Born in 1906, Huguette Clark grew up in her family’s 121 Beaux Arts mansion in New York and was one of the leading celebrities of her day. Her father William Andrews Clark, was a copper magnate, the second richest man in America, and not above bribing his way into the senate. Huguette attended the coronation of King George V. And at twenty-two with a personal fortune of $50 million to her name, she married a Princeton man and childhood friend William MacDonald Gower. Two years later the couple divorced. After a series of failed romances, Huguette began to withdraw from society — first living with her mother in a kind of Grey Gardens isolation and then as a modern-day Miss Havisham, spending her days in a vast apartment overlooking Central Park, eating crackers and watching The Flintstones with only servants for company. All her money and all her real estate could not protect her in her later life from being manipulated by shady hangers-on and hospitals that were only too happy to admit (and bill) a healthy woman. But what happened to Huguette that turned a vivacious, young socialite into a recluse? And what was her life like inside that gilded, copper cage?
To say Huguette Clark’s childhood was privileged would be an understatement. As the daughter of the second richest man in America, her family’s opulent lifestyle was funded by W.A. Clark’s copper mines in Butte. Huguette was born in Paris in 1904 and raised in Beaux Arts, the largest private residence in New York City – the family mansion boasted 4 art galleries and had its own underground railway for transporting coal. But all of the family’s millions could not divert tragedy, when in 1919, Huguette’s beloved older sister and constant companion, Andree, died of meningitis. By the age of eighteen, Huguette’s elderly father had died and estranged (for lack of a better word) from her half-sibling’s from her father’s first marriage, she and her mother, Anna, formed an almost co-dependent relationship.
The strength of this book lies in Meryl Gordon’s ability to explore Huguette’s ties to her family, for despite the servants, tutors and trips, her parents and sister were a tight-knit family. Following a marriage to Bill Gower in 1928, Huguette supposedly decided marriage was not for her, and after the couple spent a disastrous honeymoon, she returned home to her mother. Rather poignantly, the last public photograph of Huguette was taken on her honeymoon. To the public and press who followed her story, she simply disappeared. But that is not to say Huguette lived a sad existence. She was a talented painter, tutored by the renowned artist Tade Styka, and harbouring an infatuation for her tutor, she was heartbroken when he married Doris Ford. An early example of Huguette’s good nature shines through, when following the birth of their first child in 1943, she agreed to be godmother.
In the 1960s Huguette became dedicated to hiding. In 1963, when Anna died, she inherited her mother’s jewellery, paintings, furniture and real estate. At the age of 57, without her sole companion, Huguette retreated from society. In 1968, she was last seen by relatives at the funeral of her half-niece and childhood friend Katherine Morris Hass. It was those such relatives who became curious of their reclusive aunt, and who tried to piece together the puzzle of her disappearance, and who would ultimately fight for a share of her $300 million fortune.
For the next two decades, Huguette hid in her sprawling apartment overlooking Central Park. Her days were filled by watching the Flintstones and The Smurfs. But this was not to say Huguette was mentally challenged (as her caregivers lead outsiders to believe). This love of watching cartoons was the subject of a deep fascination with animation and she studied it as an art form, capturing stills directly from her television screen and putting them together to see how the images came to life. She also photographed life stills from her apartment window and every year Huguette would get dressed up and snap a self portrait using the self-timer. It was not only paintings and photography that Huguette loved, she also held a deep admiration for dolls, especially of the Japanese variety. The craftsmanship in forming the dolls and the painting of their faces and delicate detail of their costumes enchanted her and she felt content around her luxury collectables, all bought from auction catalogues for a king’s ransom. Every Christmas, Huguette purchased hundreds of French dolls from a store in New York and personally hand-wrapped each one for orphaned children. She hoped the beautiful dolls would bring joy to others, too.
This was a woman who enjoyed her own company amongst her collectibles and who clearly possessed a generous spirit. Having grown up with wealth and never having to work a day in her life, you could say Huguette did not know the value of money. And it was this unawareness that others preyed on….
In 1991, Huguette was admitted to Beth Israel North for an advanced case of skin cancer, which required multiple surgeries, including plastic surgery to repair the damage of years without treatment. She was never discharged, and for the next twenty years Huguette emerged only once, when the hospital closed in 2004 and she was moved downtown to Beth Israel. Without insurance, she paid for everything out of her own pocket and by 2007 her hospital living expenses were $5 million per year. It was during this time in which Huguette hired a private nurse, Hadassah Peri to work 12 hours per day, 7 days per week. Despite the extreme schedule of care giving, with a husband and three children at home, Peri was rewarded handsomely over the next twenty years, receiving a total of $31 million in houses, cars, jewellery and cash. Huguette also hired a night nurse for an 11 hour shift, leaving herself one hour alone between nurses each day.
But more of the above in part 2 of the blog post….
This book details the cruel exploitation Huguette received at the hands of the medical staff, lawyers and care givers, all of whom she trusted. Meryl Gordon delves into the psyche of Huguette when she highlights the one traumatic experience of her young life, when at the age of 15, she loses Andree. Gordon writes that, when suffering a bereavement, an individual may regress, and in this case Huguette’s development into adulthood was stunted. She was also obsessed with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and this was not an example of acute paranoia. As a young woman, the newspapers often printed that Huguette had a personal fortune of $50 million…it was during the height of the depression when Huguette came out as a debutante and although she lived a sheltered life, she was aware of the hardships and struggles of others.
Throughout her life, Huguette was a charitable woman and she scoured newspapers for stories of those down on their luck. Opening her ‘magic’ cheque book, she would write an anonymous, substantial cheque for hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, combined with a fear of kidnapping and armed with a great compassion for others, Huguette’s caregivers manipulated this for their own gain. They would often remind Huguette, who in extreme old age had become even more reclusive, that they could no longer care for her, that their family needed them or that they were running out of money. She’d write a cheque for $5 million (more on this in part 2) and plead with them to stay.
It is a sad state of affairs with a poor elderly person is thrown onto the street. It is also a sad state of affairs when a wealthy elderly woman cannot receive the type of care she was paying for. Despite the secrecy surrounding Huguette’s legacy and the unpleasantness of her final years, Meryl Gordon has succeeded in bringing the phantom to life.
Part Two will feature Empty Mansions:The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. I will write about the numerous abandoned mansions Huguette maintained until her death, the scandalous back story of her parents and the battle for her $300 million fortune.