Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Nook - Empty Mansions

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.:

Well, my Amazon link still isn't working (dang and blast! as Roald Dahl characters would exclaim), so I took a quick picture of the book so you can see it.  (Here's a different amazon link to the book.) That big mansion in the heart of wealthy New York City that graces the cover?  It was torn down because it was so expensive, no one could afford to maintain it after its owner died.  So, right from the cover, we can see the kind of wealth this family had.

The family is the Clark family.  The story starts with W.A. Clark, who was born in a four room log cabin in 1839 in Pennsylvania.  W.A.'s family moved out west to Iowa, where he strove "to better my condition."  He taught school, went to university, became a gold miner, then became a merchant to the miners, then a mail courier through Indian territory, then a grocer and banker, then a copper industrialist, railroad baron and U.S. Senator.

As I was finishing the first several chapters of the book, all about W.A., I was describing them to DH and telling him a bit about W.A.'s daughter, Huguette.  DH's response was: it sounds like his story is going to be much more interesting than hers.   I've given this comment a lot of thought, and come to the conclusion that yes, W.A. and Huguette both took different paths, but they are both intriguing tales in their own right.  W.A. was a force of nature, out in the world, seizing every possible opportunity, always making his life and his experiences bigger and better.

His daughter, Huguette, on the other hand, was rather timid.  She had a small circle of people she knew (some friends, some employees.  She was devoted to her family, but her family was very small in number and she outlived them all by several decades).  She would often stay out of sight at social occasions that her mother held, and if she was participating, she usually kept to herself and sat with a doll on her lap.  Her interests were painting (her weekly lessons with Tade Styka were one of the only things to lure her out of her Fifth Avenue apartment); she loved Japanese building replicas and spent time coordinating their construction; and she loved dolls.  She was an avid art collector, investing in Monet and Renoir and Degas.

But the real story of the book is the massive wealth.  When W.A. passed away, his vast fortune was split between his children from his first marriage and Huguette, his only living child from his second marriage.  When she died (in 2011, at the age of 104), her estate was worth $308 million.  What would a quiet, reclusive person do with all that money?

In addition to her artistic hobbies, she also paid for the upkeep of 3 estates, all of which remained empty for at least 20 years.  The tax bill on her Connecticut estate alone reached $161,000 per year.  She purchased the estate in 1951, and never lived in it.  Her mother's beloved Bellosguardo estate in Santa Barbara, was kept up as well, with gardeners and house servants and a chauffeur and estate manager.  Huguette had not set foot in the mansion since the 1950s.

The last 20 years of her life, Huguette lived in a hospital, and she spent a great deal of her money on her closest caregivers: her day nurse, who was given $30 million, and her assistant, who made close to $200,00 a year organizing Huguette's dolls and running errands for her (not to mention she paid for his children's private education and gave him lavish monetary gifts, such as $60,000 for Christmas).  Her doctors, realizing they had an elderly patient with vast wealth, would often ask Huguette for donations to the hospital.  In fact, they asked her for $125 million to save the hospital from being purchased by a developer.  Huguette declined, and when the hospital closed, she moved to a different hospital.

It's interesting to think that perhaps these people close to her took advantage of her, but our authors make it clear that Huguette was of sound mind up to her death.  It's hard to believe, but she preferred to live at the hospital in her last years instead of her $54 million Fifth Avenue apartments.  She preferred to give money to those few trusted people close to her as opposed to other charities.  She preferred to keep private, only allowing a few people to get close to her.  It's hard to imagine a life of such wealth, and what choices you might make if you had that wealth.  Huguette made the choices that were right for her, and she lived a contented life.  It will be interesting to see how the remainder of her wealth will now be divided up (there is a legal battle between W.A.'s descendants and the recipients in Huguette's will).  It all certainly makes for an interesting story.


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