April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
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
In the summer of 1841 Philip Hone, the New York merchant and politician whose diary has been such a rich mine of illuminating comment upon his contemporaries, “went on another pleasant excursion up the [Hudson] valley to Tarrytown.…” One of the sights of that idyllic countryside to inspire his diaristic pen was the new country villa of his old political rival, General William Paulding.
“In the course of our drive we went to see Mr. Paulding’s magnificent house, yet unfinished, on the bank below Tarrytown. It is an immense edifice of white or gray marble, resembling a baronial castle, or rather a Gothic monastery, with towers, turrets and trellises; archways, armories and airholes; peaked windows and pinnacled roofs, and many other fantastics too tedious to enumerate, the whole constituting an edifice of gigantic size, with no room in it; which if I mistake not, will one of these days be designated as ‘Paulding’s folly’…”
Throughout the ages men have been given to erecting monuments of unsuitable grandeur to their own glory. In the nineteenth century the banks of the lordly Hudson were especially conducive to the construction of a host of inappropriately palatial or uniquely fantastic dwellings. Unlike the enormous “cottages” that erupted at Newport and other fashionable resorts near the close of the century, when ostentatious display had become an essential ingredient of social rank, the large houses of the Hudson Valley were the products of a more romantic and idealistic spirit. Many were buried in remote fastnesses where only eagles and hawks could be impressed by their grandeur. In the dreamy vale of the mists enshrouding the great river, inspired by long attachment to the forts, castles, and other trappings of feudal ancestors and by a deep sense of insecurity here on earth, many men were tempted to build their “castles in the sand” of stone and mortar.
Mr. Hone’s dire prophecy did not come true. Unlike other architectural excrescences that mushroomed over the American landscape in the nineteenth century, General Paulding’s “immense edifice” never became a derelict monument to the folly of man’s pride and vanity. Lyndhurst, as it was christened by a later owner, still stands, recognized by connoisseurs of architecture as “one of the great houses of America … uniting in its walls the beginning and the culmination of Hudson River Gothic.”
For the social historian, the men and women who have lived at Lyndhurst provide a superb epitome of the growth of the American economy in the nineteenth century and an unglossed portrait gallery of those who have been both its leaders and often its choicest beneficiaries. General Paulding was a rich lawyer who married an heiress of the Rhinelander family richer than himself. George Merritt, who bought Lyndhurst from Paulding’s descendants in 1864, was first a prosperous merchant and later a successful investor in the booming industrial by-products of the tremendous growth of railroads in the eighteen-fifties and sixties. But the Pauldings and Merritts have long been forgotten, and Lyndhurst itself would have shared their fate if one of the greatest of the robber barons who dominated the American economy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had not rescued it from oblivion. For more than eighty of the 130 years of its existence Lyndhurst was the home of a family whose name still bears a sinister fame in the annals of American business and finance.
In a land where costly and substantial structures are built and demolished with more reckless abandon than ever before in the history of the world, it is a miracle that so many of America’s great houses have been able to survive the ravages of death, taxes, and social change to which they are a natural prey. Without roots in a stillfunctioning landed aristocracy, once the fortune that gave them life is scattered their existence becomes a series of crises, each greater than the one before.
The last and most crucial period in Lyndhurst’s own struggle for survival began far away in Paris on November 29, 1961, with the death of a sad old lady who had long outlived her time. Anna, Duchesse de TalleyrandPérigord, was dead at the age of eighty-six. Though her name and her exalted title, dating back to the twelfth century in France, meant nothing to most Americans, the obituary accounts of her fairy-tale life stirred memories of an era in our past that still haunts us. The Duchesse, long ago, before the turn of the century, had been plain Anna Gould. She was the last of the six children of Jay Gould and the last mistress of Lyndhurst.
In 1838, when General Paulding was building Lyndhurst, Jay Gould was an infant, two years old, growing up on a small hillside farm in the Catskills near Roxbury, New York, where his parents struggled to make a decent living. The Goulds were proud, respectable folk of old New England stock, but in that day, when only the rags of the rags-to-riches tradition were yet evident, they would never have dared to dream that a son of theirs could cross the immense gulf of wealth and social position between themselves and the Pauldings. Yet forty-two years later, in 1880, when Jay Gould bought Lyndhurst as casually as most men buy a pair of shoes, his swift rise from humble beginnings to wealth and power had already become a familiar story that any ambitious young man could at least hope to emulate.
The Goulds first came to Lyndhurst in the summer of 1878, when they leased it for the season from Mr. Merritt’s widow. The year before had been one of the darker and more turbulent years in what now seems that long and complacent era of supposedly inevitable cycles of boom or bust from which the American economy did not emerge until after the Great Depression of the 1930’s. A majority of the hastily built and overexpanded railroads were in bankruptcy, and two thirds of the iron mills lay idle. Workers and their families were starving and destitute. Despair and misery bred anarchists and agitators, violence and bloodshed. But for Jay Gould, the cool and crafty market operator, it was a year of immensely profitable short sales and a feast of securities bought at bargain prices. It was also, for one who took a wry pride in acknowledging himself to be “the most hated man in America,” a time of physical danger and of fear for the safety of his family. Lyndhurst, with its thick marble walls, its turrets and battlements, had a comforting air of impregnable security—especially after Gould realistically reinforced it with an around-the-clock patrol of armed guards.
There was no market for Lyndhurst in 1878. The new crop of parvenus preferred to build new houses in a more opulent style, with better plumbing. Socially, the lower Hudson Valley was becoming a stagnant backwater for the less fashionable. Mr. Merritt, in his brief reign, had expanded Lyndhurst beyond the needs of his widow and children. Like the overextended railroads upon which Gould preyed, it was another bargain to be devoured. In l88ojay Gould acquired full title to Lyndhurst and its broad domain of 550 acres for what even then was the rather miserable sum of $250,000.
Lyndhurst was a happy choice for the Goulds. As important as security from cranks and embittered speculators was the security it gave Mrs. Gould and the children from the snubs and rebuffs of the New York elite, and the even less palatable disdain of dedicated social climbers, to all of which Gould himself was impervious. His personal indifference to social aspiration undoubtedly added to the suspicion and distrust with which he has always been regarded. Mrs. Gould’s own modest social ambitions were at least partially mollified by invitations to the tea parties and garden fetes of the local aristocracy. For the children—George Jay, sixteen; Edwin, fourteen; Helen, twelve; Howard, nine; Anna, five; and Frank Jay, three—Lyndhurst was a fairy-tale castle of endless delights. For their father it was a haven from the jungles of finance, where he could find the solitude he seemed to crave, tending his beloved orchids or brooding over his books. As his daughter Helen said years later, “He was a terribly silent man …” and the Gothic shadows of Lyndhurst suited him well.
The years from 1880 to 1886 were good years for the Goulds and for Lyndhurst. Gould was no longer a mere stock-market operator. After titanic struggles he had gained operating control of the entire elevated railway system of New York City and of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and had become the overlord of nearly ten thousand miles of railroad right of way. Jay Gould was one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, and one of the most unobtrusive. Life at Lyndhurst did not change. Mr. Gould commuted to work on his steam yacht, Atalanta , one of his few luxuries, with neighbors such as Cyrus Field or Chauncey Depew occasionally hitching a ride. Mrs. Gould had her domestic duties and her garden club affairs, but there were few notable social occasions at Lyndhurst. It was the children who were the life of the house during these happy years, and if they had been able to foresee the future, they might have wished to stay young forever in their enchanted castle. It may be that the Lyndhursts of this world are really meant only for children of all ages who never grow up. But, in the early evening of September 14, 1886, whatever magic spell Lyndhurst possessed for the Goulds was broken by one of those events that now seem absurd but that were catastrophic to family life in the Victorian era.
The following morning the New Tork Times devoted the place of honor on its front page to what its headlines described as “ A QUIET CEREMONY IN THE PATERNAL HALL AT IRVINGTON, AND NONE BUT RELATIVES PRESENT .” The quiet ceremony was the marriage of George Jay Gould, now twenty-two, pride of his father and idol of his mother, to Miss Edith Kingdon of Brooklyn. The paternal hall was Lyndhurst. Miss Kingdon, from all accounts, was an eminently respectable young lady, but, alas, she was an actress, and Mrs. Gould would never recover from the shock. For weeks afterward, she would break into fits of weeping. “Oh Alice, why has this happened,” she would sob, a niece who was present on one of these mournful occasions remembered. “Just to think of it, George married to an actress! What next? How do we know that Helen won’t fall in love with a coachman?”
There was not the remotest danger that Helen, then a shy, prim, and inflexibly pious girl of eighteen, would ever fall in love with a coachman, although in 1886 coachmen were considered nearly as great a menace to wealthy young virgins as actresses were to young gentlemen. When her mother died on January 13, 1889, at the age of fifty-one, following a series of strokes, Helen was ready to take over as mistress of Lyndhurst. It was not an easy role to fill. In addition to Lyndhurst, there was the town house at 579 Fifth Avenue to be looked after; the two younger children, Anna and Frank, had still to be raised; and her father, to whom Helen was fanatically devoted and who was now mortally ill of tuberculosis, needed her constant care. But the young lady of nineteen, now more prim and more pious than ever, who would be famous for nearly a quarter of a century as the militantly virtuous Miss Gould, was ideally cast for the part of the daughter who stays home to take the place of her mother and who becomes in time the doting aunt of her brothers’ and sister’s ungrateful children.
George, in spite of a fondness for the haunts of a young man about town, had gone to work at seventeen, and Edwin had made his first million in the stock market soon after dropping out of Columbia College. At an age when most of their second-generation contemporaries were drifting into the life of confirmed gentlemen of leisure, both were able and hard-working railroad men. They took over the management of most of their father’s complex affairs, but his feverish mind would not permit him to seek the rest that might have prolonged his life. He still commuted back and forth to the city on the Atalanta and plotted the fulfillment of his great dream of a Gould system extending from coast to coast. If he had lived longer, it is quite likely that he would have succeeded.
Jay Gould died on December 2, 1892, at the age of fifty-six, in his ugly brownstone mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue at Forty-seventh Street. He was no more popular dead than alive. Aside from the pious platitudes of acquaintances and camp followers, there was little public lament. The New York Times , in an editorial sternly deploring his career, did pay him one tribute he would have liked. Jay Gould, the Times said, “never gave himself the trouble of making any false pretenses.” His family was stricken with a deep and lasting grief, and his few close friends were saddened by the passing of a remarkable man. Lyndhurst, with crepe on its great doors and its flags at half-mast, mourned the death of a kind and considerate master and faced its own future with trepidation.
The estate of Jay Gould was officially appraised at $84,309,258, exclusive of Louisiana timber lands which, in accord with the laws of that state, passed directly to his heirs, and from which some twelve million dollars was eventually realized. Up to that time, it had been exceeded only by the estates of Commodore Vanderbilt and his son William Henry, but the will disposing of it was a relatively simple document. There were no bequests outside the family, and even the one-thousanddollar token remembrances to friends and business associates, which he had directed in a curious surge of deathbed sentimentality, were later disallowed by the courts and removed from the pockets of his executors, who had dutifully paid them.
Contrary to the prevailing pattern of testamentary distributions among the rich in the nineteenth century, when Astors and Vanderbilts and their imitators were seeking to concentrate their wealth in the hands of their eldest or ablest sons, Jay Gould treated his children rather equably. The money left after the payments of debts, taxes, and administration expenses was divided into six trust funds, each valued at approximately $12,500,000. Each of his four sons and two daughters received the income for life from one of these trusts, with the principal to be distributed among their issue when they died.
The Fifth Avenue mansion, valued at four hundred thousand dollars, was bequeathed outright to Helen. Lyndhurst, however, was left in a state of testamentary limbo. Until Frank came of age, Helen was given the use of it, free of taxes, plus six thousand dollars a month, in the expectation that Anna, Frank, and perhaps even Howard would make their home with her; after that it would become a disposable part of the estate. Howard, of course, at the age of twenty-two, could not be relied upon. He came and went as he pleased and, to Helen’s utter dismay, was already showing a decided preference for ladies of the lighter stage.
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.
At the age of forty-four, Miss Gould, the quaint little lady in the dowdy clothes who was the image of the rich spinster aunt everyone dreams of having, shocked the nation by announcing her engagement to Finley J. Shepard, a minor operating official in the Gould System. They were married at Lyndhurst on January 22, 1913, a holy day in the bride’s calendar because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the wedding of her mother and father. It was one of the great days in the history of Lyndhurst. A special train brought guests from New York, flags were flown by the people in Irvington, and the old house was filled with flowers and excitement. Mr. Shepard was a handsome, stalwart figure in the best tradition of the Young Men’s Christian Association, whose tastes rather miraculously coincided with those of his bride. They spent their honeymoon at Lyndhurst.
It was a happy marriage for the Shepards as they moved back and forth with the seasons between 579 Fifth Avenue in the winter, the old Gould homestead at Roxbury for the summer, and Lyndhurst in the spring and fall. And it was a happy marriage for Lyndhurst, for the clatter of growing children again resounded in its halls. Mrs. Shepard could not bear children of her own, but she and her husband adopted three orphans—two girls and a boy—and raised another boy as a foster child. Frank Gould’s two girls by his first marriage frequently spent the nine months of each year allotted to him with their Aunt Helen. Much to her distress, however, although the smart but immodest little frocks in which they arrived were promptly banished in favor of voluminous pinafores, nine months were hopelessly inadequate to undo the sophistication acquired in the three months spent with their mother. When they were all at Lyndhurst together, with their entourage of nurses, governesses, and maids, it was a crowded, busy household that justified Hone’s description of Lyndhurst as “an edifice of gigantic size, with no room in it.”
For people of wealth, the Shepards had little taste for lavish display and in their later years preferred the simpler life at Roxbury, where the old Gould house had been remodelled and enlarged so as to accommodate their extensive ménage. In honor of its new dignity it was given a name of its own. Not unexpectedly, in view of its proximity to the Jay Gould Memorial Reformed Church, which the children had erected soon after their father’s death, it was called Kirkside. Lyndhurst, while never neglected, entered a state of decline matching that of its mistress after she suffered a stroke in the fall of 1932. As the cozy realm of sanctimonious piety and of reverence for the rich simply because they were rich, in which she had flourished, was engulfed in the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the I93o’s, the once dauntless Miss Gould became a quaint and somewhat irrational little old lady. The diminishing income from her trust perplexed and alarmed her. The New Deal infuriated her. The twin menaces of atheism and communism, inseparably linked in her mind in a conspiracy lurking under every bed, terrified her. Even the girls at Vassar, she was convinced, had become so irreligious and so dangerously radical that she withdrew several scholarship grants.
Helen Gould Shepard died at Roxbury on December 21, 1938, at the age of seventy, in the house where her father had been born. In her last will and testament she bequeathed the Fifth Avenue mansion and Kirkside to “my beloved husband,” but surprisingly Lyndhurst was passed over in silence to become another of the anonymous assets comprising her residuary estate. The net value of the entire estate, according to the transfer tax appraisal, was $3,272,918. Mr. Shepard, as the residuary legatee, inherited most of it. Sadly, however, since Mrs. Shepard had had no children of her own, the far larger amount constituting the principal of her trust fund was distributed among Howard, Anna, Frank, and the surviving children of George and Edwin, who had died earlier. In accord with the terms of her father’s will, her adopted orphans were firmly excluded.
Lyndhurst, to the prudent Mr. Shepard, was merely a wasting asset devouring his capital, and he was anxious to be rid of it as quickly as possible. In 1939, even more than in 1880, the market for a Lyndhurst was negligible. Even the rich were still suffering from the Great Depression: income taxes were becoming genuinely burdensome, and fears aroused by F. D. R. and the New Deal still lingered. The abundant supply of servants and other menials at low wages, so vital to the flourishing existence of great houses, was being eroded by social change. The Goulds themselves were Lyndhurst’s best and perhaps only hope of survival.
Of the six children of Jay Gould who had grown up at Lyndhurst, George, Edwin, and now Helen were dead. Of the living, Howard had deserted a grandiose folly on Long Island, liberally emblazoned with what he fondly believed to be the Gould coat of arms and unblushingly called Castle Gould, and was now settled permanently into the life of an English country gentleman. Frank Jay had lived in France, where he had extensive business interests and grand personal establishments, for over a quarter of a century. In addition, he owned a twenty-seven-room Tudor mansion a few miles down the road from Lyndhurst, near Ardsley. He had bought it in 1933, but he had never lived in it, and so far as is known, he may never have bothered even to look at it. Eventually, he gave it away. Anna, once the little girl who had played with her dolls at Lyndhurst, was now the Duchesse de Talleyrand, mistress of palaces and chateaux in France, where she had lived ever since her marriage forty-four years before to a charming rogue named Count Boni de Castellane.
The market for European titles in exchange for American heiresses and dollars, which flourished in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, had reached its peak in 1895 when a reluctant Consuelo Vanderbilt, at the insistence of a mother who felt that American males could no longer be deemed eligible for the hand of a Vanderbilt, became the Duchess of Marlborough. To a public unaware of such social nuances, the marriage of Anna Gould to Count Boni de Castellane on March 4 of that same year was an almost equally astounding event. But Anna, unlike Miss Vanderbilt, was an eager and happy victim of her own romantic daydreams. Boni himself may not have been so happy. Penniless though he was, the antenuptual agreements had been a rude shock to his vanity. Not only the principal of the trust fund but the income it produced, thanks to Jay Gould’s testamentary wariness, were beyond his grasp. But Anna loved him, and he was confident that once back in France, free from the scrutiny of Helen (who had distrusted him on sight), he could teach his unsophisticated bride the art of spending her great income as elegantly and as lavishly as if it were his own.
Boni was an expensive luxury even for Anna Gould. Her income of five to seven hundred thousand preincome-tax dollars a year, when she and Boni were cutting a wide swath through the Paris of la belle époque, was not up to his extravagant taste in pink marble palaces filled with old masters and objets d’art and his fondness for entertaining on a grand scale. When he became surfeited with costly possessions and bored by the domestic felicities of a wife and children, gambling and women provided equally extravagant substitutes. Before Anna finally managed to escape to America with their three sons in 1906 and to divorce him for his flagrant affairs with other women, it has been conservatively estimated that he squandered five to six million dollars of her money in a monumental binge of supercilious elegance and frivolity. Injustice to Boni it should be said that, until he slipped on what he blithely described as “the orange peel” of various sentimental adventures, Anna was a willing accomplice who constantly reproached George and Helen for not providing her with more dollars to squander. Oddly enough, she was the first to criticize George for his imprudent and, as it later proved, improper use of estate funds to shore up the Gould railroads, and she was furious with him for permitting a sizable portion of her income to be mortgaged for years to pay off the swarms of French tradesmen who had unctuously overextended credit to Boni and his American heiress. In spite of it all, Anna’s financial difficulties eventually faded into the past as her share of the estate continued to produce a magic flow of American dollars. During the period of sixty-eight years from 1893 until her death in 1961 nearly thirty-five million dollars in income, plus some four millions from principal of the trusts for Helen and Howard when they died without issue of their own, was either paid to her directly by the trustees or was withheld to pay her debts and taxes.
After divorcing Boni, Anna, by now addicted to titles, married his cousin, Elie, Duc de Talleyrand-Périgord. The Duc, while he did not frown on American dollars, was the possessor of vast family estates and was reputed to be a wealthy man in his own right. Although Boni, in his memoirs, has described his cousin as something of a monster of duplicity, the Due, who was ten years older than Anna, had put his youthful indiscretions behind him, and in any event was of a different stripe than Boni, the exquisite wastrel. The Due and Duchesse lived lives of quiet elegance and grandeur. The petulantly romantic little girl of Lyndhurst became a great lady doomed to a life of great sorrows. Her three sons by Boni died young. Her only son by the Due killed himself because his parents refused to sanction his marriage to an older woman. When the Due died in 1937, Anna was left a lonely, aging widow in a foreign land. Her daughter by the Due, Violette, Comtesse de Pourtales, and her grandchildren were thoroughly French. Their only connection to the Goulds was that, when grandmama died, they would inherit the principal of the trust for her benefit under the will of a strange and legendary américain named Jay Gould, who had died many years before they were born. It was indeed a substantial connection, but hardly a consoling one for the Duchesse.
Although her life was rooted by tragedy in France, and Lyndhurst was superfluous from any rational point of view, the Duchesse was still a Gould and could, if she wished, afford sentimental gestures on a grand scale. In 1939; when the market was flooded with great houses that could hardly be given away, it is conceivable that the former Anna Gould was the only person alive who had both the means and the desire to prevent Lyndhurst from remaining empty and unwanted until put to some ignoble utilitarian use, or from being demolished to make way for a housing development. For the Duchesse, Lyndhurst was far more than an old house where she had lived; it was the place where she could recapture the nostalgic glow of cherished childhood memories. Half a century later, even the prissy tyranny of Helen’s guardianship could seem quaint and endearing. And the bitter memories of her marriage with poor silly Boni could be forgotten in the place where they had spent a romantic honeymoon so many long winters ago.
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.
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.”
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.
This unhappy situation continued for more than a year until finally, after long and secret negotiations, the legal wizards on both sides conjured up a magic formula that would allow everyone, including themselves, to retire from the field with acceptable shares of the booty. In a compromise agreement dated May i, 1964, the contending parties agreed that “after due consideration of all of the facts and circumstances” it would be “in their best interest to compromise and adjust any issues which might be raised by the filing of objections to the Codicil [the fifth] dated November 23, 1961, and thereby avoid the delay and expense of extensive litigation.” Although the National Trust never actually retreated from its position that the final codicil was invalid, the withdrawal of its objections was the key to the solution of the problem. With the codicil admitted to probate and the original bequest of Lyndhurst revoked, the consciences of the heirs and the legal position of the executors were technically sanctified. In return, the executors ceded Lyndhurst and the greater part of its acreage to the National Trust, which, in turn, relinquished its claim to the three-million-dollar endowment fund that had been perhaps the real sticking point with the heirs all along.
But the indispensable ingredient in the magic formula was the almost unprecedented generosity of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, who was somehow prevailed upon to accept a whopping reduction in the amount of the federal estate tax to which he was lawfully entitled. The compromise agreement did not become effective until the commissioner agreed in writing that the full value of Lyndhurst “shall be deductible … from decedent’s gross estate in computing the amount of Federal Estate Tax to be imposed upon decedent’s estate.” Also to be allowed as a deduction were fees and reasonable disbursements, totalling $243,525.16, to be paid to the legal experts who had concocted the agreement. It was indeed a neat arrangement.
For the better part of the two and a half years consumed in legal strife and negotiation, Tarrytown had been left simmering in ignorance, and the village trustees were smouldering with resentment at the discourtesy of the National Trust in failing to keep them informed on a matter of vital local concern. When at last, on August 19, 1964, a brief communiqué revealed that an agreement granting Lyndhurst to the National Trust had already been reached, the trustees were stunned. Details were scarce, but it was definitely known that Congress had already approved the compromise agreement in a rider hastily tacked onto a minor revenue bill and that President Johnson soon would sign it into law.
The Tarrytown Daily News , its “convincing editorials” gone for naught, referred scathingly to the rider as a “slider,” and painted a grim picture of the future. Hordes of unruly sightseers would descend upon the town, creating parking problems and traffic congestion and bringing in their wake a garish Coney Island mé lange of reeking hot-dog stands and fly-by-night souvenir shoppes.
A few days later word leaked out that the decisive factor in persuading the heirs to part with one of their ancestral homes had been the generosity of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue in allowing the estate to claim Lyndhurst as a deduction and thus reduce the federal estate tax by approximately $830,000. The Daily News indignantly branded this a “giveaway” of public funds and grudgingly praised Senator Wayne Morse, usually regarded as a troublemaking maverick, for his honesty in being the sole legislator to question it.
Tarrytown was not yet ready to concede defeat. Amid the confusion of garbled press releases, George B. Case, a village trustee and chairman of the village planning board, wrote both to the National Trust and to one of the executors for more specific information as to the terms of the compromise agreement. When a satisfactory reply from neither of them was forthcoming, Jay Gould himself, and his unsavory reputation, were rudely resurrected. The village board, now bristling with righteous indignation, unanimously adopted a resolution petitioning Congress “to see that justice is done and honor restored by revoking the legislation … authorizing the museum.” And once again, more than seventy years after his death, that strange man who had seemed to love orchids more than people and who had craved some mystic infinity of wealth and power more than his own life was to prove a convenient scapegoat.
“Whereas,” this curious document reads in part, “the name of Jay Gould is one to be remembered but certainly not for honor and exaltation.…
“Whereas, decent law abiding citizens would welcome any fitting memorial to a worthy American, they question any memorial to a person with the reputation of Jay Gould.”
Perhaps the petition would have been more impressive if it had candidly presented the burdens of “green property” for communities already saddled with fiscal problems that Mr. Gould himself could not have evaded. Even the Daily News wondered why it was necessary to bring back Jay Gould. Large sums of his supposedly tainted money had been gratefully accepted by the community from his daughter Helen, who had been a notorious soft touch and Tarrytown’s Number One philanthropist.
Mr. Case, though one of a dwindling minority in Tarrytown who remembers and appreciates Miss Gould and her good works, has never retreated by so much as a single “whereas” from the petition of which he was the most vigorous and sincere exponent. The petition itself, presented in the midst of a presidential election campaign, was doomed to be a futile gesture. Congress was in no mood to spend time on soothing the wounded pride and pocketbook of a small community in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties.
On October 30 Surrogate Cox formally approved the compromise agreement between the National Trust and the heirs of the Duchesse. Lyndhurst and some 450 of its original domain of 550 acres were now incontestably the property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the duly authorized custodian of the true owner, the people of the United States. The remaining acres went to the heirs as a consolation for giving up one of their ancestral homes. Even Tarrytown was somewhat mollified when it was announced that nearly four hundred acres would be sold by the National Trust, with the proceeds to be used to set up a permanent endowment fund for the benefit of Lyndhurst. When it was sold, in September of the following year, for subdivision as a residential development, it netted less than expected: only $1,250,000. Mr. Case and his fellow trustees could hardly be expected to refrain from pointing out that in their petition they had warned of just such an outcome.
It is true that the income from a conservatively managed $1,250,000 trust fund may be inadequate to support Lyndhurst in the style to which it became accustomed during the long reign of the Goulds. But the pride of the National Trust in its properties and the diligence and ingenuity of its staff should not be discounted. In any event, Lyndhurst is at last as secure as it is possible to be from the normal legal and financial perils that beset mortal man.
Lyndhurst was opened to the public in June, 1965, and was officially dedicated on May 20, 1966. Governor Nelson Rockefeller was the principal speaker at the dedication ceremonies, and his presence drew a line of wellmannered pickets outside the entrance gates protesting not against Lyndhurst but against the proposed Hudson River Expressway. “Millions For Roads,” read some of the bitter placards, “Not One Cent For Beauty!” Among the pickets was Jay Gould’s nemesis, George B. Case, still tilting at the windmills of “big” government’s encroaching on the rights of local communities to govern themselves. This time he was on Lyndhurst’s side. The expressway, as originally planned, would have violated Lyndhurst’s territorial rights along the riverfront where the yacht landing used to be.
The star of this auspicious occasion in the life of what Mr. Hone had too hastily predicted would one day be known as “Paulding’s Folly” was Diane de Castellane, Duchesse de Mouchy. Madame de Mouchy, one of the granddaughters of Anna Gould and Boni de Castellane, was filled with pride and enthusiasm. Now that the legal strife was over, she had become an ardent supporter of the preservation of Lyndhurst. Her grandmother would have been overjoyed. This happy ending to what had once appeared to be an inevitably sad story was undoubtedly a truer expression of the real wishes of the former Anna Gould than the codicil made under such dire circumstance. Long live Lyndhurst!