Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: September 10th 2013
Genres: Biography, History, Non-fiction
Throughout American history there have been scintillating stories of “poor little rich girls”—young women who have inherited immense amounts of wealth and yet have not lived happily ever after. There was Doris Duke (tobacco heiress) and Barbara Hutton (Woolworth heiress) whose childhoods and adult lives (including multiple marriages, drug and alcohol problems) were chronicled in the news much in the way the Kardashians are now. But what of Huguette Clark, the daughter of copper baron and one-time senator William Arthur (W.A.) Clark? Upon his death in 1925, Huguette inherited $50 million ($680 in today’s dollars) making her one of the wealthiest young women in America. And yet, after the 1940s, unlike her more publicized contemporaries she disappeared from view. Investigative reporter Bill Dedman writes of her mysterious life in a new book called Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, co-authored with Paul Clark Newell Jr., her cousin.
W.A. Clark was the epitome of the new American man in the nineteenth century. With a surplus of determination and hard work he entered the 1900s owning much of the land that is now Las Vegas (Clark County is named after him), built a major railroad between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, published several newspapers, owned a bank, owned copper mines in several states, and maintained homes in Montana, Paris, and New York City. He had married and raised a family and when his first wife died, he married again and started his second family, which would include Huguette.
Wealth of this level reads like fantasy. The Clark mansion in NYC (since torn down) included 121 rooms, a room plated in gold, 4 art galleries and its own rail line to bring in coal. This is where Huguette called home until she and her mother moved out after W.A.’s death. At that time, they purchased apartments totaling 40 rooms in one of the most exclusive buildings in New York: 907 Fifth Ave. In 1928 she married but divorced less than two years later. She never remarried and after her mother’s death (1963) was seldom seen.
In fact, despite her immense wealth, very few people knew anything about Huguette Clark and that included those that worked for her and family members. She owned several mansions but did not live in them nor had any of the personnel ever met her. For the last 22 years of her life she lived in an average private hospital room, to the tune of $400,000 a year (not including medical personnel). She was originally admitted for skin cancer issues but after they were resolved she stayed until her death. At best she would talk to a chosen few on the telephone but never gave out her number, keeping relationships in her control. She gave incredible sums of money to her nurse (over $30 million in her lifetime) and doctors as well as her attorney and accountant. It was her empty homes that caught the notice of Dedman, who worked at NBC.
Empty Mansions is carefully researched and documented. For anyone interested in the Gilded Age when there was no personal income tax and ostentation was expected it is fascinating reading. Add to that a woman who grew up largely un-socialized and who never had to give any consideration to the difference between want and need and the story becomes bizarre and Clark’s mental abilities questionable. However, it is clear in Dedman’s steady reporting that “eccentric” is a more appropriate word, as it was proven that Clark’s faculties were with her almost until the end. So, were the enormous sums of money she gave to people paid to take care of her merely generous or was she isolated and pressured? Was her withdrawal from her family and the few friends she had of her own design or something more?
Dedman covers all of this through Clark’s death in 2010 at the age of 104 and beyond, with the flurry of activity that erupted when her will was read. It is a much used quote but in the case of the life of Huguette Clark fact was definitely stranger than fiction and these facts will keep make for riveting reading.