Imagine waking up tomorrow and seeing on the front page of the Sarasota Herald the notice that John Ringling’s exaggerated parsonage, Ca’d’Zan was going to be sold on the steps of the courthouse to satisfy a judgment.
Shocking would describe it best. But on December 7, 1936, that is precisely what was served to the citizens of sarasota.
It wouldn’t happen. Ringling had died five days earlier and his death had prevented the sale. On December 2, Sarasota learned that the Circus King had died at his New York apartment. He had been ill for some time. The Sarasota Herald’s banner headline screamed “JOHN RINGLING DIES IN NEW YORK.”
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He was 70 years old. With him when he died were his sister, Ida North, his sons John and Henry North, his ever-present nurse, Ina Sanders, his doctor and his longtime friend Frank Hennessy.
His final years had been grueling for the man whose grand developments, world-class museum and art school, circus winter quarters and storybook mansion helped put Sarasota on the map.
He worked hard to lay the foundation for his adopted town to enjoy a reputation as the cultural center of the Gulf Coast. What should have been the great man’s golden age was fraught with betrayal, marital strife, lawsuits, economic setbacks and disease.
Every facet of his later years seemed to fall under a dark cloud. Perhaps saddest of all, control of the circus, the basis of his and his brother’s hard-earned success, was wrested from him by Sam Gumpertz, a former close friend and business associate who wouldn’t even of him on the circus grounds. (As Ringling biographer David Weeks put it, Gumpertz and the Charles Ringling family “had the grace” to avoid the funeral.)
He and Owen Burns, who led many of Ringling’s grandiose projects as well as his own, spent a lot of time in bitter litigation. His former private secretary of many years, Richard Fuchs, turned on him with a vengeance and wrote a lengthy rant exposing all of Ringling’s personal flaws and questionable business dealings.
The embattled Ringling was also strapped for cash (it was reported that he had $311 available) and many of his assets were mortgaged to safekeeping.
He came to distrust those he once treasured, especially nephew John Ringling North, who Ringling said sold him short on a business transaction when he desperately needed all the money. that he could muster.
John and Mable Ringling had no children, and John and Henry Ringling North, whose father had died, were their surrogate sons. Mr. John’s brother Charles died in 1926, and Charles’ wife Edith, who was never close to John due to his condescending attitude towards her, became his adversary for control of the circus.
Ida, the only sister of the Ringling clan, was dear to him, and during the lean years of the Great Depression, they helped each other.
Ringling’s final will was written in New York on May 19, 1934. The document was eagerly awaited by many: enthusiastic locals to whom he owed small sums for services rendered, staff. Family members and the state of Florida waited in the wings for their piece of the pie.
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According to Weeks, in his book “Ringling, The Florida Years 1911-1936,” claims ranged from a meager $3.25 owed to the Sarasota Herald, up to $13 million to the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
As the Ringling family dynamic was often controversial, often reported in the press, some locals were simply interested in seeing what the big man left behind and to whom. (To appease their curiosity, the entire will and its codicil were printed in the Sarasota Herald on May 5, 1937.)
Ringling’s second wife, Emily, whom Ringling testified about in his lengthy divorce suit was killing him, probably wasn’t expecting much and he didn’t disappoint her. The third provision stated: “To my wife, Emily Hague (sic) Ringling, I give and bequeath the sum of one dollar ($1.00) only.”
After stipulating that his debts and funeral expenses would be paid as soon as possible after his death, the second provision called for the museum, his house and its contents to be donated to the State of Florida, noting that if they did not agree, he will have to go to the city of Sarasota. He also ordered that the museum always be called the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art “without anyone having power to change that name”.
Of the remainder of his estate, half was left to trustees he appointed John and Henry North and Randolph Wadsworth, husband of his niece, Salome. The other half was bequeathed to Ida.
But between May 1934 and November 1935, Mr. John had a dramatic turnaround. Whatever affection he once felt for John North was replaced by an antipathy based on his belief that North had cheated him out of a business deal. The resentment spread to his sister and Henry.
According to Weeks, citing Eugene’s New York prosecutor Garey Ringling, “He was unmistakably angry and resentful of John North and feared him.”
Consequently, Ringling decided that John and Henry would be struck from his will and that Ida’s bequest would be limited to $5,000 per year. A codicil to that effect was quickly—too quickly—drafted.
As he left his apartment in New York, on the train to sunny Sarasota, the only place he could find respite, he summoned Garey. As Weeks describes the scene, Ringling was to be driven to the station with Nurse Sanders when his attorney arrived.
As Garey had never seen the last will, he advised Ringling against drafting the codicil in a hurry. Weeks quoted the attorney: “I insisted that he come back with the will…and then we would write the codicil.”
But as usual, Mr. John went his own way, and the document was handwritten on the spot.
Garey was unaware that the Norths had been named executors of the estate and trustees of the museum. As such, they were given “full power and authority in their discretion” to manage his real estate and investments.
The hastily drafted codicil stated: “For good and sufficient reasons for me, I have determined that none of these nephews shall receive anything in any form, form, or manner from my estate.”
So, satisfied to have taken his revenge on his nephews, he left for Ca’ d’Zan for a well deserved rest and recuperation.
The tangled web of John Ringling’s convoluted financial affairs, stalking creditors, bitter family rivalries, competing state and local governments, and a despised ex-wife took ten years to weave its way through probate. (It was said that at one time or another, every Sarasota attorney was involved in some facet of the document.)
While Mr. John’s wish to disinherit the Nords did not materialize, it was through the diligent efforts of John North that the circus continued in the Ringling family, and that the museum and mansion remain now and for always a gift to the people of Florida and its legions of visitors.
As Weeks said, “In time, the executors and their attorneys succeeded. In the end, they benefited personally; but the greatest benefit occurred, as Ringling had anticipated, to the generations of museum visitors who experienced the Ringling legacy.
Jeff LaHurd grew up in Sarasota and is an award-winning author/historian.