I saw a Jon Stewart interview with Bill Dedman on The Daily Show a couple of weeks ago. The Pulitzer Prize winning author discussed his new book, Empty Mansions, a biography of reclusive heiress Hugette Clark. The book is co-authored by Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the grand nephew of Hugette's father. As Dedman talked, I remembered a television spot I had seen about the woman who owned three mansions and had not occupied any of them for decades. Dedman had done the story for NBC news. The book completes the story of this absolutely intriguing woman. I could not put it down and I'm sure my husband became tired of hearing me say, "Honey, you won't believe this."
Hugette (pronounced ooo-gette) Clark was the youngest daughter of infamous Montana Senator William A. Clark. William Clark is considered one of the richest American men ever. Born in 1839 he amassed a fortune in copper and railroads. His story alone is worth the price of the book.
But it keeps getting better. Hugette, born in 1906 was briefly married and divorced. The last known photograph of her was taken in 1930. After 1960, she rarely left her New York City Fifth Avenue apartment (the largest apartment in the city) where she spent her time painting, and collecting art, dollhouses and dolls. In the mid-1980s, Hugette was hospitalized for reconstructive surgery on untreated skin cancers on her face. For whatever reason, she decided to remain in the small hospital room rather than return home, although she certainly could have gone home. She seemed so upset about leaving the hospital that the doctors decided she should remain there although there was no medical reason for her to be there.
And so it was that Hugette Clark spent more than 20 years in the hospital with 24/7 private nurses. During that time, her New York apartment, a large mansion and estate in California, and another estate and mansion in Connecticut were carefully maintained by staff, many of who had never met Hugette. She remained mentally alert and reasonably healthy, spending her hours corresponding, buying expensive dolls, and by all accounts seemed quite content. She particularly enjoyed watching cartoons.
Hugette gave very large gifts to her employees and children of old friends. In fact, her day nurse was given more than thirty MILLION dollars over a ten-year period. And that did not include her salary or other gifts to her children. (What a lucky day when she was next on the assignment list and began to care for the richest woman in America.) Criticized by many that taking such money was unethical, the nurse considered that she deserved everything she got. "I love Madame and do everything for her," she said.
Hugette Clark died in 2011, just a few weeks shy of her 105th birthday. She had written two very different wills within few weeks of each other, one leaving almost everything to distant relatives, the descendants of her half siblings from her father's first marriage, and one leaving them nothing with the bulk of the estate to her day nurse. The latest will was contested by her distant relatives and interestingly enough, last Friday's issue of the New York Times reported that a settlement had been negotiated just before a jury trial was to begin.
It's been a long time since I was so interested in a biography that it actually kept me up into the night reading. But this one did. The story of the Clark family in general and Hugette in particular is compelling. Think about this: William Clark was born when Martin Van Buren was the 8th President of the United States. His youngest daughter Hugette died in 2011 when Barack Obama was the 44th President, more than 170 years later.