Section Four: The After Years (Part 2)

1918 (July): John Sterling Dies
$15,000,000 Sterling Bequest to Yale Lawyer, Graduated In 1864, Leaves Residue To His Alma Mater

OTHER GIFTS $5,000,000

$1,000,000 to Osborn Home and Rest to Relatives, Employees, and Charity

The will of John W. Sterling of the law firm of Shearman & Sterling, who died suddenly on July 5 at the fishing lodge of Lord Mount Stephen in Canada, disposed of an estate valued at $20,000,000, and leaves the residuary estate, valued at $15,000,000 to Yale University. It was filed for probate yesterday. Mr. Sterling was graduated from Yale in 1864 and had always cherished the warmest affection for that Institution. He leaves no direct heirs, never having married, and had entertained the purpose, for many years, according to his friends, of leaving the bulk of his property to his alma mater. The bequest is one of the largest, if not the largest, single gift ever made to a university. Mr. Sterling directs that one fine building, at least, shall be erected from the funds which he leaves to the university, but after asking that his sisters be consulted, leaves the university authorities practically a free hand in the use of the remainder. The part of the estate, estimated at $5,000,000 which is disposed of specifically, goes to the sisters of Mr. Sterling, to charitable institutions, to friends, and to old employes [sic] and servants.

The strong impression made upon Mr. Sterling by his college days, and the affection for Yale which he carried with him for forty-four years after the end of his college days was further shown by a bequest of $10,000 to the Russell Trust Association, the legal name of the “Skull and Bones” fraternity, as a recognition of the benefits he had received from membership in it. This tribute to “Skull and Bones” was especially interesting in view of the controversy which has raged intermittently for some years past as to the good or evil of this organization.

The estimate of $20,000,000 as the value of Mr. Sterling’s estate was made by those closest to him in life, and is considered as accurate a figure as can be made known without an appraisal. Besides his home at 912 Fifth Avenue and a large estate near Greenwich, Conn., and some other pieces of real estate, it was stated that the fortune of Mr. Sterling was mainly in Bonds.

Active in Practice at 74.
The estate is considered one of the largest ever amassed by a man, pursuing strictly a professional career. Although he was 74 years old at his death, Mr. Sterling had, up to a few days before it, followed his routine practice of two generations of spending long hours at his law office. Though almost never in court, he was usually in his office by 8:30 a.m. and seldom out of it before 6:30 p.m., a period during which his labors were interrupted usually only for a few minutes for a light meal in his office early in the afternoon. He had the reputation of having mastered the business problems of more business interests than had any other lawyer in this city and the wealth which he had accumulated by reason of his exceptional industry did not lessen his diligence even in his old age.

The fact that his professional work was not his only interest in life was shown not only by his gifts to Yale but by a provision in his will leaving about $1,000,000 to the Miriam J. Osborn Memorial Home at Rye, N.Y. Mrs. Osborn was the wife of Charles J. Osborn, of the Stock Exchange firm of C.J. Osborn & Co. Mr. Sterling had charge of the estate left by Mr. Osborn, and he built it up to large proportion during the lifetime of Ms. Osborn. On her death she left him a present of $100,000 as recognition of his services, after having her will drawn by another lawyer and not permitting him to know of her intention. This gift was received by Mr. Sterling in 1891 but he put it apart, and in his will transmitted this sum, increased by original gifts, to the Miriam A. Osborn Home. A large part of his gift was anticipated by Mr. Sterling in money given to the home during his lifetime. This home was founded to make easier the last years of aged gentlewomen in hard circumstances. Mr. Sterling, who was of Scotch descent, suggests that a preference in favor of women of Scotch descent be exercised in selecting the women who will be beneficiaries of his gift.

“Skull and Bones” is remembered in Article 24 of the will of Mr. Sterling, which reads: “In grateful remembrance of the benefits resulting to me when a student in Yale University from my connection with the so-called Russell Trust Association, and the advantages which I have since reaped in my professional life from the discipline and experience gained thereby, and as a testimonial of my appreciation of such benefits, I hereby direct my said Trustees, out of the residue of the estate vested in them not hereinbefore effectively disposed of to pay the Trustees of the said association and their successors in the Trust the sum of $10,000 and it is my wish, although I do not impose it as a condition or trust, that they will invest the said sum and hold it for the purpose of applying the income to defray the annual expenses of the members of the said association while they are in the senior class of the Academical [sic] Department of Yale University, or in some way to provide for their comfort.”

The Bequest to Yale
The clause, giving the residue of the estate to Yale, is as follows: “All the rest, residue, and remainder of my estate not hereinbefore effectually disposed of, I direct my said trustees to dispose of in the manner following. To apply the same, as soon after my decease as may be practicable, to the use and for the benefit of Yale University in the erection in New Haven, Conn., upon land selected at its expense by it with the approval of my said trustees, of at least one enduring, useful, and architecturally beautiful edifice, which will constitute a fitting memorial of my gratitude to and affection for my Alma Mater. The said trustees shall have entire liberty and discretion to apply any portion of the said property or its proceeds to the erection of a single building, and they shall apply the balance of said property, if any, to the erection and equipment of other fine and enduring buildings for the use of students in the academical [sic] or graduate departments and to some extent to the foundation of scholarships, fellowships, or lectureships, the endowment of new professorships, and the establishment of special funds for prizes.

"In case I erect or provide during my lifetime for the erection of such a memorial edifice as is described in the first part of this Article XXVIII, my trustees shall not be required to erect an additional memorial building, though they shall have complete power to apply my said residuary estate for the benefit of the said university to the erection of other edifices of a memorial character or to the other purposes specified in Subdivision I. All buildings erected as aforesaid shall be made fireproof and shall be constructed in the most substantial manner.

"His sisters, Mrs. Rufus W. Bunnell and Miss Cordelia Sterling of Stratford, Conn., where he was born receive trust funds of $250,000 each under the will, the principal in the case of the married sister to descend to her children and in the case of Miss Sterling to go at her death to Yale or to any other of the charities remembered by Mr. Sterling. Mr. Sterling also left his real estate at Stratford, Conn. to his two sisters. He left a fund of $50,000 to his two sisters to be expended by them on any public object in his native town. He left a separate trust fund of $50,000 to his sister, Miss Sterling, for her own use or to be applied to charities and another fund of $150,000 for the three children of Mrs. Bunnell, besides specific bequest of $t,000 each to his two nephews.

"To his friend and partner John A. Garver, he bequeathed the good will of the firm of Shearman & Sterling with the right to continue the business under that name. His law library and all books and documents connected with the business go to Mr. Garver with a bequest of $10,000 as “a slight token of friendship.” To those connected with his office who had been employed by him of by the firm for five years, he left a sum equal to their wages for six months. The one exception to this was his private secretary, Miss Helen C. Adams for whose benefit he created a trust fund of $50,000 the principal reverting to Yale on her death.

"The memory of Lady Mount Stephen, the first wife of Lord Mount Stephen, at whose fishing lodge he died, and the memory of the mother and of the wife of the late Lord Strathcona are honored in the will. Railroad bonds valued at $500,000 are given to the Miriam A. Osborn Home for the erection of buildings as memorials to them. About a year ago Mr. Sterling paid over the sums for this purpose, so that this section of the will is no longer operative. Lord Strathcona, a rival of the Late James J. Hill as a great railroad builder was a close personal friend of Mr. Sterling."

Bequests to Two Hospitals
"A legacy of $7,500 is givem to the Presbyterian Hospital of New York and one of $10,000 to the Bridgeport Hospital, and a further sum of $50,000 is to be expended, as directed by his sisters, for any public object in his native town.

"The two sisters, his lifelong friend James O. Bloss, a retired cotton broker, who made his home with the testator for more than forty years; George H. Church, who had been closely associated with the testator in the management of the many important estates of which he was Trustee, and the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co. are named as executors. All of these, except the sisters are named as Trustees. An advisory board to confer with the Trustees is created. This board originally consisted of James Stillman Samuel Thorne, and Stephen S. Palmer, all of whom predeceased the testator, but by the codicil executed in 1913 the testator appointed James. A. Stillman, Percy A Rockefeller, Samuel McRoberts, and George B. Cortelyou to be members of this board. He also substituted Mr. Church as Trustee under all wills and trust agreements where power to make such appointment had been conferred upon him and had not been already exercised.

"No specific disposition is made of Mr. Sterling’s beautiful home at 912 Fifth Avenue. It was erected by him in 1911 [editor’s note: this is believed to be a typo, the correct date was 1900] for the occupancy of himself and Mr. Bloss. At the time he purchased the property his friend Samuel Thorne, acquired the fifty-foot frontage immediately adjacent on the north, upon which he erected a handsome residence, while James Stillman, probably his most intimate friend, acquired all of the adjacent lots on the south, comprising the north-east corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventy-second Street, intending to improve the property with a residence for his own occupation. This was postponed, however, by reason of Mr. Stillman’s having acquired the Sloan (sic) residence at 9 East Seventy-Second Street, and the Seventy-second Street corner still remains vacant.

"Although Mr. Sterling was not a collector, he had many works of art and paintings by well-known artists, such as Schreyer, Gerome, Vibert, Richter, Rougerau, Kaemmer, and Madrazo. In addition to an extensive private law library in his residence, Mr. Sterling had a choice miscellaneous library containing many rare editions. He was also the possessor of a remarkable Cremona violin. These are not specifically disposed of and will go into the residue. A notable item of Mr. Sterling’s property is his extensive holdings of real estate in the vicinity of Rye and Mount Kisco, consisting of several thousand acres, which were developed under his personal supervision to a high degree of perfection. In his later years this was his chief diversion.

"Mr. Sterling was one of the executors of the will of the late James Stillman. It was stated yesterday that his successor has not been named. The Directors of the Consolidated Gas Company have elected his surviving law partner, Mr. Garver, to succeed Mr. Sterling as a Trustee of that corporation and as a member of its Finance and Executive Committees.

"The $15.000,000 left to Yale by Mr. Sterling is next to the largest single bequest ever made to a university in this country. James Campbell in 1914 left his estate, variously estimated from $20,000.00 to $40,000.000 to the St. Louis University for the building of a hospital and the advancement of medical science. However, the Campbell estate is not to revert to the university until the death of Mr. Campbell’s wife and daughter, and in the case the daughter has children, not until twenty-one [years] after her death. The only way in which the university could obtain the use of the money was to negotiate a long-term loan, to be paid off from the principal of the bequest when it might become available. Thus, although the money value of the bequest is greater than that of Mr. Sterling, its immediate value to the institution is not so large.

"In 1910 Isaac C. Weyman of Salem, Mass., left practically his entire estate of $10,000,000 to the Graduate School of Princeton University for use by the Trustees in any way they might see fit for the advancement of the work of the university. Another notable bequest was that of Mrs. Maria De Witt Jesup, widow of Morris K. Jesup, who for twenty-two years was President of the Museum of Natural History. She left $8,450,000 to various institutions, $5,000,000 going to the museum. In 1917 Colonel Oliver Hazard Payne left $7,000,000 to a number of charitable and educational institutions. Of this amount $1,000,000 went to Columbia and $1,000,000 to Yale. The Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Sage Foundations benefits are distributed over hundreds of educational institutions.

"NEW HAVEN, Conn., July 16. – Secretary Anson Stokes of Yale said tonight when asked concerning the disposition of the property willed to Yale by John W. Sterling, that the university had no knowledge of the provisions of Mr. Sterling’s will or of the reported bequest. He added that Mr. Sterling had shown his deep interest in Yale on many occasions."

Above is the full transcript of the Obituary for James Sterling published by the New York Times on July 17, 1918. Although Yale Secretary Anson Stokes was caught sleeping at the wheel by Sterling’s record bequest, the trustees of Yale University soon recovered to the point of contemplating changing their name to Sterling University.

In today’s dollars, just the cash bequeathed by Sterling in the above will would exceed the value of his 1918 Estate. 

The Fateful Fishing Trip


A section of the obituary for James Sterling published by the New York Times on July 17, 1918

Each summer Sterling and his friends went to Grand Metis to fish, celebrate the 4th of July (ironically, doing so in Canada) and enjoy an extended escape from hot, humid New York. Early in the 1918 holiday, Sterling excused himself to return to New York briefly on some business. When he returned, he was accompanied by his doctor.

To all appearances, Sterling seemed in fine shape. He was out in his boat at 8:30 a.m. and returned to the lodge at noon. He was elated over an especially fine salmon he brought in with him. After lunch, he complained of a chill and was persuaded to go to bed, where he slept fitfully until about five o’clock, when he complained to his doctor of severe back pains. An hour later, as he was sitting up conversing with his guests, he fell forward, lifeless. Percy Rockefeller sent a dispatch to Sterling’s law partner, John Garver, which said, "Mr. Sterling's death occurred on Friday evening at 6:30 o'clock from heart disease. He was in his seventy-fourth year."

Below appears a portion of the article detailing the Sterling Estate. Of particular interest is the valuation on the contents of 912 Fifth Avenue and his personal property. Although the values may seem low, the researchers remind that they would be much higher in today’s dollars.

Sterling was interred in his mausoleum designed by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White who also designed five other mausoleums in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where many of Sterling’s friends and business associates were ultimately interred.

Since Sterling was executor for Osborn’s will and would, doubtless, have seen Osborn’s mausoleum (below) or its plans, it may, when coupled with the fact that his “family architect” Bruce Price was dead, have been instrumental in leading him to commission McKim Mead and White to also design his own resting place.

The Sterling mausoleum was completed in 1910 at a cost of $24,000 or $546,000 in today’s money. It employed a Doric Greek style, and based upon some of the other elegant designs, both of his architect’s and other mausoleums in the cemetery, it is somewhat box-like and rather anticlimactic.


The Osborn Mausoleum in 1909, from the Musuem of the City of New York

If there is a prestige location in which to be dead, it is probably one of the 1,313 private family mausoleums around Woodlawn Cemetery. These “mansions for the dead” held many artistic treasures that could have been expected in the residence of the occupants when alive. Stained glass, decorative mosaics, busts, statues, bas-reliefs, vases, and candelabra were not unusual furnishings in these mausoleums. Most families made the mistake of not planning for upkeep of these structures thinking that descendants or servants would handle the task after their demise. Unfortunately, many of those that were endowed for upkeep were underfunded and are in need of repair today.

In the fourth article of Sterling's will, he directs that: "no interment other than my own and that of my ...sister, Cordelia, shall ever take place" in his mausoleum. An exception is made, however, "in case my said friend, James O. Bloss, who has lived with me for more than forty years, should desire to be interred in the said mausoleum and should die without ever having been married."

It was only natural that Sterling would provide for his unmarried sister at her demise, as the responsibility for unwed female relatives usually passed to the oldest living male of the current generation.

There are several opinions, however, among the researchers as to why Sterling put such an odd clause in his will concerning Bloss. One opinion was that Sterling was insuring that Bloss’ continued bachelorhood would be Sterling’s guarantee of his friend’s loyalty after his own death.

Another opinion is based upon a small poem pasted into the back of Sterling’s day journal, which indicated that Sterling had a strong belief in the afterlife. He may well have felt that he and Bloss would be together therein. Therefore there was little concern as to where Bloss would be buried, but more likely that Sterling made the offer to Bloss as a token of friendship and affection, not as a requirement. It was further postulated that should Bloss’ family disown him, Sterling, being ever the consummate lawyer was ‘covering all bases” by providing for Bloss in his will. It is generally agreed that the “without ever having been married” clause was inserted for public propriety’s sake. After decades together with Sterling, and now in his 70’s, there could be little doubt at this point that Bloss would ever marry.

What is also odd is that out of all the bequests in Sterling’s will, this is the only provision in it for Bloss. He left not a single item, other than personal papers, to Bloss after almost 50 years of companionship. This, from a man who provided “liberally” for the servants he employed at the time of his death? There is some conjecture among the researchers that this could have been the cause for anger on Bloss’ part and his motive for not staying at 912 Fifth Avenue or being buried next to Sterling. Or it could be that Bloss was overwhelmed by Sterling's death and it would be too painful to continue to live in the home they shared together. It is, however, very important to remember that Bloss was far from destitute at the time of Sterling’s death. He had a large home in the country and was financially secure in his own right.

Very shortly after his death, Sterling’s art collection was cataloged and prepared for sale by the American Art Association, probably at the request of Yale University, who had gained access to 912 Fifth and the contents when Bloss declined occupancy and moved to the Metropolitan Club. On January 17, 1919, seven months after Sterling’s death and less than a month after Bloss’ death, the collection was sold “by order of his executors” at the Plaza Hotel. The total of 72 paintings brought $25,420. The highest price was for a Schrier painting “Arabian Horsemen” a 19 x 32 inch painting that sold for $5,500.

To those familiar with art collections, those prices would seem small today. In fact, the times noted that “prices for the less important paintings ranged from $12.50 up.” However, two things must be remembered: Sterling collected mostly “Orientalist” art, which consisted of scenes of pyramids, exotic locales that included palms, deserts, camel riders, and Kasbah and harem scenes which were extremely popular at the time. People of various economic strata were fascinated with the exotic, and filled their homes with originals and reproductions of this subject matter. The other thing to remember is, allowing for inflation, the total collection would have sold for $312,525 and the “highest priced” painting would actually have netted an amount that would be comparable to $61,472 today. Orientalist paintings fell out of vogue and only are now starting to return in popularity with today’s collectors. These prices reflected well on Sterling’s collection of popular, but not “important” paintings.