Book Review: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.


Rating: 4 / 5

Bill Dedman notices a mansion on sale, and upon further investigation, discovers that it has been uninhabited for the past six decades.  The owner is Huguette Clark,a reclusive heiress, and what is even more fascinating is that she has multiple properties, all empty, while she lives in a Manhattan hospital.  But who is Huguette Clark? And how is she a millionaire heiress that the public has never heard of before?  As the authors investigate, they uncover her family’s past, as well as Hugette’s personalities and hobbies.  As she outlived her immediate family , has not been seen out in public in decades, and has gifted millions of dollars to her nurse and other acquaintances, her distant relatives wonder if she is mentally competent or being manipulated. 

The story begins with Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark.  Although not as well known as the Industrial Age scions, such as Andrew Carnegie and Rockefeller, W.A. Clark was equally as finally successful.  W.A was a self made millionaire in the copper industry, but his legacy is marred by political scandal, lack of succession planning, and while he did give money to charities, his focus in the latter half of his life was not on philanthropy.  Huguette was born when W.A. was in his 60s and on his second marriage.  While she grew up privileged and in the biggest home in Manhattan, she was incredibly close with her older sister Andree and had few close friends.  Tragedy strikes the Clark family when Andree dies due to illness, and years later, W.A. passes.  Huguette and her mother remain in Manhattan, but slowly Huguette becomes more and more reclusive.  Although she corresponds frequently with friends, she adamantly refuses to meet most people in public, or even face-to-face.  She has people on her payroll who have worked for her for decades and yet have only seen her once or twice.

As a millionaire heiress growing up in a time when women were not expected to work, Huguette could literally afford anything she wanted.  Considerable time and effort was expended on her doll collection.  She ended up spending millions of dollars on dolls and dollhouses, frequently having doll makers re-do designs to meet her exacting expectations.  Huguette was also very generous with her money towards her friends, oftentimes giving away tens of thousands of dollars.  Even when her friends passed, she would continue to support her friend’s family.

Probably the most eccentric aspect of Huguette was that for the last two decades of her life, she lived in a hospital even though she had two apartments in Manhattan as well as a house in Connecticut and a mansion on the California coast.  She becomes close to her nurse, Hadassah Peri, and in total, ended up giving Peri and her family around $30 million.  Huguette’s accountant was a convicted felon, and her lawyer ended up being a beneficiary in Huguette’s will.  These issues led many to believe that Huguette was a victim of elder abuse, and that those she most trusted were manipulating her.

Empty Mansions is an incredibly fascinating biography on a reclusive heiress that most people never heard of until she passed and her will was contested.  While her life is long, rich, and interesting, there are few sources of information, as she was never seen in public and heavily guarded her privacy.  However, the authors did excellent research, and seemingly talked to everyone possible who knew or corresponded with Huguette.  Empty Mansions was meticulously researched, and what few photos exist of Huguette are added for more flavor.  For someone who did not have a career or children, her life was endlessly complex and fascinating; there is so much to talk about, whether it be her father’s legacy (or lack thereof), her childhood, her obsession with Japanese culture, her obsession with dolls, her hospital’s campaign to have her donate money, or the fact that she gave away millions upon millions of dollars without a second thought, there’s some aspect of Huguette’s life that will appeal to everyone.

To me, the most engrossing part of Huguette’s life was her stay at Doctors Hospital, which later became Beth Israel.  It is difficult to understand why she chose to live out her life in a hospital when she had two separate apartments in Manhattan and the financial means to hire caretakers and medical staff to continually see that her needs are met.  However, what is especially appalling about Haguette’s situation is that while at Beth Israel, when the doctors and nurses learned that she had millions of dollars, they set about trying to determine just how much money she had, and how they could get their hands on it.  Some of the strong-arm techniques used are unbelievable and horrible, and I’m glad that many times Huguette stood her ground.  Although I wish there was more info on Huguette’s personality, it is difficult to understand her when she did not give interviews and lived a life of solitude.

At the time of publication, her estate had not been settled, it is interesting to see who has come out of the woodwork to stake a claim on her fortune.  Empty Mansions is a great read that is well researched and provides great insight into the Gilded Age of America.

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