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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book review: 'Empty Mansions' by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Anyone with a cent of interest in the Corcoran Gallery of Art will find this tome of particular interest, about a woman who lived to be 104 and was so fearful of invasion of privacy she refused to press charges when Edgar Degas' Dancer Making Points valued at $10 million was stolen from her New York City apartment.

The book, Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune tells the story of the youngest child of W.A. Clark (1839-1925), copper magnate, former member of the U.S. Senate (whom the New York Times called "a scoundrel" in her obituary) and philanthropist who bequeathed paintings, rooms, and lots of money to the Corcoran for which thousands of Corcoran fans will be forever grateful. (Note to the National Gallery of Art:  Please keep all.)

On March 1, 2014 Ms. Clark's name was mentioned again in the Washington Post in another long story about the Corcoran's future and the $10 million gift from Ms. Clark's estate to help keep the Corcoran going, for now.

The book never really says why hyoo-GETT (the pronunciation; born in Paris) resisted public exposure which may be because no one knows.

The best parts of the book are the vignettes which pop up every few pages, especially closer to the beginning, written in first person by Ms. Clark's cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., who communicated with her every so often, or rather, she communicated with him by phone, calling him and never leaving a personal telephone number.  (Most...most?  Not most, but all contacted her via her attorney which is another story.)

If you've heard that she owned huge mansions in New York, Connecticut, and California which she never visited for decades and paid staff to maintain them all, and in the case of the Connecticut house, bought it in the 1950s partly as protection from the Russians in case they stormed New York (hmmmm), an estate she never occupied, you heard right.

If you've heard Ms. Clark spent the last 20 years of her life in a hospital, you heard right.  (No worries about grocery shopping, dry cleaning, companionship, housekeeping, bill paying, taking out the dog, preparing meals, etc. since...) 

If you've heard that Ms. Clark gave her hospital nursemaid $31 million you heard right.  (It was not all in one lump sum, the tax man cometh,  but spread over 20 years, for spending on the nurse's family's upkeep, this and that, roof repairs, college educations of children, new cars, tires, a spring bouquet.  How about a trip or two?  You need a house?  A new one? You know how bills mount up.)

But it wasn't only the hospital nursemaid who came whining to Ms. Clark for handouts, but hospital doctors, nurses, attorneys, accountants, friends of friends who were about as bad, and she rewarded most of them. 

Beth Israel Hospital got mad when staff learned she was only going to leave the hospital $1 million and immediately sentenced her to a room without a view. (The estate is suing the medical center for $100 million.  You go, Estate!)

When some of Ms. Clark's jewelry worth in the millions and stored in "securities" at Citibank went missing in 1991, "Whoops!" said Citibank "Can't find it! But we can call in Lloyd's of London if you must have the appraised value, darling, which will mean press, lots of press, and is that something you really want?" She accepted a reduced value of $3 million.

And then that bank went and did it again, in 1994, when one bank department forgot to pay her safety deposit box fee to another bank department and "Whoops!  So sorry we couldn't find you.  Owner? What owner? We called the locksmith and broke that lock on that box and sold everything in it.  To make it up to you, we'll give you 35 cents for every dollar of your value, how's that?"

What did she do for fun? 

She did paint and collect original dolls and ordered the construction of meticulously crafted Japanese doll houses and castles over decades for which she paid thousands of dollars.  (Where are they now? The book says the nursemaid got them, however, after Empty Mansions was published, Mr. Dedman, the author, reported for NBC News on January 30, 2014 that the Bellosguardo Foundation, the recipient of her $85 million Santa Barbara, California estate, will get them ($1.7 million value). Many of her art works, priced in the millions of dollars, are presently on world tour (skipping a stop in Washington, not enough money here, I suppose, but then Moscow was bypassed, too.  Maybe, not such a good time to stop in Moscow) culminating in auctions at Christie's in May and June.  Get your number.)

You will be surprised to learn that when Ms. Clark died in 2011 relatives came calling, most of whom had had no contact with her for decades, if they had ever met her. "Why Cousin Cosette, fancy meeting you here at the grave site."  "If your last name is Clark, please get in line." (The estate battle is being fought in the courts in New York.)

The book is well researched, but its biggest downfall is a dearth of pictures. I was so frustrated when this and that painting would be mentioned, and there would be no picture. Alas! I have never known such consternation when reading a book which boasts 70 graphics which are at least 70 too few. You would think copyright holders would be pleased to share their images to boost traffic, but perhaps, that was not the case.  Anyway, the writing style borders on encyclopedic which is adequate since it is facts I want, author, not concocted fictional conversations, thank you very much.

As the authors say, Ms. Clark (who called herself Mrs. Clark; different generation; you have to read the book) never used her money to treat anyone in an ill manner. She gave handsomely to the Girl and Boy Scouts, among many other non-profit organizations.  In her sister's memory her parents donated 135 acres they bought 40 miles north of New York City to establish the first national Girl Scout camp which is still open today, Camp Andree Clark.

Ms. Clark maintained her lucidity throughout her life and appeared to know exactly what she was doing.

The book's title and cover are par excellence.  Of course, being without Huguette's purse, I did not buy the book:  I got on the waiting list at my favorite public library:  Fairfax County.  It pays.

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