To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune - Paul Clark Newell Jr., Bill Dedman Update on September 12, 2013: I just received the hardcover, and the photographs are amazing. Upped my star rating to 5, between the photographs and some other adjustments in the text. Book is now released!

Huguette Clark was born to nearly unimaginable wealth and privilege. Her father, William A. Clark, was a copper baron who made several fortunes, particularly in mining and railroads, booming industries during America's Gilded Age. At the time of his death in 1925, he had a huge fortune to leave to his heirs, including his youngest child, Huguette Marcelle Clark.

Huguette married once, but got divorced after approximately a year. She then turned to a very private life, far from the social whirl of New York's elite. Over time, fewer and fewer people heard from her, and hardly anyone saw her. She lived in a grand apartment on New York's Fifth Ave., with her mother, an extremely valuable art collection, as well as her beloved collection of dolls, miniature houses, and Stradivarius violins. She owned extensive properties, including a mansion with an estate in New Canaan, CT that she never lived in or furnished, and a grand mansion and grounds in Santa Barbara, CA. Bellosguardo's staff were ordered to keep the estate as close to its original condition as possible, although Huguette hadn't visited in decades.

These extensive properties caught the attention of Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist. When looking for his own house, he played a game many of us have -- he started to look at properties that were hopelessly out of his price range. This led him to Huguette Clark, and her empty mansions, and a mystery-- was she still alive? What was her life like? Why were these estates left empty?

In this enthralling book, Bill Dedman provides us with the answers he discovered when on his quest to learn about the reclusive Huguette Clark. He joins with one of Clark's relatives, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., who had a series of phone conversations with Huguette over a 9-year period, beginning in 1995. Newell's personal stories about his conversations with Huguette help a flesh-and-blood person to emerge from the mystery, while Dedman's training as an investigative journalist stands him in good stead, as he slowly unravels the history of W.A. Clark, Huguette Clark, and the battle over the fortune she left behind when she died on the morning of May 24, 2011, at the age of 104.

Huguette Clark (right) c. 1917 (age approximately 11) with her sister Andrée (left) and her father William A. Clark (center)

The first part of Empty Mansions presents William A. Clark's life combined with a history of the United States, particularly from the end of the Civil War through the mid-1920s. Dedman strikes a balance between biography and history, providing details of Clark's successful career as an entrepreneur (and more scandalous career in politics), while also provided context regarding the economic history of the time. I must admit to my eyes glazing over when I read some passages about the Clarks' incredible wealth, particularly descriptions of a New York mansion (since demolished) that took decadence to a new level. Still, there are human elements to balance out these lists of possessions and furnishings, particularly regarding the sad fate of Huguette's older sister, Andrée.

Dedman and Newell have a wealth of source material concerning W. A. Clark, but after Huguette's divorce, she practically falls out of the historical record. She kept more and more to herself, enjoying her mother's company, occupying herself for a time with her painting, and for longer with her collection of dolls and her research into Japanese culture. She had enough wealth to keep the world away, if that was what she wanted, so she turned her New York apartments into fortresses, and collected around her a very small group of people whom she trusted. Her reclusiveness increased even more after her mother's death in 1963.

As Dedman and Newell delve into Huguette's more recent history, they consider some disturbing questions. Were her legal and financial advisors taking advantage of her? What kind of mental health was she in? Were her reclusiveness and obsession with dolls simply aspects of her eccentricity, or symptoms of mental illness? Was she responsible to make her own financial decisions? When they discovered she had been living in a NY hospital for 20 years, they wondered why she had never been discharged. Were the medical staff and her personal nurse using their influence with her to get rich from her gifts to them? The final chapters of the book consider a battle that broke out between the beneficiaries of her will and her family members. What, in a case like this, is the appropriate way to safeguard Huguette's fortune and protect her legacy?

I found Empty Mansions to be an enthralling read -- disturbing in sections, very sad in others, but always intriguing and thought-provoking. I especially appreciated Dedman and Newell's commitment to be respectful of Huguette. A book that could have felt sensationalist instead was thought-provoking and humane. I read Empty Mansions as an ARC from Netgalley, and I liked it so much that I pre-ordered it when it comes out on September 10, 2013 from Ballantine. I know I will want to revisit Huguette's story.

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