Book Talk: 'Empty Mansions' reveals life of reclusive heiress

NEW YORK Thu Sep 12, 2013 12:00pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - She was one of America's richest heiresses with sprawling apartments, palatial homes and fabulous paintings, but little was known about the reclusive woman when she died in 2011 at the age of 104 after spending decades living in a hospital.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman hopes to change that with his book "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune."

After combing through tens of thousands of documents and correspondence, and interviewing her inner circle and staff, Dedman and his co-author Paul Clark Newell Jr., a cousin of Clark, reveal the life of the eccentric heiress who inherited a fortune from her copper magnate father William A. Clark, one of the wealthiest men of his time.

She lived on her own terms, gave $30 million in gifts to the nurse who cared for her, spent a fortune in upkeep on empty homes and signed two wills within six weeks, which relatives are challenging in a court case scheduled to begin on September 17.

Dedman spoke to Reuters about his extensive research, uncovering the mystery of Clark's life and her generosity.

Q: What was the impetus for the book?

A: Well, it was a mystery. Before now there had been more unknowns than knowns about her. We didn't know about her life in the hospital. We didn't know about what might have happened between her and the nurse in their lives in the hospital. We knew nothing about what contacts she had with her employees and how they managed her life. We knew nothing of her hobbies. We knew nothing of her character and personality. By joining up with Paul, her cousin who had spoken to her for nine years on the phone, we were able to piece together her character.

Q: How did you begin to piece her life together?

A: I'm pretty much a documents reporter. I'm a public records geek. I'm a person who works things out. I'm not a person who has people tell me things in parking garages. Paul's conversations were a key and getting documents, the court records, the testimony of more than 60 witnesses, including all the people close to her and relatives, and many nurses and doctors, and getting her papers and correspondence. We have more than 20,000 pages of her correspondence and 20,000 pages of medical records ... I tried to run down every path.

Q: In terms of discovering who she was, do you think it is a clear picture?

A: It is. I am not one to seek simple causes. But it is very clear she was not, as assumed by many people to be, weak-willed, or controlled or infantile. She was addressed very respectfully by everyone who knew her because she wouldn't put up with anything but that.

She was strong-willed and stubborn and she frustrated generations of attorneys who couldn't get her to sign a will ... She was very efficient in deferring requests and blocking requests that she wasn't interested in. She was always polite and elegant and not a spoiled rich girl.

Q: There are suggestions that she wasn't of sound mind. Do you agree with that?

A: This is an issue that will be debated in court ... I read all the testimony and all the depositions and have seen all the exhibits and there is no evidence of any mental illness. There is no diagnosis. There is no failure to comprehend on her part. It is clear she knew who her relatives were ... She was very aware and her memory was very good.

Q: The question people will ask is, if she is of sound mind why did she have all these empty mansions, why although healthy did she chose to spend the last portion of her life in a hospital?

A: She didn't go into the hospital until '91, just before she turned 85, and most people would say she was elderly at that point. And she got sick. She got these skin cancers that were very serious and she couldn't eat. She said she felt much more secure there ...

Really, the question is why didn't she sell the houses? Well, she was very sentimental. She told Paul she couldn't visit the California home because it made her think of her mother. She told Paul she couldn't sell the California home because it made her think of her mother.

Q: Do you think she was taken advantage of by employees?

A: I think people around her thought others were too liberal in receiving gifts and they were very glad to receive the gifts that they got ... It is clear she wanted to make the gifts.

Q: Was hers a tragic life?

A: I don't think it was tragic at all. People say, 'Oh, how sad.' They just know the externals. She had homes she didn't live in. She was wealthy and ended up in a hospital, what a tragic existence ... For me her generosity is a key part of the story. She gave about 80 percent of her money to charity. She was also generous to her friends and institutions.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Vicki Allen)

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