Author interview with Bill Dedman of Empty Mansions

Bill DedmanBill Dedman

empty mansions pic

I am very pleased to post my recent interview with Bill Dedman, co-author of Empty Mansions – The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. Bill and his co-author, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., are very excited about the reader response to this fascinating story. In addition to hardcover, audio and e-book formats, Empty Mansions is now available in paperback form.

Here are Bill’s responses to the questions I prepared.

BCM: Empty Mansions began as a story about an empty house in Connecticut. When did you discover that this was a big enough story to be a book?

BD: The reader response to my series of articles on NBC’s website was surprising. I received more than 2,000 emails and letters, and it was the most popular story ever on the site. What began as a feature about empty mansions and a mysterious owner named Huguette Clark turned into an investigation of the people managing her money, and then a fight over her money. It seemed to me that early on there was enough information and mystery for a book. It would have been enough to have a child of a forgotten Gilded Age tycoon living in a hospital for the last twenty years of her life, while her fabulous homes full of treasures and art sat unoccupied. But then Huguette Clark’s story became stranger. Add in a nurse who received $31 million in gifts, a felon accountant, an attorney who is in the will, a grasping hospital, a fiancé in France, and relatives seeking her fortune. It was the story that never ended.

BCM: You conducted a massive amount of research to prepare to write Empty Mansions. And I read that your research was ongoing during the entire writing process. How big was your team of researchers and experts?

BD: Paul and I did most of the research. (Paul is Paul Clark Newell, Jr., my fellow author and Huguette’s cousin, who spoke with her frequently over a period of nine years.) We had help from a student who took on tasks, such as reading 20,000 pages of medical records and flagging days in the nurses’ notes that seemed different. Many institutions and individuals contributed memories and documents.

BCM: Was it difficult to decide when to end the story?

BD: We decided to end it before the trial, to get the book out before the trial was scheduled. Otherwise, much of our material would have been given away in daily news coverage of trial testimony and documents. And we couldn’t be sure whether a trial would begin on time. As it turned out, that was the right decision. A trial began, but was cut short after a day of jury selection, as the parties reached a settlement. The paperback edition of Empty Mansions includes an update on the settlement, and my news articles about the case are at http://nbcnews.com/clark/.

BCM: People are naturally drawn to stories about the wealthy and their lifestyles.   W.A. Clark certainly fits the bill for an engrossing read, before we even meet his daughter. Huguette was a very interesting person too, so shy, but nevertheless very interested in people. I liked that about her and think others must have felt the same way. I think her unusual way of coping with shyness made her all the more endearing. Besides the mystery of her empty homes and apartments, when did you know you were onto a special story about her?

BD: I was surprised, and pleased, that she turned out to be so fascinating, so alive and lively. For a recluse, she had a lot of friends, pen pals, telephone friends. She was a maintainer of relationships, keeping alive her family’s friendship and support of friends from generation to generation. She was relentlessly generous, and loved sending not only her “little gifts,” as she called them, her checks for $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000, but also toys for children — so long as the children sent a photograph of themselves with the gift.

BCM: I’m sure having the input from your co-author, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., was very valuable, especially his telephone conversations with her. How did you and Paul first come in contact with each other?

BD: Paul and I were introduced by one of the relatives. Paul is not, as you know, one of the relatives who challenged Huguette’s last will and testament. He’s not a nephew, not in line to inherit if the will were thrown out, but a cousin. (His father and Huguette were first cousins. To put it another way, Paul is descended not from Huguette’s father but from Huguette’s father’s sister.) I have to say a word for Paul, who has been a wonderful equal partner in this book: One might expect that a relative would try to shade the story to protect the reputation of Huguette’s father, Sen. W.A. Clark, whose name is remembered mostly for political corruption, but Paul was steadfast in saying, let’s get it right, let’s make sure it’s accurate.

BCM:  I read that before you met Paul, he had been working to finish a book his father had started about the Clark family. Is he still working on this separate book.

BD: We’ve discussed the possibility of doing a book just on the senator. The question is, did we already tell the most interesting 90 pages of his story, or should he have his own full biography. There is a lot of political and financial history that we left out or summarized.

BCM: Is there audio of Paul’s conversations with Huguette? If so, are these conversations available to readers?

BD: Yes, the audio version of our book includes about 20 minutes of Paul and Huguette in conversation. Empty Mansions is available in four flavors: a hardcover book, a paperback, the electronic book (such as Kindle or Nook), and an audio book that can be downloaded from iTunes or Audible or similar services. On the audio book, readers can hear Huguette describe how she and her family had tickets on the Titanic’s return trip, and how, as she explains matter-of-factly, “We had to take another boat.” And she remembered that ship’s name, too. She was incredibly lucid and elegant, with a good sense of humor and an iron will.

BCM: What’s interesting to think about is whether Huguette was happy in her life. While reclusive in many ways, she did reach out to people and had many meaningful relationships. My impression of her hospital years was that she was actually quite happy there. And I do think she cared about a great many people. Do you think she led a happy life during these years?

BD: Yes, people often assume, incorrectly I believe, that she became a recluse by going into the hospital. You have it right: She was quite reclusive for years, and going into the hospital made her be more sociable, with visitors and doctors and nurses. If she was ever sad, she didn’t show it. Her conversations with Paul, her correspondence — none of it is sad, and all of her circle of friends and staff and independent doctors and nurses describe her as chipper and full of good memories.

BCM:  You leave the reader to decide whether the people Huguette was close to during her hospital years took advantage of her. What’s your opinion?

BD: It’s not my job to have opinions. We tried to leave room for people to choose their own sides. For example, consider Huguette’s daytime private-duty nurse, Hadassah Peri, whose family received $31 million in gifts from Huguette over two decades. If someone wants to be outraged that the nurse received so much in gifts, that’s OK with me. If they want to stress that she worked for Madame for 20 years, much of that time for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, being away from her own children, that’s fair. And even the hospital’s grasping, which we detailed under the heading “Shakedown,” doesn’t surprise me — the temptation would have been so great; and any mention of the hospital’s efforts has to be balanced by pointing out how little effect it had, if any, on the writing of the will. The hospital had to be the least excited recipient of a $1 million bequest.

BCM: What’s new with the foundation that is being set up to house Huguette’s doll collection and other art in the Santa Barbara home? Will it be a private exhibit or a museum that’s open to the public?

BD: It’s too soon to say. The arts foundation, the Bellosguardo Foundation, doesn’t have board members appointed yet, doesn’t own the house yet. I was able to visit the house recently — that story and photos are at http://nbcnews.com/clark/ — and similar tours have been given to potential members of a board. Or to put it another way, potential donors. The foundation will have to decide whether it pours money into keeping Bellosguardo as a public place for the arts — concerts? tours? an art museum? — or whether it would do more good by selling the house and using that money to promote the arts. We’ll see.

BCM: Some of the jewelry that was auctioned off was just beautiful! Did you get to see any of these pieces?

BD: I did see the jewelry pieces before the auction. And we have many photographs on our website, http://emptymansionsbook.com. You can see how the jewelry pieces looked when Huguette’s safe deposit box was opened, and there were the jewels — $18 million worth — still in their original boxes from Cartier and other fine jewelers. Our website now contains hundreds of photos of Huguette’s houses, art collection, her own paintings that she made, and her family.

BCM:  Do you have a sense of whether the art collection to be auctioned will go to a museum or a private collector?

BD: The sales of most of the items will be June 18 at Christie’s in New York. Who knows who the bidders will be. I do hope that some of Huguette’s own paintings, which she created, will end up at her house in Santa Barbara. I suppose that will require that someone there buy the items at the auction — which partly benefits the Bellosguardo Foundation — and then donate them to the foundation for display in her house.

BCM: It’s exciting to think there may be an Empty Mansions movie in the works now that Hollywood director Ryan Murphy (creator of “Glee” and “American Horror Story”) has optioned the film. What’s the next step in this process?

BD: We’re waiting to hear whether Mr. Murphy will write or direct the film himself. It’s too soon to say. I hope that a film will be entertaining and also will preserve Huguette’s dignity as a surprising person.

BCM: It’s been so fun interviewing you, Bill. Thanks so much for taking the time to appear on my blog site!

BD: I appreciate your kindness. Paul and I have been bowled over by the reaction from readers. We’ve had the best possible experience. Thank you.

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