Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of nineteenth-century America with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?
The beginning of Empty Mansions charts the ambitious story of W.A. Clark, a young man descended from Northern Irish immigrants, born in a log cabin in Pennsylvania. Clark and his many siblings worked on their parents’ farm, but out of them all, he became the most entrepreneurial. He transported goods by horse and cart, opened a store, sold his produce for a vast profit, closed his store and re-opened a new one. In winter the peaches he was transporting froze, so Clark re-thought his strategy and marketed them as frozen peaches. All of them sold. At the age of 17, Clark accompanied his father to Iowa to help till the land before chasing the gold rush to Montana. In the 1870s , Clark discovered copper veins in his Butte mines, which started producing eight million pounds of copper per month, just as demand was skyrocketing thanks to the recently invented telephone. As the money poured in, Clark invested it. He took risks, and instead of resting on his (rich) laurels, he sought business ventures further afield. He built a railway from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, where he chose a Nevada outpost as a refueling stop, which was incorporated as Las Vegas. Success followed him wherever he went, because he got what he wanted at any cost, and he even bribed his way into a senate seat.
Clark was lucky in business but not in his personal life. Married to his childhood friend, Catherine Stauffer, they had seven children – two died in infancy and a son, Paul, died at the age of 16. His beloved wife then died suddenly at the age of 53. Clark was lonely, and he became the benefactor of a beautiful teenager in Butte, Anna La Chapelle. He sent her to Paris to pursue her musical studies (she was a talented harpist), and often crossed the ocean to visit her. Soon, they started a secret relationship. At 39 years his junior, Anna was younger than Clark’s eldest children. Following the birth of Andree in 1902, and Huguette in 1906, Clark issued a statement that he and Anna had married in France in 1901. Anna was 23 and Clark was 62. The marriage was believed to be a sham, and no wedding certificate manifested – the reason for this, he explained, was that the ceremony was religious. Many had their doubts and it was the beginning of a life touched by scandal.
In 1907, Mark Twain portrayed Clark as the embodiment of Gilded Age excess and corruption:
He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.
As I have already mentioned in Part One, Meryl Gordon’s The Phantom of Fifth Avenue explores the relationship between Andree and Huguette in detail. That is not to say Empty Mansions does not undertake a similar analysis. All in all, Empty Mansions is a more in-depth read. The clue to the book’s content is its co-writer Paul Clark Newell, Jr. who was Huguette’s distant cousin, though as is the norm in large families, Huguette liked to be referred as ‘Tante’ Huguette. Tante, French for Aunt, was a relic of Huguette’s Parisian birth, and as though to pay homage to this, she spoke with a slight French accent all of her life. Newell also includes various transcripts of his conversations with Huguette which are randomly dotted around the text. She seemed a charming woman, interested in everybody else, reluctant to talk about herself unless asked to, and as Newell confides, often ended a conversation rather abruptly with a ‘Well I’ve kept you long enough….’ Part of her enigma was self-inflicted – she never gave out her phone number – and although it added an air of mystery and a strong desire for privacy, it would also throw obstacles in the pathway of those who tried to overthrow the hangers-on in her later years.
Part of Huguette’s reluctance to establish intimate relationships with her half-nieces and nephews was due to their parents and grandparents – Huguette’s half-siblings- who were not welcoming to her mother, Anna, and they treated their much younger stepmother and two half-siblings with an air of detachment. She became friendly with her two half-nieces, close in age to her, with whom she attended the progressive Spence School in Manhattan. Interestingly enough, Edith Bouvier-Beale was a pupil at the Spence School, though several years below Huguette. It could be said that Huguette was much closer to her Godchildren and their families, however, even those beloved Godchildren were kept at arm’s length in her later years. They knew she was in the dingy hospital room, that her Fifth Avenue apartment lay vacant, and that her caregivers were taking her money. But they felt at a loss to intervene, given that Huguette’s lawyers would step in and impose their authority over Huguette, and that the hospital ruled with a firm hand and could, at any moment, refuse them entry to visit Huguette. It was a distressing situation for those who cared about her.
Empty Mansions charts Huguette’s generous spending habit, which in her later years, was directed towards her caregivers – mainly to the hospital and Hadassah Peri. Granted Peri gave her life to Huguette, but the letters included in the book do not sit easy with me. Peri’s entire family seem to be bleeding Huguette dry for cash gifts from television sets, college education to cars, apartments and expensive holidays. Peri’s son, for instance, writes to Huguette and in a roundabout way brazenly hints that he would like a car. Huguette responded and a car was bought. This, to me, is a form of robbery. The hospital, too, were often fishing for generous donations, using scaremongering tactics (it was on its last legs etc) which prompted Huguette to reach for her cheque book. Memos included in the book show that doctors were pressing other members of staff to keep Huguette focused on the topic of donations. Ransom would be a more appropriate word. The authors, too, break down Huguette’s tax and how much those financial ‘gifts’ were costing her – and for non-Americans such as myself, the complex tax system was explained. Sadder still, her treasured paintings were stolen from the walls of her apartment, and Citibank, the New York bank in which she kept her mother’s valuable jewels, was cleared out. Somebody on the inside knew too much and as distressing as it was to Huguette, she never received an answer or experienced justice for those thefts.
As the title hints, empty mansions is the topic of the story. As Huguette existed in a run-down hospital room, palatial mansions lay empty, manned with an army of servants who remained on the payroll until Huguette’s death.
The mansion in Santa Barbara had not been visited by Huguette since 1953, but she kept a full staff and requested the house be kept in first-class condition should she wish to make a visit. Hundreds of bound leather books are still there, including works by Dante, Homer, Virgil, Maupassant, Dickens, Voltaire, Faust, Milton and Conrad. Click on the title to view photographs of the mansion. In her later years Huguette stopped visiting Bellosguardo because it brought back memories of her mother, which, she confessed, made her sad.
Le Beau Chateau
In 1951, Huguette purchased a mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut, as an escape from New York during the height of nuclear attack paranoia. She never visited and aside from its custom designed staircase, the spindles of which are carved into paintbrushes, she never bothered to furnish it. There was no bell or intercom, but if one wanted to visit the big house, one could rap on the air conditioning unit of the caretaker, Tony Ruggiero, a former boxer in his eight decade.
907 Fifth Avenue
The forty-two room apartment spanning the entire 8th floor had not been resided in for over two decades. Its walls were still decorated with original artwork and the rooms furnished in the finest French furniture. Although Huguette remained absent, a housekeeper still arrived every morning to dust the rooms. The apartment held Huguette’s famous doll collection and the empty rooms held her papers, all sorted individually. Huguette also maintained her mother’s apartment in the same building on the 12th floor.
When she married Bill Gower, Huguette made a will and had bequeathed everything to her mother. Another will was not made until 2005, and within six weeks, she signed two very different versions. Death, to Huguette, was a painful subject and she avoided the term completely, often using euphemisms such as ‘the end’. A will would have forced Huguette to acknowledge her own mortality. In one will, Huguette left her fortune to be divided among her extended family. In the up-to-date will, she had disinherited her family and had left everything to the hospital and her caregivers amongst others. When she died in 2011, Huguette was interned at the family Mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Although at rest, Huguette’s estate became embroiled in a very public legal battle that would not be settled until September 2013. You can read more about the court’s ruling here.
Huguette’s relative, Clare Albert, one of the few who did not wish to profit from the estate, stated: ‘Altogether, I find the prospect of challenging my Aunt Huguette’s will to be disrespectful of what could be her true wishes, an impoite act not in accorance with my values.’ As a very private person, Huguette would have abhorred her estate being under the glare of the American media. But perhaps in death she has become an advocate for those who are abused by their caretakers. Poor, or wealthy, she is an example of a vulnerable person who was mishandled, manipulated and mistreated by the people she trusted most.
The book’s website is an insightful resource. Click here to visit.