Book review: Empty Mansions, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jnr

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 10:18am

Empty Mansions
by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jnr
Ballantine Books
4 stars

Janet Maslin

The story of how Empty Mansions came to be, in the words of Bill Dedman, one of its two authors, begins with "an exercise in American aspiration".

In 2009 the journalist 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, Connecticut, a house that had gone from US$35 million to US$24 million and had one unusual feature: 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. She was not dead, but she did not live in any of her immense dwellings. At 103, she had long ago sequestered herself in a hospital room and had not been to any of her homes in more than two decades. Empty Mansions is the self-explanatory title of the Huguette Clark story.

This book credits Paul Clark Newell Jnr, 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, although she was too wily to give him her number. She was polite, lucid and even chatty, all of which undermined the idea that she was a crazy recluse living in miserable isolation.

The early parts of this book tell an outsized tale of rags-to-riches prosperity, of W.A. Clark, known as the Copper King; one of the less notable things he did was to help create a railroad linking Salt Lake City with Los Angeles. He sold residential lots at a spot in Nevada that could be useful for railroad maintenance and refuelling. The town he created became Las Vegas.

Clark married twice and had children by both wives: Huguette was the younger of two daughters from his second marriage. By the time she was born, in 1906, her father was in his 60s.

Devoted to her mother and sister, she had an affinity for art as both painter and collector. A Stradivarius violin with a wood-carved image of Joan of Arc was one of the prized possessions that made Clark, in her later years, a target for predators.

The best parts of the book describe the unseemly efforts of trustees, hospital administrators, a private nurse who collected millions from her patient, and an accountant caught in an internet sex sting to separate the heiress from her money.

The book illustrates how readily her largess, legal fees and tax debts reduced her fortune, although she seemed to have remained canny about those seeking to exploit her.

The New York Times