Bill Cornwell and Tom Doyle spent 55 years building a life together in a one-bedroom apartment within the modestly-sized, West Village brownstone that Cornwell owned and rented out to other tenants until he died two years ago.
When Cornwell died in 2014, Doyle told local paper The Villager about how they first got together—and moved into the house:
“We met in 1958 or ’59 at Riis Park Beach,” Doyle recalled. “We lived for a while on W. Fourth St. and then we found an apartment on Bank St. for $69 a month.
“There was a Chinese egg-roll plant on the block and you could smell it. Uta Hagen’s studio was right across the street,” Doyle added.
“In 1961, we heard about this garden apartment on Horatio St. It was the Meat Market back then,” Doyle continued. “Trucks would roll up the street and bones would fall off the back. The landlord was asking $95 a month and we took it.”
Cornwell purchased the building about a decade later. Now, it is estimated to be worth millions. As part of his will, Cornwell stipulated that the apartment building be left to Doyle, to whom he was never officially married.
But, as the New York Times recently reported, a number of Cornwell’s surviving nieces and nephews are challenging Doyle’s claim to the building because of a slight error the men made when creating the will.
New York law requires that two witnesses be present during the signing of a will, but there was only one person there when Cornwell specified who he wanted his assets passed onto, technically rendering the document invalid and meaning that Cornwell’s next of kin would be the legal owners of his things.
Cornwell’s nieces and nephews are now arguing the apartment building is rightfully theirs by law and their uncle would have made sure that his will was valid and enforceable if he’d really wanted his partner to receive it after his death. Cornwell’s niece Carole DeMaio went as far as to call into question whether or not her uncle was ever actually in a romantic relationship with Doyle, instead suggesting that the two had merely been “great companions.”
“He had 50 years to put Tom’s name on any of these papers,” DeMaio insisted. “The will was never a valid will.”
In an article written about the dispute in May by Cornwell and Doyle’s lawyer, Arthur Schwartz, Doyle explained why he and Cornwell never married:
Marriage for gay partners [in New York] became legal in 2013. “We were talking about getting married,” Tom told me. “Bill even sent away for two rings. But we’d have to make two trips, one for the license and one for the ceremony, and we were both north of 85. And after a lifetime together, marriage doesn’t mean that much.”
Now, Doyle and Cornwell’s family are taking their fight over real estate to court. Schwartz is arguing that even though the two men were never married by New York law, the courts should recognize the couple’s 1991 trip to Pennsylvania where they adopted a sign as a sign of their commitment to one another.
“I thought there was an injustice,” Schwartz told the Times. “Because this was clearly the will of Bill Cornwell.”