Triumph of the wills From Janis Joplin to Beryl Buck, when it comes to great wills—a few have truly passed the testament... by M at t hew St af for d
last will and testament is a handy way to let your friends and family know how you feel about them after you’ve safely escaped into the great beyond, out of reach of both fawning gratitude and a punch in the nose. Where there’s a will there’s a way to express devotion, register disenchantment, apply the hotfoot, let out a little long-latent hostility and make one ﬁnal statement about who you are and what you believe in, all from the safety of a sealed envelope and six feet under. It’s the ultimate, richly anticipated, often surprising farewell broadside. There’s nothing especially complicated about writing a will, particularly for the majority of the population who don’t have a lot to bequeath anyway. No lawyer is required. All you have to do is write out, in your own hand, how and to whom you want to distribute your worldly goods. Mention somewhere that you’re of sound mind and old enough to know better, then sign it and date it. Make sure not to add anything below the signature, or to try and disinherit your spouse—nothing doing in a community property state—or to require your potential heirs to commit naughty or otherwise illegal acts to earn their inheritance. Oh, and no photocopies, please. A last will and testament isn’t absolutely necessary, of course; if you die without having written one (aka “intestate”), your stuff will be divided among your heirs, or if there aren’t any heirs your estate will be liquidated and deposited in the state
Larkspur resident Janis Joplin bequeathed dough for a raging party for all her friends—sadly, the chanteuse could attend in spirit only.
coffers for, hopefully, the public good. The other, more satisfying option is to spend everything you have before you kick the bucket, but if you absolutely insist on leaving some- W.C. Fields couldn’t leave this mortal coil without one ﬁnal parting The Beryl Buck legacy lives on today through the Buck Institute, above, as well as the thing behind, shot at the institution of marriage. philanthropy of the Marin Community Foundation. here are a few examples of massive private oil reserves. The foundalive ﬁsh, all wearing white scarves in honor afterlife bequests, requests and manifestos tion tried to break the trust’s Marin-only of the man who perished rather than eat his from history ancient and modern. requirement, with some success, and fellow-creatures.” (Shaw also directed that The oldest known will is carved on the when the dust settled the Buck Institute the bulk of his $1,028,252 estate be used tomb of Nek’ure, the son of an Egyptian for Research on Aging, the country’s ﬁrst to develop a British alphabet of 40, rather pharaoh. Upon his death in 2601 B.C., independent biomedical research center than 26, letters.) W.C. Fields, meanwhile, the prince, having pondered his bequests devoted exclusively to age-related diseases, left $10,000 to his wife, $25,000 to his et “while living upon his two feet was safely housed in a snappy mistress and a variety of carefully chosen and not ailing in any respect,” I. Pei-designed setting up in I.M. possessions (including “two ﬂy catchers”) left 14 towns and two estates N Novato. to assorted cronies. to his wife, three children and Another Marinite, Janis Just plain folk can cook up fairly goofy by b y a woman whose relationship J Joplin (“resident of the city of last wills and testaments too. NineteenthMatthew M at t hew to the deceased is lost in the Larkspur, California”), knew century British philosopher Jeremy BenStafford St a f f o r d sands of time. Other bequests how to spread her postmortham left his entire estate to London Hospihave been more public-spirittem dough around too. In tal with the proviso that his remains preside ed. In 1829 James Smithson, a her will (updated three days over future board meetings. Bentham’s ﬂesh British chemist with a bulgbefore she died of a heroin and organs were duly removed, his skeleton ing inheritance of his own, overdose in October 1970), was reassembled and dressed in his garleft half-a-million dollars to the U.S. she left $2,500 for a party “so my ments, a wax life mask was placed over his government to create “an establishment for friends can have a ball after I’m gone.” skull, and he was seated in an armchair in a the increase and diffusion of knowledge The all-night wake at the Lion’s Share in glass and mahogany case where he presided among men”—known to us today as the San Anselmo, with 200 guests and music for...92 years. One John Bowman, a great great and good Smithsonian Institution. by Creedence, Big Brother, the Airplane believer in reincarnation, created a trust In his 1896 will Alfred Nobel, the guilt- and the Dead, as well as white wine, hash fund to pay servants to maintain his 21ridden inventor of dynamite, directed brownies and bad behavior, was by all acroom mansion and prepare dinner every that his fortune be invested in income- counts a splendid sendoff. evening until he and his deceased wife and producing securities that would subsidize Other famous folk have settled their daughters, um, returned. (His wishes were the ﬁve annual monetary prizes (in phys- affairs in equally distinctive fashion. Peter carried out for 59 years.) More prosaically, ics, medicine, chemistry, literature and the Great’s will included a detailed plan for Quaker State heiress Eleanor Ritchey left peace) that bear his name to this day. And the conquest of Europe. Napoleon directed $14 million to her 150 stray dogs. in 1945, a little-known stage actor named that his head be shaved and the hair divided The last word, though, has to go to Conrad Cantzen bequeathed $226,608.34 among his friends. Texas statesman-icon Margaret Nothe, a Philadelphia houseto Actors Equity in New York to establish Sam Houston wrote that he would like “my wife, whose cogent, concise last will and a Shoe Fund for struggling players in need sons taught early an utter contempt for testament, tucked into her handwritten of footwear—a program that’s still going novels and light reading.” Charles Dickens collection of recipes under “Chili Sauce,” strong. asked the mourners at his funeral to “wear was found legally binding: “4 quarts of Marin County’s most famous last will no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hatband, ripe tomatoes, 4 small onions, 4 green and testament was philanthropic as well. or other such revolting absurdity,” while peppers, 2 teacups of sugar, 2 quarts of Beryl Buck bequeathed most of what was Mormon leader Brigham Young’s will carecider vinegar, 2 ounces ground allspice, thought to be a $12 million estate to the fully divided his $2.5 million estate among 2 ounces cloves, 2 ounces cinnamon, 12 San Francisco Foundation when she died 17 wives and 48 children. Devout vegetarteaspoons salt. Chop tomatoes, onions and in 1975, stipulating that it be used to fund ian George Bernard Shaw’s will contained peppers ﬁne, add the rest mixed together Marin-based charitable causes. But when “directions for my funeral, which will be and bottle cold. Measure tomatoes when probate closed four years later the estate followed not by mourning coaches, but peeled. In case I die before my husband I was worth an awe-inspiring $262 million, by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, ﬂocks of leave everything to him.” Amen. < thanks to the sale of Belridge Oil and its poultry, and a small traveling aquarium of Bequeath to Matthew at mstafford@paciﬁcsun.com. OCTOBER 26 - NOVEMBER 1, 2012 PACIFIC SUN 11
Published on Oct 24, 2012