NEW YORK — With flawless etiquette, every year from 1977 to 2010, Katherine Hall Friedman sent a Christmas card to the home of her distant relative Huguette Clark, a copper heiress whose father was once one of the richest men in America. She never got an answer.
For many of those years, Friedman, a branding consultant known professionally as Carla Hall, lived just across Manhattan, an easy taxi ride or a walk through Central Park from Clark, who died in 2011 at 104, but she never tried to meet her.
Why not stop by?
“I was brought up to believe that she was a private person,” Friedman said recently in a sworn deposition, “and that everybody in the family respected her privacy. I never expected to meet with her.”
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Now, that privacy has been exploded by a court case brought by 20 of Clark’s grandnephews, grandnieces, great-grandnephews and great-grandnieces, including Friedman. They are challenging the disposition of her estate, which has been estimated at more than $300 million.
In 2005, Clark executed two wills, six weeks apart. The first, signed in March, would have given virtually all of her fortune, including possession of her Santa Barbara, Calif., oceanfront estate, Bellosguardo, to members of her family. The second, signed in April, cut them out with a nasty Dickensian flourish: “I intentionally make no provision in this my Last Will Testament for any members of my family, whether on my paternal or maternal side, having had minimal contacts with them over the years. The persons and institution named herein as beneficiaries of my Estate are the true objects of my bounty.”
A new foundation
In that version, the lion’s share of the estate — the lavish Bellosguardo, along with furnishings, musical instruments, books and art — would be turned into a foundation for the arts. There would be gifts to, among others, her goddaughter; her primary doctor, Dr. Henry Singman; her accountant, Irving Kamsler; her lawyer, Wallace Bock; and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, where she lived for the past 20 years of her life. Clark’s longtime nurse, Hadassah Peri, would receive her rare doll collection and 60 percent of whatever was left — potentially millions — after the other bequests were made. (Peri also received more than $31 million in property, cash and gifts outside the will, according to court papers.)
The will, drawn up by Bock with Kamsler’s input, names both men as executors and, with her California lawyer, directors of the new foundation.
The relatives are contesting that will, claiming that Clark was coerced into changing it by people around her, who, along with the hospital, kept her dependent and exploited her age and vulnerability. The beneficiaries say she was a stubborn, strong-willed woman who did only what she wanted to do.
If settlement talks fail and the case goes to trial — jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday — it will touch on issues many families face. How is wealth transferred in later generations? What does an elderly person owe relatives who hardly knew her and did not take care of her in her dotage, as opposed to the hired help who did? Do family ties still bind between people who have never even met?
What sets this story apart is the sheer size of Clark’s fortune, and the singularity in which she ended her days: living at Beth Israel and paying her own way, as though it were a long-stay hotel. For much of that time, many of her relatives did not know where she was.
Clark belonged to an American kind of royalty. There are indications that she reveled in her social stature as the youngest daughter of William Andrews Clark, a copper magnate who bought himself a U.S. Senate seat from Montana in the 1890s. She put herself in a league beyond the Town & Country set, according to a deposition. She preferred a French magazine chronicling the exploits of royals around the world, Point de Vue.
In pretrial proceedings, huge amounts of energy have been spent establishing whether each of the 19 living relatives contesting the second will had ever met or spoken to Clark, and if so, when and for how long.
The answers are sometimes comical. Clifford Berry III, known as Kip, a veterinarian in Florida and a scion of a horse-breeding family who is in his 50s, never met Clark. Others say they saw her in 1945, 1954 or 1957. The last time any of them remembers having seen her in public seems to be in March 1968, at the funeral of Friedman’s grandmother in Manhattan. Clark greeted her bereaved half-sister, Friedman’s great-grandmother, and other elderly relatives, then left.
That they stayed at a remove did not mean the family did not care, or should not inherit Clark’s money, John Morken, the family lawyer, said. It was a delicate balancing act.
“Where’s the boundary; when do you start to intrude; what’s the proper role?” he said.
By many accounts, Clark was a real-life Miss Havisham, a virtual spinster, alienated from most of her family, isolated in one candlelit room of her grand apartment on Fifth Avenue until she became so sick and emaciated that she was forced to go to the hospital.
Clark arrived at the hospital in 1991 with skin cancer of her face that was so bad she could not hold food in her mouth, and that had carved “large deep ‘rodent’ type ulcers” where her lower right eyelid should be, according to notes by Singman. “She resembled an advanced leper patient,” he wrote.
It is unclear from the record how long she had been sick, and whether her disfigurement had anything to do with her reclusiveness.
Morken, the family lawyer, has suggested Clark’s refusal to go home once she had been treated showed that she needed psychiatric evaluation.
Harvey Corn, a lawyer for Peri, told the judge that Clark stayed at Beth Israel because she felt taken care of.
The potential heir who may have had the closest contact with Clark was André Baeyens, a grandnephew and a retired French diplomat, now about 83, who wrote a book about Clark’s father, “Le Sénateur Qui Aimait La France.” He never met her but kept in touch by phone for long stretches from 1977 to 2003.
He left French fashion magazines with her doorman at 72nd Street, and she would call to thank him.
A surrogate family
In the hospital, Clark’s caretakers became her surrogate family. Christopher Sattler, her personal assistant, got $500,000 in her will. His job included picking up her mail and delivering business correspondence to her lawyer. Certain personal correspondence, such as letters from her goddaughter, Wanda Styka, went straight to Clark.
He disputed the family’s contention that she was being kept a virtual prisoner.
“The time in the hospital actually resocialized Mrs. Clark — she became less of a recluse,” Sattler said. “Not by much, but she enjoyed the traffic of humanity for the first time in 50 years.”
Clark’s father left more than 800 artworks to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, where they form the William A. Clark Collection, and Friedman carried the flag there, succeeding her father as the family delegate to the museum.
At a series of lunches from 2004 to 2006, Baeyens, the French diplomat, told Friedman that Clark had no will and was living in a hospital. Friedman seemed to take a renewed interest in Clark around that time. In 2006, she sent handwritten New Year’s greetings to her “Tante Huguette,” signing her note with a plaintive, “Carla (Erika’s and John’s daughter!).”
By that time, unbeknown to the family, Clark’s final will had already been executed.
In October 2008, the Clark family descendants held a reunion at the Corcoran, inviting Clark, who did not attend but helped pay for it. Instead, she was represented by her accountant, Kamsler, who around the same time pleaded guilty to attempting to disseminate indecent materials to minors, a felony. The reunion seemed to fuel the relatives’ interest in Clark’s condition.
By then, Clark had been in the hospital for 17 years, but most of her would-be heirs did not know where she was living.
Three relatives took the lead in reaching out to her: Friedman; Ian Devine, a family wealth specialist; and Karine Albert McCall, a writer. Devine was able to trace her to Beth Israel, where an operator confirmed she was in residence. Friedman said they wanted to make sure Clark, who was then 102, was not on life support and was being well cared for. Once, Friedman and Devine stood at the foot of her bed as she slept; the next day, they brought flowers but were roughly shooed away by Peri, Friedman said.
In 2010, after Bill Dedman, an msnbc.com reporter, began chronicling Clark’s life, Friedman, Devine and McCall asked a judge to appoint one of them as a guardian for Clark, claiming she was at risk of financial and personal abuse by her lawyer and her accountant. The judge dismissed the case, saying it was based on “speculative assertions.”