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

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman
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bookshelves: nonfiction, biography

Empty Mansions is one of those books where you don't get sucked in right away, but once you're there, there's no way you can leave. I have a long review you can read by clicking here, or just stay for the shorter version. Either way, right up front I'll say that you probably haven't read another book like this one.

Empty Mansions is a book that proves the old axiom that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, and, I would add, just as captivating. The centerpiece of this book is Huguette Clark, a privileged, incredibly wealthy woman who chose to live her life happily by staying hidden. Huguette's story may seem to some to be the stuff of madness, but the the authors disagree, calling her a "modern-day 'Boo' Radley," someone who shut herself away in order to remain "safe from a world that can hurt." Huguette died in 2011, at the age of 104, two weeks shy of 105, but her death isn't the end of this story. Empty Mansions takes you from the wide Montana prairies to the smaller world of the privileged elite; from a beautiful mansion topped with a golden tower on Millionaire's Row in New York City to a hospital room next to a janitor's closet in this strange but well-told and thoroughly-researched story.

The book takes the reader through the life of W.A. Clark, former senator from Montana and self-made multimillionaire known as the "copper king," and his family -- his wife Anna La Chapelle, daughters Huguette and older sister Andrée. Clark had other older children from a previous marriage, but lived with his second family on New York City's Millionaire's Row in a six-story mansion at Fifth Avenue and Seventy-seventh street. The sisters grew up in opulence and lived privileged lives, all before tragedy struck with Andrée's death at the age of 16. After having lost her sister and best friend, Huguette was sent alone to a school for the "daughters of elite," where her dance teacher was Isadora Duncan. In 1925 her father died, but due to the terms of his will, Anna and Huguette moved to an apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue. Huguette married in 1928, but it didn't last, and she was divorced by 1930. As time went on, Huguette began to stop seeing visitors, becoming reclusive, and eventually stopped leaving her apartment. Anna died in 1963, and Huguette "throws herself" into her art -- which consisted of painting and meticulously furnishing dollhouses, or more accurately, storyhouses where she could move her dolls (a massive collection) through the rooms, having them do different things, and studying cartoons frame by frame. She spent tons of money on these projects, and was also very generous with her money among friends and supporting worthy causes (along with paying for upkeep of the "empty mansions" she'd inherited) from her "fairy-tale checkbook," but above all valued her privacy, trusting in her attorney and her accountant to handle all business transactions. But Huguette had also been getting treatment for skin cancer, and when her doctor died in 1990, she didn't look for another one, and all the while she was getting worse. A friend persuaded her to go the hospital for treatment, and she ended up at Doctors Hospital, a "treatment center for the wealthy," in New York City.

At the age of 85, within two months of Huguette's surgeries, she becomes an "indefinite patient," at Doctors Hospital, choosing to remain there for the rest of her life, never telling family where she was, ordering everyone to respect her privacy at all costs. According to the authors, within a month, one of her doctors alerts the hospital's powers-that-be Huguette is the daughter of a multimillionaire, and that he'd be willing to help develop an "appropriate cultivation approach." Behind her back, they made fun of her, but the hospital officials hold meetings to figure out how to get her to give up some of her money. The president of the hospital, again according to the authors, boldly says that

"Madame, as you know, is the biggest bucks contributing potential we have ever had."

The doctors go all out trying to get her to cough up in a number of measures that can only be described as coercive.

It wasn't just the officials or her doctors who got part of her money, either, one of them outright blackmailing her into loaning him an extra $500,000 on top of the million she'd already given him. Her private nurse/companion is Hadassah Peri who also came to benefit from Huguette's generosity, as Huguette gave her and her family several "gifts" of cash and property, coming to over $30 million dollars. By the time of her death, Huguette was cash poor, and had been selling off extremely valuable possessions to pay for the little "gifts" she gave out as well as the taxes attached to the gifts.

I will say that the first parts of the book that went back to the days when W.A. Clark was making his fortune and building up a tarnished reputation as a Montana senator were pretty dull, and that I almost put the book down. Once the early history was finished, however, the story picked up with a vengeance. There were parts that shocked, parts that made me downright angry, and parts where I couldn't tell whether Huguette was mentally disturbed, easily taken advantage of or coerced, or whether she was just exercising her right to spend her money the way she chose to. I just wanted to know her story and how she got to the point where she chose to stay in a hospital for twenty years, but it turned into much more than that. There are some really good questions raised in this book, but in the end, I discovered that it actually raises more than it answers. That's not a bad thing, and there are probably things that will never be known, even when this upcoming trial gets underway.

Definitely recommended, and while not all reviews have been positive, I don't really pay attention to them when I find something I've really liked reading. If you are looking for something beyond the ordinary, you'll definitely find it here.

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Reading Progress

September 12, 2013 – Started Reading
September 12, 2013 – Shelved
September 13, 2013 – Shelved as: nonfiction
September 13, 2013 – Shelved as: biography
September 13, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Christine (new) - added it

Christine Bass Your review mentions the name A. W. Clark several times but I am reading the book currently and his name was W. A. Clark. Otherwise, enjoyed your review!

Nancy Oakes Christine wrote: "Your review mentions the name A. W. Clark several times but I am reading the book currently and his name was W. A. Clark. Otherwise, enjoyed your review!"

OMG !! Thanks for letting me know -- time for some editing!!

message 3: by Linda (new)

Linda enjoyed your review. I am just past the "history" part. Wanting to know why she became so reclusive is what brought me to read this book. Doesn't look like its any one thing in particular but from reading your review it sounds like there will be more clues as to the whys. I didn't read any reviews prior to picking up the book and I'm glad since you refer to less than positive reviews. Thank you!

Nancy Oakes Thanks! I choose the books for my book group and I made sure this was on this year's list. I hope you like it!

Emily When does the book "suck you in?" I am in chapter 7 and easy to ditch it.

Nancy Oakes Emily wrote: "When does the book "suck you in?" I am in chapter 7 and easy to ditch it."

You're still early in the game, with the history stuff. It gets better. My book group is reading it next month & I've already warned them. i thought I'd die before the senator's history was finished.

Emily Sorry. Foiled again by autocorrect. "Ready to ditch it." Does it get better?

Nancy Oakes Emily wrote: "Sorry. Foiled again by autocorrect. "Ready to ditch it." Does it get better?"

I personally think so -- but then again, a) I like stories of really eccentric people, and b) it's just my opinion (as is any review). I was ready to chuck it in until Huguette's dad died. Then once the dad was gone and they moved to a different place, it started getting better.

message 9: by Vicki (new)

Vicki You certainly make me want to read this to see. There is something so sad about the review that makes me want for a better outcome that I fear she will have.

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