When Pulitzer Prize–winning 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, a New York Times bestseller, 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.
This book is great for a book club discussion! If this is in your book club’s queue, then we have the perfect discussion to help frame your chat. Enjoy!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
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 adventures 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. Out- siders 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 incompetent 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 is on Facebook! Join the conversation with him.