Empty Mansions book has important story to tell
In this extended version of the Montana Magazine story about the New York Times best selling novel “Empty Mansions,” Montana Magazine book reviewer Doug Mitchell tells the story of his connection to the mysterious story of Huguette Clark.
He also asked author Bill Dedman a set of questions about the fascinating book.BY DOUG MITCHELL
It really is quite incredible how a book can gather together the separate strings of our daily lives and tie them into a nice, neat bow. Empty Mansions did that for me from nearly the moment I opened its pages and began the tale of Huguette Clark, her family and her life. In just the past few months, my wife Julie and I have taken some time to travel. We have visited family in Kalispell, flown to see our two boys in the San Francisco Bay Area and taken a journey back in time to our earliest married days 30 years ago to Washington, DC. Without knowing it at the time, with each journey we picked up a string from Huguette Clark’s own journey.
On a rainy day in September we stood inside the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and watched a video on the restoration of the museum’s Salon Dore’, captivated by the care given this treasure and blissfully unaware that a nearly identical room existed in the Clark Mansion in New York City over a century ago. Likewise, as we strolled hand-in-hand in the failing light of Washington, D.C. on a beautiful fall night watching the monuments and museums come to light, we walked directly past the Corcoran Museum, to which Senator Clark donated hundreds of paintings, sculptures and antiquities upon his death in 1925. Last, but most embarrassing to me, was our trip from Helena to Kalispell where we drove by and appreciate the historic Legendary Lodge at Salmon Lake, for what must be the 500th time in our marriage, never knowing until I read this amazing book the connection between this landmark of our family travel and the family of Huguette Clark.
Published in late 2013, Empty Mansions is the result of the combination of the random personal discovery and dogged journalistic curiosity of writer Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigating journalist. Dedman began reporting on his emerging discoveries about the mysterious Huguette Clark for NBC News and those of us in Montana saw glimpses of the emerging controversy about the reclusive daughter of the late copper magnate and controversial United States Senator W.A. Clark in local newspaper mentions that trickled back to Montana beginning about three years ago.
The story seems implausible at first glance; a 100 year-old heiress with hundreds of millions of dollars, voluntarily lives in a spartan hospital room in New York while her grand homes across the country sit vacant. A captivating story no doubt and one that became for Dedman and NBC News the most popular feature in the history of its on-line news service.
However, a popular set of on-line articles does not automatically translate into a meaningful book. In this case it did. Empty Mansions is much more though than a compilation of Dedman’s NBC News stories. A meticulously researched book, Empty Mansions in Dedman’s skilled hands goes back to the beginning to tell the current day tale of Huguette Clark. Dedman creates an important, compelling and easy to read narrative that begins with a young W.A. Clark getting his start as an entrepreneur in Colorado during the early 1860’s. Think about the scope of this book for a moment. Between the stories of just father (W.A.) and daughter (Huguette), we have a tale that spans from the Civil War to 2011. The breadth of such a story could be overwhelming, but in Dedman’s deft hands it flows easily and logically with a journalist’s eye toward accuracy and leaving judgments and conclusions to the reader.
In this effort, Dedman had help. During his work on the story, Dedman became acquainted with one of Huguette Clark’s cousins, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Newell had been in contact with his aunt over the years and throughout the book one is treated to small inserts called “In Conversation with Huguette” where Newell provides often verbatim transcripts of his conversations with his cousin Huguette.
This is not an epic history book in the style of Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, but it is an important, well written book that has a story to tell, a lesson to teach and a history to unveil.
I had the chance to ask the author some questions about his remarkable book. Here’s our conversation.
Montana Magazine: Your book is filled with incredible and beautifully told stories about Mrs. Clark. When you are asked to pick one, what is your “go to” cocktail party tale?
Bill Dedman: Thank you. Paul Newell and I are ecstatic over the warm reaction that “Empty Mansions” has received. At a cocktail party I might tell, not one of the stories that shows Huguette’s eccentricity, but one of her relentless generosity. For a shy artist, a recluse, playing with her dolls and castles, it’s surprising how focused she was os charity to friends and strangers. I think of the home health aide, Gwendolyn Jenkins, who never met Huguette but who had taken care of someone Huguette knew. Gwendolyn was surprised at home by a lawyer bearing a beautiful card. As she told me, “I was telling my daughter that night, I couldn’t believe how this woman, an older woman she was, had written such a nice card, a proper note. … And she included a ‘little gift,’ she said, a check for three hundred dollars! I couldn’t believe it. I was going to tell them all about it at Bible study. I’ve been blessed! And my daughter, she said, ‘You’d better sit down, Mother, and let me read this letter over to you. This check is for thirty thousand dollars!’” Huguette lived a life of many charities, down to having an account at the corner grocery in Normandy so she could send treats to her friends. The book raises many questions for the reader to ponder, but a central one is, if I were born with the same advantages and disabilities, would I have lived the same way that Huguette did. Few of us would make the same choices she did — it’s easy to see that we would travel more, would have a beautiful view, would wear the jewels and fine clothes. But would we also be as generous as she was?
Montana Magazine: The diversity and depth of the story must have been a challenge. How did you accomplish writing in a range that included the founding of the Paganini Quartet, arcane but important Montana electoral history and the Smurfs?
Dedman: Our method in reporting was to explore every cul-de-sac and to enjoy where it led us. Huguette and her family were being revealed to us, too, in those details. Just to take a few paragraphs: The story of the magnificent pipe organ in the old Clark Mansion on Fifth Avenue — I was surprised by its purchase for $120,000 in 1910 dollars, and then by its ultimate sale for the price of a single good cigar. We learned surprising information about Mark Twain. Like W.A. Clark’s political career, it was all a series of surprises.
In the writing, we chose to tell it straight, to emphasize clarity and not literary fireworks. And most of all, not to speculate. We didn’t put any thoughts into anyone’s heads, we didn’t psychoanalyze. We give the readers more than enough clues — drawing facts from 20,000 pages of Huguette’s correspondence, twenty years of nurses’ notes, and the testimony of more than fifty witnesses — for the readers to think through the possibilities themselves. The readers’ speculations are likely to be as good as ours. We let the readers make up their own minds about the motives and ethics and feelings of Sen. Clark, of his young wife and daughters, of the relatives seeking Huguette’s fortune, of the hospital and the $31 million nurse. It seems that readers appreciated us sticking to non-fiction and letting them do the imagining.
Montana Magazine: If you had been given the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Clark, what would you have asked her?
Dedman: First I would have asked why she was not comfortable going out of the house or dealing with strangers — click, I can hear our conversation ending now. Paul, who is Huguette’s cousin, was able to speak with her, and they had dozens of chats over nearly ten years. Paul was careful and wise enough not to quiz her or interview her — although he had approached her by making clear that he was writing a family history, they were cousins chatting. Although she was so comfortable and chatty on the phone, Paul sensed that she would not have reacted well to being interviewed. If he had pushed her, she might well not have called him again. Remember, he didn’t have her number. He would call her attorney, and Huguette would call him back. He had no idea she was living in a hospital for twenty years.
Still, their conversations show her capabilities and gentle strength. Not only are portions of those talks excerpted in the book, but in the audiobook (from iTunes or Audible) you can hear her voice in sections of their recorded conversations. She sounds so clear and lucid. She remembers having unused tickets on the Titanic’s return trip in 1912, and she recalls the name of the hotel where she stayed at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu in 1915.
If I had talked with her, I’m sure I would have blown the opportunity by trying to get her to talk about what it was like to move from Paris to New York at age four, moving into the biggest house in the city, with 121 rooms for a family of four. What was life like with all those maids and servants, and a father that traveled so much, and a mother who was quiet and private? What was it like having the home flung open for charity parties and for gawkers to tour the five art galleries of the Clark mansion? I also would like to hear her view on relationships — here was a woman who was reclusive, shy, yet she maintained friendships that lasted decades, including with her ex-husband and with a boyfriend in France. What was her view of human contact and relationships, of the nourishment necesssary for a full life? She certainly got that through letters and phone calls, but was too uncomfortable, except with a few people, to have those relationships in person.
Montana Magazine: Not long after your book was published a settlement was reached regarding Mrs. Clark’s estate. In your view, what do you think Mrs. Clark would have thought of both the process and the outcome?
Dedman: Based on her actions and fierce protection of her privacy, it seems she would have been upset that her nurse, Hadassah Peri, was put through the publicity, and that her last will was being questioned, that her relatives were claiming she was mentally ill and defrauded. Solace may have come from the fact that the settlement, in the end, left the largest bequest to an arts foundation at her oceanfront estate, called Bellosguardo, in Santa Barbara, California, just as directed by the will she signed. Perhaps one day we can all tour that home, which she so lovingly preserved in her mother’s memory. More than $25 million was squandered, however, on legal fees, and Huguette was proven right — she had told her best friend that her relatives were out to get her money. Right now litigation is continuing as her family and estate are suing the hospital and her doctor — it’s hard to imagine that the prospect of her doctor being sued, so her distant relatives could benefit, was not something Huguette would have endorsed.
Montana Magazine: Late in the book you compare what some thought were Mrs. Clark’s eccentricities to someone who “can name the shortstop for the Boston Red Sox in 1967.” Is that reference autobiographical?
Dedman: My game is baseball, and that’s the sort of fact that baseball fans enjoy recalling. (The answer is Rico Petrocelli, who that year made the All-Star game and hit two home runs in the World Series, so he’s not even that obscure.) We know people who don’t quite recall the names of their children’s friends but can name the backup tight end for a football team. Our larger point, of course, was that having an eccentric hobby or passion or obsession — stamp collecting, trivia, Beatles memorabilia — is not a mental illness, no matter how foreign it seems to outsiders. Huguette’s life, including the doll collecting, makes good sense when viewed from close up.
Montana Magazine: Your book has received wide, and in my view, well deserved acclaim. What’s next for you and for us as readers?
Dedman: You’re very kind. The paperback version will be out in the spring with updates on the legal settlement and a discusison guide for book clubs. We’ll also be releasing more photos at that time. There also seems a good chance that someday you’ll get to see Huguette Clark and her family in a film on the big screen. As for other projects, I’m working on stories for NBC News. I suspect that Paul and I will write other books, but it would be good for work and family life to settle back into normalcy first. Writing a book of this length and detail in two years is an uphill sprint, but I’ll bet, like the pain of childbirth, it wears off soon enough and one starts to think, wouldn’t it be fun to have another little one.
Montana Magazine: One last question, you started your quest when you and your wife were looking for a house AND YOU SPOTTED HER EMPTY MANSION FOR SALE IN CONNECTICUT FOR $24 MILLION. We never heard how that came out? Did you find one?
Dedman: Yes, our family found a modest house, though not in Madame Clark’s price range. Somehow we’ve been able to manage without fifty-two acres and a room strictly for drying the draperies. Her home in Connecticut, however, remains for sale, and it’s a steal, now priced at $15 million, so feel free to call the Realtor.