‘Empty Mansions: the Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune’
by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.
Ballantine, 442 pp., $28
“Empty Mansions” is an exhaustively researched, well-written account of the life of Huguette Clark, who has been much in the news lately because of the battle over her $300 million estate. A trial is scheduled to begin this month pitting relatives she mostly never met against people and institutions mentioned in a will. Many of the latter had already sucked at the teat of her charity while she was alive.
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Clark was the daughter of William Andrews Clark (1839-1925) and his second wife, Anna La Chapelle (1878-1963). W.A. was one of the wealthiest men in America. A one-term senator from Montana, he made his fortune principally mining copper, but also in manufacturing, railroads and real estate. (His holdings in Nevada became the basis for Las Vegas, located in appropriately named Clark County.)
Huguette lived a life of unimaginable privilege in one of New York City’s most magnificent mansions. She was briefly married and, after her father’s death, lived in the same Fifth Avenue apartment building with her mother. Around 1941, she stopped coming out of the house and became so reclusive she made Howard Hughes seem like a Kardashian.
Employees — even her attorneys — would conduct their business on the phone or by mail. They put up with it because she was extraordinarily generous. It was not atypical for her to continue to pay longtime workers their salaries after they retired and to their widows after they died.
Her bizarre behavior became more pronounced in her dotage. Cancer on her face ate away her lip, making it nearly impossible for her to eat. Finally, in 1991, one of the few people who had direct contact with her, Suzanne Pierre, got a doctor to persuade her to go to the hospital.
She never went home again, becoming a permanent hospital resident until she died in 2011 at age 104. During these last two decades, several of her caretakers took advantage of her.
In 1991 and in 1994, Citibank lost millions of dollars of jewelry and reimbursed her for far less than its value simply by telling the publicity-shy heiress that to pay more would involve an outside insurance company and public notice. Clark accepted settlements.
The doctor who persuaded her to be hospitalized took $20,000 from her to paint his house and an additional $65,000 to pay for an air ambulance after he broke his hip in Italy.
He informed the hospital of her generosity, and officials there secured almost $1 million in donations over the next decade, as well as discussing how “to end up with bigger bucks.”
But the biggest offender was her daytime nurse, who got something in the area of $30 million in gifts (in addition to her salary).
The difficulty is that to some — including an assistant district attorney — Clark seemed rational. Still, is giving $30 million to your nurse a rational act or the result of elder abuse? Presumably some of that will be decided in court.
Dedman broke the story in 2010 and with the help of Newell — a distant relative not involved in the suit — has written a blood-boiling expose. It will make you angry and will make you sad. Huguette deserved far better.