Kaiser’s Take: I was the one to choose Empty Mansions for our Celebitchy Book Club this month, and I sort of regret that choice. I thought it was going to be an epic story of wealth and jewelry and living an extreme life over the course of a century. That’s not what it was, though. It was the bizarre story of a woman named Huguette Clark, a woman who was the youngest child in a fabulously wealthy family, who spent her entire life never wanting for anything financially, but who basically did nothing with it.
Well… “nothing” is a bit strong. She inherited or bought and maintained luxurious mansions, estates and luxury apartments, she spent a crazy amount of money on art and dolls and her little “projects,” and then in her last decades, she gave millions of dollars to one of her nurses. I guess I was expecting Clark to have at least a few years where she vacationed extravagantly or had a major jewelry-buying binge (something, please!). When you hear stuff like “one of the great American fortunes” and “one of the richest heiresses ever,” you expect a story rich in fantastic spending sprees, something to enjoy vicariously as you imagine what YOU would do with that kind of money. And therein lays one of the big problems with the story of Huguette Clark.
First, some backstory… and the book includes a lot of backstory on the Clark family. Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, was once one the richest men in America, and it was all self-made in his case. He ran an empire of silver and copper mines in the West, and Huguette was his youngest child, the second child of his second marriage, born when her half-siblings from her father’s first marriage were well into adulthood. W.A. Clark was an intriguing figure in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, and when he died… well, his kids divvied up his fortune, per his instructions. Huguette got her fair share. That was, like, 1925. The Roaring Twenties! It should have been exciting. But from there, the story of Huguette Clark pretty much stays the same.
She marries briefly but quickly gets a divorce. She has a handful of close friends, many of whom receive money from her over the years. She lives in NYC, and while her mother is alive, she travels to their California estate every so often. But basically, for the last half of her life, she rarely travels out of NYC. She lived alone for decades, collecting dolls and having specially designed dollhouses made. She was obsessed with cartoons. She loved Impressionist painters, and she painted for a time as well.
Now, was she just a solitary figure, happy being by herself? Was she afraid that one day, the revolution would come and all of the rich people would be taken away? Was she autistic? I was halfway through the book when I began to think she was a high-functioning autistic. And after I finished the book… yeah, I still kind of think that. The last part of the book is kind of rough. I think the authors were afraid of being sued so they tried to play devil’s advocate over every single little thing, but it seems pretty clear that the hospital was treating Huguette poorly and that her nurse, business manager and lawyer were into some really shady crap.
I chose this book after seeing it included on a lot of “Best Books of 2013” lists, with everyone talking about how it was this crazy story of fortune and loss and weirdness… but mostly it’s just depressing. You can’t even really enjoy Huguette’s spending vicariously because she just seems like such a strange, eccentric woman. I felt bad for her.
Bedhead’s Take: I think this is the first book club selection that I came off questioning as a whole. The authors seemed to lose track of their assumed objective: to tell us more about the hidden world of Hugette Clark. Perhaps Kaiser has correctly guessed that the writers feared legal repercussions, but the non-revelations of the story were a letdown. The book starts by outlining the basic mystery and covers a lot of fact-based territory but doesn’t teach us anything new about the actual mystery. From the very beginning, we are told that Hugette was an eccentric lady who retreated into solititude for most of her life. We also already know that she was surrounded by a small circle of legal and financial advisors as well as paid help, and somehow, she ended up leaving a whole lot of money to these people instead of what her original will dictated.
By the end of the Empty Mansions, we learn nothing new about how this happened. Instead, we merely receive a bunch of unnecessary history about mining that caused my mind to wander. I did skim much of this middle material because …. where was Hugette? By the time the authors got back to her, I was pretty excited to finally learn some new stuff about the mystery. Alas, that did not happen. The authors merely let us know that Hugette wrote a bunch of checks, the hospital got pissy that she didn’t donate enough money, and she never ventured outside except on one car ride where she wore a blindfold. So I get it, Hugette was a hermit, and she gave a lot of money away. The reader is left with a ton of footnotes and no feeling of resolution.
Celebitchy’s Take: This book had a lot of potential, but just got lost in the details. I co-sign Kaiser and Bedhead’s opinions that Empty Mansions did not live up to the hype. This was an incredible story, on the surface, that Dedman and Newell somehow managed to make boring. At the beginning of the book, they promised not to editorialize and it was very much to the story’s detriment. They wrote “We have invented no characters, imagined no dialogue, put no thoughts in anyone’s head.” What was left were entire passages describing photos and paintings, long excerpts of letters, and dry depictions of amazing circumstances and outlandish, bizarre spending. All of this warranted a breathless retelling, a raised eyebrow, something to indicate that it was as shocking and outlandish as it seemed. I kept waiting for something to happen, but even when it did there was no payoff.
This could have been a fascinating book about a reclusive centenarian with bizarre hobbies, taken advantage of by her greedy, entitled nurse, the hospital where she stayed for decades, and her lawyers. Empty Mansions was an account of Huguette’s life story that got bogged down in details and didn’t do it justice.
At the end of the book, Huguette Clark’s will was still being contested and her $308 million estate had not yet been divided. Just last week, the estate was settled. Huguette’s relatives, the great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren from her father’s first marriage, will receive $34.5 million. The estate will pay their taxes and all legal fees. Huguette had deliberately excluded all her relatives from her will and had left $30 million to her nurse, Hadassah Peri, who had already received $31 million in gift checks from Huguette. Under the settlement, Peri receives no additional money and was ordered to repay $5 million to the estate. The estate also establishes an arts foundation that will control Bellosguardo, the $108 million family mansion in Santa Barbara that Huguette had not visited in over 50 years but insisted be kept the same as she remembered it, down to the placement of the furniture. It should be opened to the public at some point.
The next selection for the Celebitchy Book Club is the new John Grisham novel, Sycamore Row. It involves some of the same characters as A Time To Kill, but you don’t need to know the back story to enjoy this novel. Plus, Grisham books are always easy to get through! We’ll be discussing the book on March 15th (we’re giving everyone an extra week because we don’t want it to bump up against the Oscars!).