"Empty Mansions" is an exhaustively researched, extremely well written account of the life of Huguette Clark, who has been much in the news recently because of the legal fight over her $300 million estate between relatives (many of whom had never met her) and people and institutions gifted in her will — most of whom appeared to have taken advantage of her charity while she was still alive and living in New York City.
The suit was settled, mostly in favor of the relatives.
Clark was the daughter of William Andrews Clark (1839-1925), one of the wealthiest men in America, and his second wife, Anna La Chapelle (1878-1963). A one-term senator from Montana, W.A. made his fortune principally mining copper, but also in manufacturing, railroads and real estate. (His holdings in Nevada became the basis for Las Vegas, located in appropriately named Clark County.)
His daughter, Huguette, lived a life of unimaginable privilege. Around 1941, for no apparent reason, she became so reclusive she made Howard Hughes seem like a Kardashian.
Employees — even her attorneys — conducted their business by phone or mail. They put up with the peculiar arrangement partly because she was extraordinarily generous. It was not atypical for her to continue to pay longtime workers their salaries after they retired and to their widows after they died.
Her bizarre behavior became more pronounced in her dotage. Cancer on her face ate away her lip, making it nearly impossible for her to eat. Finally, in 1991, one of the few people who had direct contact with her, Suzanne Pierre, got a doctor to persuade her to go to a hospital.
She never went home again, becoming a permanent hospital resident until she died in 2011 at age 104. During those last two decades, several of her caretakers apparently took advantage of her.
The doctor who convinced her to be hospitalized took $20,000 from her to paint his house and another $65,000 to pay for an air ambulance after he broke his hip in Italy.
He informed the hospital of her generosity and officials there secured almost $1 million in donations over the next decade and discussed how "to end up with bigger bucks."
Her accountant, a convicted sex offender, and her attorney were shady and/or incompetent in their dealings with her, and both benefited far more generously than ethically permitted.
But the biggest offender was her daytime nurse, who got something in the area of $30 million in gifts (in addition to her salary) — though she had to return $5 million of that as part of the settlement.
Criminal charges were never pursued because to some — including an assistant district attorney — Clark seemed rational. Still, the question remains — is giving $30 million to your nurse a rational act or the result of elder abuse?
Bill Dedman first wrote about Clark's life in 2010 and with the help of Paul Newell — a distant relative who was not involved in the suit — has written a blood-boiling exposé. It will make you angry and it will make you sad. Huguette deserved far better.
Curt Schleier, a longtime critic for the Star Tribune, lives in New Jersey.