This is Barb Lewis and the book I'm reviewing is called Empty Mansions, The Mysterious Life of Hugette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives ever to have spoken to Hugette Clark.
This true story starts with us learning of Hugette's father, William Andrews (W.A.) Clark, who was born in a log cabin, had nothing and became one of the richest men in America after discovering copper in Montana after the Civil War and also building railroads. He helped found Las Vegas. In 1907 his fortune was estimated at $150 million, roughly $3 billion in today's dollars.
W.A.'s first wife died and he later married Anna La Chapelle. Hugette was born when W.A. was 67 and her mother was 28. W.A. built them what became the largest mansion in New York. It had 121 rooms for a family of 4. That includes 31 bathrooms! Can you imagine? I personally would love to have 2!
I found this story fascinating as I learned more and more of Hugette's life. When first her sister, and then her father died, she and her mother bought a 42 room apartment in NY., an ocean front estate in Santa Barbara, CA and a country manor in CT. After her mother died and she inherited everything, she became very reclusive. She mainly communicated through phone, letters, and sometimes through closed doors. She invested in art, as had her father. She spent massive amounts on dolls and on having doll houses built from her own designs. (I love doll houses so I could understand the fun in this - just not the incredible amount of money!)
Hugette lived alone for many years. She had one main friend. The staff didn't see her. In 1991 she was admitted to a hospital with skin cancer. She hadn't seen a doctor for over 20 years. After she was to be discharged to go home, she refused and said that she wanted to stay. And so she lived in a small hospital room for the last 20 years of her life , very healthy, just taking vitamins! She paid $400,000 a year and wasn't even in the VIP section. She befriended the registered nurse who took care of her with over $31 million in gifts and cash.
She also kept all her homes fully maintained just in case she decided to go home.
Hugette died at 104 in 2011, leaving over $310 million dollars. This woman had a first class Titanic ticket for the second voyage and many, many years later saw 9/11 happen. Just amazing.
As I read this I thought this would make a great movie. And then I discovered the rights have been sold to tell this bizarre story - the story of the female version of Howard Hughes.