Every day I drive past three old abandoned homes and every day I wonder about the history of these houses and of the lives of the people who once lived inside them. Bill Dedman discovered something like this on a much grander scale, with many unanswered questions: two vacant mansions, one on the east coast, one on the west, still maintained and one fully furnished, ready for visitors. And then there were three more residences, large uninhabited apartments in a Fifth Avenue building, including one that took up the entire 12th floor. Their owner? Huguette Clark, a reclusive heiress who by choice spent the last twenty years of her life in a hospital bed and during that time gave away huge amounts of money to her caretakers and advisers, and to friends, godchildren and charities.
The ultimate question upon her death, just short of her 105th birthday, was who would inherit her $300 million fortune, the people who for two decades took care of her or corresponded with her regularly, or distant relatives from the large Clark family? Two wills emerged: one bequeathing her assets to the Clarks, another one signed soon after, naming her nurse, accountant, attorney, doctor and others as the recipients.
Dedman conducted a massive amount of research and collaborated with Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a relative of Huguette whose father had researched the Clark family. Newell developed a friendly correspondence and telephone relationship with Huguette and was not part of the Clarks who contested her will. The result is Empty Mansions, a detailed history of the Clark family and an in-depth look at Huguette’s life during her twenty-year hospital stay.
Empty Mansions begins with Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, an ambitious self-starter who made his riches in Montana’s copper mines, railroads, real estate and banking. A Montana senator, his brief political career was filled with controversy, during a time when bribery and other payoffs were common. After serving one term, he moved his family and riches east to New York, built a massive mansion on Millionaires’ Row where Huguette and her older sister Andrée were raised.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both the early history of W.A. Clark’s money-making, and the pictures of Huguette, her family and homes. I think Dedman and Newell have done a terrific job explaining what it was like to have grown up in such wealth, as well as respectfully portraying Huguette as a people-shy girl who became a woman who preferred to stay home and relate to the people she loved through cables, letters and phone calls.
I also think Huguette derived a great deal of joy from giving to others, but I believe some of her caretakers and hospital officials took advantage of her. Whether the Clarks deserved to receive part of her fortune is another issue. It seems right that the Santa Barbara home, Bellosguardo, should become the center of a foundation to house Huguette’s $1.7 million doll collection and other art. And now that I understand the Clark connection to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., I would like to plan a trip to see the rooms that hold much of W.A.’s art collection.
Empty Mansions was published before the settlement of Huguette’s contested will, however, all was recently finalized and the results are available on emptymansionsbook.com. Explaining this complicated scenario with its many players is not an easy task so thanks to Bill Dedman for sending me this link!
This is a great read, well-written and worth the time!
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