Books

09.03.13

The Mysterious Life, Death, and Afterlife of Heiress Huguette Clark

Born to the second wealthiest man in the United States, Huguette Clark disappeared for decades into her vast estates, strange obsessions, and, finally, years in the hospital. Michael Gross on a new book that details her family history—and the story of her 7,364 hospital days before she died.

Huguette Clark was 103 years old in February 2010, when a photo essay published on MSNBC.com by a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, Bill Dedman, made her famous for the second time in an otherwise mostly unremarkable life. Searching to buy a home for his family, Dedman stumbled upon a mystery: Clark, who’d been much publicized in the 1920s as the debutante daughter of America’s second-richest man, owned sprawling estates in California and Connecticut and several huge Fifth Avenue apartments, spent small fortunes to maintain them, but didn’t occupy any of them. Though presumed to be living, her whereabouts were unknown—she’d been a recluse since her mother died in 1963. Another mystery was the fate of the nine-figure fortune they’d inherited from Huguette’s father, William A. Clark, a dimly remembered copper baron and, briefly, a United States senator from Montana.

A year later, when Dedman revealed that the heiress had just celebrated her 104th birthday in a nondescript New York hospital room and had lived exclusively in hospitals for more than 20 years, curiosity turned to morbid fascination. Why had she locked herself off from the world? Why was her human contact limited to a few nurses and doctors, a lawyer, and an accountant, many of whom received large amounts of money (she gave almost $1 million to a nurse in a single year), extravagant gifts (the same nurse got multiple homes, a Lincoln, a Hummer, and a Bentley Arnage Le Mans) and expected even larger windfalls from her estate? Did she know that her lawyer and accountant had been “given” property by an earlier client, and that accountant was a convicted felon and registered sex offender?

And most curious of all, what drove Huguette Clark? On first hearing Huguette’s tale, Dedman’s brother, a movie buff, whispered, “Rosebuuuuud.”

In Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, Dedman and co-author Paul Clark Newell Jr., Huguette’s first cousin once removed—a member of the other wing of her family, children descended from Senator Clark’s first wife—attempt to answer those questions. It is much to their credit that in the end, they admit there are things about Huguette’s story they—and we—will likely never know. Real life often isn’t as simple as a sled named Rosebud.

Reading the book the weekend after Anthony Marshall, Brooke Astor’s ailing 89-year-old son, won a medical parole from a prison term imposed for his looting of her fortune while she was on her deathbed made this all the more resonant. That’s because the profound moral ambiguity that suffused the Marshall saga was treated as unworthy of notice by most commentators due to the public’s canonization of the late Mrs. Astor’s as a secular saint of the city.  

A truncated marriage and what was likely a sexless affair with a faux French aristocrat flare briefly but fizzle, and once her mother dies, Huguette’s life gets even more claustrophobic.

This time, things are different, though the provocative parallels to Clark’s story are many. To name but one, Elizabeth Loewy, chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s Elder Abuse Unit and the same prosecutor who put Marshall in jail for robbing Mummy (though he was acting under a general power of attorney specifically authorizing self-dealing), also tried to find a crime in the Clark case, which involved a fortune about four times bigger than Astor’s. But after three-plus years of investigation, she failed, in the authors’ words, to “find justification to bring a criminal charge against anyone.”

All of which makes long sections of Empty Mansions an evocative and rollicking read, part social history, part hothouse mystery, part grand guignol. The fireworks start in the introduction, where Dedman introduces himself and tells how he came upon the story. Then Newell takes over, picking up a thread dropped by his own father, who’d planned a biography of his uncle. After his father’s death, Newell organized a family archive and sought out his Tante Huguette as part of his research. Snippets of their subsequent conversations pepper the book, though they can hardly be called revelatory.

The book is loosely organized around real estate, a Clark family collectible. Chapter heads refer to THE LOG CABIN where W.A. Clark was born; THE CLARK MANSION, his last home, a 121-room mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 77th Street in Manhattan (begun in 1900, it was occupied for only 14 years and demolished in 1927); and DOCTORS HOSPITAL, where Huguette first withdrew from public life after a friend discovered that she’d allowed untreated cancers to eat away parts of her lips, cheeks, and eyelids. She spent the next 7,364 days there and in BETH ISRAEL MEDICAL CENTER before taking up posthumous permanent residence in a family crypt at WOODLAWN CEMETARY and file drawers in New York’s SURROGATE’S COURTHOUSE (where an epilogue may be written when the disposition of Clark’s estate is decided, either through a settlement or a trial scheduled to begin a week after Empty Mansions is published).

The attention to detail demonstrated in the authors’ careful calculation of her hospital stay works both for and against them. Their first 100 pages, which tell W.A. Clark’s story, not only revive the tale of a great and forgotten American business genius, but also restore what had been the somewhat tarnished reputation of a great original who, he told his journal, found that the American West offered “no lack of opportunities for those who were on the alert for making money.” The best contemporary analogues to Clark are Russian oligarchs like Dmitry Rybolovlev who, having seen their opportunities, took ’em and now spend the proceeds on mansions of their own.

The pace flags once Clark dies and the focus turns to his second, much younger wife, Anna, and her second and sole surviving daughter, Huguette, both of them as artistically inclined as they are socially inept, rattling around in the several vast apartments Anna bought at (another chapter head) 907 FIFTH AVENUE, spending a fortune from pockets seemingly without bottom. A truncated marriage and what was likely a sexless affair with a faux French aristocrat flare briefly but fizzle, and once her mother dies, Huguette’s life gets even more claustrophobic as she retreats into her cocoon of wealth, indulging obsessions with music, painting, Japanese history, cartoons, and especially the dolls and dollhouses she collected with an intensity allowed by her endless resources. It all bordered on benign madness.

Things pick up again, oddly, once Huguette’s life shuts down and she turns into a female Howard Hughes, sentencing herself to life in hospital, even after her cancers are cured and her face restored by plastic surgery. Because then the real mystery that drives the narrative emerges, but it is never definitively solved. Was Huguette, as she is variously described, slow, emotionally immature, retarded, disabled, strangely withdrawn, childlike, like a stump, like a homeless person, scared, vulnerable, and likely incompetent? Or was she scarred, perhaps, but really just quiet, lovely, generous to a fault, educated, intelligent, lucid, cheerful, possessed of a keen memory, relentless, sophisticated in pursuing the arts, a remarkable woman who knew her own mind, and a formidable personality who lived life as she wanted, always on her own terms?

To their credit, the authors leave it to the reader to decide.