Monday, August 7, 2017

Artifacts of a life of privilege

Gigi Carrier Cowell (center) was adopted by her lover, Shirley Cowell (white blazer), for inheritance purposes. The undated photo is of Gigi and Shirley with Claire Carrier, Sam Carrier, Erica Kampert, Anna Carrier, and Leonard Carrier.
Auction of the estate of Gigi Carrier Cowell, heir of Shirley Ione Cowell
by Joanna Molloy

Artifacts of a life of privilege provided by two great American fortunes went up for grabs last month in an unlikely place:  the New York City Public Administrator’s office.

The possessions of the late Gigi Carrier Cowell, including this document signed by Napoleon, were recently auctioned off at the New York City Public Administrator's office.
The possessions of the late Gigi Carrier Cowell were sorted into 144 lots and auctioned off just before the Fourth of July, but her relatives had nothing to celebrate:  They received none of the proceeds.

In 1997, the willowy former fashion model had inherited the estate of her older lover, Shirley Ione Cowell, the heiress and composer. 

Cowell was descended from not one, but two, American business pioneers who both built empires from the ground up. Her parents were Thomas Richard Cowell III and Ione Staley, who divorced when Shirley was just a toddler.

Her paternal grandfather was T.R. Cowell Jr., who was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania, the boomtown built to serve America’s first oil wells. His father became mayor, but died when T.R. was 18. T.R. became a cadet at West Point, and upon graduation launched maneuvers that would give John D. Rockefeller a run for his money.

T.R. was an early partner in the Transcontinental Oil Company, which owned oil leases from Illinois the billion-gallon Yates Ranch oilfield in Texas, as well as in Romania, Mexico, and nearly a million oil-rich acres in Colombia. Transcontinental controlled oil from start to finish, building refineries, buying a railroad, and 376 Marathon gas stations, which were the first in the country to add convenience stores. 
Perhaps most importantly, Transcontinental owned one of the first patents for transforming natural gas into gasoline. In 1919, when Transcontinental was admitted to trading on the N.Y. Stock Exchange, the Wall Street Journal listed the worth of the company’s assets at $196,993,064. When T.R. told Congress that the insurgency in Mexico was a threat to Transcontinental’s assets, the Navy was ordered to send the warship U.S. Marietta off the coast of Veracruz to protect them.

T.R. then added pure gold to his black gold through the Como Mines Co. of Nevada, which controlled the Buckeye, Star of the West, and Lucky Sunday mines as well as 29 other claims in a little territory called the  Comstock Lode.  T.R. Cowell was a mainstay of Palm Beach society in the 1920s and '30s, living in a house called Mi Estrellita on El Vedado, installing his mother at The Breakers, and chairing events at the Everglades and Bath and Tennis clubs. His son Richard Cowell, a champion water-skier and skeleton racer who dated Ava Gardner and was married to Gail Vanderbilt Whitney for a time, is Shirley’s half-uncle, and has followed in his father’s footsteps in Palm Beach.
Richard Cowell waterskiing at the Euro Seniors in 1969 in Geneva.
Richard is still at it at the age of 90!
Shirley’s maternal grandfather was Augustus Eugene Staley, the “Corn Starch King” of the Midwest. Like T.R., his father, a farmer ruined by the Civil War, died when Staley was 18. Penniless, he hit the road as a traveling salesman, and soon noticed that he sold more corn starch than baking powder and tobacco.  He started producing corn starch himself, as well as corn syrup and fructose, and eventually his company, A.E. Staley Manufacturing of Decatur, Ill. was second only to the Archer Daniels Midland Corp. in corn processing in the United States.  
"Corn Starch King” Augustus Eugene Staley.
Staley was also one of the first to process soybeans, granting Decatur the moniker “Soybean Capital of the World.”  He became successful enough to marry Emma Louise Tressler, a conservatory-educated girl descended from a soldier who fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, and  daughter of Andrew Jackson Tressler, who cleared the land for the town of Bryan, Ohio and went from being the teacher in its log-cabin schoolhouse to president of the First National Bank there.  Staley became so powerful that he convinced Decatur’s town fathers to build Lake Decatur, a 2,800-acre reservoir he needed to process corn.

Even his hobby paid off. A.E. made it a point to hire as his workers the best college football players in the country for his company team, the Decatur Staleys.  He hired N.Y. Yankee George Halas to coach, and in 1919 allowed Halas to move the Staleys to Chicago to become one of the first teams to compete in the nascent pro league which would become the N.F.L. The Chicago Cubs allowed the fledgling team to use their stadium, in ursine homage, they changed their name to something you may have heard of:  the Chicago Bears.  But to this day, the Bears’ mascot is named Staley da Bear.

Small wonder that when Shirley passed away in 1997, Gigi inherited “a ton of money, a large pool of money” as a source described it to New York Social Diary.
Ione Staley and Shirley Cowell on the far left. Photo: Herb Slodounik
Shirley had guaranteed it. With Gigi, she had finally found love, after having been shipped off as an only child to Miss Harris’ School for Girls and the Ogontz finishing school in Pennsylvania which Amelia Earhart had attended.  She was momentarily photographed with actor Franchot Tone, himself an heir to a carborundum fortune.  Later, her  imperious-looking mother Ione announced from the perch in the Sherry Netherland she shared with her third husband that Shirley was engaged to an Army officer.  But the wedding was not to be.

Shirley and Gigi met in 1960 and were soon sharing a 14-room duplex in Manhattan’s River House that had been in the Cowell family since the 1920s.  They wintered in their $15 million mansion in Miami which formerly belonged to Howard Hughes.  They drove around town in the Aston Martins, Pinin Farinas, and other vintage sportscars which Gigi loved to buy and refurbish.
In an era when gay marriage was somewhere over the rainbow,  Shirley came up with a brilliant solution to the thorny issue of inheritance:  She adopted Gigi as her “daughter.”  It was 1979, a decade before tobacco heiress Doris Duke adopted Chandi Heffner.  It worked:  Gigi got it all.

After losing Shirley, Gigi lived a quiet life of philanthropy on Sutton Place before her own passing at 71 in 2009.  Her brother Leonard Carrier, a philosophy professor on a pension, fully expected to inherit the life-changing windfall.  He and his wife and two children had always gotten along with Shirley and Gigi, visiting on holidays and going on family vacations together. 

Manhattan Civil Court judge Rita Mella who ruled against Leonard Carrier and his own heirs last July.
There was just one problem:  Gigi had left $25 million in her estate, but no will.  To Leonard’s shock, his inheritance rights had been automatically cut when Shirley adopted Gigi, according to laws designed to protect children and their adoptive parents from later claims by birth parents and siblings. Leonard hired top lawyer Thomas J. Bonner, who argued in New York Surrogate’s Court that Shirley and Gigi were adults trying to form a nontraditional family when most state laws wouldn’t allow them to marry, and that Leonard was still his sister’s heir.  Leonard died before Judge Rita Mella ruled against him and his own heirs last July.
“The Surrogate Court judge, as well as the state Attorney General, took the position that Sec. 117 of the domestic relations law applies here, which means that the adoption effectively cuts off intestate rights,” Bonner told NYSD. “Their position is that in adult situations there’s a solution:  Write a will.”

Had Gigi just assumed that her River House apartment and all the possessions in it would simply go to her brother, and not bothered?

Leonard’s widow Claire Carrier is appealing Mella’s decision; meanwhile, Gigi’s estate will languish in a government unclaimed funds account in the event that she wins, or the event that another heir turns up.  Richard Cowell wasn’t notified of the auction. "I am representing the Cowells in this matter," attorney Brandon Howick told NYSD.

Public Administrator Dahlia Damas wouldn’t comment.  
And so, on June 28th, Gigi’s orphaned treasures went on the block. Raising their paddles were about 20 people in casual dress,  mostly dealers more accustomed to bidding at the Public Administrator’s auction on the possessions of the less fortunate.
Yet this day, there was a pair of 1830 Regency benches, a mahogany Empire bedroom set, Baccarat and Lalique crystal, Limoges china, Meissen porcelain, Pierre Redoute botanicals, an Ormulu clock, and a silver Tiffany tea service.  You might say it was like discovering a vein in the Comstock lode.

There was a document signed by Napoleon, and another signed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, who composed La Marseillaise. There were 13 large boxes of paintings. One wondered if the family had frantically searched inside the frames for Gigi’s hidden will, to no avail.
There was a Steinway grand piano — perhaps where Shirley, an accomplished songwriter, composed such tunes for Lena Horne and Johnny Mathis as “I Won’t Do It,” “A Game For Two,” “I’m So Lost,” and “Whenever a Soft Rain Falls.” 

Or it might have been the gathering place for singalongs with George Abbott, who co-wrote “Day Follows Day” with Shirley, and whose Al Hirschfeld caricature signed to her and Gigi was on the block,  or perhaps with Dom Deluise, who cast Shirley and Gigi as “Society Ladies #1 and #2” in his comedy “Hot Stuff.”
There was a wall of  Chanel and Ferragamo shoes — each pair looking as if it had only been worn once — with matching purses.  Lot 144 was two boxes of vintage clothing to make the young hipsters at Brooklyn Flea weep, including Valentino, Chanel, and Lilly Pulitzer, all estimated to go for just $10. 

Still, among the objet d’art there were gewgaws of a quirkier nature, some of which even top auctioneer Philip Weiss of “Antiques Roadshow” fame could not move that day.  There were five full crates of Avon collectibles, and bins of ceramic clowns, bunnies, conga players, a knight, a jockey, a Beefeater guard, an Inca, a Miss Piggy. “Jeff Koons would kill for this kitsch,” remarked one observer. 
There was one heirloom that winked at Cowell’s oil-fortune provenance:  a souvenir statue of an oil worker from the 1971 International Petroleum Exposition in Tulsa, her birthplace.  And there were dolls — 24 boxes of them.

“Rosebud,”  somebody whispered.