Castellane granddaughters. While deathbed codicils are not cloaked in the same legal majesty as the will itself, the shadow cast by Lyndhurst over Tarrytown was now perceptibly diminished. Dubious though the validity of the fateful codicil might prove to be as a binding legal instrument, the National Trust was a government agency accountable to Congress for its acts and would, it was felt, hardly presume to contest its disinheritance without the support of the community.