Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman’s biography of
Huguette Clark –the reclusive heiress who spent the last decades of her life in a New York City hospital room
— is finally on bookshelves this week.
The tale Dedman tells in the book, “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune,” co-authored by Clark’s cousin Paul Clark Newell Jr., is a fascinating one.
Clark was the daughter of a wealthy copper baron who became a U.S. senator. She lived a life of unimaginable opulence — Fifth Avenue apartments, country estates, a vast collection of art and antiques — but was also deeply private, largely secluding herself from the world, and leaving most of her wealth and real estate holdings untouched.
When she died in 2011 at the age of 104, Clark left a $US300 million inheritance, which has been at the center of an ugly family feud (a trial over Clark’s fortune is scheduled to start this month).
Before Dedman — an investigative reporter for NBC News — started digging into Clark’s past, almost nothing was known of her. She was so secretive that no photos existed of her for decades before her death. So how did Dedman discover Clark’s story?
He stumbled on it completely by accident, while house-hunting with his wife in suburban Connecticut.
He writes in the introduction to “Empty Mansions”:
One evening, frustration turned to distraction. I began to scan the listings for houses we really couldn’t afford, an exercise in American aspiration … The most expensive house for sale in Connecticut, in the tony town of New Canaan, was priced at $US24 million, marked down from $US35 million. Billed as Le Chateau, “the beautiful castle,” this charmer had 14,266 square feet of space tucked into 52 wooded acres with a river and a waterfall.”
A quick look at public records revealed that the property taxes on the estate were $US161,000, and that it hadn’t been occupied since 1951, the year it was purchased. Dedman drove to the house the next day and met the caretaker, who said he hadn’t met Clark in the 20 years he’d worked there. The caretaker asked Dedman: “Do you suppose she’s been dead all these years?”
He dug a little deeper, and found that Clark also had a massive estate in Santa Barbara, and a huge spread on Fifth Ave., neither of which had been touched for decades.
He knew he’d stumbled on a fantastic story.
Here’s a clip of Dedman’s appearance on “The Daily Show”where he tells the story to Jon Stewart:
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