BY PAUL SCHINDLER | It was 1958, and 27-year-old Tom Doyle was working at a Manhattan advertising agency. A colleague, whom he had immediately struck up a friendship with, asked him to join two other friends out one evening, but the colleague paused after extending the invitation and asked, “You are gay, right?”
Doyle answered in the affirmative, but recalls that he was a bit awkward in doing so. It was the ‘50s, after all, and apparently both men were cautious types.
The bond took, and in time, the colleague invited Doyle out to a beach house he had inherited in Breezy Point in the Rockaways. It was there he got to know Bill Cornwell, who was about five years older and also worked in advertising, as an art director.
Their meeting changed both men’s lives. Today, 58 years later, Doyle is fighting to save the Horatio Street home he and Cornwell shared for more than half a century.
Following a brief courtship, Doyle moved into a studio apartment where Cornwell lived on West Fourth Street and they later moved into a fourth-floor walk-up on Bank Street, where they paid $69 a month. In 1961, they spied the opportunity for a ground-level floor-through in a townhouse on Horatio, garden included, and decided the extra $26 a month was worth it.
Not that moving from Bank Street to Horatio was the obvious choice back then, Doyle recalled. The nearby Meat Market was still in full swing, and trucks were coming and going at all hours. Bones sometimes flew off the trucks, and underneath a portion of the High Line since taken down, a pedestrian could happen upon an unwelcome carcass.
Perhaps of greater concern to the men was the opinion of their old neighbors on Bank Street. “It’s kind of slummy over there, isn’t it?,” Doyle recalled some of them asking.
But peer pressure, in the end, didn’t daunt them. When the building came up for sale in 1979, the couple decided it was a good investment.
“We thought we would have it for our retirement,” Doyle explained.
Doyle was a graphic artist in fashion advertising who often worked freelance, so Cornwell, with a steady full-time gig as an art director, had the deeper pockets in the family. It was Cornwell who purchased the building through an S Corporation, of which he made Doyle an officer. Throughout the succeeding 35 years until Cornwell’s death in 2014, Doyle said, he continued contributing his half of the apartment’s monthly upkeep.
Owning a West Village townhouse with four rental units above their apartment at times made for a colorful life. Larry Kert, the Broadway heartthrob who originated the role of Tony in “West Side Story” and was widely known to be gay, was a tenant. Decades later, so too was supermodel Kate Moss, during the time she was involved with Johnny Depp, who frequently dropped by.
Doyle and Cornwell’s relationship with their respective families reflected the changing cultural landscape for gay men during the 56 years they were a couple. Doyle’s parents enjoyed having Cornwell join their son on visits to their home up in the Hudson Valley, Cornwell often helping Mrs. Doyle in the kitchen since he loved to cook.
“I guess they figured he was my roommate,” Doyle said. “They never really understood why I wanted to go live in the big city.”
The couple also visited Cornwell’s family in California. Cornwell’s sister, Elsie, Doyle said, was close to her brother and subtle in her acknowledgement of their relationship.
“I’m glad Bill has someone to live with there in New York,” he recalled her telling him. “You never know what can happen to people.”
Elsie visited New York and was, at times, surprised by the sexual freedom apparent on the streets of Greenwich Village. Still, the fact of Doyle’s relationship with her brother remained unspoken.
With succeeding generations in the Cornwell family, what had been unspoken became acknowledged and accepted. Elsie’s daughter, Sheila McNichols, calls Doyle “Uncle Tom.” Her daughter’s fiancé, several years back, suggested, “You guys should get married.” Doyle’s own nieces also enjoyed a warm relationship with the couple.
After marriage became legal in New York in 2011, the men discussed it – that is, after Cornwell one day began fussing with Doyle’s ring finger, using a paper band to try to measure its circumference. When Cornwell came clean with what he was up to, Doyle recalled thinking, “Good, we’re one step closer.” Cornwell sent off for the wedding rings.
A neighbor, Doyle said, insisted he would rent a car and take them down to the Marriage Bureau on Worth Street, but for Cornwell, in poor health and with many pressing tasks undone – most importantly, a heart pacemaker unattended to – the day was never right for the wedding. Three days after Cornwell’s 88th birthday in June 2014, Doyle left Cornwell in their living room to run to the drug store only to realize he had forgotten something. After fetching what he needed, he called out, “Okay, I’m leaving again,” but realized he had gotten no response. When he peaked his head into the living room, he saw that his life partner of 56 years was gone. The couple never had the chance to place the rings Cornwell bought onto each other’s fingers.
In a legal filing submitted in connection with his fight for the home that Cornwell alone owned at the time of his death, Doyle wrote, “When Bill died, my life was turned upside down. I lost my best friend, partner and husband and spent a long time grieving over the unexpected loss.”
It was Sheila McNichols, he continued, that he turned to for “comfort, support, and guidance.”
McNichols and her husband have visited Doyle in New York on nearly a monthly basis since Cornwell’s death, and Doyle is clearly grateful for the help they have provided in managing the business affairs of the townhouse that his late partner oversaw – even if he has, at times, been perturbed by McNichols’ husband’s snooping around both the apartment and the building generally.
It was from a lawyer that McNichols engaged, Peter Gray, that Doyle learned that the will Cornwell drew up, leaving the building to him, was fatally flawed because it had only one of the two witness signatures required (see Arthur S. Leonard’s analysis). With no valid will, the property would instead go to four nieces and nephews of Cornwell’s, McNichols included.
Doyle recalls that McNichols’ initial reaction was that this outcome would be unfair, and Gray drafted a document in which she would assign her share of the building to Doyle in return for it reverting to her after his death. He understood that she would persuade the other three heirs to do the same.
But they would not, and it only slowly became clear to Doyle that he was at risk of losing his home. What Cornwell’s nieces and nephews proposed instead was that Doyle would receive $250,000 from the proceeds of selling the building – currently under contract for more than $7 million – a sale contingent on Doyle being allowed to continue living there for five years at the nominal rent of $10 a month.
“The plan I had for my remaining years has become totally distorted,” Doyle wrote in his legal filing. “Bill and I lived comfortably together for over fifty years. We always planned to use the rental income from 69 Horatio Street… to enjoy our remaining years in comfort together. I am now deeply concerned that if I do not receive my share of the estate I will be forced to live like a pauper.”
Doyle has now engaged attorney Arthur Schwartz, who is challenging the four nieces and nephews in Surrogate’s Court. According to Schwartz, there is no wiggle room on the requirement for two witness signatures on Cornwell’s will. Instead, he is arguing that Doyle is due the full inheritance based on his status as Cornwell’s husband. The couple never married in New York, nor did they ever register in New York City as domestic partners. The only legal paperwork attesting to their relationship are properly witnessed healthcare proxies and a joint bank account.
Schwartz maintains that time the two men spent together in Pennsylvania – in purchasing a dog in 1991 and on a number of vacation visits to a friend in New Hope – qualifies them as common law spouses there, a legal relationship not available in New York but available in Pennsylvania during the time Doyle and Cornwell spent there. New York recognizes valid common law marriages from other states, but to prevail, Doyle will have to convince the Surrogate’s Court to apply last year’s Supreme Court marriage equality ruling retroactively in Pennsylvania more than a decade earlier.
In other words, this is complicated litigation that, if successful, could be historic.
Cornwell’s nieces and nephews have not reacted well to Doyle’s efforts to stand up for himself.
Gray told the New York Times that the accommodation they offered Doyle in terms of a quarter million dollars and a guaranteed five years more in the apartment may be off the table. “I don't know if the nieces and nephews will still feel so benevolent after they’re sued,” he said.
In his court papers, Doyle termed the news from McNichols that the deal she originally offered had not been accepted by the other heirs “shocking,” but he told Gay City News the two remain “on cordial terms.”
“Sheila and I have sort of skirted around the subject,” he said. “She always says, ‘Oh, Uncle Tom, we love you.’”
Reached by phone, McNichols complained that Gay City News was “about the fourth publication that Tom’s attorney has set on me,” and declined further comment.
Another niece, Carole Ann DeMaio, was quoted in the New York Times as speculating that perhaps Doyle and Cornwell were just “friends” or “great companions.”
Asked by Gay City News whether that was an accurate characterization of what she said, DeMaio responded no, but declined further comment, saying, “I don’t trust anybody any more.”
Gay City News could not reach the two nephews who each stand to inherit a quarter of the $7 million estate. Doyle told Gay City News he never met either of them, and in court papers wrote that one, upon learning of Cornwell’s death, said, “Now I get a windfall from my rich uncle.”
Doyle has been buoyed by the response of neighbors and friends to news of his situation, including a pledge from the prospective buyer now in contract that they would happily buy from him and allow him to live out his days in the garden apartment. Still, the complexity and risks of the situation keep him worried, as well.
“Sometimes I think I’m in denial to a degree,” Doyle said.
Editor's note: As reader Mike Conway rightly noted, in the original posting of this story, I incorrectly generalized in using the word brownstone to describe what is in fact a brick townhouse.