Book of the Month Club: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Huguette Clark in a private self-portrait, c. 1950s or 1960s. Photo credit: Estate of Huguette Clark/authors' website. Huguette Clark in a private self-portrait, c. 1950s or 1960s. Photo credit: Estate of Huguette Clark/authors' website.

“The spiral staircase was grand, but for sixty years no wedding photos were taken there. The water heater in the basement, the length of a Rolls-Royce limousine, never heated water for a bath. An old green Jaguar belonging to the caretaker was parked in the garage. The combination to the walk-in safe was lost long ago.”

Empty Mansions tells the true story of Huguette Clark, a reclusive heiress with a big heart. Born out of the second marriage of American politician W. A. Clark, Huguette sees only the best of the turn of the century and grows up in a 100+ room mansion, one mansion of many in Gilded Age-era America.

This book, co-written with one of the Clark descendants, paints Huguette in a kind, dignified manner, whose generosity extended to people she didn’t even know directly, to the tune of a $30,000 cheque to a nurse who had helped take care of a stockbroker Huguette knew and even payment for her hospital nurse’s children’s expenses and schooling. However, this book also reveals some of her faults: at the same time of her extreme generosity, Huguette’s attorneys were worried that she was overly gullible and that others could trick her into giving them money with any old story. Huguette, who didn’t have to work a day in her life, was also withdrawing more money than (one of her many) bank accounts had, leading to troubles with the bank, and she was not interested in investing any of her money for any length of time, even if it would have earned her more money in the long run.

Some things that were interesting about Huguette’s life was her various hobbies and, of course, her reclusiveness. Huguette was a painter, mixing her own oil paints in a time when women confined their artistry to pastels, she had an extensive doll collection, and was well-versed in the history and culture of Japan. Her reclusiveness was uncomfortable to read about despite it being of interest. One of the more notable instances of her reclusiveness from the public was when people kept stealing various items of hers, including many heirlooms of her mother’s, she remained silent because she didn’t want to out in public to get her things back. Her last public photo was taken on her wedding day in 1928 when she was twenty-two.

While reading this book, the authors give minute but vibrant images of the wealth of the Clark family. This family has 14K gold safety pins and hair combs with over 300 diamonds in it. People spend thousands of dollars each day because that’s totally normal. Huguette’s dream house, Bellosguardo, cost millions of dollars, money which most people will never make in a lifetime. These small details, in the background, also paint a portrait of a privileged lady is the class divide between the rich and the not-so-rich, especially in the descriptions of the early twentieth century.

This book paints a sweeping story of an independent woman living in twentieth century America. It’s well worth a read.

Empty Mansions is published by Ballantine Books.

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