Jane'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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really liked it
bookshelves: history, nonfiction, librarything-early-reviewer

Where I got the book: LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program

Journalist Bill Dedman came across one of Huguette Clark's properties when, frustrated by never seeming to find the right house to move to, he decided to look up properties he really couldn't afford on the internet. As you do. This led him to discover that Huguette Clark had spent the last decades of her life in an ordinary room in a New York hospital, despite being in reasonable health and having multi-million-dollar real estate in New York, Connecticut and California.

He discovered that Madame Clark, as she liked to be known, was the daughter of a copper baron, famous in his lifetime but now forgotten, and his very much younger second wife. She'd spent her early years in France and still retained a slight French accent and a fondness for all things French. She collected dolls and dollhouses, painted in oils and was obsessed with Japanese culture; and yet after living such a reclusive life in her New York apartment that she had allowed cancer to eat away at her face, she now preferred to look at photos of her collections from her hospital bed.

And she gave away money--lots of it. Despite the concerted efforts of the hospital and various art foundations to milk her for all she was worth, Huguette preferred to give her money to the people in her life; hospital staff, assistants, the people who looked after her properties and, a little sinisterly, her lawyer and accountant. This created some definite potential conflicts of interest for the people in contact with her, not to mention enormous consequences in terms of gift tax and some very bad feeling on the part of her extended family who didn't actually bother to visit her but wanted her money anyway.

There are quite a few levels to this story. There's the history of W.A. Clark, Huguette's father, and how he made his fortune and steamrolled his way into politics, for one. The guy was a player with a foot in US history; the unneeded lots he sold off from his railroad holdings, for example, formed the core of downtown Las Vegas. He did things on a massive scale but once he was dead, nobody carried his legacy forward; they broke up his homes and spent his money instead. As we all know, the entrepreneurial spirit rarely survives a privileged childhood.

Then there's the story of Huguette's great spendathon aka her life. I don't think there's anyone for whom the idea of having a bottomless checkbook doesn't bring a gleam to the eye. Huguette had that checkbook--more money than she could get through in her lifetime. There are lists of gifts, lists of purchases, jaw-dropping figures galore for the breathlessly envious or avidly curious to peruse and sigh over.

Then there's the sad personal story of a woman who must have always wondered if her friends were friends because of her or because of her money. Even the distant cousin who spoke with her three or four times a year on the phone was recording those conversations and co-authored the book; he wasn't in the will, but boy he could still make money from Tante Huguette. It's a great picture of how life as a seriously moneyed person is also a lonely life, and it makes me very happy that my own checkbook has a very solid bottom.

The material is nicely arranged, the writing is lively and there are pictures. An interesting book for the nonfiction lover with a fascination for how the other half live.
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Reading Progress

September 22, 2013 – Started Reading
September 22, 2013 – Shelved
September 22, 2013 – Shelved as: history
September 22, 2013 – Shelved as: nonfiction
September 22, 2013 – Shelved as: librarything-early-reviewer
December 27, 2013 – Shelved as: pending-review
December 27, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Joe (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joe I enjoyed your review much more than this book - including the distant cousin/co-author observation. Thanks.

Jane You're welcome! Looking back, I'm still glad I read this book. I learned a few things.

Jane You're welcome! Looking back, I'm still glad I read this book. I learned a few things.

message 4: by Joe (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joe I found the rags to riches story of Papa Clark interesting – after that not so much – particularly current-day distant relatives.

Stumbled across this review after reading your review of Dan Brown’s Inferno – also much more interesting than the book itself. My copy of Inferno now balancing a worktable out back and to its credit, succeeding very well in that capacity.

Jane I'm happy to hear Dan Brown has a purpose.

message 6: by Joe (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joe Let's not be hasty. Dead weight or not - it's only been a couple of days.

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