on September 10, 2013
EMPTY MANSIONS will surely climb the best-seller list. The book about Huguette Clark, heir to an enormous fortune and mistress of several large, poetically empty properties, is easy to fall into and harder to remove oneself from. Although not an especially interesting person, Huguette is fascinating on the written page mostly for what she didn't do in life, rather than what she did. Usually biographies that hold readers captive are about creative, adventurous, and avant-garde individuals doing unusual activities and living fascinating lives. Huguette doesn't fall into those categories. Instead, she is a shy, retiring individual who withdrew from the world upon the death of her mother with whom she had a close relationship.
EMPTY MANSIONS is several stories in one. The first is that of Huguette's father, the ambitious W.A. Clark, who took himself on a classic American adventure from nothing to extreme wealth. His story is also the story of the American West, of the mining industry, and railroads. Once comfortable financially, Clark displayed his wealth in rather ostentatious manners such as the building of the Clark mansion in New York City, an intriguing but rather short-lived folly.
The second story within the book is really the story of Huguette's mother, Anna. As W.A. Clark's second wife, she bore him two children, but never had the status or respect in society that she may have desired. Anna seemingly lived for her daughters and when the elder one, Andree, died, she and Huguette became inseparable. During this period, however, the two did make use of their wealth through traveling, collecting art, and buying and furnishing houses. For those interested in symbiotic relationships between mothers and daughters, EMPTY MANSIONS will definitely provide interesting, thought provoking reading. For readers who liked THE SECRET LIFE OF THE LONELY DOLL by Jean Nathan, the story of author Dare Wright and her mother, Huguette's life might prove similarly intriguing; the difference, of course, being that Dare Wright was creative while Huguette was . . . .well, Huguette.
The third story in EMPTY MANSIONS is the story of the hard-to-understand Huguette and an outline of the last twenty years of her life. Suffering from skin cancer, she hid inside her grand New York apartment and put off going to the doctor's. When she finally called for one, she was admitted to the hospital and then, most curiously, never left. At the time she entered the hospital, Huguette had two very large New York apartments, a huge mansion on the coast of California, and a spacious country estate in Connecticut. There was plenty of money for Huguette to live as she pleased or to donate to charities she deemed worthy. After having her cancer treated and being proclaimed healthy, Huguette chose to remain in the hospital and live there for two decades until she died at age 104. The last section of EMPTY MANSIONS changes in tone a bit as the reader is thrust into the present day and reads about court cases still going on in 2013. All of the sensational newspaper headlines of the past few years telling the story of Huguette Clark flash by, page after page, as the reader puzzles over the ethics of doctors and nurses accepting large monetary presents from their patient and of accountants and lawyers whose roles in Huguette's affairs may have been questionable.
But above all, whatever else EMPTY MANSIONS is about, it leaves the reader pondering whether Huguette was merely sheltered and shy or whether she was emotionally immature or suffered from a mental illness. It does appear that her life would have been quite different if her mother had lived longer, if her sister hadn't died, or if she had a mother figure in her life to guide and direct her. As it turns out, her nurse, Hadassah Peri, may have emerged as just that figure. All that makes the story of Huguette and her money a most captivating read.
EMPTY MANSIONS is the perfect book for a long weekend at the seashore in the rain, for a few days snowbound in the mountains in a snug, warm cabin in winter, or for taking along on a cruise. No one will regret reading EMPTY MANSIONS as there is something to be learned about American history, wealth, and yes - about loneliness.
I can't quit thinking about this story and telling everyone Huguette's sad tale. After her mother's death, this super-wealthy heiress (who was obviously not "normal") withdrew from the world and descended into an unhealthy existence, locked away in her darkened apartment. (When you are super wealthy, you are not a hoarder, you have an assistant who curates your doll collection)
It makes me so sad that there was no one to be her advocate, a cautionary tale for financial and estate planning. When she finally got some medical help for the cancers that were literally eating away her face, the hospital, doctors, nurse and her sleazy accountant started pillaging her assets. It is staggering how much they made off with. Absolutely disgusting elder abuse.
That being said, I thought the book itself became bogged down in minute descriptions of every ounce of furnishings of the once-great Clark mansions, and the blow-by-blow descriptions of how W. A. Clark amassed his fortune. It really picked up steam after about 200 pages when it got into the meat of the story of how Huguette was abused by her larcenous caregivers. At first I was unsure if I could finish the book, but I read the last half in one sitting (literally - with my eyes bugging out).
on July 21, 2013
Reclusive millionaire Huguette Clark was a member of the wealthy Clark family copper mining dynasty, born amid mysterious circumstances in 1906 and dying in equally mysterious circumstances in 2011. A few years before her death, she attracted national media attention when it was discovered that she had left huge, luxurious mansions unoccupied for decades, and was secretly living in a spartan hospital room, despite large cash reserves and excellent health.
This book is a psychological detective story that will interest fans of early 20th century American and European art, high society and politics. Other themes include the destructive role of inheritances in wealthy family members' lives, and the difficulty of determining what constitutes mental illness and elder abuse.
Was Huguette Clark simply an eccentric who freely chose to isolate herself from the outside world to devote herself to art and a small circle of friends? Or was she an emotionally disturbed senior citizen hopelessly warped by a lifetime of privilege and subtly abused by her caretakers? Or both? This compelling, well-written story tries to present the evidence in a balanced manner, leaving this reader with unanswered questions.
At her birth, as the child of elderly Senator William Clark's late in life May-December second marriage, there are indications that her youthful mother was still his mistress, and that the couple actually never married. At Huguette's death at the age of 104, her relatives were embroiled in a legal battle with her lawyer, accountant, private nurse and long-term care hospital, all of whom apparently violated professional ethics codes by taking enormous sums of money from the increasingly frail woman during the last two decades of her life.
Co-authors Bill Dedman, a reporter, and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a relative and family historian, attempt to discover why a beautiful, kind, talented, financially generous woman with substantial professional artistic talent in painting and doll house construction and a scholar of Japanese culture and art, slowly retreated from her relatives, her homes and her Roaring Twenties upper crust party groups to an incredibly isolated existence.
I gave the book four stars instead of five because I felt it was a bit too long -- much of the first quarter of the book is devoted more to Huguette's father, the powerful and somewhat corrupt Senator Clark, than to Huguette herself. I felt the book would have been equally interesting if it had been a bit shorter.
At 400+ pages, Empty Mansions is a rather long book, so I thought I would skim through the first half, which chronicles the life of W.A. Clark, a Gilded Age millionaire who shrewdly invested in copper mines out west. He is the father of the main focus of the book -- his daughter, Hugette Clark, who lived to be 104 years old but was not seen in public for the last 70 or so years of her life. That's not a typo. Hugette Clark was an eccentric heiress whose concerns about privacy were obsessive. She is the female version of Howard Hughes. Another way to think of her is as a real life derivative of Miss Havisham, although Ms. Clark was not left at the altar, nor did she seem at all distraught over remaining single following a very brief marriage whose end she initiated.
So, as mentioned earlier, I thought I would just skim the first part of the book, since it takes place at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries and is more about Hugette's father than it is about her. However, the first few pages were so interesting that I just kept reading until I had finished every bit, including the notes and bib. The book is exceptionally well researched and thus presents an absorbing picture of America's social, economic and political landscape during the Gilded Age and on through the 20th century and the first several years of the 21st.
I came to like Hugette Clark, who was strangely childlike while also being quite astute about art, style, family loyalty and friendship. In today's dollars, her father's fortune was in the billions and as the only surviving child of his second, May-December marriage, Hugette inherited it all. Born in Paris in 1906, Ms. Clark spoke French fluently and considered herself as much French as American, perhaps more so. She became a good painter and developed a refined taste in art, investing in works by Monet, Manet and many other well known masters. She collected dolls and spent massive amounts of money having doll houses and their furnishings built from designs of her own. She was also incredibly generous, often to people she had never met but who were the children of old friends or who had been kind to people she loved. In one case, she sent an anonymous check for $25,000 (a very large amount for the 1960s) to a woman who had served as caregiver to one of Ms. Clark's property managers.
Her long life, which ended in 2011 at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, gave her ample opportunities to witness most of the life-changing breakthroughs and events of the 20th century, such as female suffrage, the civil rights movement, the moon landing and the advent of digital technology. Through it all, she remained unchanged, going about her days focused on her artistic pursuits, giving away personal gifts of money and jewelry, and writing checks for the private school tuition of the children of her maids and other retainers. She was seldom seen, even by those who conducted business for her, usually communicating with people by phone, letter or even through a closed door.
Sometime in her 80s, she developed skin cancer, which went untreated until one of her maids saw it and insisted she see a doctor. One was called in and he persuaded Ms. Clark to go to Doctor's Hospital for treatment. A small, boutique facility on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan, Doctor's protected Hugette Clark's privacy and because of this she ended up living there for many years, until it was purchased by Beth Israel Medical Center and then sold to a real estate developer. Ms.Clark then moved downtown to the main Beth Israel campus, although less by her own choice than through what can only be called blackmail by the head of Beth Israel, Dr. Robert Newman, who was the CEO of Beth Israel's parent company, Continuum Health Partners.
Dr. Newman and Beth Israel come off very poorly in the book and there is solid evidence to back up the author's claim that hospital fund raisers and Dr. Newman attempted to manipulate Ms. Clark into making a mega donation to their nonprofit corporation. Although she gave Beth Israel about $2 million, the hospital felt cheated when Ms. Clark finally gave in to pressure to make a will and then did not leave Beth Israel the funds it was seeking. Instead, she left the bulk of her still-substantial estate to her caregivers and to fund an arts foundation she had created to maintain her magnificent estate, Bellosguardo, in Santa Barbara, California. Shortly after she signed her will, Beth Israel -- apparently in retaliation -- moved Ms. Clark into a vastly inferior hospital room that had little light, no view and was located in the oldest wing of the facility.
And there were plenty of other institutions that tried to take advantage of Ms. Clark, such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which joined a group of Ms. Clark's half-nieces and nephews -- descendents of her father's first wife -- to challenge her will in court immediately following her death. The Corcoran had already received major gifts from the Clark family, first in the form of W.A. Clark's impressive art collection and later in checks that Hugette Clark wrote over the years in response to annual funding appeals. Plus the Corcoran was to receive an important Monet as part of Ms. Clark's will. But that was not enough for the museum, which thought it would get more if the relatives were successful in challenging the will. (They weren't.)
One of the most egregious and greedy exploiters of the elderly Ms. Clark was Citibank, where she and her mother before her (when the bank was still called First National City) kept their collection of precious jewelry. Not once but twice did Citibank contact Ms. Clark to tell her that jewelry of significant value had been either lost or stolen. The bank claimed to have no idea what happened to the jewelry and then refused to pay Ms. Clark for its true value, which was around $6 million. Instead, Citibank offered $3.5 million and when Ms. Clark resisted Citibank officials told her that if they had to pay the full cost a news story would result, and that would place her in the public spotlight. They did this knowing full well that Ms. Clark would protect her privacy at all costs and settle, which she did. Citibank's assertion that valuable jewels simply disappeared on two separate occasions strains credibility.
Authors Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Ms. Clark's, do a great job of presenting Hugette Clark not as a caricature, but as a real human being -- a sympathetic and kind person, albeit eccentric. They offer a nuanced portrait of an intriguing woman who valued money not for itself but for what it could do to help people she cared about. As a reader, I came to feel not merely compassion for this woman, but admiration. She resisted the social pressures, expectations and changing values of many people through several eras. She had her own moral compass and she stuck with it. Hers was a life that was lived differently, but lived well, and it was a life that is worth reading about in this deeply interesting book.
on August 2, 2013
Here at last is the "mystery" of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. The first half of the book describes her father W.A. Clark's rise from humble beginnings to multimillionaire copper magnate and onetime senator from Montana. This is a good story, but it ends with W.A.'s death and the demolition of his preposterously opulent New York mansion.
The rest of the book consists mainly of a chronicle of Huguette's caregivers, staff, and associates sponging money off her as she spent the last 20 years of her life in a hospital room. Even though she was healthy enough to go home, she wanted to stay at the hospital, and everyone was perfectly willing to take advantage of her eccentricity. The level of greed and ethical compromise is staggering. Hospital staff are not supposed to accept gifts from patients; to do so is grounds for dismissal. Yet, for two decades, her doctors and nurses happily pocketed thousands of dollars every week, and the hospital was constantly hitting her up for donations. Disgusting. Then we are treated to the details of the Clark relatives who suddenly pop out of the woodwork to contest the will which leaves most of Huguette's fortune to the people who were bilking her (but at least they were around and she knew them!) It's like a bad reality TV show.
Huguette herself was not an interesting person; even though she lived through the entire 20th century, she did not experience any of its significant events. She stayed at home, painted, played with dolls, and hardly ever spoke to anyone. She wrote insipid huggy-kissy letters to friends, but there's no indication that she ever said or did anything of real dramatic or historical interest. Aside from her marriage in 1928 (which lasted less than a year) and a bizarre long-distance celibate love affair with a French diplomat, there is no story to tell. Our authors spend some time describing Huguette's possessions and her paintings, but there are no photographs of any of this stuff so it's impossible to tell whether Huguette was a decent artist or not. You know the old saying "Pictures or it didn't happen." (edit: Apparently the actual release will be chock-full of pictures. My advance copy only had about 12, so this part of my criticism may not be applicable to the book you will get if you buy this.)
Basically two-thirds of this book is about a rich woman who NEVER DID ANYTHING. It's too long.
on September 15, 2013
I received a temporary Ebook of this title for review from Netgalley. Netgalley reviewers are not paid.
I think it's obvious from all the reviews that this book has something for everyone. Examples of Carnegie and Vanderbilt wealth, history, mystery, peculiarity, suggestions of chicanery and madness, families fighting over money--and a gentle, protective portrait of a woman and her century+-long life. It's not the kind of book I usually read, but I am interested in thee kind of stories (Grey Gardens--still haven't seen it!). Sidebar: I blame Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle for that.
Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter, was drawn into the story when he ran across one of Huguette Clark's untenanted mansions while house-hunting. He was not allowed onto the grounds and he was curious, but it's not the kind of story he usually does, either. A few years later, in New York, Huguette's story was making headlines. She spent the last 7,000 or so nights of her life in a hospital room--though she was not ill--and her palatial New York apartment, her mansions and estates, remained empty, save for caretakers and staff.
Did her lawyer, accountant, caregivers and the hospital take advantage of a frightened, incompetent, lonely woman? Did the far-flung family, who never saw her in the last twenty years of her life (by her choice, or theirs?), deserve to inherit her estate?
Dedman, a Pulitzer winner, has teamed up with Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette's, to create this tapestry of history and human interest story. Huguette's father made his fortune in the copper mines of Arizona and Montana--he was a contemporary of Vanderbilt and Carnegie, as well as their peer in wealth. Huguette was the daughter of a late-in-life second marriage. I leave it to the reader to discover all the scandal and wonder contained in these pages--there is plenty of both.
I especially loved the ending chapters of the book. I don't like revealing too many details of a book, or what's the point of reading? I will say that Dedman, who started out offended at the waste of maintaining empty properties not for sale, then drawn into outrage at the possibility that Huguette was being taken advantage of, in the end offers a multidimensional tale of a time and a life we can only wonder at. In the end, he is so tender that it's obvious he has fallen under Huguette's spell--as have all the men and women who really got to know her. As have I.
on September 10, 2013
Empty Mansions had me riveted at the authors' introductions! Often such beginnings are dry, leaving me eager to skip on to Chapter One, but not with this book! The mention of the 170 year span of time between a father's birth and a daughter's death, along with the dramatic changes in history that occurred during that time, is more than enough to make this book a page-turner for me. The collaboration of Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., on this project, must have been kismet. A superb investigative reporter on the East Coast and a Clark relative with great resources on the West Coast, leaves me with the sense that this book was demanding to be written.
The first portion of Empty Mansions fills us in on the adventurous life of Copper King, W.A. Clark, Huguette's father. Born in a time when America was young and the West unexplored, the brief descriptions of his personal successes and brushes with other history makers of that time has me begging to know more about this obscure historic figure; a sequel perhaps?
As the story moved on to Huguette, I abandoned my preconceived notions regarding her eccentricities and introversion. She was, indeed, those things, but decidedly so. By all accounts she was of clear mind and decisive. This doesn't mean she was immune to manipulation. I remain uncomfortable with the role of her lawyer, her accountant, and her personal nurse, as it appears professional boundaries have been crossed.
Huguette may have seemed odd by common standards, but she was not born into a common life; perhaps a life where privacy was worth far more than gold. I am reminded not to be too quick to judge. Huguette, it seems, lived her life the way she wished. She surrounded herself with whomever she wished or no one at all. My impression of Huguette, after reading Empty Mansions, is that she was lovely, charming, intelligent, talented and highly sensitive. The greatest loss is that she didn't let more people know it. I'm looking forward to the audio version of the book so I can hear her recorded conversations.
The final chapter on Huguette is yet to come. With the upcoming trial over her will, the greatest puzzlement for me is why family members, she never invited into her life, feel they deserve a piece of the pie, or should I say, an extra helping?
Several years ago a friend of mine alerted me to the story of Huguette Clark, a not-too-famous recluse who had untold millions and lived in seclusion most of her life but died in a hospital where she'd lived for the last decades of her life. It meant nothing to me at the time, although having untold millions is always a fun prospect. Then along comes this fascinating book coauthored by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the former being affiliated with NBC News, the latter being a somewhat distant relative of Huguette (his father being her first cousin). Suddenly, her story becomes fascinating. Add to that the fact that my friend often visits Butte, Montana, where there are still very physical remains of that fortune.
The book goes back to Huguette's father, William A. Clark, and his rags-to-incredible-riches tale, and his amassing of untold wealth - billions of dollars - his first family, the wife that died, the second wife who was his quite underage ward before their clandestine marriage in Europe, the birth of their two daughters, the early and tragic death of the elder daughter, and the lonely but pampered life of the second daughter, Huguette.
What follows is a nearly unbelievable story of Huguette's life in New York, growing up in her father's Fifth Avenue mansion until his death (in his eighties), then in her own floor-through apartment also on Fifth Avenue. She also owned a mansion in Santa Barbara, California, and another in New Canaan, Connecticut, in the latter of which she never even set foot or furnished. She was a patron of the arts, giving huge sums of money to artists and musicians here and abroad, shunning society and living a reclusive life in her Fifth Avenue apartment, collecting dolls and musical instruments and art. And she lived on and on and on, passing the century mark and then some. When she finally had no choice but to seek medical help because cancers had been eating away at her face, she checked into Doctors' Hospital, where she took up residence in one room, about as far a cry from her multi-room spread on Fifth Avenue as you can get. That hospital merged with Beth Israel and Huguette was eventually relocated to the latter, where she spent her remaining years, doling out checks right and left to various musicians, artists, and also her favorite nurse, a Filipina who devoted much of her life to Huguette and who herself became a millionaire thanks to Huguette's largesse.
Eventually, just before her 105th birthday, she died. And then the relatives descended. The last part of the book is their fevered battle with Huguette's accountant and lawyer to have her will annulled and to split the remaining millions, an expensive battle that eventually they lost. Huguette's fortune went to those people and organizations she wanted it to go to.
The book, which could have been a tedious, drawn-out description of a life of untold wealth and not a lot of happiness, happens to be endlessly fascinating. Even at over 360 pages, it never grows boring. There are illustrations scattered throughout, though not nearly enough. Then again, my review copy is a pre-publication edition, and quite likely there will be many more in the edition to be published in September. If not, the reader is directed to the following website, which will supply many photos of Huguette's father's mansion. (You'll have to paste the following URL into your browser.)
Also, Bill Dedman, one of the coauthors, has the following site, which provides much information supplemental to the book:
I cannot praise this book too highly. It's fascinating, absorbing, frustrating (because so much of it is of an age gone by), enlightening (because this reclusive woman would not bow down to convention or to outside pressure). Full marks to Dedman and Newell. Thank you both for a wonderful book!
on November 6, 2013
A few years ago I remember reading an article about a rich old woman whose family suspected the people surrounding her – her medical staff, lawyers, etc. – were keeping her removed from the outside world and working to get her to give them all of her money. While I don’t remember much else about the article I do remember thinking, “How is that even possible?”, and feeling horrible for this used elderly woman and her family. Then I started reading Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune and realized that Huguette was the woman from the article and that there was a lot more to her story than I could ever have imagined. As the authors put it, her story is a fairy tale in reverse, a woman born into great wealth and privilege that eventually hid herself away from the opulent life she was born into and all but the bare minimum of human contact.
The first part of Empty Mansions deals with Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, a man that seemed to personify the American dream: coming from humble beginnings and building a vast empire using good old fashioned hard work, intelligence and a heavy dash of luck.After his first wife died, sixty-two year old W.A. Clark married twenty-three year old Anna LaChapelle, a shy woman who would become mother to Huguette and her older sister, Andree.
Growing up in unimaginable splendor, Huguette’s life wasn’t all glamour and gold. Losing her sister and closest friend Andree and her beloved, exuberant father at a young age, Huguette seemed to get stuck in a childlike state, one she never really grew out of. After a very short and seemingly unromantic marriage she lived with her mother until her mother’s death, never venturing far and choosing to spend the majority of her time with either her paintings or her intricate, expensive dolls.It wasn’t until her face became riddled with cancer and she had no other choice but to reach out to a friend for help that Huguette left her home for medical care at the hospital. She would never go back to her home – or any of the lavish properties she owned – or leave the hospital again even though she would continue to live in relatively good health for a number of decades.
Huguette’s years in the hospital are probably the hardest part of this peculiar and excessively eccentric woman’s life for me to understand. From most accounts she seemed content to live in a small, sparse room with few luxuries and give lavish and expensive gifts to the few people she came into contact with. Even with the authors’ clearly balanced and well researched information I could not wrap my head around anyone giving millions upon millions in gifts to her nurses, doctors, lawyers, etc. while refusing to even see the people who had been her friends and family her whole life, even if the family members weren’t exactly close. The resulting fight over her $300 million fortune after her death was not surprising but something I just found extremely sad. It seemed that most people were more interested, at least in the end, in Huguette’s money then in what was best for her or what she wanted her inheritance to be.
Empty Mansions is a fascinating true story of a life of extremes: excessive wealth, intense shyness and obsessive behavior that few can relate to but most will find intriguing. It reads like fiction and is highly entertaining even as it presents a unique woman and an in-depth look at the growth of America from the mid 1800s through to the present. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys a true story about the epitome of an eccentric millionaire and the good and the bad that comes with all that entails.
"Empty Mansions" is one of those all too rare and unexpected books that grip you with a strange power from the first page. Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. stitch together a portrait of Huguette Clark, a mostly unknown and forgotten American woman who inherited extraordinary wealth and lived a life of equally extreme eccentricity and generosity. Deeply researched (Newell is Huguette's cousin), this mesmerizing biography will weave a web around your mind like the best mysteries, but nothing in it is fiction. This great book's engaging and surprising narrative is, for me, like a mix of prime Dickens ("Bleak House"?) and the best Stephen King. I was hooked a while back when the Los Angeles Times had an article about Bellosguardo, Huguette's magnificent estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara. Huguette emerges in these pages as a sweet, kindly, philanthropic, educated, perhaps lonely woman of unusual artistic ambition ( custom dolls and doll houses among other things). Don't miss this deeply human, singular story. Strongest possible recommendation.