Empty Mansions

Empty Mansions

Bill Dedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune gave a fascinating lecture on this shy, reclusive heiress. The daughter of one of the richest men in America, W.A. Clark who made a fortune from copper mining, was born in Paris in 1906. In 1925, she graduated from Spence, was a debutante, and was married briefly for 2 years. She was an artist, patron and collector. She loved collecting antique French dolls and doll houses, and was fascinated by Japanese history. An accomplished and talented painter, she sometimes incorporated Japanese themes in her work. Bill showed us slides of her beautiful paintings—one was an ethereal scene of a beautiful Japanese woman walking in the snow.

Huguette was the owner of mansions located in New York, Connecticut and Santa Barbara, California. The latter estate, named Bellosguardo, is a 20,000 square foot French mansion on 23 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  When she was no longer living in her estates, Huguette still wanted everything to be very well-maintained. “Keep everything the same and everything in first-class condition,” were her instructions. As a result, all the furnishings and decorations have remained the same for 60 years. Bill showed us beautiful slides of some of the mansions, filled with French furniture, porcelain, parquet floors, intricately carved wall panelings and porcelain. Even the garage at Bellosguardo had chandeliers.

When she was in her eighties, she went into the hospital for surgery on some facial cancers. She felt safe there and wanted to stay. She effectively set up assisted living in the hospital with full-time, round-the-clock private nurses. She lived there for 20 years, and died 2 weeks before her 105th birthday. Huguette was extremely generous with people who worked for her and gave $31 million to one of her nurses who took care of her for 12 hours every day for 20 years.

Paul Newell, who was Huguette’s cousin and who co-wrote Empty Mansions with Bill, contacted her representatives while she was in the hospital. Huguette subsequently started to call him and maintained a warm relationship with him. Bill played an audio recording of one of her conversations with Paul. She was very charming, and said with a trace of a French accent how she found photos of his grandchildren to be just adorable. One can hear more of her telephone conversations in the audio version of the book.

In conclusion, Bill found that Huguette, “wasn’t sad in the least. She had some phobias and issues that she found a way to manage.” She still wrote to her ex-husband even 30 years after her marriage ended. Bill commented, “I was surprised that she was such a maintainer of relationships. I liked her very much, and was pleased that she was so competent and not crazy.” Bill thought her generosity was also an endearing trait.

Huguette left Bellosguardo to a foundation whose mission it is to promote the arts. A group of people who want to preserve the mansion have approached the Friends of Robinson Gardens as a model for advice. Lecture attendees were served a delicious lunch on tables beautifully decorated by Jeanne Anderson and Marian Power with pink and white camelias floating in shallow bowls.

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