Huguette Clark, 84, arrived at Manhattan’s Doctors Hospital by ambulance in 1991 anxious, malnourished and dehydrated, her face disfigured from untreated skin cancer.
Not your typical heiress whose estate would be valued at more than $300 million at her death 20 years later.
She was assigned a private-duty nurse, who stayed at her bedside 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Clark elected to spend her last two decades in the hospital. She lavished upon the nurse and her family at least $31.9 million in cash gifts and property, Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. report in their meticulous and absorbing “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.”
The title refers to Clark’s lavish unused homes, including three apartments in a limestone Fifth Ave. co-op that she kept vacant while spending $300,000 a year on hospital care. That’s 42 rooms, excluding bathrooms. Annual maintenance and taxes: $342,000.
There was also a 23.5-acre Santa Barbara, California, estate, Bellosguardo, with 1,000 feet of ocean frontage that she didn’t visit for 60 years. She kept the bare-bones house staff to about a half-dozen.
Huguette was the youngest of seven children of William Andrews Clark. Born in a four-room log cabin on a Pennsylvania farm in 1839, he became one of the wealthiest Americans of his day through copper mining and other ventures.
He was as enterprising as Huguette was eccentric and profligate.
After briefly studying Greek, Latin and law at Iowa Wesleyan University, he went west to Colorado in search of gold, a five-month, 800-mile trip by ox-drawn carriage.
Later, in Montana, he thrived by selling flour and tobacco, lending money and hauling U.S. mail 450 miles from Western Montana to Walla Walla, in what’s now Washington state.
His foray into copper mining coincided with the advent of the transatlantic cable, telephone, full-metal-jacket bullet and commercially practical incandescent light bulb.
“All of these advances in communication, everyday life, and warfare would depend on W.A. Clark’s copper,” write Dedman and Newell, whose father was Huguette Clark’s first cousin.
The authors describe W.A. as a tough but fair businessman but make no excuses for a bribery scandal behind a bid for U.S. senate. (He resigned but was re-elected.)
After W.A.’s wife died of typhoid fever, a second marriage to a woman 39 years his junior produced Huguette. Since he ran his companies essentially as sole proprietorships, the empire collapsed soon after he died in 1925.
“W.A. failed in succession planning,” Dedman and Newell write. He left his empire in the care of his children.
From her parents Huguette inherited a passion for the arts and patronage, cultivated at New York’s Spence School. She painted, played violin and went on to collect Impressionist masterpiece paintings and Stradivariuses, which along with the real estate proved to be super investments.
But something was amiss. A young marriage dissolved immediately and was perhaps never consummated, based on what she told people. After her mother and nurse, her closest companion was an extravagant collection of dolls and doll houses that she amassed until the end of her life.
“Empty Houses” ends with the ongoing battles over her money. There was no shortage of suspect behavior -- from lawyers, hospital administrators and relatives she never met.
While gracious and wildly generous with people she knew, Huguette was never much of a philanthropist given her resources. In the book, a relative described the trappings of inherited money: insecurity, guilt, a lack of self-worth.
“Having immense wealth,” the relative said, “can lead one to feel isolated and to have a false sense of being special.”
At least you have someplace to live.
(Philip Boroff is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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