Empty Mansions ~ A Capsule Book Review

Empty Mansions cover
Empty Mansions
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

W. A. Clark, who lived from 1839 to 1925, was an American entrepreneur who became known as the “Copper King.” He amassed a huge fortune with his copper mining (also banking and railroads) interests in Butte, Montana. He served as United States Senator from the state of Montana, but he became mired in political scandal that tarnished his name and reputation. He was famous for his flamboyant way of doing things and his expensive and showy homes, first in Butte and then on Millionaires’ Row in New York City, where he built a remarkable 121-room mansion at a staggering price.

W. A. Clark was married to two different women. His first wife, Katherine Louise, contracted typhoid fever at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and died at age fifty. (They had seven children, four of whom survived past the age of sixteen.) He married his second wife, Anna Eugenia La Chapelle, in 1901, when he was 62 and she was 23. He had two daughters with Anna: Louise Amelia Andrée Clark (1902-1919), who went by the name Andrée, and Huguette Marcelle Clark (1906-2011). Huguette (pronounced oo-get) is the subject of the nonfiction book, Empty Mansions, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Huguette Clark was born in France in 1906 and grew up in New York City in a world of unimaginable wealth with her father, her older sister, and her mother, in the fabulous Clark mansion on Millionaire’s Row on the edge of Central Park. When she was 22, she married a man named Bill Gower, who was a year older than she was. The marriage was never consummated and ended in a few months, although Huguette and Bill Gower remained friends until his death.

When W. A. Clark died in 1925 at age 86, his immense wealth was divided among his five surviving children, including Huguette. Huguette continued living with her mother, Anna, after her father’s death, but the two of them (Anna and Huguette) vacated the Clark mansion and moved into an exclusive apartment building at 907 Fifth Avenue.

Living alone with her mother in a luxurious New York apartment building, Huguette was isolated from the ugly realities of the real world. She cultivated her interests in music, painting, Japanese art and architecture, French illustration, and rare dolls. She owned at least two priceless Stradivari violins and collected paintings, painted by such artists as Monet, Degas, and Renoir. (Each of these paintings sells for upwards of ten to 25 million dollars.)

And then there were the homes. Huguette and her mother owned Bellosguardo, a fabulous mansion built on a cliff in Santa Barbara, California, overlooking the Pacific. Maintaining Bellosguardo cost a fortune in itself. Nearby, they kept a “farm,” which was  a place they could escape to if the Japanese attacked California during World War II. Huguette and her mother never lived at the farm.

Back in New York, Huguette bought another apartment in the building, where she and her mother lived, which was to be her primary residence. Later she bought another apartment above her to protect her from undesirable neighbors, for a total of three apartments in the same luxury apartment building. (After Huguette’s mother’s death at age 85 in 1963, Huguette kept her apartment exactly as she had left it.) In later years, Huguette bought an estate in Connecticut so she would have a place to live in case of a terrorist attack in New York City. All of these fabulous homes remained unoccupied for many years. These are the “empty mansions” of the book’s title.

Abandoning her apartment, Huguette moved to a hospital, where she lived in a small hospital room for the last twenty years of her life, surrounded by a small group of people she knew and trusted. The hospital very indulgently allowed her to occupy the same room for all those years because they hoped to get a large chunk of her fortune when she died.

Huguette was generous to the people close to her. She gave more than 30 million dollars to her long-time nurse. (There were accusations, of course, of people manipulating her for their own ends.) When she died at the remarkable age of 104 (two weeks short of her 105th birthday), her fortune was worth an estimated $300 million, counting her paintings, dolls, jewels, real estate, furniture, etc. Not surprisingly, a long battle ensued among her blood relatives, most of whom she had never even met, for her money.

Empty Mansions is the fascinating story of a super-rich American family, the Clark family: the flamboyant father, W. A. Clark, his two wives, his nine children, his life and times, but, more specifically, it’s about his youngest child, Huguette Marcelle Clark, who lived a life of secrecy, cut off from the world, but living life her own way and having lots of time (104 years) and an unlimited amount of money to indulge her eccentricities. Most of us can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to have so much money that ten million dollars seems like so much pocket change.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp   

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