It was a loud, high-profile stage whisper designed to get the attention of 15 competing teams of attorneys fighting 3,000 miles away over an estate worth an estimated $400 million. Santa Barbara’s current mayor Helene Schneider showed up at a press conference with former mayor (and current planning commissioner) Sheila Lodge to express their mutual concern that Santa Barbara’s interest was getting lost in the very high-octane shuffle over the two wills recluse heiress Huguette Clark wrote within weeks of each other.
In the second will, Clark left her 23-acre Santa Barbara estate that fronts the Pacific Ocean across from the Andree Clark Bird Refuge — named after her older sister — to an entity named the Bellosguardo Foundation, which she stipulated would be dedicated to the promotion of the arts. Backing the two mayors — in spirit if not body — was former mayor and arts advocate Hal Conklin, as well as an impressive array of big monied movers and shakers who’ve donated generously to the arts in Santa Barbara over the years, like Michael and Anne Towbes, Leslie Ridley-Tree, Robert Emmons, and Sarah Miller McCune. Clark died last May at age 104, having spent the last 22 years of her life living in a New York City hospital.
That second will has been challenged in court by about 20 of Clark’s distant relatives, upset that they’d been totally cut out compared to a will she’d written six weeks prior. They’ve argued that Clark — who’d amassed a world-class collection of paintings, not to mention a $3 million collection of dolls — had been unduly influenced by her nurse, her attorney, and her accountant, all of whom she took care of handsomely in the second will. (In the previous will, Clark gave her nurse $5 million and split most of the rest among relatives. In the second, she gave the nurse $30 million, her relatives nothing, and her foundation the rest.) Schneider and Lodge expressed concern that the warring factions, now in settlement talks, might arrive at a deal that ignores Santa Barbara’s legitimate claim on Clark’s generosity. Her Bellosguardo estate — and the collection it holds — would provide Santa Barbara a priceless attraction. “In the 3,000 pages of depositions that have been taken, there’s not one indication that she was not competent,” stated Lodge.
While Clark was famously reclusive — not having visited her Santa Barbara mansion for 50 years — Lodge claims she was one of the few people with whom Clark maintained any personal communication. Those came in the form of Christmas cards that began around 1987 after Lodge — then mayor — helped secure approval for a rock wall revetment along the coast to buttress the estate’s threatened driveway. In exchange for that approval — which had been denied by the city’s Planning Commission — Lodge and the council got Clark’s agreement that the property should be declared a historic landmark. During those deliberations, Lodge and Hal Conklin, got to visit the Clark estate. Lodge described Clark as an amateur artist in her own right, but a world-class collector with painting by the likes of Monet, Renoir, and Sergeant. (Among the many parties challenging Clark’s second will is the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., to which Clark had donated a $25 million Monet painting.)
Many in Santa Barbara’s art world are salivating at the Clark collection and the prospect of opening the estate to the public. The logistics and costs involved, however, will be daunting. Lodge estimated it could cost as much as $1 million a year merely to maintain the premises. Coming together to form the “Friends of the Bellosguardo Foundation” are the mayor and two former mayors plus a bevy of major arts benefactors; to date, however, this group has not hired an attorney, formed a new nonprofit, or taken any legal actions that would secure them a seat at the bargaining table with the other interested parties now duking it out in a New York City courtroom. “We’re trying to make a little noise here,” explained Mayor Schneider. Whether the matter gets litigated or settled, Bellosguardo — valued at $84 million — will remain bound by its historic landmark designation.
Clark was the daughter of Montana robber baron and U.S. Senator William A. Clark, who made his millions in mining, railroads, and politics, a tycoon of such extravagance that he aroused the vituperation of Mark Twain, who reviled him “as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag.”