Empty Mansions (Nonfiction November Review)

Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Empty Mansions (2013)


Dedman Newell Huguette Clark

This is a story about money: about the winning of a great American fortune, its spending on acts of  generosity and selfishness, and its end in the hands of eager lawyers and rapacious relatives. It’s also the story of an enigmatic woman, Huguette Clark, who was worth $300 million yet chose to live the last twenty years of her long life in a simple hospital room, even though she owned several uninhabited, impeccably maintained properties. Who was this woman of unbelievable wealth and unusually reclusive habits? Why did she hide from her relatives? Was she, as they claimed, under the influence of unscrupulous employees who benefited from her lavish gifts — and perhaps mentally imbalanced?

Huguette is gone and cannot speak for herself, but her cousin Paul Clark Newell, Jr. and reporter Bill Dedman give us insight into her world in this absorbing account of a life lived strangely, but with an odd kind of integrity. Huguette’s father, copper magnate W.A. Clark, was a contemporary of Rockefeller and Carnegie and his self-made fortune was equal to or greater than theirs. But as well as tarnishing his own reputation during his lifetime with desperate maneuvering for political office, and adopting a flamboyantly ostentatious style that did not admit him to the higher echelons of society, he didn’t endow any institutions that would perpetuate his name. Instead, he left his substantial monetary legacy to his children by two marriages, including his youngest daughter, Huguette.

The telling of this very American story gives us the double pleasure of shaking our heads at the excesses of the very rich, even as we vicariously enjoy them through detailed descriptions. W.A. Clark took 13 years to build a Fifth Avenue mansion that was then inhabited for only 14 years — after his death it was too expensive for anyone else to maintain. Huguette spent unbelievable sums on elaborate doll scenery and figures, many of which she never saw in person. While we may scoff at such “pointless” enterprises, who among us does not dream of the hobbies and interests we would indulge if we had unlimited funds? Although some of the staff who tended Huguette at the end of her life sneered at her preoccupation with dolls and Flintstone cartoons, Dedman and Newell portray her with sympathy and respect. The licensed robbery of estate planning lawyers and hospital development professionals, on the other hand, does not come off quite so well.

Empty Mansions painting
A painting by Huguette

Such professionals, who specialize in separating the rich from their money, meet a frustratingly intransigent subject in Huguette. She puts off making a will for years. She gives freely, but only where she chooses: notably to her private-duty nurse, who “gives her life to Madame” and reaps rewards in excess of $30 million. Meanwhile, Huguette fends off schemes such as the hospital’s telling her that she has to donate to ensure the preservation of her current building or move to a much less desirable location. (She moves.) Is this generosity, self-serving — due to her reluctance to change staff, she keeps them with her with these enormous sums — eccentricity, or mental illness?

Her relatives know what they think, but readers of Empty Mansions are left with a more nuanced and complex portrait, one that reminds us of the mystery at the heart of each human life, and that we are more than our material possessions. How do we judge such a person? What did her money mean to her, and what did she truly value? The intensely private Huguette is a difficult subject, but Dedman and Newell have done a fine job of sifting through the available evidence and presenting it in an even-handed way, while still leaving us in no doubt of whose side they are on.

A French fable that Huguette recited to her doctor a few years before her death ends: “To live happily, live hidden.” I highly recommend this sometimes disturbing, always fascinating account of a life that has not yet disclosed all its secrets.


12 thoughts on “Empty Mansions (Nonfiction November Review)

  1. This woman and this particular book about her both sound fascinating. I hadn't realized that she was also a talented artist as well – judging by the painting you posted, at least. Nor had I heard about the interest in dolls (one which I confess to some sympathy with!) I will certainly put this on my TBR list. Thanks for your thoughtful review!


    1. I know, the dolls and dollhouses sounded fascinating and I was disappointed that there were no pictures of them. The descriptions alone will blow your mind though.


  2. Ooh, I want to read more non-fiction books next year and I'm definitely adding this one to my list. It sounds oddly fascinating…and very different from what I normally read. (Which is a good thing.)Oh, and I liked your idea about going library-free for a month next year in order to re-read some of my own books. I'm seriously considering it. 🙂


  3. This book sounds really intriguing and really sad somehow. To have had all those fabulous homes and then choose to live in a hospital. I guess home is where the heart is…


    1. It was sad that she had all those fabulous homes and then no one to share them with. It was the people who cared for her in the end that she connected to…whether they were doing it for selfish reasons or not.


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