Sunday, August 10, 2014

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. collaborated on a fascinating look into the story of a little known family and the last surviving daughter of a copper king. Empty Mansions is the story of Huguette Clark, who died at 104, a wealthy heiress whose relatives didn't even know she was still alive. The subtitle is perfect; "The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune".

Huguette Clark's father, W.A. Clark, was a self-made man, an entrepreneur who made his fortune in the west, beginning as a merchant, moving into copper mines, and ending with anything that made a profit. He was a railroad baron, owned the lots that became downtown Las Vegas, built a railroad to what was, at the time, the secondary city in California, Los Angeles. His story, leading to hers in the book, is absolutely fascinating. After his first wife died, he remarried at the age of 62. His wife, Anna, was 23 at the time, shocking the children from his first marriage. However, the children eventually seemed to accept the second marriage, and the two daughters from that marriage. Huguette was the youngest, and, when her father died, she inherited one-fifth of his estate. It was estimated that she inherited $100 to $250 million.

But, as interesting as W.A. Clark was, the book is about Huguette, and her long life after all of her immediate family was gone. The book indicates she was a shrewd businesswoman, an artist, who divorced her husband, but remained friends with him. When she befriended someone, she remained a friend for life. However, she moved into a hospital room when she was in her eighties, letting her mansions remain empty, although she refused to sell them. And, very few people even knew the heiress to one of America's great fortunes was still alive, including the many relatives who came out of the woodwork to contest her will when she died.

The authors indicate that Huguette lived the life she wanted to life, reclusive, not seeing many people, but writing to many, and supporting friends. Even so, I found the book to be sad. She did chose to be a recluse, but supported the arts, had her music, her painting. She was intelligent and knowledgeable about her passions, her dolls, her dollhouses that had to be perfect. It just struck me as a sad life, with so much money, and a refusal to leave or see many people. And, it seemed that everything she really had, her artwork and jewelry, was stolen from her, with money eaten up in court battles. She seemed to become a misunderstood figure of ridicule by those who never knew her.

Empty Mansions is a compelling story, a story most of us can never really understand, of unimaginable wealth, and isolation.

The website is www.emptymansionsbook.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Ballantine Books. 2013. ISBN 9780345534521 (hardcover), 456p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


Kaye Barley said...

Lesa, I was completely engrossed and fascinated by this book. I had never heard of Huguette Clark before reading this, and I too found it to be a somewhat sad story. I also was flabbergasted by the amount of wealth - that much wealth does not compute in my mind. And the fact that some of the things from the home were too big and too expensive to find a new owner so ended up as trash. Unbelievable.

Lesa said...

I agree, Kaye. I hadn't heard of her. And, I can't believe that staircase and the pipe organ just ended up dumped. Unbelievable amounts of wealth.

Mrs. GV said...

I had heard about Huguette Clark a few years ago, before her death, and have always been intrigued by how she chose to spend her life. I completely loved the book too.

meg hadley trager said...

I remember reading her obit when she passed, thinking it to be such a sad story -- her perfect dollhouses contradicting her sad existence. If only she had let someone chronicle her life -- what stories.

Lesa said...

It was wonderful, Mrs. GV, and we had a terrific book discussion about it.

Lesa said...

Meg, She was such a private person. I don't know. The way the author wrote it, she was satisfied with her existence. So maybe it wasn't so sad.