Empty Mansions (Dedman)

Empty Mansions:  The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell , 2013
Random House
496 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345534538



Summary
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history.

Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?

Dedman has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have frequent conversations with her. Dedman and Newell tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter, born into a family of extreme wealth and privilege, who secrets herself away from the outside world.

Huguette was the daughter of self-made copper industrialist W. A. Clark, nearly as rich as Rockefeller in his day, a controversial senator, railroad builder, and founder of Las Vegas. She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a remarkable dwelling with 121 rooms for a family of four. She owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, a vast collection of antique dolls. But wanting more than treasures, she devoted her wealth to buying gifts for friends and strangers alike, to quietly pursuing her own work as an artist, and to guarding the privacy she valued above all else.

The Clark family story spans nearly all of American history in three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to mining camps in the Montana gold rush, from backdoor politics in Washington to a distress call from an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. The same Huguette who was touched by the terror attacks of 9/11 held a ticket nine decades earlier for a first-class stateroom on the second voyage of the Titanic.

Empty Mansions reveals a complex portrait of the mysterious Huguette and her intimate circle. We meet her extravagant father, her publicity-shy mother, her star-crossed sister, her French boyfriend, her nurse who received more than $30 million in gifts, and the relatives fighting to inherit Huguette’s copper fortune. Richly illustrated with more than seventy photographs, Empty Mansions is an enthralling story of an eccentric of the highest order, a last jewel of the Gilded Age who lived life on her own terms. (From the publisher.)



Author Bios
Bill Dedman introduced the public to heiress Huguette Clark and her empty mansions through his compelling series of narratives for NBC, which became the most popular feature in the history of its news website, topping 110 million page views. He received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting while writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. (From the publisher.)


Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette Clark, has researched the Clark family history for twenty years, sharing many conversations with Huguette about her life and family. He received a rare private tour of Bellosguardo, her mysterious estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
An amazing story of profligate wealth...an outsized tale of rags-to-riches prosperity.
New York Times
 

An exhaustively researched, well-written account.... [A] blood-boiling expose [that] will make you angry and will make you sad.
Seattle Times
 

An evocative and rollicking read, part social history, part hothouse mystery, part grand guignol.
Daily Beast
 

A childlike, self-exiled eccentric, [Huguette Clark] is the sort of of subject susceptible to a biography of broad strokes, which makes Empty Mansions, the first full-length account of her life, impressive for its delicacy and depth.
Town & Country


(Starred review.) [R]iveting..... [A] regular in the society pages during her youth and even married for a short time, Clark later slipped into her own world and stayed there, quietly buying multi-million dollar homes for her dolls..... The authors provide a thrilling study of the responsibilities and privileges that come with great wealth and draw the reader into the deliciously scandalous story of Clark's choices in later life.
Publishers Weekly


[A] comprehensive account of the late copper mining heiress Huguette Clark.... The authors describe her lavish estates, art, jewelry, and musical instrument collections. They convey how, despite her affluence, Clark strangely chose to live her latter days as a relatively healthy recluse in a modest New York City hospital room.... An enlightening read for those interested in the opulent lifestyles...and the mysterious ways of wealth. —Mary Jennings, Camano Island Lib., WA
Library Journal


An investigation into the secretive life of the youngest daughter and heiress to a Gilded Age copper tycoon.... [Huguette] Clark was certainly eccentric, and her decisions, both financial and otherwise, definitely capture the imagination..... Though her father's fortune is central to the story...so much focus on his exploits early on makes Huguette seem like a secondary character. Clark is an intriguing figure with a story that will interest many, but the book misses the mark as an in-depth expose.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Huguette Clark and Paris Hilton: compare and contrast. Using the theme of the burdens of inherited wealth, in which era would it be easier or harder to be a young  heiress, the 1920s or today? Can you imagine being that wealthy and not sharing your opinions and daily ad­ ventures on social media?

2. The authors reject easy explanations for Huguette's eccentricity and reclusive nature, emphasizing that she was always shy, living a life of imagination and art. As they say in the epilogue:

We will never know why Huguette was, as she might say, "pecu­liar." The people in her inner circle say they have no idea. Outsiders speculate. It was being the daughter of an older father! It was her sister's death! Or her mother's! The wealth! It was autism or Asperger's or a childhood trauma! Easy answers fail because the question assumes that personalities have a single determinant. Whatever caused her shyness, her limitations of sociability or coping, her fears--of strangers, of kidnapping, of needles, of another French Revolution-Huguette found a situation that worked for her, a modern-day "Boo" Radley, shut up inside by choice, safe from a world that can hurt.

Do you accept the authors' embrace of complexity and uncertainty? Or do you think of Huguette's reclusivity as springing from a single cause--e.g., failed romances, her sister's death, a mental illness?

3. What is your reaction to nurse Hadassah Peri and the $31 million in gifts Huguette gave to her family? Do you agree with readers who say her behavior was despicable, that it's unethical for a caregiver to re­ceive such gifts, that she should have refused the gifts? Or do you agree with readers who say Huguette certainly knew what she was doing, that Hadassah was her patient's closest caregiver for twenty years, that the gifts were only a small share of Huguette's net worth?

4. Was Huguette's life a happy one? What are the ingredients of a happy life? If you find her life to be sad, how do you reconcile that with her apparent lack of sadness?

5. If you had been on the jury deciding the battle over Huguette's will and her $300 million estate, would you have found that she was in­ competent and defrauded? Would you have given all her money to her Clark relatives? Or would you have followed the will, giving it all to the nurse, the Bellosguardo Foundation for the arts, the attorney Bock, the accountant Kamsler, Dr. Singman, Beth Israel Medical Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, her goddaughter Wanda, and the personal as­sistant Chris? Which of those people, on either side, do you trust?

6. Was W. A. Clark an admirable man? Or was he admirable only early on, when he was like a Horatio Alger character working arduously in dangerous circumstances to build a copper fortune? In light of the times in which he lived, was W.A. Clark justifiably vilified for his meth­ods in seeking a Senate seat? Was he actually a robber baron? Is he ac­countable for environmental waste today from the copper mines he developed in the 1870s? Or was this simply business as usual in the sor­did world of politics and development on the Western frontier? If Clark had been as generous to public charities as Carnegie or Rockefeller, would he have been absolved by history, as they largely were, of the sins of his business career?

7. Empty Mansions is based on facts, documents, and testimony. That leaves mysteries in the lives of its characters. Did the uncertainties add or detract from your enjoyment of the story? Would you have pre­ferred that the authors psychoanalyze Huguette, creating dialogue and filling in missing scenes as a screenplay would? Considering the limits of what the authors could learn, what do you most want to know about W.A., about Anna, about Huguette? If you could have had conversa­tions with Huguette, as author Paul Newell did, what would you have asked her?

8. Is there more to the American Dream than financial security? Does it require making a contribution to society? Did W.A.'s American Dream get out of control? Is Huguette an American Dreamer of another type?

9. On Huguette's death certificate, her occupation was listed as "artist." Beginning with W.A., consider what part creativity and imagi­nation play in this story. Was W.A.'s imagination the source of his power? What did Huguette inherit from her father in the way of tastes or interests or capabilities? From her mother? Consider the words of the founder of Huguette's prep school, Clara Spence, who urged her stu­dents:

I beg you to cultivate imagination, which means to develop your power of sympathy, and I entreat you to decide thoughtfully what makes a human being great in his time and in his station. The faculty of imagination is often lightly spoken of as of no real importance, often decried as mischievous, as in some ways the antithesis of practical sense, and yet it ranks with reason and con­science as one of the supreme characteristics by which man is dis­tinguished from all other animals...Sympathy, the great bond between human beings, is largely dependent on imagination­ that is, upon the power of realizing the feelings and the circum­stances of others so as to enable us to feel with and for them.

Did Huguette follow those words? What role did imagination and sym­pathy play in her life? What role do they play in yours?

10. Did you like Huguette? Were there points in the book where you were frustrated by her and/or felt sympathy for her? By the end of the book, did you feel as if you knew her well? Did your view of her change throughout the book?

11. Many characters in Empty Mansions have moral dimensions of both good and bad. Do you believe W.A. was more good than bad? What about attorney Wally Bock? Accountant Irv Kamsler? Nurse Hadassah Peri? Personal assistant Chris Sattler? Dr. Henry Singman? Were there any characters who seemed to be simply good or rotten in their relationships with Huguette? Were you engaged or frustrated by the authors' insistence on showing the good and bad in characters?

12. If Empty Mansions were made into a movie, what actors would you like to see in the major roles? What movie that you've seen should it be most similar to? Would you make it a psychological drama? An epic family saga of Western bonanza wealth? A Gilded Age study of manners and family relationships? What scenes would be the most deli­cious to write?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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