Book review: ‘Empty Mansions’: One woman’s abundant wealth but quiet life

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICESeptember 8, 2013 

  • ‘EMPTY MANSIONS’ by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.; Ballantine Books ($28)

The story of how the book “Empty Mansions” came to be — in the words of Bill Dedman, one of its two authors — begins with “an exercise in American aspiration.” And when Dedman, a journalist, embarked on that exercise, he could not have guessed how right that phrase would be.

In 2009, he and his wife were looking for a house outside New York City. Just for fun, Dedman Googled real estate listings in the astronomical range. He found a markdown in New Canaan, Conn., a house that had gone from $35 million to $24 million and had one very unusual feature, even more unusual than its room for drying draperies. The place had been unoccupied since it was purchased. In 1951.

Dedman located the house and coaxed forth its caretaker. This man had never met his employer of more than 20 years, Huguette Clark. But he had a newspaper clipping about the sale at auction of a $23.5 million Renoir painting that came from “the estate of Huguette Clark.” The caretaker was puzzled. Had Clark been dead all these years he worked for her?

Dedman had stumbled onto an amazing story of profligate wealth, one so wild that “American aspiration” doesn’t begin to describe its excesses. Clark was not dead at all, but she did not live in any of her immense dwellings, which included an estate atop a mesa in Santa Barbara, Calif., and three apartments, totaling more than 40 rooms, in a grand New York building. At 103, and in need of not much more medication than vitamin pills, she had long ago sequestered herself in a hospital room and had not been to any of her homes in more than 20 years. “Empty Mansions” is the self-explanatory title of the Huguette Clark story.

This book credits Paul Clark Newell Jr., a cousin to Clark, as its co-author. Unlike many other Clark family members, he knew Huguette, who died in 2011 at 104, well enough to receive occasional phone calls from her. She was polite, lucid and even chatty, all of which undermine the idea that she was a crazy recluse living in miserable isolation. Far from it: Her favorite late-18th century French fable described the benefits of living unobtrusively as a cricket, rather than glamorously as a butterfly. She seems simply to have preferred to live quietly in tightly controlled surroundings, after spending her childhood and young adulthood as a jewel-bedecked heiress to a vast copper fortune.

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