Review – Empty Mansions

Empty Mansions

The Mysterious life of Huguette Clark

And the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Author: Bill Dedman, Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Random House Publishing Group
ISBN #978-0345-5345-2-1

Empty Mansions cover

I had seen a couple of headlines on the Internet regarding Huguette Clark, and the intrigued me, so when this book became available for review, I jumped on it! My first impression – what a big book! (At 442 pages, it is a big book.) my lasting impression – what a unique, well researched, meaningful book! This book is not just about heiress Huguette Clark – it is about an exciting time in history, and the players that made it so. It is about power, and wealth, about things that go right, and things that go wrong.

Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. make a formidable team – able to do strong research, to piece together a family that was not so much divided as fractured. There is power in their words .. you will not want to put this book down! They begin with the story of copper king and U.S. Senator W.A. Clark, Huguette’s father. Not born into wealth, he educated himself, and took calculated risks when he chose to move out west and make a life for himself there.  He was a larger than life person, eccentric in his own right, and quite the showman.

Huguette was one of two daughters from his second marriage to Anna LaChapelle (after his first wife died). Her older sister, Andree, died when she was sixteen years old.  She was born in France, coming to the U.S. with her sister and parents when she was four years old. They eventually moved into a mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventy-Seventh street – a 121 roo fairy tale mansion. This is where they were raised.  Her father was to die when Huguette was only eighteen years old.

Huguette was presented to society, as was the custom of the day, followed by a  marriage to Bill Gower, the son of W. A. Clark’s chief accountant. The marriage lasted less than two years, one of which they were separated. She never married again, although she had a close relationship with a Frenchman that she knew for most of her life.

Huguette Clark was eccentric in the extreme. She owned three luxury properties – one in California, one in New York, and one in Connecticut – all of which remained vacant, but kept up. The home in Connecticut was never even furnished. She valued her privacy above all – few photographs were taken  of her after the 1920’s, and she preferred to deal with people over the phone, or through correspondence – not in person. This included her lawyers and accountants.

She was trained to play the violin, and to paint. Her painting and her dolls were her hobby, her main interests in life. She commissioned many dolls and doll houses, with exacting specifications. She studied Japanese culture (although she never visited Japan), and created Japanese dolls and doll houses in a traditional manner.

She also spent the ast twenty years of her life in a small hospital room. She had major funds, and good health (after she recovered from the reason she was hospitalized in the first place) – she chose to be there. And she chose to give, over time, in the range of $30 million to her nurse.

This is an amazing story of wealth, high society, politics, and the world of art, amongst other things. The authors look at the effect of inheritance on family members, elder abuse, and mental illness in general. There was also serious investigation into both Huguette’s lawyer and accountant – were they scamming her, or were they doing her bidding? Was her isolation by choice? All of this lead to the Clark family (who had not been in touch with Huguette in many years) contesting the $300 million  will.

Throughout this very well written story we see snippets of conversation with Huguette, and some lovely photographs of Huguette and her homes. At the end of the book there is an extensive section of notes showing where the information came from.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and found a few moments that were “Aha” moments – such as the naming of Clark County, in Las Vegas, Nevada (where I live for seventeen years) after her father, W. A. Clark. This is a lovely story – all true – and very close to being a historical novel. It certainly gives one pause!

© 2000 – 2013 Bonnie Cehovet

Reproduction prohibited in any venue without the written permission of the author.

3 comments on “Review – Empty Mansions

  1. mystereum says:

    I love narrative biography. It’s one of my faves. And, true stories that are close to being historical novels get the same interest in my book. This sounds really interesting. Thanks for this!

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