When most people think of prominent names of the Gilded Age, a few common ones come up: Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and so on. However, not many people come up with W.A. Clark, who made his money in the copper mines. What happens when a formerly prominent family line dies out, when the only remaining heir is a 104-year-old shut-in who owns expensive homes in three different states, yet prefers to live in a hospital? That’s the mystery that Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell take on in Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.
Huguette and her older sister Louise Amelia Andree’ Clark were the progeny of W.A. Clark and his second wife, the much-younger, Anna. W.A. served in the U.S. Senate and made his money through railroads and copper mining. When Huguette was young, the family owned a mansion on Fifth Avenue. Her older sister died at the age of 17 in 1919, and her father passed on a mere 6 years after that, leaving Huguette and Anna (as well as the family from W.A.’s first marriage) a substantial fortune.
Although Huguette finished high school and married briefly, she spent the rest of her life essentially in solitude. She communicated with others via letters and phone calls, but spent a good deal of her time painting and arranging (and commissioning) her lavish dollhouses while her actual inherited property – a house in New Canaan, Connecticut and another in Santa Barbara, California, went largely ignored, except for the attention of the caretakers who were paid handsomely to take care of them.
Dedman discovered the mystery surrounding Huguette Clark after stumbling upon the empty New Canaan house, and set about piecing together her history. Although he never really comes to the reason as to why she behaved as she did (childhood trauma? overt shyness? mental illness?) he and Paul Clark Newell, a distant relative of Huguette’s, do manage to paint a very detailed picture of her life.
Empty Mansions is available now through booksellers everywhere and on Amazon.com. If you love a good, real-life mystery (like I do) you’ll enjoy this book.
(Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book to review through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are my own. For more information, please see my disclosure policy above.)