Monday, December 8, 2014

Empty Mansions - Bill Dedman

Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Coauthor: Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

As the subtitle indicates, this is the tale of the squandering of a fortune built by W.A. Clark in the "Gilded Age", the late 1800's.  Clark was a Pennsylvania boy who went west to make his fortune.  He ended up in Montana where he became a banker to the miners and owner of copper mines.  He built the town of Jerome, Arizona and owned the copper mine there.  He built with his own money the railroad to Los Angeles.  W.A. married a PA sweetheart and had 5 children that lived to adulthood.  In his late 60's and a widow, he married a French Canadian woman in her 20's and had two daughters.  One died at 16 and the other, Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") outlived all her half-siblings and inherited a multi-million fortune.

The title refers to homes she inherited or acquired that set empty for decades.  She had two floors of an apartment building on 5th Avenue in NYC, a 23 acre mansion in Santa Barbara, CA, a chateau which she had built and never lived in in New Canaan, CT, $800 million in trusts and investments, and $80 million in cash and personal property; in all about $308 million before taxes.

Huguette was a shy, daddy's girl who seems to never have recovered from the death of her older sister at 16.  She was pampered and sheltered by her parents.  She married for a few weeks in her 20's and then divorced and virtually disappeared.  She rarely left the apartment she shared with her mother until her mother died and spent the last 20 years of her life in a hospital in NYC, clear minded but demanding and catered to by the staff. Her nurse, who received over $26 million while caring for her and after her death, was there every day for over 10 years.  She died at the age of 103.

Of course the other heirs, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the other 5 siblings, sued when her will left them out even though she had no contact with them her entire adult life and even though her siblings had received substantial settlements when her father had died.  The 19 heirs ended up splitting 34.5 million, with almost $100 million going to taxes.  The Santa Barbara property was given to a foundation to become a museum, though not with enough funds to keep it operating.  Generous gifts that she had left to staff at her properties, her nurse and friends were granted too.

The co-author was a grandchild of one of W.A. Clark's aunts and had contacted Huguette when she was living in the hospital and had several phone conversations for many years, off and on.

The authors don't speculate on why she chose to be reclusive, why she didn't stay in contact with her half-siblings, why she was so generous to those around her.  I found it fascinating to track the long arm of a successfully family pioneer who did little to prepare his daughter for the future as an heiress.

Clark County in Nevada is named after W.A. as is Clarkdale in Arizona.

Published:  2014  Read: December 2014  Genre: Biography

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