Book Review: Empty MansionsMarch 31, 2014
Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Reviewed by Louise Hilton.
Empty Mansions is the intriguing story of the making of one of the greatest American fortunes, that of mining magnate William Andrews (W. A.) Clark, and the peculiar life of his youngest daughter Huguette. Clark was a self-made man in the grand tradition of the American dream: he went from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to the halls of Congress, amassing a personal fortune in mining (not to mention acquiring an entire railroad and selling the plots of land that would become Las Vegas along the way) to rival that of Rockefeller and the other leading industrialists of the day. Clark remains one of the 50 richest Americans of all time. His reputation eventually marred by accusations of corruption – elected to the U. S. Senate in 1899, Clark lost his seat as a result of voter bribery allegations, only to be reelected the following year and serving a single term starting in 1901 – his name is all but forgotten today, even though his election scandal helped lead to the passage of the 17th Amendment that established direct election of senators.
W. A. Clark spared no expense in building a sumptuous lifestyle for himself and his family, building sprawling estates all over the country (most of which remained empty yet fully staffed for decades in the 20th century, due to Huguette’s reclusive lifestyle, hence the book’s title). Clark instilled a love and appreciation of fine arts in his children, and Huguette remained a lifelong patroness of the arts and an avid collector of Japanese art and dolls in particular. Huguette, born in Paris to Clark and his French second wife, also kept her father’s affinity for all things French.
The crux of Empty Mansions is Huguette’s story. An artistic and loving young woman who married once, briefly, but then withdrew from society upon the deaths of her closest family members, she spent the rest of her adulthood in seclusion, communicating with the outside world via letters, telegrams, and phone calls, her life taking on an almost “Grey Gardens” aspect. Perhaps most shocking of all was her voluntary move to a series of New York City hospitals, where she spent the last 20+ years of her life. Was she preyed upon by her nurses and doctors? Were her lawyers and bankers honest in their handling of her immense fortune? Was Huguette developmentally delayed which would help in explaining some of her childlike behavior?
Authors Dedman and Newell (the latter a distant relation of Huguette’s) draw on impeccable research to present a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into one of the most prominent American families of all time. W. A. Clark’s ascent is a prime example of American can do-ism but also a cautionary tale against the pull of power and greed and what is perhaps best described as obscene wealth. More than that though, Empty Mansions introduces readers to the complex and touching story of the reclusive heiress Huguette Clark.