- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Pour vivre heureux, vivons caché. (To live happily, live hidden). — Saying from French fable poem “Le Grillon” (The Cricket) by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, late 1700s
Francophile American heiress Huguette Marcelle Clark (1906-2010) knew that poem by heart and practiced it in her long life, writes Bill Dedman in “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune” (Ballantine Books, 496 pages, more than 70 photographs, notes, index, $28.00) written with the collaboration of Huguette’s cousin Paul Clark Newell Jr.
If you are fascinated by the stories of Grey Gardens, filmed in 1975 as a documentary and remade as an HBO movie in 2009 about relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy living in a rundown mansion in the Hamptons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_Gardens); the story of the famous New York City hoarders the Collyer Brothers, transformed into a novel “Homer &Langley” by E.L. Doctorow (my review: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/090911-kinchen-columnsbookrev…) or the saga of miserly Hetty Green, you’ll love this enthralling account of Huguette, her mother, Anna, her older sister Andrée and her father, today an almost unknown copper king named William Andrew Clark Sr. (1839-1925).
In his prime Clark rivaled John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie for the size of his fortune, based on copper mining in Montana and Arizona. Clark was a controversial senator from Montana, built his own railroad from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and founded Las Vegas, Nevada as a watering stop on the line. Clark County (Las Vegas) NV today is one of his few enduring monuments. His son from his first marriage, William A. Clark Jr. founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra.
Huguette Clark, heiress to a fortune of more than $300 million, was so secretive that no photograph of her had been seen in decades, at least since the time of her marriage to Bill Gower in 1928. The marriage was short-lived, but she stayed friends with Gower, who lived on the French Rivera, and through the years gave him substantial amounts of money. She gave more than $10 million to her nurse, Hadassah Peri , who served her full time while she lived in New York City hospital rooms, and also gave apartments and cars and money to her and Daniel Peri, Hadassah’s Orthodox Jewish husband.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dedman became interested in the saga of the reclusive heiress when he noticed in 2009 that an estate in New Canaan, CT was on the market. It was a gigantic castle-like house called Le Beau Chateau (the beautiful castle) with more than 14,000 square feet and 22 rooms on 52 acres in one of the most expensive communities in the country. Neighbors include singer Harry Connick Jr. , NBC anchor Brian Williams and singer-songwriter Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel fame.
Built in 1938 by David Aiken Reed — the Republican Pennsylvania senator who sponsored the racist Immigration Act of 1924, designed to keep Jews, Asians and other “undesirables” out of the U.S. — Le Beau Chateau had never been occupied by Huguette. As with her luxury co-op apartments on Fifth Avenue in New York and the magnificent estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a mesa in Santa Barbara, CA, Bellosguardo, built by her mother Anna Clark and completed in 1936, the New Canaan estate was maintained in her absence by hired caretakers, well compensated and most of them also beneficiaries of Huguette’s largess.
Following “Sixty Minutes” producer Don Hewitt’s admonition: “Tell Me A Story”, Dedman chronicles the Gilded Age excesses of the 19th Century, combined with an ongoing battle over Huguette’s wills. The New York Observer recently wrote about the battle of the wills: http://observer.com/2013/09/odd-but-not-out-of-it-eccentric-heiress-hugu…).
Dedman comes to the conclusion that while Huguette Clark may have been eccentric in the extreme, she was not mentally ill. The challenges by more than 20 Clark relatives are based on allegations that Huguette was swayed by Nurse Peri, her various lawyers and her accountant, a convicted felon and registered sex offender.
Dedman covers such issues as why did Huguette continue to live in hospital rooms following successful cancer surgery in the 1990s; why were her valuables being sold off by such allegedly reputable institutions as Citibank; was she being coerced by the hospital to donate her fortune to it; was it a conflict of interest for her lawyers and accountants to receive gifts from her, etc.
She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a illustrated on the dust jacket, a remarkable dwelling with 121 rooms for a family of four. After W.A. Clark’s death in 1925, the house was destroyed because nobody could possibly keep it up. Anna and Huguette moved south on Fifth Avenue to luxury co-op apartments.
She was a talented painter, using oils at a time when most amateurs — especially women — used pastels. Huguette owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, a vast collection of antique dolls. She devoted her wealth to buying gifts for friends and strangers alike, to quietly pursuing her own work as an artist, and to guarding the privacy she valued above all else.
She could have been the butterfly in the fable “Le Grillon” but instead she followed the advice of the cricket, who escapes the fate of the beautiful butterfly: Pour vivre heureux, vivons caché. (To live happily, live hidden).
Dedman writes: “Like her attention-grabbing father and her music-loving mother, both strong-willed in their own ways, Huguette was a formidable personality who lived her life as she wanted, always on her own terms. Far from being controlled by her money men, she drove them to frustration. Though she was firm, she was always kind. It would have been easy for anyone born into her cosseted circumstances to have abused her power. Yet in all the testimony by fifty witnesses in the battle for her fortune, there is not a single indication that Huguette ever used her wealth to hurt anyone. That wasn’t her way.”
Anyone would be delighted to have an obituary/eulogy like that!
My assessment of “Empty Mansions”: a marvelous, entertaining, moving, educational and very readable account of an era and a woman who did it her way.
About the Authors
Bill Dedman introduced the public to heiress Huguette Clark and her empty mansions through his compelling series of narratives for NBC, which became the most popular feature in the history of the news website, topping 110 million page views. He received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting while writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post,and The Boston Globe.
Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette Clark, has researched the Clark family history for twenty years, sharing many conversations with Huguette about her life and family. He once received a rare private tour of Bellosguardo, her mysterious estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, CA.