Fairy-tale life that turned sad

JILLIAN ALLISON-AITKEN
Last updated 15:00 04/08/2014

BOOK REVIEW: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
By Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr (Atlantic Books, RRP $40)

It's human nature that we have a fascination with the lives of the rich and famous, but sometimes the lives of the incredibly wealthy are also incredibly sad.

Reclusive heiress Huguette Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104. On the surface, you could assume she had lived a fabulous life, having been born into wealth and privilege as the daughter of former United States senator and businessman William A Clark. Huguette had opportunities and experiences most of us can only dream about but her story is almost the opposite of a fairy tale, as she moved from having a loving and wealthy family at birth to becoming sad and alone in later years.

The title of the book is quite literal: one day back in 2009 journalist Bill Dedman noticed a grand old home for sale and after a little research, he learned it had been empty for nearly 60 years. It was one of several homes that all sat empty as a perfectly healthy Huguette took up residence in a hospital room.

The Clark family story spans three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment.

Co-authored by Huguette's cousin Paul Clark Newell Jr, this is the story of a self-made millionaire who left a fortune for his family, and also the story of one woman's wealth and vulnerability in the face of the overwhelming greed of those who should have protected her interests.

Huguette's father enjoyed his wealth and set about showing the world how well he was doing, building those elaborate mansions that decades later would sit empty. While her father was an extravagant man, her mother Anna was publicity shy, preferring to stay in the background.

For a while, Huguette travelled with her mother, collecting art and furnishings for the beautiful mansions her father had built. But after the death of her mother in 1963, she largely withdrew from public life. She was a touch eccentric and often quite generous with those she cared about, with gifts and money but she rarely interacted with the world, hiding away in her darkened home for years.

By the time the author noticed that first empty but beautifully maintained mansion, Huguette had not been seen by the caretakers of any of her homes for two decades.

She had been taken to hospital in 1988 for treatment of cancerous lesions on her face but despite making a full recovery, she never returned to her home. In fact, the only time she left the hospital in the following years was to move to another medical centre after a merger.

And during that time, these empty mansions in California, New York and Connecticut were fully staffed and beautifully maintained, but they were also pilfered, with many of her beautiful and expensive possessions - including a Stradivarius violin and a Renoir painting - sold off.

It's sad that someone with so many opportunities ended up in such a bad way: existing in a hospital room, apparently being taken advantage of financially and with no-one to be her advocate. And sadly, things weren't much better after she died, with a battle erupting between distant family members fighting for a cut of her massive estate.

It feels a little bit wrong to read so much detail about someone who so valued their privacy but her story is just too interesting to ignore.

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