Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?
When Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Dedman has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have frequent conversations with her. Dedman and Newell tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter, born into a family of extreme wealth and privilege, who secrets herself away from the outside world.
- She was the daughter of self-made copper industrialist W. A. Clark, nearly as rich as Rockefeller in his day, a controversial senator, railroad builder, and founder of Las Vegas.
- She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a remarkable dwelling with 121 rooms for a family of four.
- She owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, a vast collection of antique dolls.
- But wanting more than treasures, she devoted her wealth to buying gifts for friends and strangers alike, to quietly pursuing her own work as an artist, and to guarding the privacy she valued above all else.
The Clark family story spans nearly all of American history in three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to mining camps in the Montana gold rush, from backdoor politics in Washington to a distress call from an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. The same Huguette who was touched by the terror attacks of 9/11 held a ticket nine decades earlier for a first-class stateroom on the second voyage of the Titanic.
Empty Mansions is an enthralling story of an eccentric of the highest order, a last jewel of the Gilded Age who lived life on her own terms.
How Ancestry.com helped with research for Empty Mansions
In order to make contact with relatives of the Clarks in America and their friends in France, the authors had to do some genealogical digging. They found photographs from passport applications, located documents from ship’s registries, census rolls, immigration petitions, birth & deaths records, and cemeteries. And for a small fee they hired a freelance genealogist through Ancestry.com to confirm a birthdate for Huguette’s mother, the French-Canadian Anna Eugenia LaChapelle, in 1878 in Calumet, Michigan. (The birth had been recorded under the name “Lashpell.”).
Family history research also surfaced some interesting details about W.A. Clark and how he carried himself throughout his life. As many have experienced researching their family history, sometimes what is recorded is vastly different than the actual account. In researching W.A. Clark’s life, many of these details came to light, such as the following:
Huguette’s father, Sen. W. A. Clark of Montana, was said by his children to be no taller than 5 feet 5 inches, maybe 5′ 6″ with his boots on. But his passport applications, located through Ancestry.com, show that he listed himself as 5 foot 8 to 5 foot 10, as his political power and wealth grew.
Staff at Ancestry.com also assisted the authors by researching the family tree of Huguette’s mother, and by searching Civil War records for W. A. Clark. No Clark of his name and county was enlisted on either side of the war, disputing a legend put forth by Clark’s political opponents that he was a Confederate deserter.
What the Ancestry.com Team thought about Empty Mansions
“It’s no secret that the team here at Ancestry have weak spots in our hearts for US history and a fascinating family story. The two subjects combine in an explosive manner for the story of Huguette Clark, the heiress to one of the last great American fortunes. Pulitzer prize-winning author Bill Dedman along with co-author Paul Clark Newell, Jr. took us on a tantalizing tale in his book Empty Mansions, outlining with incredible detail the early making and the later spending of an outlandish fortune.
The book’s tales of $50,000 doll houses and $85,000,000 real houses are not just about big money and the motivations behind their creation, but also the grueling research process to uncover the story of their existence in the first place. It is a fascinating read that will literally have you on the edge of your seat, and all the while the details of the family were brought to life via family recollections, historical documents (including many from Ancestry.com!), and good old fashioned investigation.”
Research the Ancestry.com Team Found on William, Anna and Huguette Clark:
- Some biographical details
- From HuguetteClark Family Tree: 8 January 1839, William A. Clark born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania
- From HuguetteClark Family Tree: 28 May 1869, William Clark married Katherine Louise “Kate” Stauffer in New York, New York
- 1856 Iowa State Census: William A. Clark with parents and siblings in Washington, Van Buren Co., Iowa, father John (b. 1806?) and mother Mary (b. 1815?) William is age 17
- 1870 US Census: William A. Clark and Kate in Deer Lodge, Deer Lodge, Montana Territory. Grocer and Banker, $15,000 personal estate
- 1880 US Census: Anna La Chappelle (Luchepelle): In Red Jacket, Houghton Co., Mich. Checked to see if she had a sister named Pauline, but it doesn’t appear to be the case. Pauline would have been five here
- 1889 U.S. Passport for William Clark and family: Living in Butte, Montana
- 1895 U.S. Passport for William Clark: Banker in Butte, Montana
- 1900 US Census: Anna La Chappelle in Butte, Montana
- 1900 US Census: William A. Clark with first wife, children and one servant, Tue Ah (b. China)
- From HuguetteClark Family Tree: 25 May 1901, William Clark married Anna Eugenia M La Chapelle at Marseilles, Cher, Centre, France and 1901-1907, served as U.S. Senator from Montana, despite an 1899 scandal that revealed he bribed state legislators into voting for him
- 1 Sept 1909 U.S. Passport for William Clark: Banker and Mine owner, Butte, Montana
- 1910 US Census: Living in Butte, Silver Bow Co., Mont., W.A. Clark, Anna E., Andree, Huguette, one servant and W.A. Clark, Jr., son from William’s first marriage. Occupation Capitalist/Mining
- November 1912 Passenger Arrival: Anna, [servant?], Huguette listed twice, once age 10 and once age 6 [10 year old should be Andree]. Address 962 5th Avenue, New York, New York
- 1914 U.S. Passport for William Clark: Still lists permanent residence as Butte, Montana
- October 1914 Passenger Arrival: William Andrew Clark (born Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 8 Jan 1839), Anna (born Calumet, Michigan, 10 March 1878), Andrea (born San Luca, Spain 13 August 1902), and Huguette (born Paris, France, 9 June 1906) arriving on the Adriatic. Home address 962 5th Avenue, New York, New York
- 1920 US Census: William, Anna and Huguette with 10 servants
- October 1922 Passenger Arrival on the Paris: Huguette and Anna Clark, address 962 5th Avenue, New York, New York
- June 1928 Passenger Arrival on the Berengaria: Huguette and Anna Clark, address 907 5th Avenue, New York, New York
- 1930 US Census: Anna, Huguette Gower (she was still married at this point but separated) and guest [aunt] Pauline Delobel + 4 servants
- August 1930 Passenger Arrival in Honolulu, Hawaii
- 1940 US Census: 907 5th Avenue, New York, New York. Anne in a separate apartment with two servants. Huguette and aunt, Pauline Delobel, + 8 servants. All were living in same place in 1935. “Aunt” is most likely either a more distant relative or a close friend of the family
- 1951 Pauline Delobel air arrival
- 2011 Obituary
- The Clark Family Tree