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

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American FortuneEmpty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I would like to thank Goodreads first-reads program for my review copy of Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
Empty Mansions is a meticulously researched nonfiction book that also manages to be fascinating and thought-provoking.
Coauthored by journalist Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr., Empty Mansions recounts the life of heiress Huguette Clark, born in 1906 to the copper baron and multimillionaire William Andrews Clark. The story of the Clark fortune is interesting in part because until recently, it was lost to history. Although W.A. Clark was the contemporary of businessmen like Rockefeller and Carnegie, the way he chose to structure his empire, as well as the actions of his descendants, mean that the great fortune of the copper king has diminished over time.
So Empty Mansions is partly a story about history; it chronicles the life of W.A. Clark, a pioneer and advocate of the American dream, who moved west from humble beginnings in Pennsylvania to make his fortune in copper in Butte, Montana.
W.A. was born in 1839, when the long-distance telegraph was still a recent achievement, and the Lewis and Clark expedition an inspiration as the young boy’s bedtime stories. In his lifetime, W.A. would participate in the American gold rush, lose relatives on the Titanic, and experience the first World War. W.A.’s daughter, Huguette, lived to be 105, and thus, in her lifetime, she was witness to such disasters as the Santa Barbara Earthquake of 1925, World War II, and world politics leading up to 9-11, not far from where she lived in New York. Between W.A. and Huguette, the reader is given a personal account of nearly 200 years of history.
As well as being a story with global reach, Empty Mansions is also a personal tale. It follows the Clark family, showing how they created, and were shaped by, great wealth. Huguette, in particular, became a recluse, withdrawing almost completely from society after her marriage in 1928. Though she would live for over 80 more years, her honeymoon photo would be the last public image of her displayed while she was alive.
Although Huguette retreated to her opulent New York City apartment, and then, for her final years, to a hospital room, she continued to maintain meaningful human contact with close friends, her lawyers, nurses, and a few select relatives. She was shy; she chose to remain hidden, but she lived an full life nonetheless.
Huguette was first and foremost an artist, obsessed, from childhood onwards, with dolls and dollhouses. She later became fascinated with Japanese culture, as well as with the French fairytales of her childhood. She commissioned detailed and accurate dollhouses of scenes from stories and from history, and took great pleasure in designing these beautiful things. Huguette was also an accomplished painter, and a lover of music.
Through interviews with people who knew her (many of whom had never met her in person) the authors put together a comprehensive picture of Huguette’s life. Empty Mansions is nonfiction, but as the authors suggest, there is so very much material that they are able to work with, in the form of photos, letters, bank statements, and interviews, that this book is able to evoke a very real sense of Huguette as a person.
Moreover, the records that the authors used often speak for themselves in intriguing, and sometimes, disturbing, ways. As can be expected, as the heiress of an immense fortune, Huguette was attended throughout her life by businesspeople, physicians, nurses, friends, and family, whose motives have sometimes been called into question. Huguette gave huge monetary gifts to her longtime nurse, Hadassah Peri, writing her checks for thousands of dollars sometimes more than once a day. She was also repeatedly importuned by hospital officials to donate vast sums of money in ways which have been interpreted by some as close to blackmail.
Finally, at 456 pages long, this hefty tome also contains a variety of photos, and copies of letters and interviews. As a side note, the audio version of this book contains recorded telephone interviews between Huguette and her cousin, co-author Paul Newell. These extras in the written book, as well as the audio version, add insight into Huguette’s life, and into history.
In the end, I really enjoyed reading Empty Mansions, in part, because it gave me a fascinating, “insider’s” view, into almost 200 years of American history. But even more than that, I appreciated reading about Huguette herself. This woman, quiet, shy, and unique, was an heiress to one of the greatest fortunes in American history. But she was also, separately from that, a very special person. Her letters, her art, and the memories of those who knew her, demonstrate that she was kind, passionate about art, appreciative of beauty, interested in the world around her, and deeply connected to those whom she trusted and loved. I am glad that Huguette’s story has been recorded. While the Clark family fortune made may fade, Empty Mansions means that Huguette Clark will be remembered.

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