When Huguette Clark died in 2011, just two weeks shy of her 105th birthday, she left a $300 million fortune. Yet this wealthy woman was astonishingly reclusive, spending the last twenty years of her life living in New York City hospitals. Her death set off a court battle over her fabulous estate, pitting nineteen relatives against a nurse who had been her companion and caretaker for decades.
Who was this woman? The last published photograph of her had been taken in 1928. Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., who is a distant cousin of the heiress, have revealed her secrets in “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.”
Born in 1906, Huguette was the youngest daughter of controversial U.S. Senator, copper king and railroad baron W.A. Clark. He was one of the richest men in America at the time of his death in 1925. The authors note:
The length of history spanned by father and daughter is hard to comprehend. W.A. Clark was born in 1839, during the administration of the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren. W.A. was twenty-two when the Civil War began. When Huguette was born in 1906, Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president, was in the White House. Yet 170 years after W.A.’s birth, his youngest child was still alive at age 103, during the time of the forty-fourth president, Barack Obama.
As W.A. Clark’s daughter, “Huguette had been famous in her childhood and was famous again more than a century later, but in between she’d been a phantom.” While charting the rise and fall of the Clark fortune, the authors also seek to explain how she had “managed to escape the world’s gaze,” taking readers:
inside the mountain camps of the western gold rush, inside the halls of Congress, the salons of Paris, and the drawing rooms of New York’s Fifth Avenue amid the last surviving jewels of the Gilded Age.
They tell the tale of an American princess who locked herself away from the prying eyes of an increasingly celebrity conscious world. Huguette was an accomplished painter and a collector of dolls and dollhouses. First from her massive Fifth Avenue apartments and later from her rooms at Beth Israel Hospital, she maintained lifelong correspondences with friends, relatives and even her husband from a short-lived marriage. While her life at first glance appears sad, “Huguette was a formidable personality who lived life as she wanted always on her own terms. . . in her own way, she found what life may be, a life of integrity.”
The authors characterize her as a “quiet woman in a noisy time” who seemingly had it all.
Huguette had experienced the finest belongings and most luxurious travel. She had seen heart-stopping panoramas, owned great art, heard inspiring music. Yet in the end, she preferred to live in a hospital room, with her hollandaise and brioche and cashmere sweaters. Huguette had the courage . . . to be an artist at a time when that wasn’t an approved path for a woman, to break away from a marriage she didn’t want, to resist the manipulations of her hospital and her museum to get more of her money, to leave most of her estate to her friends and to a charity that honored her mother’s memory. . . These were not acts of incompetence, but of self-expression and resilience.
“Empty Mansions” is a fascinating exploration of the American capacity for self-invention that created the Clark fortune and the shadowy – yet self-determined -- life of the woman who lived in its thrall for more than a century.