Monday, March 20, 2023

Death of a Salesman: John N. Willys

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

 John North Willys

When an automotive tycoon and multi-millionaire died unexpectedly, leaving a highly unorthodox will, the stage was set for a scandal that would fascinate the public. In many national newspapers coverage would take up full pages, not so in Elmira. It was 1935, and the tycoon was John North Willys, a beloved former Elmiran, who had started his empire in Elmira before moving away. His will left 65 percent of his fortune to Florence, his bride of just one year, and the rest to his daughter, Virginia.  Virginia, a 24-years-old, socialite who had been married twice by this time, had expected to inherit her father's millions. Not a penny was left for his first wife, to whom he had been married for 37 years. Not a penny was left for his sister and their families, or any other relatives or business associates.

Moreover, his will had been revised only recently to exclude these relatives, while Willys lay in a hospital bed, recovering from a heart attack.

The scandal that erupted, lasted throughout the fall and into the spring. The first lawsuit challenging the will was filed by Willys's former secretary and was followed by others from his daughter, one of his sisters, a nephew, and finally a niece. Newspapers across the nation picked up on the story and covered the legal proceedings in great detail. Papers posted headlines like “Two Strong-Willed Women,” “War Over Willys’ Will,” and “Why the Barber’s Daughter Must Fight for her Cinderella Millions,” and filled entire pages with text and photographs of the family’s lavish lifestyle. It was the height of the Great Depression.

In addition to his business investments, Willys’s fortune included a notable collection of priceless paintings, tapestries, expensive jewelry, and properties in a variety of locations, including Toledo, OH, New York, NY, and Palm Beach, FL.

Casa Florencia, Palm Beach. House is no longer standing

It was a long way from where the fledgling bicycle shop owner from Canandaigua, NY, had begun his career.

The skill that guided John North Willys throughout life was his sharpened ability to see opportunities and make sales. He married his hometown sweetheart Isabel and the two moved to 311 Grove Street, in Elmira. At 19, after seeing how popular bicycles were, he started a sales and repair shop.

Willys soon realized that automobiles, not bikes, were the future, and he took over a car dealership. Frustrated when he couldn’t get automotive parts fast enough, he convinced others to help finance his purchase of the struggling Overland car division of the Standard Wheel Company. Once that was secured, he rebuilt the company, increased production, and renamed it the Willys-Overland Company. 

Looking to increase sales, Willys reconnected with Alexander P. Morrow, a friend from his Elmira bicycle days. Morrow agreed to his company helping produce additional parts for cars. In 1916, the Morrow Company became the Willys-Morrow Company and was churning out car parts that would make Willys-Overland the nation’s second largest producer of automobiles during the early twentieth century. When the Willys-Morrow company went into receivership, Willys took over as chairman of the board, and despite ups and downs, Willys’s personal wealth grew into millions of dollars.

Isabel van Wie Willys

In 1911, the couple had Virginia, their only child. Growing up, she wanted for nothing, and her parents doted on her. When it came time for Virginia to be presented in society, not content with the ordinary, her father arranged for her debut before the Queen of England at the Court of St. James. It was 1929.

Virginia Willys

En route by boat, Virginia fell in love with Luis Marcelino De Aguirre, a recently divorced, older, and very wealthy Argentinian rancher. Over her parents’ objections, the two made plans to marry in England. Back in the states, her parents booked passage to England on the next boat. It was during this crossing, that Willys started a friendship with 32-year-old Florence Dingler Dolan, a socialite from New York City. Looking for a fresh start, Florence was heading to Europe to escape an abusive husband.

Florence Dingler Dolan

That same spring, in 1929, Willys sold his Willys-Overland shares and retired from business. Selling months before the stock market crashed, he made a substantial amount of money and now looked for something new to do. He gave generously to the Republican Party, and in 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed him as the first US ambassador to Poland. He would hold the post for two years, and during this time, he took the opportunity to set up and maintain a house in Paris for his young mistress.

In 1932, Willys announced that he was going back into business. He resigned his ambassadorship and returned to the states. By now, Florence, had divorced her husband.

In January 1935, stockholders elected Willys President of Willys-Overland. He was tasked with reorganizing the company, which had experienced financial difficulties.

After 37 years of an outwardly pleasant marriage, his wife Isabel filed for divorce under Florida’s 90-day quickie divorce law, blaming Willys for extreme cruelty. Her divorce was granted July 30th. Two hours after the divorce was finalized, Willys married his now 37-year-old mistress and they promptly left for an extended European honeymoon. They returned to the States the following May.

Florence, who had a passion for horse racing, insisted they leave immediately to attend the Kentucky Derby. During the races, Willys experienced a major heart attack. While recovering in a Kentucky hospital, Willys changed his last will and testament to exclude his ex-wife and limit his daughter’s inheritance, and deny anyone who contested it.

The couple returned to New York where Willys suffered an embolism and died on August 26, 1935.

The multiple lawsuits contesting his will took up much of the next nine months until the disputed will went to probate. In May 1936, all challenges were denied.

In his obituary, The New York Times listed three maxims that guided the businessman:

1.       Profits are in goods delivered—not in orders.

2.    . Tell the truth to your banker—and make him believe in you.

3.      Let your men know that you work harder than they do.

Seventy-three years after he died, salesman John North Willys was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, for having one of the most acute business minds of his time.

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