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

By Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

(Random House, 428, 496 pages)

Who are these authors?

Bill Dedman, who won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting while at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. After stumbling upon the grand – and empty – home of heiress Huguette in Connecticut, he began writing a series about her for NBC, and it became the website’s most popular feature ever, receiving more than 110 million page views.  He teamed with Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette Clark, who was very close to this reclusive  woman and spent 20 years researching the family history..

What is this book about?

The old cliché, “you can’t make this stuff up,” really applies to the story of Huguette Clark, who spent the last 20 years of her 104-year-life living in a hospital room, even though she was not ill, had a huge fortune and owned great mansions in California, New York and Connecticut. Bill Dedman learned about her when he noticed that one of these palatial homes was for sale in 2009 and had not been lived in for 60 years.  What he learned about its owner,, daughter of a wealthy copper magnate, U.S. Senator and  founder of Las Vegas, a generous patron to her friends (she gave her nurse  more than $30 million worth of gifts), an artist and one who valued her privacy above all else, is told in this book. Her life spanned American history from the days of the Titanic to the 9/11 attacks and offers a rare look into the world of a phenomenally rich and deeply eccentric woman. The book has 70 photographs that help tell the story.

Why you’ll like it:

We hear a lot today about the highly privileged 1 percent. In this book, we meet one of them. She owned many mansions that she seldom inhabited, along with a Stradivarius violin, masterpieces by Degas and Renoir and a vast collection of antique dolls and other luxuries. The family fortune was immense, but we are left wondering if all this money really bought her happiness. Perhaps it did, on her own terms. This is history as mystery, a biography with the power of a good novel. “The rich are different,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. This book proves how right he was.


What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “What goes on behind closed doors, especially when those doors are of the gilded variety, has fascinated novelists and journalists for centuries. The private lives of the rich and famous are so tantalizing that Robin Leach made a career out of showcasing them. One of the biggest eccentric, rich fishes out there was Huguette Clark. Deceased for more than two years, Clark, brought to life by investigator Dedman and Clark’s descendant, Newell, owned nouveau riche palaces in New York, Connecticut, and California. An heiress, Clark disappeared from public view in the 1920s. What happened to her and her vast wealth? Answering this question is the book’s mission. Based on records and the hearsay of relations and former employees, the book pieces together Clark’s life, that of a woman rumored to be institutionalized while her mansions stood empty, though immaculately maintained throughout her life. Clark left few clues about herself, but she willed vast sums to her caretakers and numerous charitable endeavors. Still, her absence acts as a shade to seeing her fully, hinting at possible financial malfeasance, all the while conspiring to produce a spellbinding mystery.”

Publishers Weekly says in a starred review:  “Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of the book’s subject, reconstruct the life of reclusive copper heiress Huguette Clark (1906-2011) in this riveting biography. The authors bring Huguette’s odd past into clear perspective, including the hilariously corrupt political schemes of her father, W.A. Clark, who was a Montana senator. Though less celebrated than his compatriots Rockefeller and Carnegie, W.A. Clark was at a time wealthier than they, and by extension, so was his daughter. She was a regular in the society pages during her youth and even married for a short time, Clark later slipped into her own world and stayed there, quietly buying multi-million dollar homes for her dolls. Kind and unspeakably generous to those who worked for her and usually suspicious of family, she wrote a few big checks to people she hardly knew. Other family acquisitions, valuable musical instruments and jewelry among them, she simply gave away. The authors provide a thrilling study of the responsibilities and privileges that come with great wealth and draw the reader into the deliciously scandalous story of Clark’s choices in later life, the question of Clark’s presence of mind always at issue. Hewn from Huguette’s stories, purchases, phone calls, gifts, and letters, the tale of where and how Huguette Clark found happiness will entrance anyone.”

Library Journal says: “Drawing on extensive research by Newell, a cousin of the subject, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Dedman (NBC News) provides a comprehensive account of the late copper mining heiress Huguette Clark (1906–2011). Unlike the Rockefellers, the Clark family had all but been forgotten by history until Dedman’s 2009 television and msnbc.com pieces on the enigmatic heiress and her “empty mansions” in California and Connecticut set the stage for this book. The authors describe her lavish estates, art, jewelry, and musical instrument collections. They convey how, despite her affluence, Clark strangely chose to live her latter days as a relatively healthy recluse in a modest New York City hospital room. Nurses, acquaintances, and distant relations vied for her fortune during her life; the biographers tell how her entire estate is now contested and awaiting legal settlement. . . . An enlightening read for those interested in the opulent lifestyles afforded the offspring of the Gilded Age magnates and the mysterious ways of wealth.

Kirkus Reviews says: “An investigation into the secretive life of the youngest daughter and heiress to a Gilded Age copper tycoon. Huguette Clark (1906–2011) lived for more than a century and never once wanted for money. At her death, she was estimated to be worth–incorrectly, as it turned out–about $500 million. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Dedman stumbled onto her tale and wrote a series of stories about the Clark family, their fortune and the mystery surrounding Huguette. Here, with the assistance of Huguette’s cousin Newell, the author expands his search for information about the heiress who disappeared from public view in the 1980s–though she lived for another three decades. After an introduction to Clark’s fortune, Dedman moves his focus to her lifestyle and pursuits, always following the money. Clark was certainly eccentric, and her decisions, both financial and otherwise, definitely capture the imagination. She chose to live in seclusion after her mother’s death and then lived out the last few decades of her life in a hospital, despite being healthy. She spent money seemingly without thinking, giving away tens of millions of dollars to friends and employees, even selling off prized possessions to do so. As Clark aged, her family became concerned that her gifts were not necessarily voluntary and went looking for her. The story picks up steam with the family’s search for their wealthy relative and its aftermath. . . .”

When is it available?

“Empty Mansions” can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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