The Realms Of Gould

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States is a charitable, educational, and nonprofit corporation, created in 1949 by an act of Congress ”… to facilitate public participation in the preservation of sites, buildings and objects of national significance or interest and providing a national trust for historic preservation.” In the realm of federal bureaucracy the National Trust is a pygmy, unsupported by public funds except for minor administrative expenses. It is dependent almost entirely on legacies, gifts, donations, and membership fees, and while its operations are sometimes hampered by lack of funds and its acts are theoretically subject to congressional scrutiny, in practice it is a relatively independent government agency staffed by professionals dedicated to the cause of historic preservation. By 1961 it had acquired seven properties of historical and cultural significance to preserve and administer for public benefit. Lyndhurst, considered solely as the most illustrious surviving example of nineteenth-century neoGothic residential architecture in America, would be a notable accession to its domain. As a museum piece illuminating the now-vanished way of life of an era, Lyndhurst was a preservationst’s dream. The National Trust did not intend to give it up without a fight.

In spite of Lyndhurst’s obvious cultural and historical significance, the village trustees of Tarrytown were amazed and angered to learn that the National Trust was reluctant to accept its disinheritance gracefully and had refused to agree to the probate of the will if the final codicil revoking its legacy was included. There seemed no reason for alarm, however, as it was also revealed that the heirs of the Duchesse were firmly opposed to giving anything away to les américains . Lyndhurst, valued at $1,269,592 by the state tax appraiser, and with its acreage potentially worth considerably more in a rising real-estate market, comprised a substantial part of the Duchesse’s net estate of $5,500,000 before taxes. Aside from crass monetary considerations, French aristocrats are traditionally opposed to parting with family property under any circumstances. Even one in such dire straits as the late Boni de Castellane could boast, in his disdainful memoir, How I Discovered America , that “there is no sacrifice too great for us to make in order to retain these homes in our hands, because they form part of the family, and represent tombs of past and future generations.” The prospects of the National Trust seemed hardly bright, and indignation in Tarrytown subsided as counsel for the contending factions settled down to fight it out behind closed doors.

The atmosphere of family intrigue surrounding the Duchesse in the ancient castle at Marais where she had lived out the few remaining months of her life, a prisoner of her age and illness, had been far from favorable to her original bequest of Lyndhurst to the National Trust. That the de Castellane and Talleyrand branches of her family had been vying for her favor is evident from the first and second codicils. There are signs in the first codicil that her granddaughter Diane de Castellane’s position as favorite was being undermined. In the second codicil Diane’s downfall was made official: the Château du Marais, a former domain of the de Castellanes, was taken from her and given to the Duchesse’s daughter, Violette, Comtesse de Pourtales. The triumph of the Talleyrands was poignantly revealed in one seemingly trivial bequest: “I give all dogs which I may own at the time of my death to my granddaughter, Anna de Pourtales.”

Both factions, however, were firmly united in opposition to the National Trust, for there was far more at stake than Lyndhurst. There was also the tenth article of the original will, which would establish a trust fund valued at approximately three million dollars to provide for the maintenance of Lyndhurst, and which would reduce the value of the residuary estate to be distributed among the heirs to a mere $421,000. Certainly the Duchesse, who had been accustomed to an annual income in excess of so paltry a sum, did not intend to leave her own flesh and blood in want; but she felt—at least while she had been safe in her tower at Lyndhurst, secure from outside influences—that her daughter and granddaughters would be more than amply provided for as the remaindermen and sole inheritors of the twelve-milliondollar trust of which she was the life beneficiary under the will of her father. Unfortunately for Lyndhurst, not even the Comtesse de Pourtales, who would receive one third of the trust fund, was amiably disposed to this view. The three daughters of the Duchesse’s deceased son, Boni de Castellane n, who would receive but one ninth each, were, presumably, proportionately less contented.

By the end of September the harried old lady that the Duchesse had become was ready to add a third codicil to her will. She was so ill that she was unable to sign it, but it was duly attested and notarized with the punctilious flourish with which the French invest such matters, and was later offered for probate by her executors. For Lyndhurst the vital clause read, “I direct that all my property situated in the United States, at Lyndhurst … is to go to the three branches of my heirs.… Accordingly, I formally revoke the previous legacy that I made on the subject of that property.”