The Realms Of Gould

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Somehow, during the next two weeks, the defiant stubbornness with which as a schoolgirl she had once plagued her sister, Helen, came to life again, and on October 12 she made a fourth codicil. The actual provisions of this codicil are not known, since it was later revoked and French law forbids the disclosure of nullified legal instruments. Under the circumstances, however, it is plausible to assume that one of the purposes of this vanished codicil was to rescue Lyndhurst from the hungry maws of real-estate operators.

When the Duchesse signed the fifth and final codicil on November 23, five days before her death, in the sitting room of her private suite in the Château du Marais, she was in a wheel chair. But she was fully and rather regally dressed in a red cape with gold fringe. It is true that she spoke in French as little as possible, but that had always been her custom. It is also true that her hand shook so badly that it was necessary for a nurse to hold her wrist as she made her signature. Although her daughter, the Comtesse de Pourtales, whose favored position in regard to the Duchesse’s French property was reaffirmed by the final codicil, was known to have been in the castle at the time, she was not actually in the room at the moment when the codicil was signed. The Duchesse’s signature, though but a faint, barely legible scrawl, was incontestably hers. Later, not even agents of the F.B.I., with the full majesty of the United States government behind them, could shake the conviction of the witnesses that her mind was alert and clear and that she knew exactly what she was doing. The fact that she misstated the year of her birth, giving it as 1878 instead of 1875, could be attributed, even by the F.B.I., to a poignant remnant of feminine vanity.

While the final codicil renewed the revocation of the bequest of Lyndhurst to the National Trust that had been made in the third codicil, it was phrased in such a way as to indicate that the Duchesse had not really made up her mind what to do, and that she still may have been clinging to some hope that her original intentions might be realized.

At the outset of legal hostilities between the heirs and the National Trust, the destiny of Lyndhurst seemed to rest entirely upon the validity of that final codicil. The climate in which it had been executed was ideal to support at least a suspicion that it was invalid due to testamentary incapacity and to undue influence. But the codicil itself had been meticulously and flawlessly executed by the French notary, and convincing proof of such shadowy charges is always an extremely difficult matter.

The effort of the National Trust to reclaim its bequest and preserve Lyndhurst for the nation was strongly supported by the cultural elite, then so prominent in the Kennedy administration. Its unique role in affairs of state was demonstrated by the entry into the dispute, as a party to the action, of the United States of America. This unexpected and rather curious move was justified by the Attorney General’s office on the grounds that under the terms of the National Trust’s charter the United States of America had a contingent interest in all properties held by the National Trust. The appearance of the Attorney General of the United States in the case brought forth the minions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and in the early summer of 1962 F.B.I, agents were dispatched abroad to interrogate witnesses to the codicil and, if possible, to develop evidence of the misty existence of undue influence.

The heirs, highly incensed by what they considered a brutal and unwarranted intrusion by the U.S.A. into their private affairs, denounced it as an act of aggression by a foreign power. Lengthy fusillades of motions and cross-motions were exchanged during the latter half of 1962 and on into 1963. Counsel for the heirs argued heatedly that any alleged contingent interest the U.S.A. might have was far too remote and speculative to be relevant to the present proceeding, and the tactics of the F.B.I, stirred them to flights of indignant legal eloquence.

The victory in this fierce preliminary skirmish went to the heirs. On February 14, 1963, Surrogate Joseph A. Cox ruled that the United States was not a proper party to the proceeding, and the National Trust was left to fight it out alone. With the United States and the F.B.I. removed from the field, the heirs forged ahead. The will and the first and second codicils were at last admitted to probate, but a counteroffensive by the National Trust resulted in the denial, on March 19, 1963, of probate to the third codicil, in which the Duchesse had first revoked the original bequest of Lyndhurst, but which she herself had not signed. This brought matters to a stalemate, with the outcome apparently resting on the fate of the final codicil. A long and costly litigation, with the odds in favor of the heirs, now seemed inevitable.