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Empty Mansions

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune - Paul Clark Newell Jr., Bill Dedman

This is less a review of the book than of Huguette Clark's life. I give her 4 1/2 stars for staying true to her own peculiar self for more than a century. I don't know that this is a great book viewed strictly on literary terms--the writing is purely serviceable and I don't think the organization works well--but the story of Huguette Clark is going to stay with me for a long time.


I said in my post yesterday that Huguette Clark was happy, and she certainly was for a long time. But something happened as she got older. Her staff dwindled. She developed a facial cancer that was left untreated for a significant period of time. When someone finally sought treatment for her, the cancer had made it nearly impossible to eat and she had almost starved to death. she required cosmetic surgery to repair the damage to her face, and she was no longer able to eat solid foods. (The big flaw of this book, in my opinion, is that there is a ten-year gap which goes undescribed, that might explain how this possibly could have happened. Yes, her staff was smaller -- but you would think that even a staff of one could have prevented the cancer from advancing so far before it was treated.) It is astonishing that she managed to recover from this cancer and then live another two decades.


As I suspected, the last twenty years, which she spent in the hospital, took a dark and disturbing turn. She was still, in many ways, happy. But she was also clearly taken advantage of, by her attorney, her accountant, and most significantly, her beloved nurse, to whom she gave literally millions of dollars over the course of twenty years. (Clark paid for the nurse's children's school from preschool through college. She paid for vacations and camps and summer homes and a Bentley.) Clark's will cut out her family completely, leaving vast sums to caregivers, as well as establishing an arts foundation in California.


When she died at 105, her half-nieces and nephews (who had barely seen or spoken to her since the 1950s, if then) were shocked to hear they'd been left out of the will and sued. And although they may have been legally and even ethically right--as I said, Clark was clearly taken advantage of--it's hard to feel sympathetic or morally indignant on behalf of a group of people who didn't even bother to check on their elderly aunt after 9/11, or during the 2003 power outage in the heat of the summer. (The book ends before the final settlement, but you can read about it here. Essentially, the nurse was the big loser.)


You read this book and you want to draw some kind of lessons from Clark's life. Huguette Clark  made herself comfortable in her hospital bed for two decades, but she died more alone than she realized, having for many years trusted people who were not trustworthy. When I turned the last page, I wanted to call everyone I knew just to extract promises that they would not leave me alone in a dark apartment in my old age. I thought, she should have gotten out more. She shouldn't have isolated herself. But that's not a rational response. Clark's main problem was that she outlived everyone--her doctors, her lawyers, her dearest friends. No amount of face-to-face contact would have prevented that.


It is tempting to look at the end of her story and allow it to color her whole life, but that would betray years of contentment and even joy. The authors of this book, to their credit, make this point well: "She was a recluse in that she locked herself away from travel and sunsets and cafes, but a woman who leaves twenty thousand pages of affectionate correspondence is also a world traveler."