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Oddly, the one post on my blog lisaunleashed.com that gets the most views, almost one per day, is Tobey Rhimes — World’s Richest Dog or Urban Legend? I surmise it’s because when you mix money and dogs together, you combine two of the most pervasive topics in our popular culture. Toby, a small white poodle belonging to Ella Wendel, the last heir of the $100 million family real estate fortune in New York City, was her sole survivor. She died in 1931. Rumors claimed that the dog inherited the fortune and passed it down to his heirs. When I wrote the original piece a few years ago, I had some evidence based on newspaper articles covering Wendel’s death that her Toby died 18 months after her owner and did not produce any puppies (or his own heirs) named Tobey Rhimes.
Since then, I’ve heard from a distant relative of Ella Wendel’s attorney and discovered some archival papers at Drew University (a major benefactor of the Wendel estate), that prove that Toby was a single dog, with no heirs, and wasn’t left a penny in the Wendel will, but was well cared for in life.
According to a 2008 Drew University article, based on the Wendel family papers located in the school’s archives, Ella liked “dogs, dog shows and dog-beneficence societies” and “her poodle, Toby, dined at a brass table, complete with velvet tablecloth and napkins, and slept in a miniature four-poster bed that was an exact replica of her own.”
I also located the index of the family papers and started to image what clues I might find in the boxes. I’m eager to look into Box 49 — Correspondence 1928-1929, 1930-1931, which may have a letter sent to a potential beneficiary to look after Toby once she passed away. Or Box 50 — Letters of Ella Wendel, 1908-1927. I bet I could trace all the Tobys she owned in this treasure trove. Or Box 54 ‑— Tipple-Wendel Correspondence, Wendel estate executors files and correspondence, which might indicate how they cared for Toby after Ella’s death. There are also undated photographs of Toby at the Irvington summer estate. But to know the real truth, if Ella left any instructions or money for her dog, I’ll just have to go and read for myself in Legal Documents Re: Last Will and Testament of Ella V. von Wendel.
According to a distance relative who e-mailed me, her great-great uncle was Ella’s attorney, and his daughter, also an executrix and beneficiary of the estate, was at Ella’s side when she died. If there were a trust set up for a dog and all of its descendants, her great-great uncle would have drawn it up, she said, and one of her cousins would probably have administered it. The relative told me, “A trust for a dog in the middle of the Depression would’ve been so unusual that someone in my family would’ve mentioned it. They would’ve complained about it. No one did so I doubt the trust exists.”
She further told me, “The residue of the estate was divided into 200 parts of which five parts went to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and one part to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That means three percent of the estimated $40 to $100 million estate indirectly went to animals.”
Fast forward 76 years and we have another high-profile New Yorker whose real estate fortune defines her. She dies and leaves a single, small white dog that she adores. But in this story, her will not only provides for her dog, but leaves the bulk of her $4-8 billion estate to charities “for the purpose of the care of animals.” Leona Helmsley passed away in 2007, making sure she also took care of her beloved 8-year-old Maltese “Trouble” in her will. She left the dog a $12 million trust for his care until his death. So the probate began to create the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. And then the lawsuits started.
By 2008, a judge determined that $12 million was too much to care for the dog and reduced it to $2 million and appointed a human beneficiary to care for the animal, since Trouble could not directly inherit the money, as per the laws of the United States, dogs are considered property.
In her will, the “Queen of Mean” who famously said, “Only the little people pay taxes” and was indicted for tax evasion, cut out two of her four grandchildren completely and left the bulk for animal charities. What followed in 2009, after the trustees doled out grants to some charities, was a lawsuit including two of the big animal rights groups, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Maddie’s Fund, a charitable foundation. The organizations were unhappy with the small amount of, or no money, they received in the trustee’s recommendations. The ASPCA didn’t think $100,000 was enough of a bequest.
According to The New York Times, Trouble died on December 13, 2010, and her death was not released to the public until six months later, in June 2011. She was “cremated and her remains were ‘privately retained,’ said a spokeswoman for the Helmsley Trust. In her will, Mrs Helmsley asked that Trouble’s remains be buried alongside her own, in the Helmsley mausoleum at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester County. But Jim Logan, a member of the cemetery’s board, said Mrs Helmsley’s lawyers knew the cemetery would abide by regulations that forbid the interring of nonhuman remains at human cemeteries. That said, mausoleums are considered private property and the Helmsley family had its own key. Might Trouble be buried alongside her mistress? ‘In all honesty,’ Mr. Logan said, ‘we don’t know.’”
And there you have it. While Ella may not have provided for Toby, at least we know where he is buried, alongside all his other poodle predecessors in Irvington, N.Y. As for Trouble, she may be up the road in Sleepy Hollow, but only Leona knows for sure.