Sunday, September 15, 2013

Empty Mansions, Full Life?

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American FortuneEmpty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think it's obvious from the reviews that this book has something for everyone. Examples of Carnegie and Vanderbilt wealth, history, mystery, peculiarity, suggestions of chicanery and madness, families fighting over money--and a gentle, protective portrait of a woman and her century+-long life. It's not the kind of book I usually read, but I am interested in thee kind of stories (Grey Gardens--still haven't seen it!). Sidebar: I blame Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle for that.

Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter, was drawn into the story when he ran across one of Huguette Clark's untenanted mansions while house-hunting. He was not allowed onto the grounds and he was curious, but it's not the kind of story he usually does, either. A few years later, in New York, Huguette's story was making headlines. She spent the last 7,000 or so nights of her life in a hospital room--though she was not ill--and her palatial New York apartment, her mansions and estates, remained empty, save for caretakers and staff.

Did her lawyer, accountant, caregivers and the hospital take advantage of a frightened, incompetent, lonely woman? Did the far-flung family, who never saw her in the last twenty years of her life (by her choice, or theirs?), deserve to inherit her estate?

Dedman, a Pulitzer winner, has teamed up with Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette's, to create this
tapestry of history and human interest story. Huguette's father made his fortune in the copper mines of Arizona and Montana--he was a contemporary of Vanderbilt and Carnegie, as well as their peer in wealth. Huguette was the daughter of a late-in-life second marriage. I leave it to the reader to discover all the scandal and wonder contained in these pages--there is plenty of both.

I especially loved the ending chapters of the book. I don't like revealing too many details of a book, or what's the point of reading? I will say that Dedman, who started out offended at the waste of maintaining empty properties not for sale, then drawn into outrage at the possibility that Huguette was being taken advantage of, in the end offers a multidimensional tale of a time and a life we can only wonder at. In the end, he is so tender that it's obvious he has fallen under Huguette's spell--as have all the men and women who really got to know her. As have I.


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