By: Bill Dedman and Paula Clark Newell
When Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?
Huguette was the daughter of self-made copper industrialist W. A. Clark, nearly as rich as Rockefeller in his day, a controversial senator, railroad builder, and founder of Las Vegas. She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a remarkable dwelling with 121 rooms for a family of four. She owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, a vast collection of antique dolls. But wanting more than treasures, 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.
The Clark family story spans nearly all of American history in three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to mining camps in the Montana gold rush, from backdoor politics in Washington to a distress call from an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. The same Huguette who was touched by the terror attacks of 9/11 held a ticket nine decades earlier for a first-class stateroom on the second voyage of the Titanic.
Empty Mansions reveals a complex portrait of the mysterious Huguette and her intimate circle. We meet her extravagant father, her publicity-shy mother, her star-crossed sister, her French boyfriend, her nurse who received more than $30 million in gifts, and the relatives fighting to inherit Huguette’s copper fortune. Richly illustrated with more than seventy photographs, Empty Mansions is an enthralling story of an eccentric of the highest order, a last jewel of the Gilded Age who lived life on her own terms.My Thoughts
I remember the very first MSNBC article that featured Huguette Clark and being fascinated about the life this very wealthy but lonely woman led. Huguette was honestly one of the richest people of the 20th century and very few people even knew her name. Once a society miss in all of the paper, Huguette Clark died alone and all but forgotten in a hospital room with only a few people surrounding her. A fascinating story of riches gained and lost, Empty Mansions takes you on a journey that is so much more than one person’s tale.
This fascinating story begins with Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, a man so despicable, Mark Twain wrote articles disparaging him. Clark comes from humble beginnings and actually struck out during the gold rush. Instead of finding gold though, Clark found his fortune through opportunity and chance. He would travel for days with bread, clothing, eggs, and other necessities not easy to find out at mining camps. These miners would pay good money for eggs, which would both finance the next trip for more supplies and gave Clark a hefty profit. Moving into the big leagues and actually purchasing businesses and even mines helped W.A. Clark become one of the richest men in America during his lifetime.
Now this is where I became fascinated in the life of the Clark’s. The money aspect didn’t interest me, but the pure will it took to live and become what he did just fascinated me. Clark, rich and powerful, was married and had several children. It was during his second marriage to the much younger Anna Eugenia La Chapelle, that he had two children; Andree and Huguette.
Huguette had everything a child could ask for. Dolls, clothing, prestige, cars, wonderful foods, maids, nannies...everything. W.A. Clark didn’t let his family want for everything, and when he was gone, his second wife Anna didn’t go without either. Throughout Huguette’s lifetime she was relatively reclusive, shunning publicity but being fodder for the newspapers all the same. After her Mother passed away, if anything, Huguette became more of a recluse, only speaking with few people, hardly any family, and relying on personal nurses for her most basic needs. She even spent the last several years of her life, by herself, in a personal hospital room, which blows my mind even now.
Empty Mansions tells this incredible story of wealth, the rise of power, and Huguette Clark in such a warm and inviting way it doesn’t seem at all as a stuffy nonfiction book. Well researched and do I mean well researched, they give you an insight into this world of the uber rich. The question raised now, did Huguette know what she wanted to do with her vast fortune after her death? An ongoing dramatic story, I fell in love with Empty Mansions from the beginning. The wonderful descriptions of Huguette’s childhood and throughout her adulthood stunned me into disbelief at times.
Gritty and honest, the authors do a wonderful job of making these characters, who while are real people, seem real to you as a reader. They aren’t one dimensional creatures who fit into a stereotype, which I think would have been easy given the material to work with. I’m not a fan of nonfiction, but Empty Mansions took me in and never let me leave until the end. Fantastic job and easily one of my favorite books of 2013.
For more information on the story behind Empty Mansions,
check out the MSNBC Articles found here: Huguette Clark Mystery
Publisher: Ballantine Books
# of Pages: 496
Date of Publication: September 10, 2013
Source: Personal Purchase