The Phantom of Fifth Avenue

Bellosguardo Foundation Left with a White Elephant?

<b>REPAIRS OVERDUE:</b> Will the Bellosguardo beach house be sold to pay for repairs needed to the estate?
Paul Wellman (file)

PHANTOM? Questionable, but The Phantom of Fifth Avenue’s the catchy title of Meryl Gordon’s gossipy new bio of poor little rich girl Huguette Clark, subtitled The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of the late copper heiress.

Scandalous death? That’s pushing it a bit, considering that Huguette apparently never had sex, took drugs, or killed anyone in a lover’s quarrel and was a recluse who lived quietly and died of un-scandalous natural causes at age 104 in 2011.

Barney Brantingham

That’s when the $300 million money grab began, no thanks to Huguette’s two conflicting wills and her battling distant relatives.

New York author Gordon’s is the second book about Huguette, the first being NBC investigative journalist Bill Dedman’s authoritative Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.

Gordon interviewed many family members, and her account fleshes out much of went on in the life of a woman who in the Jazz Age was worth $50 million at age 22.

But, alas, there were no affairs with dashing playboys, wild rides in Stutz Bearcats, or champagne at midnight at the Eiffel Tower for shy little Huguette. Her marriage was an unconsummated disaster, and two would-be romances faded like a summer sunset from her beloved Bellosguardo mansion high above Santa Barbara’s East Beach. But by all accounts, her last decades were happy ones.

From the arm-wrestled settlement of Huguette’s estate emerged the legacy of her summer getaway Bellosguardo, now slated to become an arts foundation ​— ​if certain money problems can be solved. (It’s not, as some mistakenly assume, owned by the City of Santa Barbara.) Exactly how the foundation will work out depends on a 10-member board, whose names apparently won’t be announced until after a June 18 New York auction at Christie’s of more than 400 Clark family art items. They include paintings, furniture, rare books, and a Stradivarius violin. Her Monet water lilies painting sold for $27 million earlier this month at Christie’s.

Mayor Helene Schneider has seven appointments to the board, Clark’s longtime Santa Barbara attorney James Hurley has one, the Clark family has one, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., has one. Schneider declined to tell me whom she nominated, or even whether she’s on the board. (Count on it.)

But there’s a money problem. For one thing, Bellosguardo’s old plumbing and electrical systems badly need renovation or replacement. And Huguette’s estate still owes millions in back gift taxes, interest, and penalties, plus mounting property taxes. Unless the IRS forgives all or a big chunk of the debt, there’s a worst-case scenario that Bellosguardo may have to be sold to pay it off.

In addition, some key Santa Barbarans see the mansion as a high-maintenance white elephant of questionable value as an arts foundation. They see it as an ongoing money pit that should be sold and the proceeds ​— ​at least $85 million or more ​— ​devoted to actively fostering the arts, perhaps at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

As reporter Bill Dedman pointed out in a recent story, after $34 million was paid to Huguette’s distant relatives who challenged the will and $50 million to lawyers, only about $5 million was left for the foundation.

When Jason Lilien of the New York Attorney General’s Office flew out before the estate was settled, he suggested that, if necessary to raise money, the caretaker’s cottage and beach house property could be sold, according to Gordon.

RED: In 1958, artist Mark Rothko was offered a $35,000 commission ($284,000 in today’s dollars) to paint murals in the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York. But realizing how pretentious the setting would be, he famously declared that he hoped the murals would “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” Then Rothko gave back the money and never finished the project. This event forms the basis of John Logan’s tense play, Red, at the Ensemble Theatre’s New Vic, through June 1.

NIGHT OF MUSIC: Camerata Pacifica wound up its season at Hahn Hall with the whole gang onstage, first with Jake Heggie’s Winter Roses, featuring mezzo-soprano Kate Allen, then with Nonet in E-Flat Major by Josef Reinberger. A great evening.

NORMAN INVASION: Growing up in Augusta, Georgia, Jessye Norman never heard a note of opera until she was 9. Interviewed at Hahn Hall last Friday by Jim Svejda of KUSC, she flashed humor and wit, telling her story of a rise to international stardom. (Sponsored by UCSB Arts & Lectures.)


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