Empty Mansions

By Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.

As the rock star David Lee Roth once quipped, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it.”

What he meant by this, I think, is that money gives one the freedom to live one’s life in the way one wants, and thus provides a kind of privileged access to happiness that people without money don’t have. In the case of Huguette Clark, daughter of a mega-rich Gilded Age plutocrat (it was a mining fortune, copper mainly), money bought the freedom to be an eccentric recluse. In the latter part of her life – and it was a long life, as she died in 2011 just short of her 105th birthday – she remained a healthy invalid living in a hospital room, playing with dolls and watching cartoons while maintaining (at vast expense) luxurious apartments and spectacular mansions that she never set foot in.

She lived like this for twenty some years.

Was she happy? It seems so. She had, in any event, “lived life as she wanted, always on her own terms.”

Was she crazy? A bit. There was something obsessively immature about her “peculiar” obsessions, like worrying that her dolls would bang their heads on improperly scaled custom-built doll houses, or asking for complete written transcripts of Flintstones episodes. And she was definitely paranoid, seeming to live her entire life in fear of revolutionaries, terrorists, and other people in general.

For some reason she thought other people were only interested in her money. In order to avoid people who were only interested in her money she surrounded herself with a regular gang of obsequious flunkies who were only interested in her money.

I’m not sure if she appreciated the irony in this. From the evidence, I think not.

When she died there was, naturally, a fight over the will. She hadn’t been in close touch with any of her (what were now distant) family members for nearly fifty years. Nevertheless, given the oddity of her final days, eyebrows had to be raised at the amount of money she had given away to her various handlers. One suspects that there were objections to her lawyer and accountant and (most of all) her nurse being left so much loot not because of their mercenary motives but on the basis, as John Travolta’s character put it in Pulp Fiction, of “general principle.” We feel people who are in a position of trust should not make out like gangsters for just doing their job.

But be that as it may, it does seem to be what “Madame” wanted.

Was she generous? I wouldn’t use that word. She was no miser (that’s a different pathology), but the money she gave away was a form of control. To be sure there was an element of mutual manipulation, but that’s typical of all such relationships. And underlying her giving was a deeper fantasy: the idea that money could fix everything, even fix the world. Hence the building of all those precise dollhouses. And those empty mansions, which were kept as dollhouses too, so perfect that to actually live in them, even for a night, would be to spoil them in some way.

It seems a pretty safe bet that Huguette, whose one marriage was over before it got started, died a virgin.

Authors Dedman and Newell (the latter a distant relative of Huguette’s) have conducted a thorough examination into Huguette’s hidden life, and written an interesting account that is gentle and generous in its judgments. Overly generous, I would say. Take, for example, what they make out of this description of Huguette’s “favorite novel”:

The Hidden Flower, published in 1952, describes a forbidden love between an American serviceman and a young Japanese American woman living in postwar Japan. The woman, Josui, was born in the United States but returned to her ancestral home rather than submit to a life behind barbed wire in the Japanese American internment camps established during World War II. Now, however, Josui finds herself feeling as out of place in Japan as she did in America. Hers is a story of beauty and pain, of a woman’s quiet, dignified courage as she attempts to move from one culture to another – not unlike Huguette’s own story.

Huh? How is Josui’s story anything remotely like Huguette’s life? When did Huguette suffer such culture shock? Or indeed suffer anything?

This sympathy extended Huguette in the book’s epilogue goes even further in this vein:

Huguette Clark lived a surprisingly rich life of love and loss, of creativity and quiet charity, or art and imagination. Though the platitude – money can’t buy happiness – may be comforting to those who are less than well heeled, great wealth doesn’t ensure sadness either.
Huguette suffered sorrows, yes, as happens when one lives more than a century – long enough to narrowly escape both the Titanic’s sinking and the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. She suffered the death of her dear sister, Andrée, and then of her father, W. A., and her mother Anna. She persevered through divorce, cancer, mendacity. She lost her Degas ballerina, her mother’s jewelry, her privacy.

I find all of this absurd. The only thing surprising about Huguette’s life was how profoundly impoverished it was given her fantastic wealth and all of her advantages at birth. She did not “narrowly escape” the sinking of the Titanic (she had booked a place on its return cruise to Europe, which in the event never happened) or the collapse of the twin towers (she was living a few miles away at the time, which would make for a lot of lucky “survivors” if we want to use that reckoning). Her life was remarkably free of tragedy, personal suffering, or even unhappiness aside from the death of her sister of meningitis at the age of 17 (not an unheard of event, before penicillin). Both her mother and father lived into their eighties and enjoyed good health and success beyond most people’s dreams. What Huguette “suffered” in losing them was no more, and I would argue considerably less, than what everyone else has to face when their parents die. She didn’t have much to “persevere” through in either her quickie marriage or its even quicker divorce (in Las Vegas). Her cancer was easily treated and was only a problem because she had chosen to live as a recluse and had stupidly let it advance to a point where it was becoming a life-threatening condition. Anyone who lives to over 100 is going to get cancer. The “mendacity” she had to endure was no more than anyone has to deal with in life, and in any event she brought most of it on herself by surrounding herself with courtiers. She only found out about “losing” her Degas ballerina because someone told her it had been stolen. She lost her mother’s jewelry due to a similar indifference to its existence in a safety deposit box she never maintained proper registration of. And finally her privacy was only slightly interrupted throughout her long life. Nobody can achieve total seclusion from the world and everyone in it.

Much of the rest of the epilogue is taken up with asserting that Huguette had many warm, faithful, loving, lifelong friends. Evidence for this is in the number of letters she wrote and received, and the amount of money she gave away.

I remain entirely unconvinced. It seems perfectly clear, at least to me, that Huguette had no friends. She wanted people to take care of her, but beyond that she seems not to have had any use for others at all. She would call people occasionally on the phone, but was adamant that no one ever call her. She would write and receive letters, but didn’t want anyone to know where she lived. Again we have the sense of someone determined to stay in complete control of her life, which meant only accepting relations with others who would know their place.

What a waste. The waste of all those empty homes being kept up. The waste of all that great artwork hidden away and never seen. The waste of human and institutional resources spent indulging the whims of a spoiled adult child. And the waste of a life that showed some early promise of achieving something going on to spend nearly half a century locked in a cocoon of juvenile daydreams.

For Dedman and Newell this all adds up to a personal discovery of “what life may be, a life of integrity.” Which is true only if you believe in setting the bar cripplingly low. For Huguette’s motto they suggest the final line from the poem “The Cricket”: “To live happily, live hidden.” But the cricket in that poem lives hidden because it lives in fear of being attacked and torn to pieces by a mob. Is that happiness?

Of course, the rejoinder to all of this is to say that it was her money and her life to waste, so who can judge her? And after all, she wasn’t hurting anyone.

Money corrupts, but it corrupts in many different ways. In Huguette’s case corruption took a particularly bizarre form. Neither tragic nor pathetic, her life was defined by emptiness. Her story is interesting, but there is nothing in it to either feel sad about or celebrate.

Review first published online September 23, 2013.

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