Reviewed by Frances Ambler
Billionaires don’t just slip off the radar. Well, so you’d think. Huguette Clark, one of America’s wealthiest women, almost succeeded in doing exactly that. However, as Empty Mansions proves, great wealth always seems to attract great interest. After Huguette’s death in 2011, not only was her fortune picked over by her relatives, solicitors, accountants and some of America’s most prestigious institutions, but it also aroused a more general fascination that helped this book – the story of her family’s fortunes – become a New York Times bestseller.
Huguette’s life contained a potent enough combination of immense wealth, failed marriages, frustrated ambitions and family rivalry to make for the most salacious soap opera. It’s to the credit of its authors, Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a distant relation of Huguette’s, that Empty Mansions doesn’t become one. The subject matter is treated with a sensitivity befitting the character of its leading lady, a woman who spent her life trying to escape the spotlight. Despite being able to afford any material thing she desired, Huguette chose to live her final years as a virtual recluse in a hospital. During this time, she gave away millions to her nurses, decisions that would be determinedly and publically contested after her death. While Huguette’s final years and the events that thrust her affairs back into public are undeniably extraordinary, they only make up a relatively small section of Empty Mansions. What precedes this is equally amazing, if not more so.
Huguette’s fortune came from her father, W.A. Clark who, on some counts, was a personification of the American dream. He was a self-made man whose wealth, largely gleaned from copper mines in Montana, put him up there with the likes of Rockefeller and Carnegie. The fact his name is so little known today is partly to do with political scandals (Mark Twain described him as ‘as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag.’) and partly due to his failure to adequately pass his business onto his heirs, along with his lack of grand philanthropic schemes in comparison to those conceived by his peers. Empty Mansions captures those days where fortunes could be made and lost, seemingly overnight, by the men strong-willed and canny enough thrive in America’s frontier towns, places where the land’s law, as much as its mineral wealth, was still up for grabs. W.A. Clark was one of those men, as canny and as strong-willed as the best – or worst – of them.
The authors excel in recreating the lavish lifestyles that were funded by such immense wealth. The Clark’s mansion on Fifth Avenue, demolished in the 1920s, was once the largest house in New York, with 121 rooms for a family of four. Such displays of riches were part of W.A. Clark’s strategy for gaining entry to New York’s social elite. When he realised he was never going to be allowed to join them, he decided to use his money to beat them instead. The house was filled with artworks by the likes of Degas, Gainsborough and Rodin, as well a magnificent showpiece organ, alone worth about the equivalent of £3 million today. The Clarks also had homes in Paris, Montana and Santa Barbara.
In contrast to her father’s love of lavish displays, Huguette was a shy child, happier in the company of her immediate family or her painting instructor. This “spoilt little rich girl”, as she was nicknamed by the press, would have hated the attention she received when her marriage was announced, and when it was deemed to have failed, a mere nine months later. Huguette returned to live with her mother, a reduced family following the deaths of both W.A. and Huguette’s older sister.
From then on, Huguette turned even more inwards, taking pleasure from her amazing art, music and doll collections. It’s here, when she could easily be recast as a figure for fun or as material for amateur psychologists to pick apart, the authors demonstrate noteworthy kindness towards their subject. It’s impossible to overlook how Huguette deliberately isolated herself. She never visited the grand family homes she still owned – the empty mansions of the book’s title – or travelled abroad again. But, while she slid from view of the wider world, it’s shown how she remained a powerful force for those who kept contact with her, as illustrated by the lively conversations between Huguette and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. that are reproduced in the book. The authors also highlight her incredible generosity to those who served her wishes. Her dolls house maker was continually rewarded with ‘little gifts’ – cheques of $20,000 plus – while Huguette was nicknamed ‘the good fairy’ by the French illustrators to whom she gave her patronage. Although her lifestyle did not constitute the kind of lottery winning fantasy that’s often associated with such vast wealth, Empty Mansions is persuasive that Huguette succeeded in living her life exactly the way she wanted.
This well-argued case makes the fall-out following her death even more sordid to read. Few come out of it well, whether relation, carer, or even national institution. The impressive fortune is pulled apart, and Huguette’s life picked over by the courts and the press. Huguette’s final wishes, although uncharacteristically vague, are disregarded in the desire to reach her treasures. It’s a grubby ending to a once glittering story, and Huguette is the only person who survives the tale with any sort of dignity. That’s partly because she was savvy enough to keep her privacy for so long, but a huge part of that credit must be given to having such sympathetic biographers to recount her story.
Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Story of Huguette Clark and the Loss of one of the World’s Greatest Fortunes (Atlantic: London, 2013). 978-1-78239-476-1, 470pp., paperback.