A few years ago Bill Dedman, one of the authors of Empty Mansions, was looking to buy a house in Connecticut. He wasn't having much luck, all the houses being either unsuitable or too expensive. So one night he decided to open up the maximum price to see what he would find.
What he found was a mansion in New Canaan, asking price $24 million, down from $35 million a few years earlier. Set on 52 wooded acres, river and waterfall on the property, 14,266 square feet, 20 rooms, it was called Le Beau Chateau and was owned by Huguette Clark. No one had lived there for more than 50 years but it was kept in perfect condition. Dedman later learned there was another mansion, this one in Santa Barbara, that was also kept in readiness for the owner but that Huguette had not visited in decades. Not to mention two whole floors in a tony apartment building on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park.
Who was Huguette Clark? It was not easy to find out. She was a recluse living in a hospital room, the sole surviving child of W A Clark, known as the Copper King. He extracted millions of tons of copper from his mines in Montana making himself one of the largest fortunes in America during the age of great industrial fortunes. He built the largest and most expensive house in New York City on Millionaires' Row (Fifth Avenue from 50th through 90th.) That's the house on the cover of the book.
Eleven years after it was finished it was torn down. These Clarks were not people who took good care of their money.
Huguette, it turned out, had been giving her money away to the people around her for decades. She gave more than $30 million to the nurse who cared for her at Beth Israel Hospital. She sent checks to a childhood friend, his wife, and eventually his child. She supported ageing French cartoonists. She helped to support her ex-husband, the daughter of her governess, and many others. She spent many millions on dolls and doll houses. The hospital tried to coerce her into making large donations to them but she repeatedly said no and left them only about $1 million in her will.
Her will, when she eventually died age 104, gave $5 million more to her nurse, and was arranged so that her lawyer and her CPA (a felon) would receive millions in fees. The descendants of her father's first wife, 19 of them, contested the will and the lawyers descended on the money. (A couple of them made two trips to Vienna to interview a man who had senile dementia and couldn't remember his own name.)
Writing about Huguette Clark isn't easy when all you have to go on is anecdotes from acquaintances, court depositions, and her financial records. But it appears she knew what she was doing when she wrote all those checks for all those millions of dollars in gifts to people she wanted to reward.
For example, when her investment manager died of cancer she heard about his nurse, a Jamaican immigrant who traveled more than an hour and a half each way to his apartment in the Village to care for him. One day her lawyer showed up at the nurse's house with a check for $30,000 to thank her. You can see where the family might not like that use of her fortune, but you can also see a generous and caring woman with her hand on the checkbook.
The story verges on unbelievable. (She owned how many Strataveri?! Her empty Fifth Avenue apartments were how many square feet?! She owned how many millions of dollars worth of dolls?! How much jewelry was stolen from her safety (sic) deposit box at Citibank?!)
The book ends before the courts decided what was to happen to Huguette's $310 million estate. You can Google her to find out where the money went. But first read this book to see where the money came from and how she disbursed it during the 20 years she lived in that small hospital room while owning those empty mansions.