The ‘empty mansions’ of Huguette Clark: Luxury and mystery of an era past

Posted On Mon, September 19, 2016 By

Posted On Mon, September 19, 2016 By In Features, Historic Homes, History, People

Photo courtesy of Emptymansionsbook.com.

Reclusive copper heiress Huguette M. Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104; in the years preceding and after her demise, obsessive followers of her story puzzled over her decision to remain in a small hospital room for the last 20 years of her life after having rarely left her apartment in the decades before. In this day of heiresses who run fashion companies and give house tours, Huguette Clark’s wealth and her retreat from the public eye—despite being by all accounts entirely lucid—have made her the target of endless fascination. But almost as fascinating are the storybook-grand properties that still stand as remnants of a gilded age long past and what remains of one of its biggest fortunes, barely touched and preserved as if in aspic until their recent acquisition by a new generation of magnates and heirs.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia Huguette with her father, W.A. Clark. Photo courtesy of Emptymansionsbook.com.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia Huguette Clark was trained on the violin, and at one point owned three instruments by Stradivari. Photo courtesy of Emptymansionsbook.com.

The many objects of said fascination have included Clark’s sprawling country estates and beyond-palatial Fifth Avenue co-ops that were carefully maintained but uninhabited, her prolific doll and art collecting, her generous gifts to caregivers and family friends, and, after she died, the highly-contested fortune of around $300 million that she left behind.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune,” the best-selling book by NBC reporter Bill Dedman and Clark cousin Paul Clark Newell Jr., published in 2013, has been praised as a roadmap of sorts to the life of this mysterious woman who checked herself into a hospital in 1991 for operable skin cancer, then simply refused to leave. The book fills in a number of blank spots for anyone not familiar with her background as the daughter of copper magnate, Las Vegas land baron and United States senator William Andrews Clark. A feature film based on the book is also in the works—the story was optioned by Ryan Murphy, creator of “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” Photos from the “Empty Mansionswebsite offer a mesmerizing behind-the-door view of Huguette Clark’s left-behind life and homes.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia Huguette and her husband William Gower soon after their wedding in 1928. Photo: International Feature Service from Emptymansionsbook.com.

In her nearly-105 years, Clark had held a ticket for the second voyage of the Titanic, and she was in NYC on 9/11 when the twin towers fell. She was briefly married in 1928, then divorced a year later; she reportedly had an active—even high-profile—social life through most of the mid-20th century. Some say Clark suffered a nervous breakdown following an FBI interrogation regarding her ties to Japan after WWII. Clark was enamored of Japanese culture and had been an avid collector of Japanese artifacts. Her mother’s death in 1963 sent her further into seclusion.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection 907 Fifth Avenue. Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

According to Meryl Gordon’s 2014 biography, “The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark,” she was frequently described as a savvy, intelligent and worldly woman, though fearful of leaving the safety of her home. Her fondness for television and even early video games is frequently mentioned. The book quotes an employee of Clark’s as saying, “She was supposed to be unworldly…but she had so much more knowledge of the real world than people gave her credit for.”

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, The master bedroom of Le Beau Château, Huguette Clark’’s country retreat on 52 acres in New Canaan, CT. Photo:J ohn Makely. Collection of Bill Dedman from Emptymansionsbook.com.

Clark bought a 15,000-square-foot New Canaan, Connecticut mansion in 1951 to serve as a Cold War refuge in the event of a nuclear attack. The property, which boasts 22 rooms, nine baths, 11 fireplaces, a wine cellar, and an elevator, stood empty for more than 60 years. After her death it was bought by designer Reed Krakoff and his wife, Delphine (who also own the $50 million Hamptons estate where Jackie O spent her childhood summers).

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia From 907 Fifth Avenue. Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia 907 Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Photo: John Makely, collection of Bill Dedman, Emptymansionsbook.com.

In New York City, Clark owned three Central Park-adjacent apartments comprising an entire floor and a half in the Upper East Side classic co-op 907 Fifth Avenue, where she lived until her hospitalization, after which the apartments remained vacant for 20 years. The apartments sold separately for a total of over $54 million to various Wall Street titans.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection Japanese doll house in Huguette Clark’s apartments at 907 Fifth Avenue. Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection Collection of doll furniture in Huguette Clark’s apartments at 907 Fifth Avenue. Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

Collecting dolls, dollhouses and miniature furniture was among Clark’s favorite pastimes. She would regularly win these at auctions, then have caretakers organize and display them in a pristine and orderly fashion in her palatial rooms and suites, though she would mostly never see them except in photographs. Images from the book and website reveal row upon row of miniature houses and furniture, arranged by type as if in a tiny showroom. She had a penchant for intricately-constructed Japanese doll houses, some with tiny figures inhabiting the rooms.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia A bedroom at 907 Fifith Avenue. Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

Clark was a lifelong musician and artist and an avid collector of both music and art. A Degas painting was stolen from one of her Fifth Avenue apartments in the late 1980s, shortly after the heiress was hospitalized. She also owned a rare 1709 violin made by Antonio Stradivari and an 1882 Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting, “In the Roses,” both of which were quietly sold during her years in the hospital.

Huguette Clark, Bellosguardo, Empty Mansions, Heiress, Bill Dedman, Chrysler Royal Eight converitible A 1933 Chrysler Royal Eight convertible still kept in the carriage house at Bellosguardo. Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

Huguette Clark, Bellosguardo, Empty Mansions, Heiress, Bill Dedman, Chrysler Royal Eight converitible, 1933 Cadillac V-16 seven-passenger limousine A 1933 Cadillac V-16 seven-passenger limousine remains inside the garage at Bellosguardo. Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

Among the more fascinating photos revealed in “Empty Mansions” are those from a carriage house adjacent her family’s Santa Barbara retreat, Bellosguardo, where a 1933 Chrysler Royal Eight convertible and a 1933 Cadillac V-16 seven-passenger limousine, both with 1949 California plates, are being stored.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia Floor plans of Huguette Clark’s three co-op units at 907 Fifth Avenue, totaling over 15,000 square feet.

Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions, Bill Dedman, Gilded Age, Heiress, Connecticut, 907 Fifth Avenue, dollhouse, doll collection, 1930s, memorabilia Early selfie: In her middle years, Clark liked to take “self portraits” of herself at home; here, in her Fifth Avenue apartment. Photo: Estate of Huguette Clark from Emptymansionsbook.com.

It might be worth noting that, though today’s over-the-top luxury items and reasons for investing princely sums in NYC real estate may have changed from the days when Huguette Clark was born to millions, a Saudi prince’s Trump Plaza triplex, on the market for $40 million, contains three bullet-proof panic rooms—and security in shaky economies. The last point frequently given as the reason for top-ticket buys by foreign billionaires.

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