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Empty Mansions

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The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Written by Bill DedmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.Author Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Paul Clark Newell, Jr.



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On Sale: September 10, 2013
Pages: 432 | ISBN: 978-0-345-54556-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group

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On Sale: September 10, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8041-4955-6
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
Janet Maslin, The New York Times • St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

When Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?
 
Dedman has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have frequent conversations with her. Dedman and Newell tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter, born into a family of extreme wealth and privilege, who secrets herself away from the outside world.
 
Huguette was the daughter of self-made copper industrialist W. A. Clark, nearly as rich as Rockefeller in his day, a controversial senator, railroad builder, and founder of Las Vegas. She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a remarkable dwelling with 121 rooms for a family of four. She owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, a vast collection of antique dolls. But wanting more than treasures, she devoted her wealth to buying gifts for friends and strangers alike, to quietly pursuing her own work as an artist, and to guarding the privacy she valued above all else.
 
The Clark family story spans nearly all of American history in three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to mining camps in the Montana gold rush, from backdoor politics in Washington to a distress call from an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. The same Huguette who was touched by the terror attacks of 9/11 held a ticket nine decades earlier for a first-class stateroom on the second voyage of the Titanic.
 
Empty Mansions reveals a complex portrait of the mysterious Huguette and her intimate circle. We meet her extravagant father, her publicity-shy mother, her star-crossed sister, her French boyfriend, her nurse who received more than $30 million in gifts, and the relatives fighting to inherit Huguette’s copper fortune. Richly illustrated with more than seventy photographs, Empty Mansions is an enthralling story of an eccentric of the highest order, a last jewel of the Gilded Age who lived life on her own terms.

Praise for Empty Mansions
 
“An amazing story of profligate wealth . . . an outsized tale of rags-to-riches prosperity.”The New York Times
 
“An evocative and rollicking read, part social history, part hothouse mystery, part grand guignol.”—The Daily Beast
 
“Fascinating . . . [a] haunting true-life tale.”People
 
“One of those incredible stories that you didn’t even know existed. It filled a void.”—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
 
“Thrilling . . . deliciously scandalous.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Excerpt

From day one at Doctors Hospital, Huguette had private nurses twenty-four hours a day. The nurse on the day shift, assigned randomly to Huguette in the spring of 1991, was Hadassah Peri. She would work for her “Madame” for twenty years, becoming, it seems probable, the wealthiest registered nurse in the world.
 
Doctors Hospital was not the place that a New Yorker with a lifethreatening illness normally would select. It was better known as a fashionable treatment center for the well-to-do, a society hospital, a great place for a face-lift or for drying out. Michael Jackson had been a patient, as had Marilyn Monroe, James Thurber, Clare Boothe Luce, and Eugene O’Neill. The fourteen-story brick structure on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, between Eighty-Seventh and Eighty-Eighth streets by a bend in the East River, gave the impression of being an apartment building or hotel, with a hair salon offering private appointments in patient rooms and a comfortable dining room where patients could order from the wine list if the doctor allowed. When it opened in 1929, it had no wards and no interns, allowed no charity care, and included hotel accommodations for family members of patients. In its early days, it was often used as a long-term residential hotel or spa, and finally in the 1970s it added modern coronary units and intensive care.
 
Huguette checked in to a room on the eleventh floor with a lovely view down to a city park and Gracie Mansion, the Federal-style home that is the official residence of the mayor of New York.
 
After living mostly alone at home for so many years, now Huguette was in a hospital with its constant noises and staff coming and going. At first she was a difficult patient, swathed in sheets and refusing to let anyone see her. A nurse wrote in the chart that she was “like a homeless person—no clothes, not in touch with the world, had not seen a doctor for 20 years, and threw everyone out of the room.”
 
A week into her stay, Huguette was evaluated by a social worker, who filled out the standard initial assessment. The patient, just short of age eighty-five, was scheduled for surgery to remove basal cell tumors and to reconstruct her lip, right cheek, and right eyelid. She had been “managing poorly at home—reclusive—not eating recently” and was dehydrated. Her only support system was her friend Suzanne Pierre, “helping with her affairs,” and a maid—no family. Her mental status was always awake and alert, but she was skittish: “Patient refused to speak with social worker. Patient has not been to doctor in many years—had refused medications in past. Patient anxious and uncooperative at times.”
 
Her plans after treatment? “Spoke with friend, Mrs. Pierre—feels patient will need convalescent care in facility but does not want to go to nursing home which she feels would be depressing. . . . Patient may need to go to a hotel with a nurse to recuperate.”
As for financial problems, “none noted.”
 
Huguette did not move on to a hotel. Within just over two months, she was an indefinite patient, a tenant, with Doctors Hospital charging her $829 a day. Eventually the rent rose to $1,200, or more than $400,000 a year.
Huguette had a series of surgeries in 1991 and 1992, with Dr. Jack Rudick removing malignant tumors and making initial repairs to her face. She was healthy, though she still needed a bit of plastic surgery, especially on her right eyelid. “It is not necessary,” she told her doctors. “I am not having any surgery. I don’t like needles.” She was not badly disfigured by the cancer. And there might have been another reason, Dr. Singman speculated. “This she has steadfastly put off,” he wrote in her chart in 1996, “I presume to avoid the final treatment and then possible discharge home.”
 
A board-certified specialist in internal medicine, cardiology, and geriatrics, Dr. Singman assured her that she could have round-the-clock nurses at home, and he would visit daily. “I had strongly urged that she go home,” he said. She was, however, “perfectly happy, content, to remain in the situation she was in.” When one of the first night nurses kept urging her to move back home, Huguette fired her. In the end, Dr. Singman accepted her decision, writing in her chart in 1996, “I fervently believe that this woman would not have survived if she had been discharged from the hospital.”
 
Dr. Singman’s backup, internist Dr. John Wolff, said he agreed. Huguette “was so content and so secure in the environment. There’s no question in my mind that’s really where she chose to be.” He brought her flowers on her birthday and liked to stop in. “She was a lovely woman, and we would talk. Her mind was clear. There was no confusion about her. Very warm, gracious, sweet, gentle, interested in other people, independent, guarded.”
 
Huguette was hardly ever sick. She refused to take a flu shot—she didn’t believe in medicine, she told her nurses, and felt that “nature should take its course.” Her only persistent medical issues were mild: osteopenia, a decrease of calcium in the bones not advanced enough to be called osteoporosis; a slightly elevated systolic blood pressure (150/80); and two nutrition issues, a mild electrolyte disorder and a mild salt depletion. Her illnesses passed quickly, usually with her refusing antibiotics. She had a bout of pneumonia, the seasonal flu, and a surgery to check out a suspicious lump that was benign.
 
In other words, from age eighty-five to well past one hundred, a stage when most people need elaborate pillboxes marked with the days of the week, Huguette was remarkably healthy, requiring no daily medications other than vitamins. Yet she was living in a hospital.
···
Dr. Singman said Huguette at first was “extremely frightened” of new people. She refused most medical treatments unless her day nurse, Hadassah, was there to hold her hand and talk calmingly. Hadassah and Huguette had a bond from the beginning, with Hadassah able to read Huguette’s feelings and help her overcome her distress. When they couldn’t reach Hadassah, the other nurses would sometimes pretend that they were talking with her on the phone, telling Huguette that Hadassah said that she had to eat now or she should allow them to check her blood pressure.
 
“You have to convince her,” explained Hadassah later. A small, compact woman with warm, dark eyes and black hair flecked with gray, Hadassah described patience as the key to her chemistry with Huguette. “You have to explain it to her, you have to educate her who is coming, what is that for—at times we have some difficulty.”
 
Hadassah Peri was born Gicela Tejada Oloroso in May 1950 to a politically prominent and eccentric family in the Philippine fishing town of Sapian. Gicela received a nursing degree before immigrating to the United States in 1972. She worked first at a hospital in Arkansas, then moved to New York in 1980. She passed her New York exams as a licensed practical nurse, then a registered nurse, and started working as a private-duty nurse. Born a Roman Catholic, she had married an Israeli immigrant and New York taxi driver, Daniel Peri, in 1982, converting to his Orthodox Judaism and using the name Hadassah Peri, although she didn’t change her name legally until 2011. Even today, she is a bit embarrassed about her English, though it’s quite good, despite some confusion over pronouns: “Madame love his favorite shoes.”
 
When she was assigned to Huguette, the Peris owned a small apartment in Brooklyn. They had three children born in the 1980s, two boys and a girl.
 
Private-duty nurses are temp workers, always hoping for a long-term assignment. Taking a day off means having a replacement nurse, one who might step into the regular role. So despite the Orthodox prohibition against working on Saturday, and despite having three school-age children, for many years Hadassah worked for Huguette from eight a.m. to eight p.m., twelve hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. She was up and out of the house before her children left for school and home close to bedtime. It would be several years before she took a day off. Hadassah was paid $30 an hour, $2,520 a week, $131,040 a year, but she described her self-sacrifice for Huguette as extreme. “I give my life to Madame,” Hadassah said.
···
The private hospital room was perfectly ordinary, a small room for one patient with a hospital bed, recliner, chest of drawers, bedside table, small refrigerator, TV, radio, closet, small bathroom. “She like a simple room,” Hadassah said.
 
Once an outdoorsy youth, Huguette now didn’t want any daylight. The cancer had left her eyelid unable to close properly. She kept her shades drawn, though she often asked her nurses about the weather, and she did look out on the Fourth of July to watch the fireworks. The room wasn’t entirely dark, with an overhead light usually on, and Huguette had a reading lamp as well. Drawings by the nurses’ children and doctors’ grandchildren sometimes were hung on the walls. The door was closed, and Huguette would see only the visitors she knew. Dr. Singman called it a cocoon, a safe place, but not unpleasant.
 
The doctor said he asked Huguette once to see a psychiatrist, not because he thought she was mentally ill but because he thought talking with another doctor might help persuade her to return home. She declined to discuss it, and neither the doctor nor the hospital ever mentioned it again.
 
“The woman was an eccentric of the first order,” Dr. Singman said, but “she had perfect knowledge of her surroundings, she had excellent memory . . . a mind like a steel trap. . . . At that point she was perfectly happy, content, to remain in the situation she was in. . . . The hospital setting . . . was a form of security blanket for her. . . . I didn’t think there was going to be any great help from a psychiatrist to change her attitude about what she was doing. . . . The woman was perfectly conversant at all times, never demonstrated any . . . disturbances of her mind. . . . I didn’t think her behavior was that of one suffering from a psychiatric illness.” At most, said her doctor, she showed “eccentricity and neurotic behavior”—not exactly distinguishing characteristics in New York City.
 
Huguette dressed in hospital gowns, hardly ever wearing her clothes from home. When she was cold—and she was often cold—she would wear layered sweaters, always white button-front cashmere cardigans from Scotland, her only hint of luxury.
···
The daily routine began with Huguette drinking two cups of warm milk that the night nurse, Geraldine Lehane Coffey, had left for her. Hadassah would arrive with The New York Times. (Huguette always read the obituaries, as older people do, followed the progress of wars and weather emergencies, and delighted in finding stories about Japan and royalty.) Hadassah would greet Huguette and give her kisses. Huguette could walk to the bathroom by herself and give herself a sponge bath. Then Huguette would blow into the incentive spirometer, the little plastic tube where each deep breath makes the plastic ball rise, which helped ward off pneumonia. Huguette could make the ball go up five times, sometimes eight times. She would do coughing and deep-breathing exercises. Then it was time for breakfast: oatmeal and eggs, pureed, and her French coffee with hot milk, or café au lait.
 
Most of Huguette’s diet was liquid, taken through a straw because of the wound to her lip. Dinner was usually a soup that Hadassah had made at home, such as potato leek, made with eggs to provide protein. At night she would ask the nurse for a warm glass of milk before bed. Between meals, she drank Ensure nutritional drinks. For a special treat, Madame Pierre brought her steamed artichokes or asparagus with a rich hollandaise sauce, made in the classic French fashion with egg yolks and fresh butter, because Huguette said she couldn’t stand hospital food.
 
After breakfast, it was time for Huguette’s morning walk, three or four times around the room. She and Hadassah called this their “walk in Central Park.” Then it was personal time for Huguette. She made phone calls on her Princess telephone with the lighted dial, calling Madame Pierre sometimes three to five times a day. “Mrs. Clark liked to speak French with my grandmother,” said Suzanne’s granddaughter Kati Despretz Cruz, “because she didn’t want her nurses to understand what they were talking about.”
 
Huguette called her coordinator of art projects, Caterina Marsh, in California to make changes in a Japanese castle. She read The New York Times and followed the financial markets on CNN. “She would watch the stock,” said one of the night nurses, Primrose Mohiuddin, “and she would say to me, ‘Oh, NASDAQ has gone down. That’s terrible!’ ” She paid particular attention to news of presidents and royalty. “When President Clinton was in trouble,” her assistant Chris Sattler said, “she was asking Mrs. Pierre and me about the Monica Lewinsky thing. She didn’t get it, and she wanted us to explain it to her. And we sort of let it go, if you know what I mean.”
 
She kept a few personal items in shopping bags on the floor by the window. Her address book and recent correspondence. A deck of cards. Dr. Singman taught her solitaire and bought her a book of rules of card games, which she used to learn many variations.
 
Because Huguette kept information about herself tightly controlled, on a need-to-know basis, Dr. Singman knew little of her art projects and her correspondence with friends in France. To his view, solitaire was her main activity. “She was a wiz,” he said. “She could shuffle a deck like I haven’t seen anybody except in a gambling house.”
 
She no longer painted but would watch her videotapes of cartoons, studying the animation and enjoying the stories. She liked to make flip books of still images captured from videotapes, so she could see the animated stories in her hands. Her favorite cartoons were The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Smurfs, and a Japanese series called Maya the Bee. These cartoons came in particularly handy when Huguette tired of a conversation with a doctor or hospital official. She’d start up The Smurfs as if to say, No, I’ve made up my mind.
 
And she would look at her photo albums, which contained snapshots from her early days with her father, mother, and sister. She’d show her nurses and doctors the photos: Andrée on a bicycle. Huguette on a horse at château de Petit-Bourg outside Paris. (She told them how the Germans had burned the house down.) The girls visiting their father’s copper mine in Butte. One of herself at her First Communion, and also surrounded by dolls on the porch of her father’s first mansion, in Butte, where she remembered the pansies on the stoop. Anna smiling as she sat on a park bench during a summer sojourn in Greenwich, Connecticut. Huguette’s Aunt Amelia, her mother’s sister, standing on the grand marble staircase at the old Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue. The rooms and gardens at Bellosguardo. Anna and W.A. on the beach at Trouville, laughing. Little Huguette in her Indian costume and headdress, hugging her father.
 
She would talk, Hadassah said, mostly about “her dear father, her dear mother, her dear sister, Aunt Amelia.” Huguette liked to tell the nurses about the summers at the beach in Trouville, how her father built the beautiful Columbia Gardens so the people of Butte could have something to enjoy, how Duke Kahanamoku carried her on his shoulders on a surfboard. And she would share somberly how her sister had died on the trip to Maine. “She talked dearly about that,” Hadassah said. “Talked all the time about her sister and parents. Yes, that affected her very much.”
 
Huguette’s eyesight had declined, but she was able to read with eyeglasses and then a magnifying glass until past age one hundred. Her hearing was poor in the right ear, but she could hear well out of her left if one talked right at it, and she refused a hearing aid. She didn’t deny that her hearing was poor, but she didn’t want anything put into her ears, nothing like her mother’s primitive squawk box. Hadassah bought a telephone with big numbers and adjustable volume, but Huguette refused to use it, saying she could hear fine with the regular phone.
 
Doctors and nurses described Huguette as a woman who knew her own mind. “She was remarkably clear,” said Karen Gottlieb, a floor nurse who brought her warm milk at bedtime. “Clear in her wants, and things she didn’t want. Yes meant yes, and no meant no.” Gottlieb said that she never saw any family try to visit, that Huguette’s real family seemed to be Hadassah.
 
The regular hospital staff rarely saw Huguette. One exception was in 2000, when Hadassah herself was in the hospital for back surgery. Huguette arranged for Hadassah to be in a room just down the hall, two or three doors away. Huguette then went to visit Hadassah, dressing up in street clothes and walking down the hall. She wore her favorite Daniel Green shoes.
 
“That’s one day everybody in the floor almost dropped dead,” Hadassah said. “They saw Madame coming out of the door with heel shoes.”
···
Hadassah described Huguette as “a beautiful lady. Very loving. Very respectful. Love people. Very refined lady. Very cultured. Good heart— good soul and good heart. Never hurt anybody. Very, very generous, Madame.”
 
Dr. Singman said he saw that Hadassah and Huguette were very close. “Hadassah was very good to her and was a good nurse for her and worked hard with her.”
 
Huguette’s first question in the morning would be “When is Hadassah coming?” She would call nearly every night to make sure Hadassah got home safely and to be reassured that Hadassah would be coming in the next day. Sometimes she’d call just as Hadassah got home, and the answering machine would pick up first. Here is a recording from about 2007, when Huguette was 101. We hear Huguette’s sweet, high-pitched French, and Hadassah’s Filipino accent, shouting to make sure she is heard.
 
Hadassah: Madame, I love you.
Huguette: I love you, too. Good night to you.
Hadassah: Have a good night.
Huguette: Have a good night.
Hadassah: Thank you, Madame.
Huguette: Will I see you tomorrow?
Hadassah: Yes, Madame.
Huguette: Thank you.
Hadassah: I love you.
Huguette: I love you, too.
Hadassah: Good night.
Huguette: Good night, Hadassah.
Bill Dedman

About Bill Dedman

Bill Dedman - Empty Mansions
Bill Dedman introduced the public to heiress Huguette Clark and her empty mansions through his compelling series of narratives for NBC, which became the most popular feature in the history of the news website, topping 110 million page views. He received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting while writing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe.
Praise

Praise

“An amazing story of profligate wealth . . . an outsized tale of rags-to-riches prosperity.”The New York Times
 
“A fascinating investigation into the haunting true-life tale of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark.”People

“An exhaustively researched, well-written account . . . a blood-boiling expose [that] will make you angry and will make you sad.”The Seattle Times
 
“An evocative and rollicking read, part social history, part hothouse mystery, part grand guignol.”The Daily Beast
 
“A childlike, self-exiled eccentric, [Huguette Clark] is the sort of of subject susceptible to a biography of broad strokes, which makes Empty Mansions, the first full-length account of her life, impressive for its delicacy and depth.”Town & Country
 
“One of those incredible stories that you didn’t even know existed. It filled a void.”—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

“So well written . . . such a gripping, gripping story.”—Bill Goldstein, NBC 4 New York
 
“A compelling account of what happened to the Clark family and its fortune . . . a tremendous feat.”St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“A fascinating story.”Today
 
“Meticulous and absorbing.”Bloomberg Businessweek
 
“Brilliantly researched, tough-minded, and fair . . . a fascinating read.”Santa Barbara Independent

“Riveting . . . deliciously scandalous . . . a thrilling study of the responsibilities and privileges that come with great wealth.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“A spellbinding mystery.”Booklist
 
“Enlightening.”Library Journal

Empty Mansions is a dazzlement and a wonder. Bill Dedman and Paul Newell unravel a great character, Huguette Clark, a shy soul akin to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird—if Boo’s father had been as rich as Rockefeller. This is an enchanting journey into the mysteries of the mind, a true-to-life exploration of strangeness and delight.”—Pat Conroy, author of The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son
 
Empty Mansions is at once an engrossing portrait of a forgotten American heiress and a fascinating meditation on the crosswinds of extreme wealth. Hugely entertaining and well researched, Empty Mansions is a fabulous read.”—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
 
“In Empty Mansions, a unique American character emerges from the shadows. Through deep research and evocative writing, Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., have expertly captured the arc of history covered by the remarkable Clark family, while solving a deeply personal mystery of wealth and eccentricity.”—Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
 
“Who knew? Though virtually unknown today, W. A. Clark was one of the fifty richest Americans ever—copper baron, railroad builder, art collector, U.S. senator, and world-class scoundrel. Yet his daughter and heiress Huguette became a bizarre recluse. Empty Mansions reveals this mysterious family in sumptuous detail.”—John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
 
Empty Mansions is a mesmerizing tale that delivers all the ingredients of a top-notch mystery novel. But there is nothing fictional about this true, fully researched story of a fascinating and reclusive woman from an era of fabulous American wealth. Empty Mansions is a delicious read—once you start it, you will find it hard to put down.”—Kate Alcott, bestselling author of The Dressmaker
 
“More than a biography, more than a mystery, Empty Mansions is a real-life American Bleak House, an arresting tale about misplaced souls sketched on a canvas that stretches from coast to coast, from riotous mining camps to the gilded dwellings of the very, very rich.”—John A. Farrell, author of Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned


From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

A CONVERSATION with BILL DEDMAN and PAUL CLARK NEWELL,  JR.
 
PATRICK MCCORD, OF THE EDITING COMPANY: What are the themes of Empty Mansions?
 
BILL DEDMAN: The main threads running through the lives of W. A. Clark and his daughter Huguette include the costs of ambition, the bur­ dens of inherited wealth, the fragility of reputation, the folly of judging someone's life from the outside, and the tension between engaging with the world, with all its risks, and keeping a safe distance from danger. Huguette chose a path that seemed to us to be embodied in the old French fable she memorized: "To live happily, live hidden."
 
PM: Paul, how did you approach your conversations with Huguette? Did you tell her you were writing a book? Did you try to interview her, or just to have conversations between cousins?
 
PAUL CLARK NEWELL, JR.: My first letter to her told her that I was picking up my father's unfulfilled hope of writing a book about W. A. Clark and the family. In our conversations by phone over the years--we spoke perhaps half a dozen times a year--refrained from aggressive inquiries. I enjoyed these conversations and wanted them to continue, and was wary that any inquiries she might find threatening could easily leave me blocked without means of future contact. She had never given me her phone number. I would call her attorney, and she would call back at the appointed time. There are many questions I would have liked to ask Huguette, but not at the risk of losing access.
 
PM: Bill, what would you have liked to ask Huguette?
 
BD: I think Paul was wise not to quiz Huguette. Of course, I would have liked to hear her describe what it was like to move from Paris to New York at age four, growing up in the Clark mansion, the biggest house in the city, with 121 rooms for a family of four. How would she describe the personality, the temperament, of her father, so famous or infamous, and her mother, so lively in private and so distant in public? And Huguette's view on money--how she used it to provide comfort, and privacy, and the role of her great generosity in her life. Her view on relationships­--here was a woman who was reclusive, shy, yet she maintained friend­ ships that lasted decades, including with her ex-husband Bill Gower and with her friend (and fiance?) Etienne de Villermont in France. Everyone close to Huguette describes her as happy--not a sad person at all. She was clearly managing a social unease. How would she have explained her choices?
 
PM: Huguette  dearly valued her privacy. Your reporting  and writing have stripped that away from her. Do you feel guilty about that?
 
BD:  Not if we've told her story honestly and fairly. Paul certainly has affection for his cousin, with whom he shared many conversations and a friendly correspondence. He found her to be elegant, intelligent, quite lucid, with a good sense of humor, a lovely member of the family-not at all the deficient person she had been presumed to be, even by most of her relatives. You can hear her personality in the audiobook, and see it in her correspondence, her collecting, and her painting. We have por­ trayed her in a positive light, not because we're bending over backward to be kind, but because that is how we found her.
 
PCN: Bill's initial articles for NBC News, bringing Huguette's name to public attention, were a lark, a mystery of the unused mansions. But his further investigative series looked at a situation that seemed quite seri­ous: a woman who had hidden herself away, whose property was being sold off quietly. It seemed reasonable to ask if this was a case of elder abuse, and it was a good thing that the district attorney stepped in to check on Huguette and her finances.
 
BD: As it worked out, the DA found no one to charge with any crime. One can certainly reach the conclusion that the gifts were excessive, but Huguette was writing the checks. No one was stealing from her. Never­theless, whether or not one finds a fire, checking out the smoke is a pub­lic service.
 
PM: What might Huguette have thought of the legal settlement, which gave more than $3O million of her estate to her relatives and even took back $5 million from her nurse?
 
BD:  Huguette  told her best friend, Suzanne Pierre, that her relatives were out to get her money, and it turned out she was right. Based on her stubbornness and fierce protection of her privacy, it wouldn't be surprising if she would be upset that her will was being questioned, that her nurse didn't get what she had promised her, and that most of her relatives were telling the world that she was mentally ill and incompetent.

Perhaps a settlement was inevitable, as both sides had disabilities. The relatives found no evidence to support their claim that Huguette was incompetent. Moreover, the first edition of this book was out on the eve of trial, allowing the jurors to see Huguette's paintings, to learn of her generosity, even  to  hear  her  voice in  the audiobook.  Her pur­ported last will and testament, on the other  hand, was being repre­sented by an accountant who was a felon, and by a lawyer who had hardly met his client. Her nurse would be grilled on the huge gifts she received. And the hospital's scheming for donations would be a liabil­ity, although there was no evidence that it influenced the will. The long trial would have been bare-knuckled and expensive. As the trial date approached, consultants for the proponents of the will met with mock juries, presenting each side's case in brief. Two out of three test juries decided in favor of the will, but the wise course was to settle. And as we point out in the book, a settlement is the only way to be sure all the law­ yers get paid.

Some solace for Huguette might have come from the fact that the settlement, in the end, followed the will in one major detail: creating an arts foundation at her beloved Bellosguardo, the Clark summer home in Santa Barbara.
 
PM: Bill, were you concerned about teaming up with a relative, who might naturally try to protect the reputation of his cousin, Huguette, or of the famous man in the family, her father, W.A.?
 
BD: First, Paul was not financially conflicted--as a cousin, not a nephew, he didn't stand to gain from any inheritance; he was not a party to the legal action--so that wasn't a concern. More broadly, I was impressed from the start by Paul's devotion to the truth, to getting the story right, even when it led into uncomfortable family history. Our goal was not to wallpaper over W.A.'s political scandal, nor the effect of his mining on the environment. People should hear, for example, Mark Twain's memo­ rable denunciation of W.A. as "a shame to the American nation." And they should  hear of Twain's own financial conflict when it comes to W. A. Clark and copper.
 
PM: Paul, how do you view the political scandals of Senator W. A. Clark, your great-uncle?
 
PCN: We agreed that our narrative should be based solidly on facts, and that the behavior of the Clarks should be viewed contextually, in the times and culture in which they lived. In our young country's early days, corruption and violence were endemic, especially in the lawless territo­ries on the western frontier.  Clark and his arch enemy, Marcus Daly, held the money and power to influence political processes. Both were accused of blatant bribery. To this day the very wealthy can purchase public office, or influence the public to elect, but the means are ostensi­bly legal, including massive TV campaigns. Whatever this is, it's not democracy at work.
 
PM: How did you reconstruct  so many details of the family life--for instance, the houses and the clothes?
 
BD: We soaked up every detail from old photos and new, including fam­ily photos from Huguette's albums and old snapshots she sent to Paul. We sat with a professor of art history to discuss Huguette's paintings and the role of women painters in the early twentieth century. We hired a landscape designer in Southern California to identify trees and plants in modern photos of Bellosguardo from the estate. A professor of the history of fashion helped us get the details right on a hobble skirt,  a cloche hat. These details helped us try to re-create  the world of the Clarks in the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age.

We also had the documents, in overwhelming numbers: twenty years of Huguette's medical records and nurses' notes; the testimony of her inner circle among fifty witnesses in the estate trial; thousands of pages of correspondence found in her apartment after she died, includ­ing four thousand pages that we had to have translated from French. Without these documents, we wouldn't have known of her longtime friendship and correspondence with her ex-husband Bill, or her long­ distance love letters to Etienne in France. Often the documents and the photos worked together to illuminate a detail. One small example: Her correspondence showed the auction lot numbers for two antique French dolls she bought, for $14,000 apiece, leading us to a Sotheby's catalog from London with photos and descriptions of those dolls.

Details emerge from public records that help us understand charac­ter. For example, Ancestry.com has ships' registries listing passengers, and old passport applications. W.A. was said by his children to be no taller than five feet five inches, maybe five feet six with his boots on. But his passport applications show that he listed himself as five feet eight, even five feet ten, as his political power and wealth grew.
 
PM: Can we talk about your writing process? Did you do the research first, and then write?
 
BD: The research never stopped. Even late in the editing, we had a grad­uate student searching Paris for records on Huguette's friend Etienne, documenting that he had not been a marquis, as he had been called in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States.

Our method in reporting was to explore every side street, enjoying where it led us. Huguette and her family were being revealed to us, too, in those details. If we don't go to her hospital room, long after she died, we don't get the photo of the desolate view from her window. Another small example: If we hadn't found a book about the company that made the magnificent pipe organ in the old Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue­ the one bought for $120,000 (in 1910 dollars)--we would never have found the story about that pipe organ being sold, when the Clark man­sion was demolished in 1927, for the price of one good cigar.

Our approach to the writing was to try to be clear, to let the story tell itself. The main obstacle was to balance the twin stories of W.A. and Huguette, to deal with the fact that our protagonist was off the stage, not yet born, during most of her father's colorful business and political career.
 
PM: Many writers of historical nonfiction "assist the storytelling" by inventing situations or even dialogue that seem logical. Why not make up a few scenes to link up the deep factual reporting of this family epic?
 
BD:  We believe that nonfiction should contain only information that's true. Journalists and nonfiction authors can't know what a person thinks or feels or believes-they know only what the person says and writes and does. If an author tells you someone's inner thoughts, move that book to the fiction shelf. We didn't put any thoughts into anyone's heads, we didn't psychoanalyze. If a word or action suggests what Huguette or another character might  have thought, the reader doesn't need us to point that out. Although we did offer in the epilogue a summary of Huguette's life,"a life of integrity," we tried to give readers plenty of room to make up their own minds about the motives and ethics and feelings of Senator Clark, his younger wife, Anna, and their daughters, An­dree and Huguette, as well as the relatives seeking Huguette's fortune, the hospital and doctors, and the $31 million nurse.
 
PM: Bill, the book begins with your family's quest for a house, during which you discover Huguette's $24 million Connecticut estate, unused since the 1950s. We never hear how that turned out. Did your family buy a house?
 
BD:  Yes, though not in Madame Clark's price range. Somehow we've been able to manage without fifty-two acres and a room for drying the draperies.
 
PM: Your book is filled with incredible stories. When you are asked to pick one, what is your favorite to tell?

PCN: Though the stories of Huguette's eccentricity and lavish spending are fascinating, her generosity is more surprising. This shy artist, a re­cluse occupied with her dolls and castles, was relentless in her charity to friends and strangers.

Think of the home health aide Gwendolyn Jenkins, who never met Huguette but who had taken care of someone Huguette knew. Gwendo­lyn was surprised at home by a lawyer bearing a beautiful card. As she said, "I was telling my daughter that night, I couldn't believe how this woman, an older woman she was, had written such a nice card, a proper note.... And she included a 'little gift,' she said--a check for three hundred dollars! I couldn't believe it. I was going to tell them all about it at Bible study. I've been blessed! And my daughter, she said, 'You'd better sit down, Mother, and let me read this letter over to you. This check is for thirty thousand dollars!'"
 
BD: Huguette lived a life of many charities, down to having an account at the corner grocery in Normandy so she could send telegrams order­ ing treats for her friends.The book raises many questions for the reader to ponder, but a central one is "If I had been born with the same advantages and disabilities, would I have lived the same way that she did?" Few of us would make the same choices she did--it's easy to see that we would travel more, would choose a beautiful view, would wear those jewels and fine clothes. But would we also be as generous as Huguette was?

Discussion Guides

1. Huguette Clark and Paris Hilton: compare and contrast. Using the theme of the burdens of inherited wealth, in which era would it be easier or harder to be a young  heiress, the 1920s or today? Can you imagine being that wealthy and not sharing your opinions and daily ad­ ventures on social media?

2. The authors reject easy explanations for Huguette's eccentricity and reclusive nature, emphasizing that she was always shy, living a life of imagination and art. As they say in the epilogue:
 
We will never know why Huguette was, as she might say, "pecu­liar." The people in her inner circle say they have no idea. Outsiders speculate. It was being the daughter of an older father! It was her sister's death! Or her mother's! The wealth! It was autism or Asperger's or a childhood trauma! Easy answers fail because the question assumes that personalities have a single determinant. Whatever caused her shyness, her limitations of sociability or coping, her fears--of strangers, of kidnapping, of needles, of another French Revolution-Huguette found a situation that worked for her, a modern-day "Boo" Radley, shut up inside by choice, safe from a world that can hurt.
 
Do you accept the authors' embrace of complexity and uncertainty? Or do you think of Huguette's reclusivity as springing from a single cause--e.g., failed romances, her sister's death, a mental illness?

3. What is your reaction to nurse Hadassah Peri and the $31 million in gifts Huguette gave to her family? Do you agree with readers who say her behavior was despicable, that it's unethical for a caregiver to re­ceive such gifts, that she should have refused the gifts? Or do you agree with readers who say Huguette certainly knew what she was doing, that Hadassah was her patient's closest caregiver for twenty years, that the gifts were only a small share of Huguette's net worth?

4. Was Huguette's life a happy one? What are the ingredients of a happy life? If you find her life to be sad, how do you reconcile that with her apparent lack of sadness?

5. If you had been on the jury deciding the battle over Huguette's will and her $300 million estate, would you have found that she was in­ competent and defrauded? Would you have given all her money to her Clark relatives? Or would you have followed the will, giving it all to the nurse, the Bellosguardo Foundation for the arts, the attorney Bock, the accountant Kamsler, Dr. Singman, Beth Israel Medical Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, her goddaughter Wanda, and the personal as­sistant Chris? Which of those people, on either side, do you trust?

6. Was W. A. Clark an admirable man? Or was he admirable only early on, when he was like a Horatio Alger character working arduously in dangerous circumstances to build a copper fortune?  In light of the times in which he lived, was W.A. Clark justifiably vilified for his meth­ods in seeking a Senate seat? Was he actually a robber baron? Is he ac­countable for environmental waste today from the copper mines he developed in the 1870s? Or was this simply business as usual in the sor­did world of politics and development on the Western frontier? If Clark had been as generous to public charities as Carnegie or Rockefeller, would he have been absolved by history, as they largely were, of the sins of his business career?

7. Empty Mansions is based on facts, documents, and  testimony. That leaves mysteries in the lives of its characters. Did the uncertainties add or detract from your enjoyment of the story? Would you have pre­ferred that the authors psychoanalyze Huguette, creating dialogue and filling in missing scenes as a screenplay would? Considering the limits of what the authors could learn, what do you most want to know about W.A., about Anna, about Huguette? If you could have had conversa­tions with Huguette, as author Paul Newell did, what would you have asked her?

8. Is there more to the American Dream than financial security? Does it require making a contribution to society? Did W.A.'s American Dream get out of control? Is Huguette an American Dreamer of another type?

9. On Huguette's death certificate, her occupation was listed as "artist." Beginning with W.A., consider what part creativity and imagi­nation play in this story. Was W.A.'s  imagination the source of his power? What did Huguette inherit from her father in the way of tastes or interests or capabilities? From her mother? Consider the words of the founder of Huguette's prep school, Clara Spence, who urged her stu­dents:
 
I beg you to cultivate imagination, which means to develop your power of sympathy, and I entreat you to decide thoughtfully what makes a human being great in his time and in his station. The faculty of imagination is often lightly spoken of as of no real importance, often decried as mischievous, as in some ways the antithesis of practical sense, and yet it ranks with reason and con­science as one of the supreme characteristics by which man is dis­tinguished from all other animals...Sympathy, the great bond between human beings, is largely dependent on imagination­ that is, upon the power of realizing the feelings and the circum­stances of others so as to enable us to feel with and for them.
 
Did Huguette follow those words? What role did imagination and sym­pathy play in her life? What role do they play in yours?
 

10. Did you like Huguette? Were there points in the book where you were frustrated by her and/or felt sympathy for her? By the end of the book, did you feel as if you knew her well? Did your view of her change throughout the book?

11. Many characters in Empty Mansions have moral dimensions of both good and bad. Do you believe W.A. was more good than bad? What about attorney Wally Bock? Accountant Irv Kamsler? Nurse Hadassah Peri? Personal assistant Chris Sattler? Dr. Henry Singman? Were there any characters who seemed to be simply good or rotten in their relationships with Huguette? Were you engaged or frustrated by the authors' insistence on showing the good and bad in characters?

12. If Empty Mansions were made into a movie, what actors would you like to see in the major roles? What movie that you've seen should it be most similar to? Would you make it a psychological drama?  An epic family saga of Western bonanza wealth? A Gilded Age study of manners and family relationships? What scenes would be the most deli­cious to write?
 
 
 

Bill Dedman

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Bill Dedman - Empty Mansions
1/21/2015

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