Thommy Ford Reads

A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library

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

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Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell: 328.73 DED

Why would anyone keep several lavish homes that they never visit? This is the question that Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter for NBC, sought to answer when he began an online series on the mansions in 2009. The book that grew out of his investigation tells the story of Huguette Clark, heiress to a copper fortune, who owned the homes. She was still living when Dedman began his inquiries, but she was reclusive and he was never able to speak with her directly. His co-author, however, is a distant cousin of Clark’s who did have a series of conversations with her by telephone, which add a personal touch to the tale.

The Clark family story begins with Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, who was born in 1839, became a gold miner in Colorado and Montana, and amassed a vast fortune starting with shrewd investments in copper mines. The book follows Clark from Montana to Manhattan, where he built the city’s largest mansion in 1911. Following his death in 1925, his fortune was divided among his five surviving children, the youngest of whom was Huguette.

The last two-thirds of the book focus on her life and the spending of her part of the inheritance on art, musical instruments, jewelry, her friends, and her hobbies, in addition to maintaining five homes. Huguette spent her last 20 years secretly living in a New York hospital room, even though she was healthy for her advanced age. When she died in 2011, her will was contested by her extended family, none of whom were close to her. It was settled out of court in 2014.

Though W.A. Clark was one of the wealthiest men in America, on a par with Rockefeller and Carnegie, I didn’t remember ever hearing of him. The book tells a fascinating story, describing the building of his fortune in the West, his run for the U.S. Senate, and his move to New York. While reading this book I enjoyed contemplating whether I would have become an eccentric like Huguette, were I able to gratify every single whim I ever had.

It’s astounding to consider that the lives of father and daughter spanned 172 years, encompassing the Gold Rush, the Civil War, both world wars, the Great Depression, and the attacks of 9/11. A most unusual story.

Review by Nancy

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2015 by in Biography, Book Review, History, Non-Fiction.
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