Many things about this book are odd, beginning with the co-authors. One of the authors is the subject’s second cousin, or some such relation. He must have been involved in some way, at least as a witness to Huguette’s mental state, in the controversy that broke out after Huguette’s death about her will and the disposition of her fortune. Yet, he is a co-author of this book that purports to be an objective view of the many controversies surrounding Huguette’s life and death. (The introduction notes that Mr. Newell was not in line to inherit any of Huguette Clark’s fortune.)
Then, there’s Huguette Clark herself. Born in 1906, Huguette Clark lived for 105 years. She was heiress to a fortune made by her father W.A. Clark in copper mining, railroads and other enterprises. Ms. Clark, married only briefly and soon divorced, became a recluse as an adult and spent her final twenty years living in a hospital in New York City, not because she was ill but because she felt safe there. She gave her day nurse, Hadassah Peri, millions of dollars in cash and gifts while she was still alive and left the same nurse millions in her will. She spent most of her adult life painting, taking photographs, playing with dolls, and designing dollhouses. She liked to watch cartoons, analyzing them frame by frame, particularly The Smurfs, The Flintstones, and The Jetsons. She kept two uninhabited mansions that she never visited, one in California and another in Connecticut, in mint condition with millions of dollars paid to caretakers and taxes over the years. She was, in her own words, “a little peculiar.”
Despite the copious research that certainly informed this book about a reclusive heiress and her family background, the authors are unable to answer the question that most interested me: why was Huguette Clark so reclusive and almost afraid of new people and strangers and yet so generous to certain particular people in her life? She gave millions of dollars to her day nurse, and yet she was unwilling to give her phone number to her cousin. Nevertheless, even though I din’t really understand Huguette Clark much better after I read the entire book about her life, it was still thought-provoking to to try. What does great inherited wealth do to a person’s psyche? Is it different if you inherited the money than it would be if you earned it? Was Huguette simply a fragile, anxiety-ridden person who figured out the best strategy for handling her fears and insecurities?
I also wanted to know at the end of the book what happened to Ms. Clark’s money? The dispute over Huguette Clark’s will had not been settled at the time of the publication of Empty Mansions. Wikipedia to the rescue:
On September 24, 2013, the will was finally settled with the majority of the distant relatives receiving a total of $34 million. The nurse received nothing, and agreed to return $5 million of the earlier $31 million gifts to her and her family. The bulk of the substantial remainder went to the arts, including the gift of her estate in Santa Barbara to a new foundation, called the Bellosguardo Foundation.
Was she happy with her dolls and cartoons and empty mansions? Or was she as empty as her houses, with the dolls and dollhouse projects only a distraction from the emptiness of her life? I rather think the latter, but only God can judge a life. I’m certainly not sure after reading this true story that being a millionaire is all it’s cracked up to be.