A few years ago I remember reading an article about a rich old woman whose family suspected the people surrounding her – her medical staff, lawyers, etc. – were keeping her removed from the outside world and working to get her to give them all of her money. While I don’t remember much else about the article I do remember thinking, “How is that even possible?”, and feeling horrible for this used elderly woman and her family. Then I started reading Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune and realized that Huguette was the woman from the article and that there was a lot more to her story than I could ever have imagined. As the authors put it, her story is a fairy tale in reverse, a woman born into great wealth and privilege that eventually hid herself away from the opulent life she was born into and all but the bare minimum of human contact.
The first part of Empty Mansions deals with Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, a man that seemed to personify the American dream: coming from humble beginnings and building a vast empire using good old fashioned hard work, intelligence and a heavy dash of luck. W.A. was a business man – making the vast majority of his fortune in copper – and a politician who was not only kind and charitable but also extravagant and ostentatious, working to always have the biggest mansions dripping with the best décor. After his first wife died, sixty-two year old W.A. Clark married twenty-three year old Anna LaChapelle, a shy woman who would become mother to Huguette and her older sister, Andree.
Growing up in unimaginable splendor, Huguette’s life wasn’t all glamour and gold. Losing her sister and closest friend Andree and her beloved, exuberant father at a young age, Huguette seemed to get stuck in a childlike state, one she never really grew out of. After a very short and seemingly unromantic marriage she lived with her mother until her mother’s death, never venturing far and choosing to spend the majority of her time with either her paintings or her intricate, expensive dolls. When her mother died she became even more of a shut in, preferring to communicate with most people either by letter, telephone or through closed doors. Most of her relatives, the majority of whom came from her father’s first family, left Huguette to the extreme privacy she seemed to crave. It wasn’t until her face became riddled with cancer and she had no other choice but to reach out to a friend for help that Huguette left her home for medical care at the hospital. She would never go back to her home – or any of the lavish properties she owned – or leave the hospital again even though she would continue to live in relatively good health for a number of decades.
Huguette’s years in the hospital are probably the hardest part of this peculiar and excessively eccentric woman’s life for me to understand. From most accounts she seemed content to live in a small, sparse room with few luxuries and give lavish and expensive gifts to the few people she came into contact with. Even with the authors’ clearly balanced and well researched information I could not wrap my head around anyone giving millions upon millions in gifts to her nurses, doctors, lawyers, etc. while refusing to even see the people who had been her friends and family her whole life, even if the family members weren’t exactly close. The resulting fight over her $300 million fortune after her death was not surprising but something I just found extremely sad. It seemed that most people were more interested, at least in the end, in Huguette’s money then in what was best for her or what she wanted her inheritance to be.
Empty Mansions is a fascinating true story of a life of extremes: excessive wealth, intense shyness and obsessive behavior that few can relate to but most will find intriguing. It reads like fiction and is highly entertaining even as it presents a unique woman and an in-depth look at the growth of America from the mid 1800s through to the present. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys a true story about the epitome of an eccentric millionaire and the good and the bad that comes with all that entails.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ballantine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.