Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Bill Dedman


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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman is the co-author of “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.” The reclusive heiress, who died at 104 in 2011, lived in New York hospitals for her last 20 years. She was not sick, she was just more comfortable there than at home. Born into a privileged lifestyle, she maintained homes on both coasts and a mansion in Connecticut that she never lived in. In 2009, Mr. Dedham noticed the estate was for sale and did some research. He became intrigued and together with Ms. Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell Jr., wrote the story of her eccentric life. Her father, W.A. Clark, originally from outside Connellsville, made his millions in the copper industry. Her possessions were auctioned last month at Christie’s in New York City. Currently, there are plans to make a film of her life based on the book.

I found her father, William Andrews Clark, to be more interesting than she was. He had such a colorful background.

He is a forgotten American character. He was well-known in his day. He was on all the magazine covers and was recognized on the streets of New York and was prominent in the newspapers. That was in the 1800s, but in the 20th century he allowed his business reputation to be overwhelmed by his political reputation. He was thought of as an excellent spotter of opportunities that others had missed. As one man said, “A dollar never left his hand without 20 coming back.” What he wanted was social acceptance and political approval. He wanted to be a senator. He wanted that title.



PG audio
Hear more of this interview with ​Bill Dedham.


So why do so few people know about him?

He became disreputable in politics and in effect bought a seat in the Senate. Second, he wasn’t charitable in a Carnegie way. He didn’t establish libraries. He wasn’t uncharitable. He established a home for orphans in Butte, Mont., a kindergarten and a home for working women in Los Angeles and facilities in Clarkdale, Ariz., always with the Clark name attached. You can attribute that to ego, but Carnegie did the same. But as a percentage of his wealth he gave away very little. So that did not establish a legacy. He left the business in family hands and his sons were dissolute, his daughters were not interested in business and didn’t marry men who were. There was a run of bad luck where the male heirs died out. The daughters sold off the businesses.

What about the fact that he married someone so young?

Anna was 23 when they got married. She was 39 years younger than he, so yes there would be a level of scandal attached to that. Particularly the way the marriage was announced. It was back-dated. He announced: “Three years ago we got married and we already have a 2-year-old daughter.” Now it’s not quite the same scandal as a John Edwards. He wasn’t married at the time. He was a widower. He was in the papers associated with other women and a paternity suit with a reporter he met at the Democratic National Convention. [Henry Clay] Frick was a genuine robber baron and friend of Clark’s, but he left money to charity. He left his home to charity.

In doing the research for the book, what surprised you?

All of it was a surprise. After my series of news articles and her death, she had reached prominence as the reclusive heiress. We know that she signed two wills and that she had given a lot of money to her nurse. We knew nothing else. We didn’t know how she spent her time. We didn’t know of her art, of her painting, of her collecting or of her boyfriend in France and their rich correspondence through the years. We didn’t know of her charity to friends and strangers. We knew she gave money to the nurse, but we didn’t know that was part of a pattern of great generosity to all those around her. My co-author, her cousin, spoke with her on the phone for nine years. You can hear their conversations in the audio book. She remembers having [return] tickets on the Titanic in 1912. She was very clear.

But reading the book, you still think something is not right with this woman.

Oh, she is peculiar. There is no doubt [laughing]. Her doctor calls her a world-class eccentric. There is no doubt she is eccentric, but there is no indication she is mentally ill. Remember, she didn’t go into the hospital until she was in her mid-80s. I mean, if you are rattling around in 42 rooms on Fifth Avenue with paintings by Manet and Monet and you have an intruder, it’s not really a safe environment. She didn’t like nursing homes, which is not an irrational fear. She didn’t want home health care. She wanted to be in a hospital. She felt safer there.

She clearly had problems with strangers. She feared kidnapping and wouldn’t go back to France because there might be another revolution. She had fears, but it is clear from all accounts that she was elegant, chipper and very positive. Hers was not a sad life. [She] may have some compulsions, maybe a very serious hobbyist, but her rich love of dolls and doll houses and Japanese history [shows] she clearly liked to get lost in the imagination. But she was not having trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

Do you think she felt any guilt about her great inheritance and extreme wealth?

I’m not in the what-people-feel business. It is not my place to guess. We were very careful in this book not to make up what people thought or felt. The reader can speculate about her mental status, her feelings and the effect of her brief marriage, her sister’s death and her mother’s reclusiveness. It is very clear that she was following her mother’s pattern of being quiet and shunning the limelight. I did consult a psychologist. In the acknowledgements, you will see the head of geriatric medicine at Tuft’s Medical School cited for consulting with us on the book. His professional ethics would prohibit him from offering a diagnosis on someone he hasn’t treated. No psychologist or psychiatrist ever saw Huguette because her doctors never had any idea that she needed such a thing.

OK, so tell me about you. How did it feel when you first stumbled on this incredible story?

I went to my editors and said, “I don’t think this is what you are paying me to do, but I have seen this real estate listing and there is this house, a $24 million sale price marked down from $35 million in Connecticut, and it says in the town records it hasn’t been lived in since 1951! I don’t even see how that’s possible. Online it says she has a mysterious house and gardeners working and she hasn’t visited it in 50 or 60 years.”

I didn’t think it was true. We have pictures of cars still in the garage from the 1930s in the book. You can learn a lot about someone from what they read and wrote and how they handled their friendships and money.

When you say reclusive woman living in a hospital room playing with dolls, you get one picture, but she was a maintainer of friendships for decades. She was married to Bill Gower, for at most, months. She told her nurse [they had] just the honeymoon and she went home. Here she was more than 30 years later corresponding with him. sending him family news and money. That maintaining of friendships was also a pattern she followed her mother in and was surprising for a recluse. There were 20 years of nurses’ notes: She is reading The New York Times, she is listening to CNN, she is spending a lot of time on the phone. Her lawyers were frustrated by her careful refusal not to sign a will to give them the power of attorney. So she was not controlled by her money men.

Now that there has been a judgment on the will, it is clear it did not go the way she had intended it.

I think it is a failure of estate planning in some ways, because it didn’t go her way in the sense that $34 million is going to relatives who last saw her in the 1950s and most of whom had never met her. It did go her way in the main, however, because the largest beneficiary in the will is a charity. Her mother’s home in Santa Barbara is going to be an arts charity. The charity will have the house and not many millions to keep it up. They will have to raise money and figure out a mission. That house was preserved and wasn’t sold off and her goddaughter got a large bequest and her employees. The nurse had to give back $5 million of the $31 million she got.

One of the funniest bits in the book is when you say the nurse has an empty mansion, too.

Yes, and the Bentley, which she says is so inconvenient to have in Brooklyn. She said, “You are always afraid somebody is going to bang into it.” I think one conclusion it would be reasonable to draw from all this that there are perils of inherited wealth. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet may have the right idea or like Carnegie did to give away most of it and not leave it to children. That may be one of the lessons.

I noticed in southwest Pennsylvania there is not much memory of Clark. He was born in Dunbar Township outside Connellsville and was married there. The family moved away before the Civil War. I think one question raised is what does the family of a wealthy person owe, if anything, to the places where they grew up, to the places where they got rich? The people in Butte, Mont., are mad. They think of Clark money as their money. They take that out on Huguette and forget to ask her half siblings’ children, who got four-fifths of the money to do the same.

The people in Arizona have Clarkdale and Las Vegas has Clark County. Los Angeles has a Clark Library at UCLA, named for the father. But in New York, where he had the greatest house in the city, and in Pennsylvania, where he was born, he is little remembered.

There are still so many questions.

I appreciate your close reading of the book and I think it’s perfectly fine to challenge this question of what was really up with Huguette. I think there is not evidence of mental illness but very strong evidence of peculiarity. She got what she wanted. She seemed to have lived the life she chose to live.

If you could have spoken with her, what would you have asked?

I would want to talk more with her about the old days. What was it like to ride on those White Star liners? What was it like to live with a family of four in a 121-room house on Fifth Avenue? And one that swung open on the weekends for the public to come tour its five art galleries? You are very quiet. Your mother is quiet. Your father is a public figure, seeking public attention. What was the effect of that? I’d like to know more.


Patricia Sheridan: psheridan@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pasheridan.

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