The mystery of Huguette Clark, one of the richest and most reclusive of the great American heiresses is by turns fascinating and horrifying. If ever there was an argument for money not buying happiness, the story of Huguette, starved, cancer-ridden and feeble showing up at a doctor’s office might be it. Until you learn the indomitable eccentric lived another twenty years in the hospital before dying at the age of 104. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of an American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. offers a window into an intriguing story that remained hidden for decades.
What is life like without the limitations of money? The world remains fascinated with heiresses from the Hilton sisters to the Ecclestones but we seem to prefer the unhappy tales most of all. Recently Rolling Stone ran a story about the young heirs to the Duke fortune, who have their own American Gothic story to share. Money in the hands of those who have never had to handle it seems to create a particular kind of ruin.
It takes two authors to tell this tale, one of them a relative to Huguette but not an heir who provides the closest link we have to understanding this unique woman. We begin with Hugette’s childhood and her larger-than-life father, a titan cut from the same cloth as Hearst, Rockefeller, and Carnegie. While other titans remain legend W.A. Clark is mostly lost to history (although his name lives on in Clark County, Nevada). A mining magnate and later Senator, Clark amassed astounding wealth which fueled a taste for extravagance, including the construction of an elaborate New York home.
It’s fitting that the title of the book is Empty Mansions. What makes Huguette’s story particularly memorable isn’t just the wealth or the eccentricity, it’s the real estate. From the idyllic Bellosguardo estate in Santa Barbara to the remodeled-but-never-lived-in Connecticut home, and of course the collection of New York apartments, she left a trail of fabulously uninhabited homes, waiting for guests who would never arrive, maintained but never updated, massive vitrines of the past.
Recently Huguette’s story has been in the news lately as her estate has sued Beth Israel Hospital saying that the hospital concealed her stay there from regulators in the hopes of extracting donations from her. Because she lived much of her life in the shadows, her true story and motives may never be known but one thing that comes through in this well-researched book was that she was a lady who knew her own mind whether she was tending to her extensive collection of rare dolls or keeping tabs on her extended network of friends and artists. It seems that her family may have understood her the least, watching from the sidelines as she lavished money on strangers and hid from the world.
Now that she is gone, what remains is the squabbling as her family, legal teams, the IRS, and named beneficiaries struggle over her wills (there are two), her possessions (many of which have now been auctioned off), and of course, her homes. It’s unclear how all will be resolved but it’s a sad irony that the thing that Huguette most avoided, publicity and attention of any kind, is quickly becoming her part of her legacy.
Deidre Woollard served as the lead editor on Luxist.com for six years writing about real estate, auctions, jewelry and luxury goods. Her love for luxury real estate led her to work at realtor.com and two of the top real estate brokerages in Los Angeles as well as doing publicity for properties around the world.