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 burdens 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—I 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 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 friendships that lasted decades, including with her ex-husband Bill Gower and with her friend (and fiancé?) 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 portrayed 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 $30 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 lawyers 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 memorable 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 man- sion 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, Andrée 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 ordering 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?