Amazon link for the book is here.
Empty Mansions chronicles the life of a mysterious heiress, Huguette Clark, and several of her many vacant multi-million dollar properties, including an enormous estate in Santa Barbara (Bellosguardo), a Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment in NY City, and a 52-acre estate in New Canaan, CT. When reporter Dedman began looking into these abandoned properties, he started peeling back the layers to find the story of a very rich and extremely private woman, a woman who hadn’t visited her numerous estates in decades.
Dedman and Newell (the latter of which is a distant relative of Huguette’s) take readers back to Huguette’s father, William A. Clark, a man second in wealth only to Rockefeller. Clark, who sold the land that became Las Vegas in the county that still bears his name, was a poor man from Pennsylvania who traveled west and made it big in copper mining. He went on to become a U.S. senator from Montana and build one of the largest ever private homes on Fifth Avenue in New York City (completed in 1907 and torn down in 1925), which at the time cost $2.5 million to build. Largely forgotten by history, probably due to a political scandal and the fact that he left very little to charity upon his death, W.A. Clark left many living children, one of whom, Huguette, became immensely wealthy and intensely reclusive after her father died.
Huguette lived within weeks of her 105th birthday in 2011, living at least 20 of the last years of her life in self-exposed exile in a New York City hospital, despite the fact that she was perfectly healthy and able to live on her own. But she became “infamous” because of the vacant properties she maintained but never visited and because of the enormous amounts of money she doled out to her attorneys, accountant, personal assistant, and nurse. In fact, her nurse became a multi-millionaire, driving a Bentley and owning several properties of her own. But was this a case of someone taking advantage of an elderly woman of means? Or did Huguette really want her employees to receive the excessive funds that she gave them?
Empty Mansions is a fascinating but ultimately sad tale of a woman rich beyond all imagination, an artist of some talent, but a woman locked in an eccentric world of her own making. Largely alone, she indulged in her own bizarre hobbies, meanwhile giving millions to employees rather than sharing much with family members or charities. A subject of prey to hospital administrators who wanted to grab more and more of her fortune, a stranger to her relatives, but a sincere and excessive patron to those she knew that were in need, Huguette was a complex character. The legal battle that ensued after her 2011 death leaves one wondering if any one of her associates or relatives truly deserved the lavish wealth left to this one person.
Dedman and Newell provide an in depth account of the Clark family and paint a vivid portrait of Huguette’s previously untold life. The many lists of gifts and expenses quickly become redundant, particularly if you are listening to the audio version, as I did, and it is a shame that the book was published before the outcome of the trial was announced. But for those interested in the Gilded Age of American wealth and excesses, this is a bewitching tale whose ending is only being told today.