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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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The Eccentric Heiress Of ‘Empty Mansions’

The Nassau County district attorney’s (DA) office makes a cameo appearance in Empty Mansions, an incredible book about Huguette Clark (1906-2011), the Manhattan-raised heiress whose generosity and eccentricities were legendary.

Now that Ryan Murphy, a creator of television’s “Glee,” has optioned Empty Mansions’ film rights, I imagine a scrum of top actresses are vying to play Clark.

Bill Dedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who co-authored Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune (Ballantine Books), will speak and sign copies of the book on Tuesday, April 22, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the New York Public Library’s mid-Manhattan building, 455 Fifth Ave., 6th floor, at 40th Street. The event is free and open to the public.

Empty Mansions, which hit No. 1 on The New York Times’ bestseller list, refers to the multi-million-dollar properties that Mrs. Clark, as she liked to be addressed, owned in California, Connecticut and New York. She never lived in most of them while retaining numerous full-time employees to maintain these homes for decades. How could Mrs. Clark afford such extravagances?

The answer: Her father, W.A. Clark, amassed a fortune as a copper magnate in states such as Montana and Arizona. The copper Clark’s businesses mined was woven into the telephone wires that spread like wildfire throughout the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Clark then wielded his checkbook to convince Montana’s state legislators they needed Clark as one of their D.C. representatives, and he became Senator Clark. This occurred prior to 1913, an era when a state’s lawmakers, not its voters, decided who would sit in the U.S. Senate.  

Clark and his second wife, Anna, had two daughters, Andree, who died when she was a teenager, and Huguette (a French name, it is pronounced oo-GET). Clark was 67 when his youngest child was born. The co-authors observe that W.A. Clark came into this world in 1839, when Martin Van Buren, the nation’s eighth president, was in office. His daughter was still alive when Barack Obama, the 44th U.S. president, was serving his first term.

When W.A. Clark died in 1925, his assets were estimated at $100 million to $250 million, “worth up to $3.4 billion today,” the co-authors write. Ms. Clark was a teenager at the time, and inherited one-fifth of his estate, according to the book. One of Empty Mansions’ running themes is that Huguette Clark had little concept of how money was earned. She knew very well, however, that she had access to lots of cash, and spent large sums on charitable causes, antique Japanese dolls, and a private-duty nurse who looked after her in a Manhattan hospital, where she spent the last two decades of her life.

Mrs. Clark was ill when she initially arrived at the hospital, but came to enjoy staying there. Once the medical institution realized how wealthy their not-so-sick patient was, they tried relentlessly to get Huguette Clark to become a major hospital donor. She declined most of their overtures, the book notes.

The Nassau DA’s office gets mentioned after one of Mrs. Clark’s accountants pled guilty in 2008 to charges related to disseminating indecent material to minors. Believing his email correspondence was with a 15-year-old girl, the middle-aged accountant subsequently learned a Nassau DA’s investigator was on the receiving end of his racy missives. The accountant, who stood to earn millions of dollars as an executor of Mrs. Clark’s $300 million-plus estate, was allowed to keep his accounting license. In the end, however, the accountant would lose out on his potential windfall.

Surely, Mrs. Clark must have gotten married, or pursued a career, right? Yes, and no. A brief 1928 marriage to William Gower ended in divorce, and the couple had no children. Huguette Clark was a talented painter, the co-authors reveal, and some of her works, which appear in the book, illustrate the point. But she had little interest in interacting with the larger world, and craved her privacy, so sharing her art with a broader audience was out of the question.

What would you do if you had more money than you could ever spend? Empty Mansions shows how answering that question is not so easy. More information on the bestseller, which is also available in paperback, e-book and audiobook, can be found online at

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: