True, heiress Huguette Clark led a reclusive life despite her $300 million-plus fortune; her mansions were vacant, and she had few visitors. But she still apparently led a busy life within the cocoon of her hospital room.
Eccentric? Yes. Out-of-her-mind crazy? No. That’s the conclusion reached in Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, a well-researched book by NBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman and Huguette’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell Jr.
Whether her multimillion-dollar Santa Barbara estate, Bellosguardo, will become a hilltop art foundation, as she wished, or be sold by 19 distant relatives challenging her will depends on the outcome of a New York trial scheduled for October 17.
Another rich heiress might have flitted between New York, London, and Paris, summering at her Santa Barbara hilltop estate, showing off her art collection. Not Huguette.
For the last 20 years before she died in 2011 at 104, she enjoyed good health in her hideaway New York hospital room at Beth Israel Medical Center, creating lavish doll houses, watching cartoons with delight, carrying on a busy social life via telephone, and showering friends, caregivers, and others with millions.
Huguette was very, very generous, to put it mildly — a soft touch. She was a sheltered, somewhat naïve woman with a big heart and a sucker for a sob story. Even hospital officials kept trying to hit her up for large donations. Her attorney, who stands to gain big-time from the will, is under criminal investigation.
If Huguette liked you, you became rich. She lavished $30 million on her Philippines-born nurse-companion, Hadassah Peri, and then tossed her another $15 million in the disputed will.
In her first will, in 2005, she left most of her fortune to the distant relatives, 14 of whom she had never met. The others hadn’t seen her for decades. But in a second will just six weeks later, she cut them out entirely. Why? They sued, claiming that she’d been mentally incompetent when she signed the will and had been fraudulently influenced by her attorney and others who stood to gain.
Happily for this shy, French-born daughter of copper king Sen. W.A. Clark, all this nastiness took place after her death.
Santa Barbara has a major stake in all this. The 19 distant relatives, descendants from Sen. Clark’s first marriage, want the second will thrown out, allowing them to sell her Santa Barbara property on East Cabrillo Boulevard rather than it become a foundation housing her collection of paintings and other collections.
Along with Huguette’s bizarre, fascinating story, the authors paint a detailed picture of what lies behind the walls of Bellosguardo, which only a lucky few have seen in the decades since she and her mother, Anna, made their last visit in the 1950s. The “empty mansions” mentioned in the title are Bellosguardo and a Connecticut estate, La Beau Château, which she bought in 1951 but never lived in, and several multimillion-dollar Fifth Avenue apartments where she lived before moving to the hospital.
Empty mansions, but an empty life?
Authors Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. will be in S.B. to talk about Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. There will be a reception/lecture on Sunday, October 6, at 5 p.m. and a lecture on Monday, October 7, at 11 a.m. The events take place at the S.B. Historical Museum (136 E. De la Guerra St.). For more information, call 966-1601 or visit santabarbaramuseum.com. Empty Mansions is available at area bookstores. See more at emptymansionsbook.com.