The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


January 27, 2014

Phyllis Seesengood: Empty mansions prompt search, book

JOPLIN, Mo. — As Bill Dedman, author and journalist, and his wife searched for a house outside of New York City, they started getting frustrated with house hunting.

Just for fun, Dedman Googled real estate listings in the exorbitant range (meaning millions of dollars) and found a mansion located in Connecticut that had dropped from $35 million to $24 million. He found it strange that the property had been vacant since its purchase in 1951 but cared for as if the owner was expected back at any moment. This aroused Dedman's curiosity, and he began a meticulous research into the life of the reclusive and eccentric heiress, Huguette Clark.

"Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune" is the result. Dedman wrote it with the collaboration of Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a second cousin of Huguette Clark, owner of the Connecticut empty mansion, La Beau Chateau.

The last 10 years of her life, she and Newell kept in touch by phone. Huguette also owned a multimillion-dollar Santa Barbara, Calif., estate named Bellosguardo, as well some multi-million dollar Fifth Avenue apartments.  

Huguette Clark was the daughter of William Andrews Clark (1839-1925) and Anna La Chapelle (1878-1963), his second wife. Huguette was born into a life of wealth and privilege.

I found the sizable portion of the book devoted to W.A. Clark's history to be fascinating and entertaining.

Huguette's father had already made his fortune when she was born. Her father came from humble beginnings but went on to become one of the richest men in America. Known as the "Copper King," Clark built his fortune in copper, manufacturing, mining, banking and railroads and became involved in a political scandal in Montana. He was also one of the founding fathers of Las Vegas, one of the stops on his railroad.

Huguette's father was already in his 60s when she was born, and she had an older sister, Andree. Her mother was in her late 20s. Huguette and Andree grew up in the largest house (121 rooms) in New York City. The mansion was demolished after her father's death in 1925 because it was impossible to keep up.

Huguette was briefly married but stayed friends with her ex-husband, who lived on the French Rivera, and while he was alive, she gave him substantial sums of money. She was very close to her mother, and after her father's death, she lived in the same lavish Fifth Avenue apartment building that her mother occupied.

After her mother's death, Huguette chose to live alone in the apartment building with her priceless paintings -- including those by Manet, Renoir and Monet -- and her exquisite collections of Japanese art, dolls and dollhouses.

By the age of 85, Huguette had developed basal cell carcinomas that ate through her lips, eyelids and cheeks. A friend persuaded her to call a doctor, and she was treated at a hospital for the carcinomas and had reconstructive surgery. Despite her full recovery and being in excellent health, she never returned to her apartment or the mansions she owned, although she had continued to pay caretakers substantial sums of money to maintain them.

Huguette chose to live quietly the last 20 years of her life in a hospital room at Beth Israel Medical Center where she died at the age of 104. The hospital administrators wanted her to stay, hiding her records when the hospital had inspections. Administrators and trustees tried several times to hit Huguette up for large donations, but she seemed shrewd about those trying to exploit her.

Few photographs were taken of Huguette after the 1920s. She was an intensely private, shy, generous woman with many long-distance friendships.

She gave away considerable sums of money to people she knew. She chose to communicate by letter or telephone with people, which frustrated her lawyers and accountants. She gave millions of dollars to her private nurse over the years and even named her in her will.

The authors conclude that this was not some senile or mentally ill old woman who didn't know what she was doing. Huguette chose to live life her way on her own terms.

At the time this book was written, distant relatives of her father were challenging her will for the properties and money that was left -- a considerable fortune. A Google search reveals that the estate has since been settled.

I checked out the book and downloaded the audiobook. The audiobook includes recorded conversations between Huguette and Paul Clark Newell Jr., and the book includes lovely photographs of Huguette and her possessions.

"Empty Mansions" depicts a fascinating portrait of a bygone era and a mysterious woman.


Phyllis Seesengood is technical services librarian for the Joplin Public Library.

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