Monday, June 23, 2014

Empty Mansions

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American FortuneTitle: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
Author: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Read: June 8, 2014

Summary: When Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century 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?

Dedman has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have frequent conversations with her. Dedman and Newell tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter, born into a family of extreme wealth and privilege, who secrets herself away from the outside world.

Huguette was the daughter of self-made copper industrialist W. A. Clark, nearly as rich as Rockefeller in his day, a controversial senator, railroad builder, and founder of Las Vegas. She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a remarkable dwelling with 121 rooms for a family of four. She owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, a vast collection of antique dolls. But wanting more than treasures, she devoted her wealth to buying gifts for friends and strangers alike, to quietly pursuing her own work as an artist, and to guarding the privacy she valued above all else.

The Clark family story spans nearly all of American history in three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to mining camps in the Montana gold rush, from backdoor politics in Washington to a distress call from an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. The same Huguette who was touched by the terror attacks of 9/11 held a ticket nine decades earlier for a first-class stateroom on the second voyage of the Titanic.

Empty Mansions reveals a complex portrait of the mysterious Huguette and her intimate circle. We meet her extravagant father, her publicity-shy mother, her star-crossed sister, her French boyfriend, her nurse who received more than $30 million in gifts, and the relatives fighting to inherit Huguette’s copper fortune. Richly illustrated with more than seventy photographs, Empty Mansions is an enthralling story of an eccentric of the highest order, a last jewel of the Gilded Age who lived life on her own terms. goodreads

Review: If you are an adult in this country, you have probably heard of the Astors. What about the Vanderbilts? The Rockefellers? When we think of great wealth in this country, those are the names we think of. What about the Clarks? You've never heard of them? That's ok, most people haven't. But this story will tell you all about them!

Huguette Clark is the youngest child of W.A. Clark who was copper tycoon, Senator, and very rich man throughout the late 1800's and early 1900's. This story starts with Clark's childhood and ends with the death of Huguette. Along the way, we find out how Clark made his millions and what happened to all of that money. It's completely fascinating to me. That being said, if you are not interested in non-fiction, history, and coveting large amounts of money that some Americans have access to, this is not the book for you. If you love hearing about self-made millionaires, heiresses, mansions, family drama, and our country in the early 20th century, you should check out this book!

While reading about how Clark grew up and started to acquire his businesses and make his money, I found myself thinking of Atlas Shrugged a lot. There were some great comparisons such as railroad tycoons, immense wealth, hard work, and becoming a target because of all of these things. The difference is, W.A. Clark is a real person who really did these things. He was a hard work, very successful business man and you had to respect him for it (regardless of any debauchery during his Senate elections.)

We also get to meet Huguette and follow her from childhood to her dying day. What a unique experience she had as a child. Her father was one of the richest men in the country and she unlimited money at her disposal. It is clear that this upbringing would create unique individuals and that is exactly what Huguette was. She was very private from a young age and found her passion in art, dolls, and doll houses. She turned into a recluse during her later years but had a good head on her shoulders which impressed me. She made decisions for herself (which can be disputed but I believe) and she had her own way of doing things. She was also very generous her entire life and never stopped giving.

Parts of this book had a Grey Gardens feel, but Huguette was much more sane and classy than that. It's sad to think that these beautiful pieces of property (houses, paintings, and belongings) were never enjoyed by anyone during the last 60 years, but it was Huguette's decision to make and she had her reasons.

The end of the story which focuses mainly on the court cases disputing her will between her family and her late in life confidants saddened me but I completely expected it. This book is written by one of her distant family members and I wonder how biased it is and what his other family members would say about the research and findings that this book was based on but I can only hope that the people who deserve it, who ever that may be, get what Huguette intended.

Like I said before, I love hearing about this part of history and swoon over the pictures and the stories behind them. I never knew who the Clarks were until I read this book but now that I know, I will never forget their role in our country as it is today.

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