Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr

Subtitled “The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune”, this book explores the mystery surrounding a home in Connecticut for sale that was sat unoccupied for nearly sixty years purchased by a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark with her $300 million inheritance. This incredibly reclusive woman — no photograph of her had been seen publicly since the 1930s – owned a mansion in Santa Barbara in addition to the one in Connecticut and two apartments on Fifth Avenue in New York City, but spent twenty years in a hospital room despite her excellent health.

This book is crash-course into the underbelly of Montana politics as Clark is the daughter of William A. Clark, who owned a mine in Butte, bribed members of the Montana State Legislature in return for their votes to name him to the U.S. Senate, and was portrayed as the worst of men in the Gilded Age. Having read about Montana history and, particularly, about copper mining in Butte, this is the weakest aspect of the book. A list rather an explanation of why Clark’s inheritance was built of the back of Montana, although I appreciated the nod to both the hatred of Montanan’s to certain campaign financing rulings and the idea that the Clark’s were absentee landlords.

The real intrigue surrounding Clark’s inheritance is towards the end of the book and short enough that I don’t think an entire book was needed to explore her life. And given how reclusive Clark was, it seems evasive to read about her life in such detail. But, at the end of the book, the issue that matters the most — to her family, her caretakers, the writers and readers of this book — is her money, and the question is not so much how she spent her money but who should receive the remainder of that inheritance.

On the one hand, based on the interviews and examples provided in the text, it seems that Clark was a lucid woman capable of making her own decisions up until her death and her second will should be accepted as her final wishes. On the other hand, based on the interviews and examples provided in the text, it appears that doctors, lawyers, hospital CEOs, and her personal caregiver took advantage of her generosity. A $30 million payout, multiple homes across the boroughs of New York City, writing themselves as beneficiaries of the will they were hired to write screams of fraud, and I can understand why the state attorney would get involved.

Some of the beneficiaries surprised me; I’ve visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. but couldn’t recall any of the endowments mentioned in this book. But the worst offender, according to Dedman and Newell, is Beth Israel Hospital instructing their doctors and nurses to ask her for money, allowing them to accept gifts (conflict of interest, much?), and pressuring her to move locations despite her own wishes (her doctor said he wouldn’t treat her at another hospital in order to keep her at Beth Israel). The hospital received a payout in the settlement, which was decided after the book was published, but could be written out once more should Clark’s family and other beneficiaries of the settlement decide to recoup gifts, including a $3.5 million Manet painting, received during her life. Seems like a no-brainier given the case laid out in this book.

Book Mentioned:

  • Dedman, Bill and Paul Clark Newell Jr. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013. Print. 456 pgs. ISBN: 9780345534521. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Ballantine Books. Retrieved: January 8, 2014.
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