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

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

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.

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The Voyage of Lucy P. Simmons by Barbara Mariconda

“Against a brilliant fireworks display of glittering diamond dust, the Lucy P. Simmons carried us off together on what I knew would be a most spectacular voyage.”

The preceding sentence may sound as if it could be the opening sentence of a middle grade fantasy novel called The Voyage of Lucy P. Simmons, but it is instead the closing sentence of a book that begins with tragedy and ends with to be continued, my least favorite ending. I even like ambiguous endings better than tbc endings—at least with ambiguous I get to think up my own ending without fear that I will someday be contradicted or proved wrong by the author’s official sequel.

The tragedy at the beginning is the death of Lucy’s parents. Lucy lives in Maine, 1906, and she and her parents are involved in a boating accident. Lucy is the only survivor. Now her Uncle Victor and Aunt Margaret have become her temporary guardians, and Uncle Victor is out to get Lucy’s inheritance, her father’s house and her fortune. If Lucy can only find her other surviving relative, Aunt Pru, she knows that Uncle Victor’s evil plans will be thwarted. And it seems that the house itself is helping Lucy as she tries to fight, in a ladylike early twentieth century manner, against her uncle.

The magic in this book is odd– a magical mist that appears to point out important items when necessary and a magical flute that belonged to Lucy’s father. The flute sort plays by itself when danger is near, but the warning is too late and too inconsistent to do much good. I could never identify with Lucy too well. She is alternately headstrong and foolish, then restrained and unable to decide to do anything. I wanted her to try to tell people about what Uncle Victor was doing. Or run away. Or scream. Or something.

Then, when Lucy’s rescuer comes, we are unsure as whether to trust the mysterious Marni or not. It is implied that Marni is a sea witch, but I was never sure whether sea witches in this story are good and helpful or whether we’re being set up for a betrayal in part two. And so at the end of the book the main characters sail off for Australia (yes, from Maine), leaving Uncle Vic–and Lucy’s old life–behind.

“Then as we sailed out toward the open sea, I vowed never to look back again.”

This melodrama mixed with magic just didn’t work for me. I felt unsettled and dissatisfied as skimmed toward the non-end of the story. If you’re willing to invest in a prequel to a voyage to Australia, then you may get a different vibe out of the whole novel. Good luck to you, matey.

1906: Art and Music

On October 22, 1906 Paul Cezanne, one of the most influential of the Impressionist painters, died at the age of 67 at his family home in Aix-en-Provence, France. Claude Monet, another Impressionist, was aging (66), but still painting in 1906. This painting, by Monet, is called Waterlilies, 1906:

'Claude Monet - Waterlilies 1906' photo (c) 2008, Tony Hisgett - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As for music, The English Hymnal, 1906 was an important landmark in 20th century British hymnody. Ralph Vaughan Williams edited the hymnal and contributed several tunes of his own composing, including SINE NOMINE, a favorite of mine. From the preface to The English Hymnal, 1906:

No doubt it requires a certain effort to tune oneself to the moral atmosphere implied by a fine melody; and it is far easier to dwell in the miasma of the languishing and sentimental hymn tunes which so often disfigure our services. Such poverty of heart may not be uncommon, but at least it should not be encouraged by those who direct the services of the Church; it ought no longer to be true anywhere that the most exalted moments of a church-goer’s week are associated with music that would not be tolerated in any place of secular entertainment.

Ah, the worship wars. They’ve been going on for quite a long time, haven’t they?

1906: Events and Inventions

February 10, 1906. The biggest and fastest battleship in the world, the HMS Dreadnought, is launched in Britain by King Edward VII. Also in February, the Japanese government announces that it will double the size of its navy within the next three years. For more information about these huge warships of the early twentieth century, read Robert Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War.

'Retro Cornflakes Box.' photo (c) 2008, Rex Roof - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/February, 1906. William K. Kellogg forms a company to market and distribute his corn-based breakfast cereal, called Cornflakes.

March, 1906. At the Spanish seaport of Algeciras, a conference is held to determine what European power will govern Morocco (in Northern Africa). THe conference recognized France’s “special position” in Morocco and gave the French and the Spanish joint responsibility for overseeing the government of Morocco.

April 18, 1906, The San Francisco Earthquake: “At almost precisely 5:12 a.m., local time, a foreshock occurred with sufficient force to be felt widely throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The great earthquake broke loose some 20 to 25 seconds later, with an epicenter near San Francisco. Violent shocks punctuated the strong shaking which lasted some 45 to 60 seconds. The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.”

April 27, 1906. The British and the Chinese agree that no foreign powers will be allowed to do business in Tibet without British permission. The agreement is meant to keep the Russians, in particular, out of Tibet. (The Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, are not consulted.)

May 10, 1906. The Duma, Russia’ first democratically elected parliament, opens at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

July, 1906. Czar Nicholas dissolves the Duma because the members dared to suggest governmental and agrarian reforms. The more radical members of the Duma then meet in Finland and issue a manifesto calling on all Russians to refuse to pay taxes or serve in the army.

August 18, 1906. An earthquake in Valparaiso, Chile kills thousands and levels the city. Santiago also suffers severe damage.

September-October, 1906. Following disputed elections, the first president of Cuba, Tomás Estrada Palma, faces an armed revolt by independence war veterans who defeat the meager government forces. The U.S. intervenes in the civil war by sending troops to Cuba to restore peace.

December 24, 1906. The first known radio broadcast is made in the U.S. by R.A. Fessenden from a radio tower in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. He broadcasts Christmas music and a reading from Luke, chapter 2, in the Bible.
Ken Burns’ Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio is a two hour documentary on the history of radio. Engineer Husband and I found it fascinating.

1906: Books and Literature

Giosuè Carducci was an Italian poet and teacher who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906. He was strongly anti-clerical, anti-Catholic, and anti-Christian. One of his most famous, and controversial, poems was called “Inno a Satana” (or “Hymn to Satan”.) He died in February, 1907 after receiving the prize in December, 1906.

Fiction Bestsellers:
1. Winston Churchill, Coniston
2. Owen Wister, Lady Baltimore
3. Robert W. Chambers, The Fighting Chance
4. Meredith Nicholson, The House of a Thousand Candles An early mystery genre story by an Indiana author.
5. George Barr McCutcheon, Jane Cable
6. Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. I read this one in high school, and I remember certain details quite well. I became a vegetarian for an entire month after reading The Jungle. Now that’s some influential muckraking literature!
7. Margaret Deland, The Awakening of Helena Ritchie
8. Rex Beach, The Spoilers
9. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
10. Ellen Glasgow, The Wheel of Life

Critically Acclaimed or Historically Significant:
William Graham Sumner, Folkways
George Santayana, The Life of Reason
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. I love Chesterton, and I think this book quite the best thing I’ve ever read about Charles Dickens.
Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children, The Story of the Amulet. I’ve read Nesbit’s earlier Five Children and It (1902) and The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), and I may have read The Story of the Amulet. However, I’ve never read or seen the movie version of The Railway Children, which it turns out is partly a spy novel. Anyway, Nesbit wrote over sixty boks fr children, and she was a co-founder of The Fabian Society in England.
Across the Page: Dragons Galore, Reading E. Nesbit to modern American children.
Librivox audiobooks of E. Nesbit.
John Galsworthy, The Man of Property. This one is the first volume in Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, and I read it earlier this year. I never wrote anything about it because I thought I would finish the saga and then write. Also, I’m not too sure what I think. However, others think wel of it: Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932 on the strength of his many novels about the Forsyte family.

Set in 1906:
Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O’Neill. Random House, 1933. Set in July, 1906.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. A YA novel about a girl torn between her family and her future, set in 1906 in the Adirondacks. A review at One More Page.
Earthquake at Dawn by Kristiana Gregory. Semicolon review here.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1975) is set in New York City in 1906, actually from 1902-1917. A lot of peoople swear that this novel is one of the best they’ve ever read. I hated it, and only managed to read about a fourth of the book. The book (fiction) is full of actual characters from the early 1900’s: Harry Houdini, Robert Peary, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, Harry Kendall Thaw, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Countess Sophie Chotek, Booker T. Washington, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Theodore Dreiser, Jacob Riis and Emiliano Zapata. But I thought it was downright nasty; I am to Ragtime as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn was to Balzac in The Music Man.

American Eve by Paula Uruburu

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu.

So, a photograph of Evelyn Nesbit was the inspiration for L.M. Montgomery’s description of the innocent, youthful, and inspirational Anne of Green Gables. And yet the true story of Evelyn Nesbit, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, is as sordid and debauched a tale as could be imagined. The contrast between the fictional character of Anne and the true character of young Evelyn Nesbit is heartbreakingly sad.

Evelyn Nesbit was born on December 25, 1884 (or maybe 1885). Her father died when she was ten or eleven, leaving the family in desperate straits. Young Evelyn managed to catch the attention of a newspaper photographer, then became a model for several artists in Philadelphia where the family was living in poverty, and finally moved with her mother and younger brother to New York where she became the most photographed young woman of the time. Photographers and artists stood in line to paint or take her picture. She was The American Beauty, the “It” Girl, Psyche, a Sibyl, the Sphinx, or “the glittering girl model of Gotham.” All this, and she was only sixteen years old.

And it all came crashing down, of course. One older New York millionaire seduced her, and another forced her into marriage and then defended her “honor” by murdering his rival on June 25, 1906 at the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden. It was the Crime of the Century, and according to some, Evelyn Nesbit was completely responsible for the death of one man and the insanity of another. In her book about the drama, Ms. Uruburu takes the side of the underdog, Evelyn Nesbit. Everyone around Evelyn is described as “depraved” and “negligent” and “wicked”–all of which they probably were— but Evelyn is young and deceived and makes, not horrid, greedy choices, but rather “mistakes”. She is always trapped by her circumstances, unable to escape her fate, a victim of the manipulative, wealthy men and women who make her life into an obscene celebrity spectacle.

I thought the book was interesting in that it told a story that I have never read before. According to Uruburu, Evelyn Nesbit is a major character in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime. I only made through about 100 pages of Ragtime, if that, and I never saw the movie based on the book. I also never saw or heard of the Joan Collins movie that was made about Evelyn Nesbit’s life, entitled The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. As a defense of Evelyn Nesbit, the book succeeds for the most part, although her “mistakes” were a bit more culpable than the author wants to make them seem to be. It’s a mistake to find yourself unexpectedly alone with a married lecherous man; it’s a really bad choice to become the lecher’s mistress.

Warning: Some of the details of the story are lurid, and Ms. Uruburu’s prose gets a bit purplish at times. However, I doubt the author could have done much to sensationalize the story any more than it already was.

Evelyn Nesbit was definitely a sensation.

Earthquake at Dawn by Kristiana Gregory

Earthquake at Dawn is a book in the series Great Episodes, published in 1992 by Harcourt Brace. The novel is set before, during and after the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, and the story is based upon the stories of two real women who lived through the earthquake and its aftermath. Edith Irvine was a twenty-one year old photographer who was visiting San Francisco the morning of the earthquake. She hid her cameras in an abandoned baby buggy and took candid shots of the damage from the earthquake that San Francisco officials wanted to hide in an effort to reassure the public that the city was only slightly damaged and ready for more immigration and commerce. The other woman who appears in the book is Mary Exa Atkins Campbell who wrote a thirty-two page letter telling about her experiences during the earthquake and the subsequent fires caused, or at least exacerbated, by the damaged infrastructure and the lack of water.

It makes for a good story. Edith and her servant/friend, the fictional Daisy Valentine, wander about a ravaged San Francisco looking for Edith’s father. They meet up with not only Mary Exa, but also actor John Barrymore and author Jack London, who were actually present during the great earthquake and later wrote about their experiences, too. I always think that well-researched and engaging historical fiction is the most fun and memorable to learn history. You can get a general idea of what happened and how it affected the people involved in the event, and then if you’re interested, look more details for yourself. I especially like stories that are based on real-life characters like Edith Irvine and Mary Exa.

Go here to see some of Edith Irvine’s photographs of the earthquake’s aftereffects.

And here’s a movie made on Market Street in San Franciso just four days before the earthquake in 1906:

Only a couple of of these Great Episodes series books fit into my upcoming study of the twentieth century for this next school year:

Air Raid–Pearl Harbor!: The Story of December 7, 1941 by Theodore Taylor
Keep Smiling Through by Ann Rinaldi (1943)

What other historical fiction set in the twentieth century either for young people or for adults would you recommend?