Book Review: Empty Mansions

Empy Mansions CoverBook: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Expected Publication is September 10, 2013 by Ballantine Books|Expected Number Of Pages: 431

Series: None

Genre: Adult Non-Fiction

You can find out more on Goodreads

Empty Mansions is an e-ARC from netgalley.com, which has not influenced my review in any way

Goodreads Summary: When Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?

Dedman has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have frequent conversations with her. Dedman and Newell tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter, born into a family of extreme wealth and privilege, who secrets herself away from the outside world.

Huguette was the daughter of self-made copper industrialist W. A. Clark, nearly as rich as Rockefeller in his day, a controversial senator, railroad builder, and founder of Las Vegas. She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a remarkable dwelling with 121 rooms for a family of four. She owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, a vast collection of antique dolls. But wanting more than treasures, she devoted her wealth to buying gifts for friends and strangers alike, to quietly pursuing her own work as an artist, and to guarding the privacy she valued above all else.

The Clark family story spans nearly all of American history in three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to mining camps in the Montana gold rush, from backdoor politics in Washington to a distress call from an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. The same Huguette who was touched by the terror attacks of 9/11 held a ticket nine decades earlier for a first-class stateroom on the second voyage of the Titanic.

Empty Mansions reveals a complex portrait of the mysterious Huguette and her intimate circle. We meet her extravagant father, her publicity-shy mother, her star-crossed sister, her French boyfriend, her nurse who received more than $30 million in gifts, and the relatives fighting to inherit Huguette’s copper fortune. Richly illustrated with more than seventy photographs, Empty Mansions is an enthralling story of an eccentric of the highest order, a last jewel of the Gilded Age who lived life on her own terms.

When I saw Empty Mansions on netgalley, I knew I had to request it!  While it sounded interested, it was far more interesting than I ever could have imagined.

Huguette was such an interesting and eccentric woman, and she really came to life in Empty Mansions.  The book does jump around in terms of time and place, but I didn’t mind it, because it gave a really good picture of who Huguette was as a person, and why maintaining mansions that she never visited or hadn’t visited in decades was something she did.

Her love of painting and her interest in art was one of the most interesting things about her.  And the fact that her relatives hadn’t seen her since the 1950’s and 1960’s was also super-interesting.  I can’t imagine only communicating with someone by mail or over the phone…and not knowing that she was living in a hospital room for something like 20 years or that she had cancer.

Like, she just randomly gave away millions of dollars.  She was very giving- if someone mentioned a child or grandchild going to grad school or needing work done at home, she’d write a check with no hesitation.  She lived a very long life, and given she lived to be over a hundred, she seemed to be in pretty good health and pretty alert.  And she didn’t write out a will until really late in life.  I found myself really irritated with the hospital she lived at, because part of the book talks about their plan for donations from Huguette.  I understand wanting/needing donations, and targeting a very wealthy patient.  Some of the doctors and at least one of her nurses accepted monetary gifts from Huguette and it seems like they did what they could to hide Huguette from inspectors, which kind of makes them suspect.  And I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or what, but her room got moved when they learned they weren’t getting a large sum from her in her will.

Also: her family challenging her will.  I get their concern (especially in regards to her accountant) but it’s interesting that they’d challenge her will, given they hadn’t seen her in decades, and tried to get messages to Huguette, even though she didn’t seem interested in communicating with them.  As of now, things still are not resolved.

Final Thoughts:

Empty Mansions is such an interesting and complex look at Huguette Clark, her life and her homes.  I definitely recommend the book!  Empty Mansions gets 4 stars.

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