Book Review—Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

I would love to have had a fairy godmother like the late Huguette Clark. She was the daughter of William Andrews Clark, owner of Jerome, Arizona’s legendary United Verde copper mine, and, in his lifetime, one of the richest men in the world. Huguette was the rich princess bestowing gifts of great worth with her magic wand throughout her 105-year life.

The book, written by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., was published in 2013 by Ballatine Books.

Interestingly enough, the cover of the book does not show the mansions and apartments that Huguette abandoned, but the lavish home that her father, William Andrews Clark built on Millionaire’s Row in Manhattan.  Clark’s wife Anna and Huguette and Andree, daughters of that marriage, lived there until his death in 1925.

Interestingly enough, the cover of the book does not show the mansions and apartments that Huguette abandoned, but the lavish nine-story home that her father, William Andrews Clark built on Millionaire’s Row in Manhattan. Clark’s wife Anna and Huguette and Andree, daughters of that marriage, lived there until his death in 1925.

I loved the story of Gwendolyn Jenkins, an immigrant from Jamaica who became a nurse’s aide. Jenkins helped take care of Irving Gordon, a Madison Avenue stockbroker who helped handle Huguette’s investments and died of cancer. After his death, Huguette wrote her a lovely note, “a proper note” thanking her for his care.  “She included a ‘little gift,’ “a check for three hundred dollars.” Her daughter said, “You’d better sit down, Mother, and let me read this letter over to you. This check is for thirty thousand dollars!”

In another story, Huguette waved her magic wand to find the illustrator Felix Lourioux, who illustrated fairy tales in the French weekly, “La Semaine de Suzette,” a favorite in her youth, and commissioned several works by him. Lourioux was also the early illustrator of Mickey Mouse books. She lavishly supported him and his wife Lily throughout their lives.

Huguette spent a great deal of her considerable fortune on her very personal tastes in art and people. She supported as many as a hundred families in her lifetime—artists, craftspeople illustrators, and musicians; William Gower husband of less than a year and his new family; the Frenchman Etienne de Villermont, the love of her life whom she refused to marry and the wife he eventually married; relatives, friends, staff that helped take care of her many properties, and nurses.

The surprise of the book was that Huguette’s passion was dolls. She spent millions of dollars on buying and outfitting them with costumes. She meticulously researched the period in which each doll came from and directed the building of the ‘house’ or ‘castle’ some were to live in as well as furniture and accessories to go with them. She extravagantly paid the artisans, sent gifts to their wives, children and grandchildren and continued to support the families after they died. (The collection is valued at $1.7 million.)

Photos of two of the dolls from Huguette’s collection that are found in the book. To help publicize its publication, authors Dedman and Newell posted a three-minute plus video on NBC News displaying images of Huguette’s doll collection of French, Japanese, German dolls and some of their lavishly made homes. The background music is the tune “Salut d’Amour, played by pianist Eduard Laurel and violinist James Ehness on the the famous Strativarious violin, “La Pucelle.” http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nbc-news/52916662#52916662

Photos of two of the dolls from Huguette’s collection that are found in the book. To help publicize its publication, authors Dedman and Newell posted a three-minute plus video on NBC News displaying images of Huguette’s doll collection of French, Japanese, German dolls and some of their lavishly made homes. The background music is the tune “Salut d’Amour, played by pianist Eduard Laurel and violinist James Ehness on the the famous Strativarious violin, “La Pucelle.” http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nbc-news/52916662#52916662

I loved the story of the Japanese artist Saburo Kawakami who was hired to build a replica the lavish Hirosaki Castle, which included cutting shingles from a rare Japanese cedar for its roof. Huguette loved Japanese culture and history and collected rare Japanese Hina and other period dolls.

As portrayed in the book, Huguette was exceptionally private, well-mannered, introverted, shy, generous, and kind, absorbed daily in private passions that gave her a great deal of pleasure. Not much more about her personality can be gleaned from the book. To his credit, Dedman tried hard—plugging through archives, bank drafts and written documents and interviewing anyone alive who knew her. Co-author Newell’s scant five sidebars of conversations with Huguette on the telephone don’t add much by way of illumination and left me wondering why the book included them.

If I have a quarrel with the book it is that the book is very much a prize-winning journalist’s approach to writing about someone whose life was so carefully guarded. Perhaps only a third of the book is about what can be gleaned about Huguette from descriptions of her art and doll collection, descriptions of the lavish homes she lived in and abandoned, and the people that received some of her generous gifts.

Even the major love of Huguette’s life (“Love of Half a Life”) with the Marquis Etienne de Villermont gets a scant five pages, taken up in part with a few short affectionate notes between them: “It’s Valentine’s Day and I am thinking of you with great affection. I send you this bouquet but the mimosas are under the snow. We will take the boat in the middle of March, the United States. It will be a joy to see you. I can’t wait, I hope you are well, will try to call you. Much love, always, Etienne.” Another page or so of this segment describes the friendship that continued after he became married to someone else, which included Huguette’s gifts to help them adopt a child and a description of some of the gifts she sent to that child.

You have to admire a woman who was able to guard her privacy to that extent and live quite a full life absorbed by the pleasures and people she was drawn to. Up until her twenty-year stay at Beth Israel Medical Center, she stayed clear from fortune hunters, gossip, media attention, and family or friends that might only have cozied up because of that fortune.

What is interesting is that the book documents the sadness of those aspects of a very wealthy person’s life—attempts by Beth Israel to get her to sign over much of what remained of her fortune (politely called ‘cultivating the donor’). Equally sad is the lawsuit instigated by remnants of her family, most of whom had never met her, who wanted a piece of her fortune. Sad too the controversy surrounding Hadassah Peri, the nurse that devoted her life to taking care of Huguette while she was in the hospital and became perhaps her only friend and confidante. Huguette supported her with huge donations to her and her family ($31 million!) and left a considerable portion more to her in the will,

The settlement of Huguette’s estate came after the book was published. Those who would like to know about it can read Dedman’s article, “Huguette Clark’s $300 million copper fortune is divided up: Here’s the deal” at http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/09/24/20675759-huguette-clarks-300-million-copper-fortune-is-divided-up-heres-the-deal

There’s a lot of captivating detail to interest the reader who can’t get enough of the lives of the rich and famous.

The most interesting and valuable segment  of Empty Mansions is the 125 pages or so (almost a third of the book) devoted to William Andrews Clark, Huguette’s father. For me, It is single best biography yet written about W.A. Clark, from his birth to a not so poor family, to his education, growth of his business empire, the building of his mansion in New York, and the dissolution the mansion and sale of the United Verde mine. The book offers a much more complex and interesting portrait of him than the one of Huguette.

William Andrews Clark in Jerome, Arizona.  Courtesy of the Herbert V. Young Collection of the Jerome Historical Society.

William Andrews Clark in Jerome, Arizona. Courtesy of the Herbert V. Young Collection of the Jerome Historical Society.

Perhaps this is where Newell added a great deal of value to Empty Mansions. Newell’s father was Clark’s uncle and Clark often visited him when he was in Los Angeles. Newell was writing a biography about Clark but “his health was failing, so only fragments of that work were completed.”  Newell took up that his father’s work by organizing the archives, visiting museums and historical societies and developing friendships with some of the relatives that had known Clark. It was a visit to the Corcoran Gallery that revealed that Huguette was still alive (by this time she was already ensconced in Beth Israel Medical Center). Newell  was quick to say that even his father had never met the very shy and reclusive Huguette.

The segment on Clark included 18 pages of rich new information about the battles between Marcus Daly (owner of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company) and Clark for control of political power in Butte.  These include debunking some of the allegations of Clark’s bribery for the United States Senate and its aftermath, which included the Daly camp’s bribery of some of the Montana legislators that had initially voted for Clark to recant their testimony. Clark eventually resigned in the swirl of controversy, then was reappointed to fill the vacancy.

The book also debunks the veracity of Mark Twain’s now famous and oft-quoted excoriation of Clark.  “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag.” (It goes to show that negative accusations always stay more firmly in the mind that positive ones, especially when they are well-written.) Turns out Twain had been saved from bankruptcy and was a close friend of Henry Huttleston Rogers, CEO of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the company which took over Daly’s Anaconda Copper, a fabulous stock swindle story all on its own.

Empty Mansions contains twenty-four pages of wonderful (and rare) color photographs and many black and white ones. My favorites were the black and white photo of Anna Clark’s bedroom with her harp at Bellosguardo taken in 1940 by Karl Obert and the full page photo of the very lovely Huguette taken in 1943.

In summary: Empty Mansions is a good read—especially for those of us who love the history of Jerome and all the byways it can take us on.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review—Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

  1. Nice book report – thanks and glad to hear that Jerome got a mention in the story of Huguette’s life – nary a mention in the other stories I’ve read.

    • Only one page on Jerome, really. The second page was about Clarkdale. Oh well. There was one good paragraph later about the dissolution of the UV.

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