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Posted by: James Ramsey on Aug 26, 2019

Journal Issue Date: Sep 2019

Journal Name: Vol 55 No 9

The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from Chattanooga, and Paul Clark Newell Jr. have captured a fascinating, rollicking, often unbelievable, and sometimes troubling rags-to-riches tale of W. A. Clark, one of America’s most successful businessmen in the late 1800s, and the mysterious life of his youngest daughter, Huguette Clark, who died in 2011 at the age of 104. 

W. A. Clark may have been “the most famous American whom most Americans today have never heard of.” At the time, his personal wealth rivaled the Rockefellers. When he died in 1925, Clark’s estate had an estimated worth of $3.4 billion dollars today. Clark’s fortune began in the copper mines of Montana, and included banking and railroad interests. Highlights of his life, well-documented in the book, include:

  • One of 11 children born in a Pennsylvania log cabin;
  • Personally funded a Salt Lake City to Los Angeles railroad, including a supply depot that became Las Vegas, located, not surprisingly, in Clark County;
  • Resigned from a Montana U.S. Senate seat rather than being expelled for election fraud; and ultimately being re-elected, “perhaps honestly” the book notes;
  • After his first wife’s death in 1893, stories of support for young women pursuing artistic careers and a paternity suit;
  • In 1904, a surprise announcement of a secret three-year marriage in Paris to a 23-year-old woman, 39 years younger than Clark, and a two-year-old daughter, Andree. A second daughter, Huguette, was born in 1906. No evidence was found that a marriage had occurred; and
  • Moving his family into a six-story, 121 room mansion he built in Manhattan, likely the country’s most expensive home.

When Clark died, Andree had predeceased him so his estate was inherited by Huguette and her four surviving half-siblings from his first marriage. His wife, Anna, received a small bequest, property from a prenuptial agreement and their beautiful “Bellosguardo” estate situated on 23 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, California.

With W. A. Clark’s death, the book turns its focus to the unusual life of Huguette Clark. Incredibly private, socially shy but intelligent, Huguette lived a life hidden from view of the outside world, studying to be a painter, assembling an impressive collection of art, building an exotic Japanese doll collection, and collecting rare Stradivarius violins.

After her father’s death, Huguette’s marriage to a childhood friend ended not long after the honeymoon. Huguette and Anna lived in separate luxury apartments in the same Fifth Avenue building and also spent many weeks at Bellosguardo. In 1951, Huguette also bought a 52-acre estate in Connecticut with more than 14,000 square feet in living space; however, the house remained unoccupied until it was eventually listed for sale in 2009 at $35 million. Huguette never visited the property.

When Anna died in 1963, Huguette became even more private and reclusive. She inherited Bellosguardo and, because of memories with her mother there, she maintained it exactly as it had been during their stays. Sadly, she never visited again after her mother’s death, a period of more than 50 years.

In 1991, at the age of 85, Huguette sought medical attention in her apartment. The physician who visited found a tiny, frail woman in soiled clothes, suffering from several medical conditions. She was transported to a hospital and recovered to excellent health, but she never returned to her apartment, choosing to live the remaining 20 years of her life in a private hospital room, never leaving for walks, rides or trips.

During her lifetime, Huguette lavished gifts on friends and acquaintances, and even strangers whose stories moved her to action. Those gifts included real estate, cars and cash given to her private nurse valued in excess of $30 million. Her advisors scoured her bank accounts to prepare gift tax returns for millions of dollars of gifts because she did not keep track of them. She also resisted ongoing fundraising efforts by the hospital to bestow it with substantial gifts.

For years, Huguette ignored repeated advice to execute a will that expressed her wishes for the distribution of her property. Then, in 2005, at the age of 99, Huguette signed two wills within months of each other. The first left another $5 million bequest to her private nurse and the remainder to her father’s descendants. The second will established a Bellosguardo Foundation and also made large bequests and remainder gifts to her private nurse, goddaughter, doctor, assistant, caretakers, handyman, lawyer, accountant, and $1 million to Beth Israel Medical Center.

In May 2011, two weeks before her 105th birthday, Huguette died in Beth Israel Medical Center. To no one’s surprise, a $300 million will contest followed with allegations of undue influence and other actionable behavior.

Ultimately settled with the Foundation’s future in jeopardy, the lawyer and accountant relinquishing their bequests, $30 million in attorneys’ fees, and over $100 million in gift and estate taxes and  penalties, the will contest was just the final cautionary tale so adeptly told in Empty Mansions.

The authors brought to life a riveting story of extravagant lifestyles, social status, and eccentric lives but also suggested “the Clarks may teach us something about the price of privacy, the costs and opportunities of great wealth, the aftermath of achieving the American dream.”

Don’t miss this story. As Mark Twain once noted, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Empty Mansions is a prime example.

JIM RAMSEY is a principal in the Nashville office of Diversified Trust Company Inc., a wealth advisory, investment management and estates and trust services firm. He is a gradute of Vanderbilt Law School. Diversified Trust recently hosted an event with Bill Dedman discussing his book and the lives of W. A. Clark and Huguette Clark.