Kris's Reviews > Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
5974610
's review
Sep 12, 13

it was amazing
bookshelves: biography, netgalley, non-fiction, united-states, 2013-releases, favorites
Read from July 09 to 12, 2013

Update on September 12, 2013: I just received the hardcover, and the photographs are amazing. Upped my star rating to 5, between the photographs and some other adjustments in the text. Book is now released!
----------------------------------------

Huguette Clark was born to nearly unimaginable wealth and privilege. Her father, William A. Clark, was a copper baron who made several fortunes, particularly in mining and railroads, booming industries during America's Gilded Age. At the time of his death in 1925, he had a huge fortune to leave to his heirs, including his youngest child, Huguette Marcelle Clark.

Huguette married once, but got divorced after approximately a year. She then turned to a very private life, far from the social whirl of New York's elite. Over time, fewer and fewer people heard from her, and hardly anyone saw her. She lived in a grand apartment on New York's Fifth Ave., with her mother, an extremely valuable art collection, as well as her beloved collection of dolls, miniature houses, and Stradivarius violins. She owned extensive properties, including a mansion with an estate in New Canaan, CT that she never lived in or furnished, and a grand mansion and grounds in Santa Barbara, CA. Bellosguardo's staff were ordered to keep the estate as close to its original condition as possible, although Huguette hadn't visited in decades.

These extensive properties caught the attention of Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist. When looking for his own house, he played a game many of us have -- he started to look at properties that were hopelessly out of his price range. This led him to Huguette Clark, and her empty mansions, and a mystery-- was she still alive? What was her life like? Why were these estates left empty?

In this enthralling book, Bill Dedman provides us with the answers he discovered when on his quest to learn about the reclusive Huguette Clark. He joins with one of Clark's relatives, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., who had a series of phone conversations with Huguette over a 9-year period, beginning in 1995. Newell's personal stories about his conversations with Huguette help a flesh-and-blood person to emerge from the mystery, while Dedman's training as an investigative journalist stands him in good stead, as he slowly unravels the history of W.A. Clark, Huguette Clark, and the battle over the fortune she left behind when she died on the morning of May 24, 2011, at the age of 104.


Huguette Clark (right) c. 1917 (age approximately 11) with her sister Andrée (left) and her father William A. Clark (center)

The first part of Empty Mansions presents William A. Clark's life combined with a history of the United States, particularly from the end of the Civil War through the mid-1920s. Dedman strikes a balance between biography and history, providing details of Clark's successful career as an entrepreneur (and more scandalous career in politics), while also provided context regarding the economic history of the time. I must admit to my eyes glazing over when I read some passages about the Clarks' incredible wealth, particularly descriptions of a New York mansion (since demolished) that took decadence to a new level. Still, there are human elements to balance out these lists of possessions and furnishings, particularly regarding the sad fate of Huguette's older sister, Andrée.

Dedman and Newell have a wealth of source material concerning W. A. Clark, but after Huguette's divorce, she practically falls out of the historical record. She kept more and more to herself, enjoying her mother's company, occupying herself for a time with her painting, and for longer with her collection of dolls and her research into Japanese culture. She had enough wealth to keep the world away, if that was what she wanted, so she turned her New York apartments into fortresses, and collected around her a very small group of people whom she trusted. Her reclusiveness increased even more after her mother's death in 1963.

As Dedman and Newell delve into Huguette's more recent history, they consider some disturbing questions. Were her legal and financial advisors taking advantage of her? What kind of mental health was she in? Were her reclusiveness and obsession with dolls simply aspects of her eccentricity, or symptoms of mental illness? Was she responsible to make her own financial decisions? (view spoiler) The final chapters of the book consider a battle that broke out between the beneficiaries of her will and her family members. What, in a case like this, is the appropriate way to safeguard Huguette's fortune and protect her legacy?

I found Empty Mansions to be an enthralling read -- disturbing in sections, very sad in others, but always intriguing and thought-provoking. I especially appreciated Dedman and Newell's commitment to be respectful of Huguette. A book that could have felt sensationalist instead was thought-provoking and humane. I read Empty Mansions as an ARC from Netgalley, and I liked it so much that I pre-ordered it when it comes out on September 10, 2013 from Ballantine. I know I will want to revisit Huguette's story.
111 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Empty Mansions.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

07/09/2013 marked as: currently-reading
07/12/2013 marked as: read
show 1 hidden update…

Comments (showing 1-50 of 81) (81 new)


message 1: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue Now this is intriguing, absolutely. I'll be interested in your review.


Kris Thanks so much, Sue. I went on a Netgalley run and ended up getting a lot of ARCs, so I'm trying to catch up on reading and reviewing them before I focus on my next review for 3:AM.


message 3: by Arah-Lynda (new) - added it

Arah-Lynda This is a stunning review Kris. I lapped it up. Wow!


message 4: by Arah-Lynda (new) - added it

Arah-Lynda Can I like it again?


Kris Thanks so much, Arah-Lynda. I had good material to work with. :)


Kris Arah-Lynda wrote: "Can I like it again?"

You're so kind! Consider it double-liked with this comment. :)


message 7: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Peto Was she in the news recently? Or maybe I read a review of the book?


message 8: by Kris (last edited Jul 14, 2013 07:42PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Good memory, Jonathan! I know she was in the news recently because of the trial beginning over her will-- late May/early June 2013, there were stories in the NYTImes, etc.


message 9: by Laima (new) - added it

Laima I will definitely read this book. Her life was so fascinating and mysterious.

Wonderful review, Kris!


message 10: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Thanks so much, Laima! I'll be keeping an eye out for your review. :)


message 11: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary  the Bookworm When I read about her in the NY Times, I was shocked. Your review really makes me want to know more. Her story really raises so many disturbing questions.


message 12: by Mark (new)

Mark I like this lady already! Thank you for this insightful reviews. Definitely sold me on it :) So strange how having everything can make some people feel like they have nothing.


message 13: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Gary wrote: "When I read about her in the NY Times, I was shocked. Your review really makes me want to know more. Her story really raises so many disturbing questions."

Thanks so much, Gary. Her story is indeed disturbing on multiple levels. (view spoiler) I think Dedham and Newell do a very good job raising a series of difficult questions and, in turn, holding up and questioning many stereotypes that people are liable to apply to Huguette -- poor little rich girl, insane wealthy recluse, etc.


message 14: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Mark wrote: "I like this lady already! Thank you for this insightful reviews. Definitely sold me on it :) So strange how having everything can make some people feel like they have nothing."

Thanks, Mark! I'm glad you're planning to read this. I can imagine your updates now. :)

Seriously, there's another theme that I didn't touch on that is also intriguing -- what does having so much wealth do to a person, especially someone with limited social ties and very little perspective?


message 15: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary  the Bookworm I share your outrage. I can't imagine any way to spin this other than to charge the hospital with callous disregard for her well-being. It serves as a metaphor for the many contradictions in our healthcare system.


message 16: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris I agree, Gary. I'll be keeping an eye on the news to see if that happens.


message 17: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala I'm fascinated by the self-portrait...


message 18: by Caroline (last edited Jul 15, 2013 03:04AM) (new)

Caroline A marvellous review!

Do you think she might have been someone naturally introverted, for whom, given her money and successful family, the cult of celebrity was the only other option to leading a deeply secluded life?

That episode with her in hospital though sounds really bizarre, and would take a lot more explaining than the need for a quiet life.

I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations by the way :-)


message 19: by Aloha (new) - added it

Aloha Very interesting, Kris. We all think wealth would be the cure for everything, but you only need enough for your economic needs. The other things, wisdom, health, love and friendship, money can't buy.


message 20: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Fionnuala wrote: "I'm fascinated by the self-portrait..."

I was so glad to find it on the internet, Fionnuala. Huguette painted for many years. Apparently, after her death when her relatives were given a tour of one of her properties, many assumed that her paintings must have been the work of other artists, because they didn't think she had that kind of talent. The dangers of stereotyping.....


message 21: by Kris (last edited Jul 16, 2013 06:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Caroline wrote: "A marvellous review!

Do you think she might have been someone naturally introverted, for whom, given her money and successful family, the cult of celebrity was the only other option to leading a ..."


Thank you so much, Caroline. I had a lot of fun choosing the images for the review. There were others that I forced myself to delete, as the ratio of words to images was getting a bit off-balance!

I do think that Huguette was naturally introverted, as was her mother, who rarely appeared in public in spite of her social prominence. According to Dedman, privacy was extremely important to Huguette as well. I suspect that her natural tendency towards being introverted may have been deepened by a feeling of wanting to be able to control her world, which kept getting smaller and smaller as a consequence of this. Dedman doesn't go into much detail analyzing or interpreting Huguette's love of dolls and deep involvement in creating miniature scenes for them, complete with custom houses and costumes. She researched the settings for these scenes meticulously. It is a very eccentric pastime, but it spoke to me as an obsession with being able to control her environment. I have a sense that her father and mother both exhibited something similar in their lives, and given Huguette's close ties to them and general lack of outside perspective, I have a feeling that tendency deepened in here.

BTW, here's a photo of WA Clark, along with Huguette's mother Anna and her sister Andrée, in the Easter Parade in NYC. Anna definitely does not look thrilled to be there.




message 22: by Kalliope (last edited Jul 15, 2013 07:35AM) (new)

Kalliope Are these Clarks related to Sterling and Francine Clark of the Clark Collection?


message 23: by El (new) - added it

El Great review, Kris. I've been fascinated by her story since I heard of her upon her death. I knew it was only a matter of time before a book was written about her. I'm so glad that it's a good one. I wanted to read it before, but now I want to read it even more.


message 24: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Aloha wrote: "Very interesting, Kris. We all think wealth would be the cure for everything, but you only need enough for your economic needs. The other things, wisdom, health, love and friendship, money can't..."

Very true, Aloha. And this book also emphasizes to me the dangers of letting your world get too small. Perspective is important, and having trusted friends and relatives as advocates for you is also important, especially if you are in poor health. The smaller Huguette's world was, the more she relied on her staff, her legal and financial advisors, and her medical staff. I think that on the one hand Huguette seems to have been happy with her life as it stood, and she was generous to a fault with the people who surrounded her throughout her life, especially in her last 10 years or so. But blurring the line between staff and friends when hundreds of millions of dollars is at stake is asking for conflicts of interest.


message 25: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Kalliope wrote: "Are these Clarks related to Sterlin and Francine Clark of the Clark Collection?"

I don't think so, Kall. These Clarks were never very big on philanthropy as a whole. However, William, Anna and Huguette did donate artwork and money to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The Corcoran is involved in the lawsuit over Huguette's will.

The Clarks had an extraordinary personal art collection, which William's will bequeathed to an art museum that agreed to keep the entire collection together and on exhibit in one place. The Metropolitan Museum was not willing to accept these terms (especially since there were some paintings with questionable provenance in the collection), but the Corcoran did. Anna and Huguette had a smaller collection of paintings in their NYC apartment, including a Degas.


message 26: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris El wrote: "Great review, Kris. I've been fascinated by her story since I heard of her upon her death. I knew it was only a matter of time before a book was written about her. I'm so glad that it's a good o..."

Thanks so much, El. It's really a fascinating -- and disturbing -- story. I'm so glad that Dedman wrote this book. It would have been so easy for it to have been sensationalist, as the facts of the story are pretty sensational to begin with!


message 27: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope I thought the Clark collection is somehow associated with William college, but I may be getting confused or there are three Clark collections?

Interesting about the Met.


message 28: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris I just checked, and the Williams College History of Art Program is connected to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, so we only have two Clark Collections to worry about!

Here's the info on Sterling and Francine Clark of the Clark Collection that you cited: http://www.clarkart.edu/about/content... Sterling Clark was an heir, but of the Singer family fortune: http://www.clarkart.edu/about/content...

And some information about the Clark Wing in the Corcoran is here: "Significant additions to the gallery’s holdings came during the 1920s and 1930s through the generosity of several major American collectors. In 1925 Senator William Andrews Clark of Montana bequeathed his extensive collection of European art, including almost 200 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, rugs, antiquities, stained glass windows, and a Louis XVI-era salon. Architect Charles Platt designed a new wing to house this collection, which was built with funds donated by the Clark family. The Clark Wing was completed in 1928. The Clark Wing housing this collection, built using funds donated by the Clark family, was opened to the public in 1928. Further additions came through a bequest from Edward and Mary Walker in 1937, including French Impressionist works by Renoir, Monet, and Pissaro. As a result, the gallery’s collection came to include a fine selection of European art, although in general the Trustees have continued to restrict purchases to the work of American artists. - See more at: http://www.corcoran.org/about-gallery..."


message 29: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Kris wrote: "I just checked, and the Williams College History of Art Program is connected to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, so we only have two Clark Collections to worry about!

Here's the info..."


Thank you Kris... I was navigating and obviously losing the North...!!!

I find the histories of art collection fascinating.


message 30: by Lawyer (new)

Lawyer Absolutely fascinating. Rather a Bleak House revisited.


message 31: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Kris wrote: "Aloha wrote: "Very interesting, Kris. We all think wealth would be the cure for everything, but you only need enough for your economic needs. The other things, wisdom, health, love and friendshi..."

The problem with great wealth is that you cannot trust anyone... I think that inevitably the circle of people one can trust becomes very small.


message 32: by Ema (new)

Ema Wow, what a captivating review, Kris! The novel must be even more enthralling...


message 33: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Mike wrote: "Absolutely fascinating. Rather a Bleak House revisited."

Thanks Mike -- and I like your Bleak House parallel.


message 34: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Kalliope wrote: "Kris wrote: "Aloha wrote: "Very interesting, Kris. We all think wealth would be the cure for everything, but you only need enough for your economic needs. The other things, wisdom, health, love ...

The problem with great wealth is that you cannot trust anyone... I think that inevitably the circle of people one can trust becomes very small. "


Yes -- and the more isolated you are, the easier it is to lose perspective over the motives of the people whom you do trust. I would not want to live that kind of life.


message 35: by Kris (last edited Jul 15, 2013 08:58AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Ema wrote: "Wow, what a captivating review, Kris! The novel must be even more enthralling..."

Thanks, Ema! Enthralling is definitely the correct word. I was glued to the book while I was reading it. There's no doubt that this is a book in the "truth is stranger than fiction" category.


message 36: by Uncle (new)

Uncle This book sounds absolutely fascinating, thanks to your excellent review. I will definitely add it to my TBR.


message 37: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Uncle wrote: "This book sounds absolutely fascinating, thanks to your excellent review. I will definitely add it to my TBR."

Thanks so much! I'll be watching for your review. :)


message 38: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Is there any information about her year-long marriage? That experience sounds like it added to her need to be alone.


message 39: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Very little, Teresa. A lot of rumors and innuendo at the time, including in the press, but nothing definitive from Huguette or anyone who was close to her. She did continue an affectionate correspondence with her ex-husband and his second wife until he died.


message 40: by Teresa (last edited Jul 15, 2013 12:20PM) (new)

Teresa Kris wrote: "She did continue an affectionate correspondence with her ex-husband and his second wife until he died. "

So perhaps it didn't, then, except for maybe to reinforce her natural introverted tendencies.


message 41: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris I think that's true, plus it may have made her more committed to preserving her privacy and living outside the public eye as much as possible.


message 42: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Kalliope wrote: "I find the histories of art collection fascinating."

You might have a look at
Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


message 43: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King Kris,

This book looks absolutely splendid and a "must read" but I'm just inundated with books at the moment and I've more or less reached saturation point. I'm not too sure that my brain can take in much more!


message 44: by Caroline (last edited Jul 16, 2013 02:14AM) (new)

Caroline Kris wrote: "Thank you so much, Caroline. I had a lot of fun choosing the images for the review. There were others that I forced myself to delete, as the ratio of words to images was getting a bit off-balance!

I do think that Huguette was naturally introverted, as was her mother, who rarely appeared in public in spite of her social prominence. According to Dedham, privacy was extremely important to Huguette as well. I suspect that her natural tendency towards being introverted may have been deepened by a feeling of wanting to be able to control her world, which kept getting smaller and smaller as a consequence of this."


Yes, I think what you say about the dolls and control is very relevant. I can relate to that - I think a lot of people can. Luckily most of us don't have the time and money to carry these things to extremes. I think it's also relevant that her parents were also quite introverted - indeed her mother does not look too chirpy in that photograph.


message 45: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten This sounds marvelous Kris! I'm definitely going to read this one.


message 46: by Kris (last edited Jul 16, 2013 07:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris I was going to recommend it to you, Jeffrey! It definitely seemed like a book you would love.

I had some other images in the review, but Bill Dedman sent me a very kind message about the review, in which as an aside he also mentioned he'd prefer if the images with rights attached didn't appear, so I removed all but one from Wikipedia that is definitely in the public domain. There will be many many images in the book, which I know you will be interested in. The photographic record is fascinating, and adds a lot to the story.


message 47: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary  the Bookworm I'm so glad I got to see the original review. The images were extraordinary, Kris. Even Jeffrey, the reigning King of Photobucket, would have been impressed.


message 48: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Thanks, Gary. I did love those images.... But I also understand where Bill Dedman was coming from. And he didn't order me to remove them -- I just knew I'd feel guilty every time I looked at the review if I didn't.


message 49: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Kris wrote: "I was going to recommend it to you, Jeffrey! It definitely seemed like a book you would love.

I had some other images in the review, but the Bill Dedman sent me a very kind message about the revi..."

I will make a note of the photograph sensitivity. As you know I like to load my reviews with especially period piece photographs. Thanks for bringing this to my attention Kris.


message 50: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Lynne wrote: "Kris,

This book looks absolutely splendid and a "must read" but I'm just inundated with books at the moment and I've more or less reached saturation point. I'm not too sure that my brain can take..."


Lynne, no worries -- it sounds like you have hit a tbr wall. Take deep breaths, and only read what you have the time and inclination to read. If the time comes for you to read Empty Mansions, you'll know. :)


« previous 1
back to top