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- Empty Mansions
Huguette attended the coronation of King George V. And at twenty-two with a personal fortune of $50 million to her name, she married a Princeton man and childhood friend William MacDonald Gower. Two-years later the couple divorced. After a series of failed romances, Huguette began to withdraw from society--first living with her mother in a kind of Grey Gardens isolation then as a modern-day Miss Havisham, spending her days in a vast apartment overlooking Central Park, eating crackers and watching The Flintstones with only servants for company.
All her money and all her real estate could not protect her in her later life from being manipulated by shady hangers-on and hospitals that were only too happy to admit (and bill) a healthy woman. But what happened to Huguette that turned a vivacious, young socialite into a recluse? And what was her life like inside that gilded, copper cage?
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-04-21
- Reviewer: Staff
Bestselling author Gordon (Mrs. Astor Regrets) takes on another heiress, the notorious recluse Huguette Clark, as the subject of her latest investigation into the world of New York's wealthiest. Clark was the youngest daughter of Montana robber baron William Andrews Clark, who made his fortune in copper and drew decades of media frenzy for his cash-fueled Senatorial races, fondness for fine art, and gaudy Fifth Avenue mansion. Meticulously researched, Gordon's account catalogues every juicy detail and eccentricity amassed over a century: Clark's years at the elite Spence School, under the Miss Spence; her painting lessons and prolonged flirtation with the famed Dutch portrait painter Tade Styke; her refusal, in the wake of her mother's death, to step outside of her Fifth Avenue apartments for just shy of two decades. Most headline-worthy of all were Clark's final years, spent (despite her net worth and supposed good health), in shabby Beth Israel Hospital quarters, avoiding her descendants and bestowing millions on her nurses, doctors, lawyer and accountant. Unsurprisingly, a massive money-grab unfolded in the wake of her death. But did Clark have diagnosable neuroses? Did she sit in her lonely rooms daydreaming about sex, family, fresh air, and every other characteristic of the normal life she denied herself? Readers who salivated over headlines like "Poor Little Rich Girl's Sad Life" (Courier-Mail) and "America's Antisocial Socialite" (Scottish Express) will be left wanting more. Yet this very unwillingness to speculate—Gordon's strict adherence to primary documents and witness interviews—makes for a rigorous, authoritative account of a 20th century enigma. (June)
A portrait of the Miss Havisham of the Upper East Side
In the middle of her otherwise fascinating story about reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, Meryl Gordon’s narrative suddenly flattens. The daily details of Clark’s life during this long period of seclusion are assembled from wan notes to almost-lost relatives, bank statements and legal correspondence, and the memories of the few close friends who received cards and phone calls—but never visits—from Mrs. Clark.
This flattening of narrative occurs because the subject of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue—the youngest daughter from the scandalous second marriage of robber baron William Andrews Clark—had almost succeeded in her desire to disappear. The last published photo of her was taken in 1928 during the honeymoon of her brief, ill-fated marriage. Some longtime members of the household staff in her 42-room apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue had rarely if ever seen her.
A clearer picture of Clark emerges after she was admitted to Doctor’s Hospital for treatment of advanced skin cancer in 1991, when she was 84 years old. After multiple surgeries, she was successfully treated, but the eccentric Clark negotiated to stay in the hospital and hire private nurses for around-the-clock care and companionship. This set off an unseemly “cash crusade” at the hospital. Over the next 20 years, one of those nurses, who worked 12-hour shifts 365 days a year, would receive from the always generous Clark roughly $31 million, in addition to houses, cars and jewelry. The nurse, who had a genuine if manipulative relationship with her patient, stood to inherit even more when Clark, who resisted acknowledging her own mortality, was finally convinced to update her 75-year-old will.
After Clark’s death, a nasty battle over her $300 million fortune was launched by descendants of her half-brothers and half-sisters, the side of the family she felt had grievously mistreated her mother. This very public dispute led to a cartoonish portrayal of Clark in the media. Extreme wealth and extreme eccentricity do sell, after all.
Through her assiduous research—she conducted more than 100 interviews and plowed through boxes of documents seized during the court battle—and canny analysis, Gordon gives us, yes, Clark’s perplexing eccentricities and the ins and outs of the fight between family members and loyal-but-incompetent friends and helpers. But The Phantom of Fifth Avenue also offers a believable, sympathetic portrait of a vulnerable perfectionist with an artistic temperament, who, as one of Clark’s young helpers would say, was “a very special person from a different epoch.”