On January 8, 1839, during the eighth US president's time in office, William A. Clark was born in a Pennsylvania log cabin. One hundred and seventy-two years and thirty-six presidents later, his daughter Huguette would be living in reclusion in the middle of Manhattan, the century-old heiress of an unfathomable fortune rendered from copper in the time of the Civil War. It’s an extraordinary story of rags-to-riches with several lifetimes’ worth of scandal, loss, and generosity in between – a story of a remarkable family and one of American history’s greatest fortunes, both fallen into the shadows, hidden in plain sight. The breadcrumbs of this forgotten piece of social and cultural history were stumbled upon in 2009 by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman who, when fanciful curiosity led him slightly out of his price range, came across an abandoned mansion while he was house-hunting in Connecticut. He soon discovered that the house, in a shambles but still handled by a manager, was owned by a woman who had never lived in it – a woman with the unfamiliar name of Huguette Clark. Further curiosity led Dedman to find out that Huguette had yet another mansion to her name on the opposite coast, as well as three expansive apartments in Manhattan. All empty. Dedman went on to investigate these abandoned residences and their elusive owner, the relatively unknown Huguette Clark, who at one hundred and two years old was living in perfect health in a Manhattan hospital – and had been for twenty years. He covered the story on NBCNews.com before joining one of Huguette’s distant relatives, her cousin’s son, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., to tell the Clark family saga in their book, Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.
Empty Mansions is an expansive account, astonishing in its true-to-life detail, of not only Huguette’s life, but of her father W.A. Clark’s life as well, which included political aspirations (ending, unfortunately, in scandal), two marriages, nine children, and one incredible fortune. W.A. may have been born in a Pennsylvania log cabin, but he died a copper magnate with a wealth to rival Rockefeller’s. Huguette, born in Paris and raised in a fairytale mansion in Manhattan, was an artist, a divorcee, a recluse, and an extraordinarily generous woman. Through their book, Dedman and Newell uncover the story of this forgotten family through the rooms they left behind: the empty mansions, the hospital rooms, the apartments, and the cabins. If walls could talk, indeed.
With clarity and precision, Empty Mansions luminously recounts the years lost to history as well as the future of Huguette’s fortune after her death, seamlessly stitching together a patchwork of American history ranging from the Civil War to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The authors document the peculiarities of Huguette, who throughout her long life dedicated herself to her hobbies: music, collecting dolls and the artwork of the Impressionist masters, conceiving the designs of Japanese dollhouses, and attending to the comfort and care of her close friends and confidantes. Yet she gave very little attention to her vast wealth, which she gave away to friends, nurses, and loved ones with profound nonchalance.
Being, as she was, a fiercely private person at all costs, Huguette’s memory is honored in the authors' depiction; she is presented with loving kindness, and her story handled with the same care she would deem befitting of her beloved dolls. Those who surrounded her, however, were not so clearly motivated by good intentions as Huguette. Did her doctors and nurses take advantage of her generosity? Were her accountant and lawyer a fraud and a crook? Were her extended family, who contested the will of which they were left out, only after her fortune? Diligently and with utmost respect to Huguette, Dedman and Newell present every side of this amazing story before the reader. As a result, Empty Mansions is a masterwork of historical nonfiction, a meticulous documentation of the journey of a great American fortune and the story of a remarkable woman who cultivated imagination and pursued her heart’s passions throughout decades of anonymity.