Monday, September 16, 2013

EMPTY MANSIONS: The Mysterious Life Of Huguette Clark And The Spending Of A Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr

Empty Mansions
Authors: Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell Jr
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Edition: Hardcover, 496 pages
Genre: non-fiction, biography
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars plus
Buy it on Amazon 

“An amazing story of profligate wealth . . . an outsized tale of rags-to-riches prosperity.”The New York Times

My review--Leave it to NBC investigative reporter and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Bill Dedman to turn a simple house hunting for his family into a dazzling book uncovering the mysterious life of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. Thoroughly researched, richly illustrated, and written in collaboration with Paul Clark Newell Jr, cousin once removed of the incredibly wealthy and extravagant woman, Empty Mansions is the smashing recount of a life that was spent among treasures worthy of a queen and oddly ended (in 2011 at the age of 105) in the anonymity of a Manhattan hospital room.

Huguette Clark
Huguette Clark's multi-million assets (mansions in Connecticut, California, and New York, buildings on Fifth Avenue, luxurious apartments overlooking Central Park, cars, a collection of antiquities and paintings of inestimable value, even a Stradivarius violin) would make the bluest blood of some aristocratic families pale in comparison. The eccentric millionaire's extensive fortune was inherited from her father, Senator W.A. Clark, copper industrialist and founder of Las Vegas, a Gilded Age 'self-made' man who remained virtually unknown although he could have given Rockfeller a run for his money.

Huguette's family history (an amazing chapter of America's economic growth, spanning over three generations and unfolding through Pennsylvania copper mining, Montana gold rush, railroad business, and Washington politics) is the embodiment of the American Dream. Her privileged and wordly life is nothing short of a fairy tale, but one where the story of our bright and talented princess  starts with a glorious 'happily ever after' and ends with a 'Rapunzel-like' withdrawal from reality and self-imposed exile from the outside world.

Huguette Clark's New York mansion
Described as an ethereal and artistic creature who loved to surround herself, to the point of obsession, with masterpieces of the French Impressionism and antique dolls, Huguette hardly comes across as a completely stable person, rather as a woman who was too 'disconnected' and too weak to defend herself and her wealth from the preying greed of shady accountants and attorneys. But there is more to this bizarre heiress' life than her privileged circumstances may lead us to believe. When, in 1991, a doctor answered her call for an emergency house visit, 85 year old Huguette was found in one of her many fabulous New York apartments, surrounded by her treasures, but disfigured by skin cancer and in a frightful state of neglect that is shockingly unusual for a woman of her means. Her trip to the hospital was her first contact with the outside world after decades of voluntary exile. She regained her health and remained in the care of a Manhattan hospital till her death in 2011.

Bill Dedman
The last portion of her life, spent in the seclusion of her hospital room, was marked by rare phone interactions with one of her family members (Paul Clark Newell Jr, co-author of her biography) and innumerable acts of selfless generosity: donations to art museums, life pensions granted to her housekeeping staff and their families, large sums of money bestowed on doctors, nurses, and attorneys. It doesn't surprise that, after her death, legal actions were taken by some of her relatives (people Huguette hadn't met once in her life) to stop the depletion of her patrimony (nearly $ 400 million) and secure a piece of that huge pie for themselves. Greedy relatives trying to protect Huguette's wealth from greedy strangers...there is no end to the oddity and sadness of this reverse fairy tale.

What an excellent book! A vivid and terse picture of a golden and long gone era, and a moving portrait of a unique and complex riveting and well written it reads like the best works of fiction. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this biography has been optioned for a big screen rendition. It would be a deserved homage to the extraordinary protagonist of this story and to the heritage and spirit that made this country great. Highly recommended.

***ARC Netgalley e-copy graciously provided by the publisher in return of an unbiased and honest review.
***Photo credit: 



  1. Thank you, Maryellen! For me, one of the best books of the year.

    1. You're welcome! I really think that our dear friend Lisa in the book club would love this. Possibly Renee too!


  2. Hi Mina, I've nominated you for the Liebster Award. I hope you accept it :-) you can find my post here:

    1. Awwwweeee! Monique, thank you so much!!!! I am honored and humbled by your kindness. I accept it with pleasure :)

  3. Hi Mina

    Hope you don't mind I've nominated you for the Liebster award, my post is here:

    1. Thank you, Samantha! So sweet of you :) I really appreciate it! I am going to check your post and Monique's now. Yhank you!!!!