On May 24, 2011 Huguette Clark died in the New York hospital rooms where she’d lived for 20 years, often under the name Harriet Chase. She was 104.
She left behind musuems of her age, vast homes dripping in oppulence and exquisite taste; mansions she had had maintained but not set foot in for decades.
Clark had not stepped inside any of her sprawling homes for years: the 42-room apartment on Fifth Avenue; a 23-acre property, with a 21,666-square-foot French mansion high on a mesa above Santa Barbara’s East Beach; and a country manor in New Canaan, Conn. The places were well maintained thoughout her period of self-imposed exile, when she was hermitcally sealed in the medical centres.
She had all she needed in her quarters at the Beth Israel Medical Center. She was cared for by a myriad staff and surrounded by her collection of unsettling fine china dolls. She was cared for. Others looked after her fortune.
Born on June 9, 1906, in Paris, France, Huguette Marcelle Clark was a daughter of William Andrews Clark, a man with an American story of his own. Born in 1839 to a dirt pooor Pennsylvania family, the young man had journeyed to the Montana Territory, where he mined. And sometime in the 1870s, he struck copper. His fortune was made.
Back then Montana was another country:
The discovery of gold brought many prospectors into the area in the 1860’s, and Montana became a territory in 1864. The rapid influx of people led to boomtowns that grew rapidly and declined just as quickly when the gold ran out.
As more and more white people came into the area, Indians lost access to their traditional hunting grounds and conflicts grew. The Sioux and Cheyenne were victorious in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce won a battle in the Big Hole Basin (1877). Yet, in the end, the Indians could not hold out against the strength of the United States army.
Miners weren’t the only early settlers in Montana. Cattle ranches began flourishing in western valleys during the 1860’s as demand for beef in the new mining communities increased. After 1870 open-range cattle operations spread across the high plains, taking advantage of the free public-domain land.
During the 1880’s railroads crossed Montana, and the territory became a state in 1889.
He then set about securing political influence. As the New York Times tells it:
In the late 1890s, desiring a Senate seat, Mr. Clark went out and bought one, at least temporarily. By this time Montana was a state; under the United States Constitution, senators of the period were elected by their state legislatures. Mr. Clark, a Democrat, was reported to have loosed a cataract of thousand-dollar bills on the Montana statehouse, to no small effect. He took up his Senate seat in December 1899.
He vacated the seat in May 1900 as the Senate weighed a resolution to void his election. Later returned to office by the legislature, he served one term, from 1901 to 1907.
By this time, Senator Clark was one of the richest men in America. In 1907, The New York Times estimated his fortune at $150 million — roughly $3 billion today. Besides copper, his interests included railroads, real estate, lumber, banking, cattle, sugar beets and gold.
He was a man of obvious tastes. After all, he was one of the founders of Las Vegas, delivering people and commerce when he chose the town as the intersection for two of his railroads.
His first wife bore five children, four of whom lived to adulthood. After her death in 1893, he took up with his teenage ward, Anna La Chapelle
They apparently married in 1901 and had two daughters, Andrée, born in 1902, and Huguette, born in Paris on June 9, 1906.
At Huguette’s birth, her mother was 28, her father 67.
Montana was never going to be enough for Clark, and the family moved to New York, where he built a 121-room (31 batchrooms; four art galleries; just one theater) bijou home at 962 Fifth Avenue and 77th Street.
In 1919, Andrée Clark, Huguette’s sister, died of meningitis at 16; by all accounts her death shook Huguette deeply.
Senator Clark died in 1925; many of the masterworks he owned now make up the William A. Clark Collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.
Huguette graduated from Miss Spence’s School (now the Spence School) in Manhattan and was introduced to society in 1926. Not long after her father’s death, she and her mother moved to an elegant apartment building at 907 Fifth Avenue, at 72nd Street.
Her dolls came, too:
And her fabulous jewels:
Upon his death, Huguette inherited one fifth of her father’s fortune.
Little Huguette was quite a catch:
In 1928, at 22, she married William MacDonald Gower, the son of a business associate of her father’s. The union lasted nine months: she charged desertion; he maintained the marriage was unconsummated, according to a 1941 biography of the family, “The Clarks, an American Phenomenon,” by William D. Mangam.
The couple were formally divorced in 1930; she chose to be known afterward as Mrs. Huguette Clark.
By the late 1930s, Mrs. Clark was living with her mother at 907 Fifth Avenue. She painted and posed:
When Huguette inherited Bellosguardo from her mother in 1963, she gave the staff two instructions: Everything was to be kept in “first-class condition,” and nothing was to change. Time stood still.
For the quarter-century that followed, Mrs. Clark lived in the apartment in near solitude, amid a profusion of dollhouses and their occupants. She ate austere lunches of crackers and sardines and watched television, most avidly “The Flintstones.” A housekeeper kept the dolls’ dresses impeccably ironed.
And one day she went to hospital. She’s wasn’t ill.
Up close, Bellosguardo appears to be in pristine condition. The only residents during these decades have been the estate manager, his dogs, and a tame family of foxes. As we arrive, a fox is at work by the reflecting pool and the grove of 80-year-old orange trees, hunting in the sun for lizards.
Inside the great house, there is a touch of the eccentric: In Huguette’s dressing room, the covered chairs come in two sizes: full-sized ones for adults, and tiny, half-height chairs for her collection of French and Japanese dolls.
And out in the whitewashed carriage house, automobiles sit unused: a 1933 Chrysler Royal Eight convertible and an enormous black 1933 Cadillac seven-passenger limousine, both with California plates dated 1949.
You can read the fascinating story in Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.
Now it’s time to look around. Many of the photots (the black and white picures) are from 1940:
Bellosguardo, Santa Barbara
Huguette’s Fifth Avenue Apartment
Le Beau Château, Connecticut
After her death, the lots were auctioned. NPR radio reported in 2014:
About the book:
“Empty Mansions” is a mystery of wealth and loss — and a secretive heiress named Huguette Clark. Though she owned palatial homes in New Canaan, Connecticut, and Santa Barbara, and three apartmnents totaling 42 rooms on Fifth Avenue, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Empty Mansions unravels the story of her remarkable family, from the father, W.A. Clark, the copper king, founder of Las Vegas, and controversial U.S. senator, to his daughter, the generous artist who held a ticket on the Titanic and was still living in New York City on 9/11. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Bill Dedman, who discovered Huguette’s story for NBC News, has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have conversations with her. Dedman stumbled onto the story when he noticed Huguette’s New Canaan mansion for sale for $25 million, though it had been unfurnished since she bought it in 1951.
It’s living history from the Age of Innocence and experince.
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