Here are two newspaper obituaries for William Earle Dodge Stokes, the litigation king. No newspaper, not even the New York Times, is privy to certain financial information, such as how much money actually was inherited or how much a person's estate really is worth. In the case of Stokes, even an educated guess about his wealth, at the time of his death, was no more reliable than picking a number out of a hat. Bills and lawsuit settlements would come due long after he was buried. His legacy was an endless series of "kuh-CHEENGS!"
Also, even lawyers involved in Stokes' many legal battles seemed to lose track of the man's dealings. One lawyer, representing Mrs. Helen Stokes when she contested Stokes' will, claimed the estate included the Hotel Ansonia, and estimated its worth at $5 million. However, several years earlier Stokes had, in effect, given the hotel to his son, W. E. D. Stokes Jr. (whose handling of the property devalued it considerably). The fight over the will was settled out of court, but most of the money involved in that settlement may have existed only in the fantasies of those involved.
You also can question the amount of money Stokes is said to have inherited from his father's estate. The amount given in these obituaries is $11 million, but several years earlier the figure commonly used was only $1 million, and even that was obtained after – you guessed it – a lawsuit started by W. E. D. Stokes, the youngest of four sons, against his brother, Anson Phelps Stokes, whom W. E. D. accused of trying to force him out of the family business. Whatever, even $1 million was a lot of money in those days.
There is a wonderful 2005 New York Magazine story about Stokes and the Hotel Ansonia, written by Steven Gaines. However, I've come to disagree with one line in that story – "In fact, Stokes was 'the all-time black sheep' of his prominent family." Stokes was a bad guy, no doubt, but the title of family black sheep probably should be bestowed on his cousin, Edward S. Stokes, a convicted murderer who later engaged in a long and bitter feud with W. E. D. But that's a story for another page.
New York Times, May 19, 1926
W. E. D. Stokes Dies of Pneumonia at 73
Hotel Owner, Who Figured
In Many Lawsuits, Left $8,000,000
W. E. D. Stokes, owner of the Hotel Ansonia, died yesterday morning at his home, 238 West Seventy-Third Street, of pneumonia. He had been ill a week. He was in his seventy-fourth year.
Samuel Untermyer received a telegram from the widow, Mrs. Helen Elwood Stokes, sent from the home of her mother in Denver, saying that she had started for New York with her two children, James and Muriel. She asked that the funeral be deferred until their arrival. At the Stokes residence it was said that the funeral would be held on Saturday morning in the Church of the Incarnation, Thirty-fifth Street and Madison Avenue. This will allow time for the arrival of Mrs. Stokes.
Mr. Stokes left an estate of a net value of about $8,000,000. A legal appraisal was made recently for purposes of litigation. This showed the value to be slightly in excess of $7,000,000.
Mr. Stokes left a will, it was ascertained from his lawyer, A. H. Gleason, who declined, however, to discuss its contents. The latter part of the life of Mr. Stokes was occupied in almost incessant litigation. Claims of all kinds were brought against him. He had attempted unsuccessfully to divorce his wife, and was defeated in an attempt to prove that she had abandoned her dower rights by making an ante-nuptial agreement.
Reconciled to Eldest Child
Because of his estrangement from his wife and his efforts to deprive her and their two children of any further share in his estate, it is believed that he cut them off in his will, or left nominal sums to them. Had he died intestate, or should his will be broken, the $8,000,000 estate would be distributed among Mrs. Helen Elwood Stokes and their two children, and W. E. D. Stokes Jr., his son by his first wife. Mrs. Stokes would be entitled to half the estate and each of the three children would be entitled to one-sixth.
After a quarrel, Mr. Stokes had become reconciled to his eldest child, W. E. D. Stokes Jr., although he was still at odds with Mrs. Stokes and her two children, James and Helen Muriel. Because of this condition, it was expected that the will would name W. E. D. Stokes Jr. as the principal heir.
Mr. Stokes belonged to a wealthy New York family. His grandfather, Thomas Stokes, who came of a family of London merchants, settled in New York in 1796 and founded a mercantile business which made him rich. He was one of the founders of Phelps, Dodge & Co. His son, James Stokes, became a wealthy financier and philanthropist. For many years he worked in association with Peter Cooper in developing the public school system of New York. In 1837 he married Caroline Phelps, daughter of Anson G. Phelps, a descendant of one of the first settlers of Windsor, Conn. W. E. D. Stokes – William Earl Dodge Stokes – was their fourth son. On the English side, the Stokes family was founded by a Norman who came over with the Conqueror.
Inherited $11,000,000 Estate.
W. E. D. Stokes was graduated from Yale in 1874. He became associated with his father in business and inherited his father’s estate, valued at $11,000,000. He made money in real estate and other operations, but spent it rapidly. He imported race horses, conducted a large stable and lived expensively. In the last ten or fifteen years the estate which he inherited from his father was reduced by large fees to lawyers who defended him in the many suits brought against him or represented him in the numerous actions which he himself started.
In 1922 Mr. Stokes appeared as his own attorney in his suit against his wife and filed a document drawn up by himself in which he described “a group of lawyer who have attached themselves to my own and my son’s properties like so many leeches without cause or excuse.”
The first marriage of Mr. Stokes was in 1895 to Rita Hernandez de Alba Acosta. He fell in love with this noted beauty when he saw her picture in the window of a Fifth Avenue photographer. At about that time Paul Helleu [a portrait painter] pronounced her “the most nearly perfectly beautiful woman in the world.” Stokes gave to her the Patchen Wilkes farm in Kentucky. One of his birthday gifts to her was Beuzetta, a famous horse in its day, for which he paid $15,000.
In 1900 Mrs. Stokes divorced him. She afterward married Captain Philip Lydig. Some years after their divorce Mrs. Lydig became engaged to marry the Rev. Dr. Percy Stickney Grant, but they reconsidered when Bishop Manning forbade their marriage on the ground that she was divorced.
Married Again in 1911
In 1907, shortly after he built the Hotel Ansonia, Mr. Stokes was the defendant in a misdemeanor proceeding instituted by the Health Department, which charged that he had violated the Sanitary Code by harboring pigs and game on the roof of the hotel. Mr. Stokes settled the case by giving the pigs and geese, which were said to be of rare pedigreed stock, to the Central Park menagerie.
On Feb. 11, 1911, he married Miss Helen Elwood of Denver, who was then 24 years old.
On June 7, 1911, Lillian Graham and Ethel Conrad, chorus girls, had a dispute with Mr. Stokes in their apartment at Broadway and Eightieth Street. Both opened fire on him with pistols, and three Japanese ran in and attacked him by jiu-jitsu methods. Mr. Stokes was wounded three times in the legs. He was so badly hurt by the Japanese assailants that an operation was necessary. The two women were prosecuted, but were acquitted.
In 1919 Mr. Stokes started a suit for divorce and was beaten. Through a technicality, however, the verdict did not become binding. He tried again and again was beaten. Mrs. Stokes then sued for a legal separation and obtained it. In another suit Mr. Stokes tried to prove than an ante-nuptial agreement was in existence by which his wife had waived, for herself and children, all claims on his estate. Mr. Stokes was defeated in this action. He was charged with entering into a conspiracy to suborn perjury against his wife, was brought to trial on that charge in Chicago in 1925 and acquitted.
Mr. Stokes wrote one book. It was a tract on eugenics entitled, “The Right to Be Well Born.” In it he discussed his experiences as a horse breeder in Kentucky and touched on his own lineage as a descendant of the Montepedons [??]. He argued in favor of careful selection and breeding of human stock, for the improvement of the race, and suggested to legislators the experiment of registering members of the laboring classes so that they might reproduced “their actual value,” and so that employers, by looking up the genealogical records of prospective employes, could estimate the amount and quality of the work of which they were capable. The publishers sued Mr. Stokes to recover $5,000 which they had spent on the publication of this book.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 19, 1926
W.E.D. Stokes Dies;
Well Known for Divorce Trials
Multi-Millionaire Made Noted Five-Year
Attempt to be Free From Second Wife
W. E. D. Stokes, 73-year-old multimillionaire, well-known hotel owner and horse breeder, died of double pneumonia at 11 o'clock today in his home, 238 W. 73d st., Manhattan. He had been ill for less than a week. None of the family was at his bedside.
Inheriting an estate of $11,000,000 from his father, Mr. Stokes’ career was marked by financial successes, but he was perhaps better known for divorce actions and lawsuits, the most notorious of which was his five-year attempt to divorce his second wife, Mrs. Helen Elwood Stokes, whom he married in 1911 when he was 58 and she was 24 years old.
Criminal Action Follows
The action failed and was followed by a criminal action in Chicago instigated by Mrs. Stokes, who charged that her aged husband, "with whom I never spent a happy moment," had conspired to defame her character.
When the jury refused to convict him in March of last year, Stokes publicly declared that the remaining years of his life would be devoted to "trying to do some good in the time that is left me."
The case of Stokes vs. Stokes was one of the country's famous divorce actions. Max D. Steuer, who later successfully sued his client for legal fees, represented Stokes. Samuel Untermyer was counsel to his wife.
Father Left Him Millions
Stokes, was born in 1853. His father, James Stokes, a banker, left him millions. But when the second Mrs. Stokes sued for dower rights it was revealed that the estate had diminished to $7,238,000.
After graduating from Yale University in 1874 he went into business with his father, showing much talent for finance and real estate operation. In 1905 he built the Ansonla Hotel, Broadway and 73d st., which often figured in his divorce action. His present home is directly opposite the hotel.
Stokes' first marriage, to the woman who later was widely known as Mrs. Philip Lydig, took place in 1895. Mrs. Lydig, who in recent years was said to have been engaged to the Rev. Percy Stickney Grant, was then Rita Hernandez de Alba Acosta, the daughter of a wealthy Cuban. Paul Helleu, the painter, described her as "the most nearly perfectly beautiful woman in the world."
Divorces Him Secretly
They had one child, W. E. D. Stokes Jr., known to his friends as "Weddie." In 1900 Mrs. Stokes divorced him secretly, alleging infldelity. At the second Mrs. Stokes' dower action his first wife testified that Stokes had cruelly beat her.
In 1911 Stokes married Helen Elwood of Denver, Col. They had two children, James, now 12, and Helen Muriel, now 11.
One of the hotel man's hobbies was the breeding of thoroughbred horses. He owned the Patchen Wilkes Stock Farm in Kentucky and operated it until two years ago, when he turned it over to "Weddie."
After two years litigation in his suit against his second wife, the Court ruled that Stokes had failed in his charges but that Mrs. Stokes was not entitled to a divorce on her side, as she had written endearing letters to her husband during the period of "cruel treatment." Soon Stokes obtained a retrial of the case.
Wife Gets Children
In addition to Edgar T. Wallace, wealthy California oil man. and "Weddie" Stokes, his own son by the first wife, Hal C. Billig, millionaire clubman, also was named as correspondent by Stokes. Billig later sued Stokes for $50,000 damages. With the civil and the criminal suits ended Mrs. Stokes started separation proceedings which resulted in an agreement calling for a $600,000 trust fund and giving the custody of the children to the mother.
Soon after Stokes was sued not only by Mr. Steuer, his chief counsel, but also by Nugent & Nugent, who asked for $61,000 fees. Other suits by lawyers and businessmen piled up on the aged hotel man.
He is survived by his wife and three children. Funeral services will be read on Saturday by his nephew, Canon Anson Phelps Stokes of Washington Cathedral, and interment will be in Greenwood Cemetery.
|A sampling of Stokes' often petty lawsuits