June 9, 1906 – Huguette Marcelle Clark
Huguette (pronounced hyoo-GETT) Marcelle Clark was an heiress and philanthropist, who late in life, became a recluse, living in a hospital for more than 20 years while her mansions remained empty.
She was almost certainly the last figure from New York City’s Gilded Age. She grew up in Beaux-Arts splendor in a 121-room Fifth Avenue mansion filled with antiques and important works of art. Her father, a copper baron once bought himself a Senate seat. Her six siblings died long before her, one in the 19th century.
She lived into the 21st century, and Clark managed with moxie and great wealth to go from her perfect childhood to a slow, strange, solitary life.
By all accounts of sound body and mind till the end of her life, Clark had lived, by choice, cloistered in New York hospitals starting in the 1980s, living under a series of pseudonyms. In the hospitals, Clark was attended by round-the-clock private aides and surrounded by the French dolls she had collected since she was a girl.
She had seen the world, and she knew what society was like, yet she chose not to be a part of it. Had things gone according to her plan, she would almost certainly have died as she lived, hidden from sight. But the very act of disappearing, and the questions it raised about her life and her half-billion-dollar fortune, propelled her back to the society pages after an absence of more than seven decades.
When she died, it was disclosed that although her three palatial homes: a 42-room apartment on Fifth Avenue; an oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara, and a country manor in Connecticut were fastidiously maintained, although she had not been seen in any of them for decades.
The tale of her outlandish family, lavish generosity and her 70-year effort to keep the world away, captivated the news media after she was gone.
During her long years in hospitals, Clark made large gifts to charitable causes, friends and associates. To her longtime nurse, for instance, she gave the money for several homes, which together were worth $2 million.
Clark’s story brought comparisons to that of Brooke Astor, the NYC socialite whose son and lawyer were convicted in 2009 of having defrauded her of millions of dollars before her death, at 105, in 2007. Astor remained a fixture of the city’s social and philanthropic scene well into her old age, but starting in her 30s, Clark was an antisocial socialite, an enigmatic figure whose closest companions were her dolls.
Senator Clark was one of the richest men in America. In 1907, The New York Times estimated his fortune at $150 million ($3 billion today). Besides copper, his money came from railroads, real estate, lumber, banking, cattle, sugar beets and gold.
He had five children by wife number one; four lived to adulthood. After her death in 1893, he took up with his teenage ward, Anna La Chapelle. Without the benefit of matrimony, they had two daughters born in Paris. When Clark was born, her mother was 28-years-old, her father was 67.
After leaving the Senate, Senator Clark settled his new family in a mansion he had built at Fifth Avenue and 77th Street that was considered lavish even in an age of excess. It had 121 rooms, including 31 bathrooms, four art galleries and a theater; a swimming pool and a huge pipe organ. It was there, along with stays in California and France, that Clark grew up.
In 1919, Clark’s sister Andrée died of meningitis at 16. Senator Clark died in 1925. Many of the art works he owned now make up the William A. Clark Collection at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC.
Clark’s debut in society was 1926. In 1928, at 22-years-old, she married William MacDonald Gower, the son of a business associate of her father’s. The marriage lasted nine months; he claimed the marriage was unconsummated. The couple formally divorced in 1930, and she chose to be known afterward as Mrs. Huguette Clark.
In 1928, she donated $50,000 ($700,00 in today’s dollars) to excavate the salt pond and create an artificial freshwater lake across from Bellosguardo, her 23-acre estate in Santa Barbara. She named it the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, after the sister, who had died of meningitis.
Clark was also an artist who, in 1929, exhibited seven of her paintings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The last known photograph of her was taken in 1930.
By the late 1930s, Clark had disappeared from the society pages. All but one of her siblings had died; she lived with her mother at 907 Fifth Avenue, painting and playing the harp. Her mother died there in 1963.
For the next 25 years, Clark lived in the apartment in near solitude, with just her dollhouses and their occupants. She ate crackers and sardines and watched television; she was a big fan of The Flintstones. A housekeeper attended to the dolls and kept their dresses impeccably ironed.
That was Clark’s life until the day she left for the hospital and checked herself in. She worked so hard to remain an enigma, for reasons known only to her. By all accounts, it was her dual desire for exquisite solitude and exquisite care.
In 1991, she was admitted to Doctors Hospital in Manhattan to treat various basal cell cancer lesions on her face. Though she successfully recovered, Clark remained a hospital resident for the next two decades. Doctors Hospital was known as a fashionable treatment center for the well-to-do, a society hospital, a great place for a facelift or for drying out. Michael Jackson had been a patient, so had Marilyn Monroe, Clare Boothe Luce and Eugene O’Neill. A 14-storey brick building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it gave the impression of being an apartment building or hotel, with a hair salon and a comfortable dining room where patients could order from the wine list if the doctor allowed.
In the end, Clark’s deepest desire, simply to vanish, had been realized, at least to an extent.
Over the years, she had developed a distrust of outsiders, including her family, because she thought they were after her money. She preferred to conduct her conversations in French so that others were unlikely to understand the discussion.
Clark died at Beth Israel Medical Center, in NYC, two weeks short of her 105th birthday. She had been living at Beth Israel under pseudonyms; the latest was Harriet Chase. The room was guarded, and she was cared for by private nurses. Her room had a card with the fake room number ”1B” with the name ”Chase” taped over the actual room number.
Upon her death in 2011, Clark left behind a vast fortune. Clark’s will left 75 percent of her estate, about $300 million, to charity. She left her longtime nurse, Hadassah Peri, $30 million; and the newly created Bellosguardo Foundation would get $8 million. Other employees who managed her residences and affairs would receive smaller sums totaling $2 million.
In October 2011, NBC News reported that an earlier will left Clark’s estate entirely to her family. 19 relatives of Clark, the last of whom saw her in 1957, and many of whom had never met her, challenged the second will, citing her “obsession with high end, lifelike French and Japanese dolls, model castles, the Smurfs, her reclusiveness and tendency to give her money freely as evidence of mental illness“. They accused Peri, and her attorney and accountant, of defrauding her. While no one was charged with a crime, the accusations resulted in an investigation by the district attorney’s office, who mandated that the will be settled by a jury.
In autumn 2013, Clark’s will was finally settled, with the distant relatives receiving $34.5 million. Peri received nothing and agreed to return $5 million of the earlier $31 million. The rest went to her foundation, the Bellosguardo Foundation.
17 items from her personal jewel collection were auctioned off at Christie’s in 2012 for over $20 million, and one of Clark’s three 907 Fifth Avenue apartments, the penthouse, sold for $25.5 million the same year. In total, the three apartments sold for a combined $54.8 million.
In 2014, after sitting empty for more than 60 years, Clark’s chateau on 52 wooded acres Connecticut, was sold for $24.3 million. The online ad for the property showed it was meticulously maintained, but hauntingly empty.
Bellosguardo remains today as it was the last time Clark saw it 65 years ago, lovingly preserved at the cost of only $40,000 per month. You can visit, Bellosguardo is open to the public.
Bill Dedman (The Color Of Money) wrote a book about Clark: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life Of Huguette Clark And The Spending Of A Great American Fortune (2014). A film version is planned by Ryan Murphy. He should cast Tilda Swinton as Clark at every stage of her life.