Thursday, July 17, 2014

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.


Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune 
by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.
Ballantine Books, 2013
496 pages

Audiobook
narrated by Kimberly Farr
Random House Audio, 2013
13 hours and 34 minutes
source: purchased

Publisher's Summary:
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly 60 years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the 19th century with a 21st-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 20 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?

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.

Empty Mansions reveals a complex portrait of the mysterious Huguette and her intimate circle. We meet her extravagant father, her publicity-shy mother, her star-crossed sister, her French boyfriend, her nurse who received more than $30 million in gifts, and the relatives fighting to inherit Huguette’s copper fortune. 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.

My thoughts:

If ever there was a book perfectly suited to a read/listen combination, Empty Mansions is it. The text includes photos, charts, lists, etc., but the audio version includes recorded conversations between Huguette Clark and her nephew, the book's co-author, Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

The beginning of this book is slow going. It's mostly about Huguette's father, W.A. Clark, and how he became the richest man in American history you've never heard of. Your patience may be tested, but the background provided in this section is essential for a clear understanding of Huguette. The audio production and Kimberly Farr's excellent narration helped pull me through to the main attraction.

 Huguette Clarke's story is much more interesting and, once the focus shifted to her, any thoughts of putting the book aside vanished. She was ultra-wealthy, extremely reclusive, and passionately interested in art, music, dolls and dollhouses, and Japanese culture. When she died in 2011 at 104, her closest relatives hadn't seen her in decades.

The question is whether she was manipulated by those closest to her (accountants, lawyers, and nurses were gifted huge sums of money), or simply shy, but happy within the narrow boundaries she imposed upon herself. Huguette's voice, as heard in phone conversations included in the audio version, certainly gives the impression of an alert, engaged, and cheerful woman. In many ways she reminded me of my husband's great aunt, who also lived to be 104 and read The Wall Street Journal until the day she died.

Book club reaction:
My book club's reaction to Empty Mansions was lukewarm, at best. Several member did not finish the book. They gave up during the early history of the Clark family and never even got to Huguette's story. The comment "too boring" came up repeatedly and we did not have much of a discussion. My reaction was the most favorable.

Several group members are audiobook fans and I suspect they would have enjoyed the book more if they'd listened.

Bottom line:  I recommend listening to this book, but be sure to borrow a print copy and take a look at the photographs.

My rating:

23 comments:

  1. I saw this but didn't pick it up -- as usual, your recommendations on how to get the most of out a book are ones that I will happily follow! This has to be a fascinating story.

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    1. Audrey - Thanks for the kind words... this really is an amazing story!

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  2. I loved this book! It was one of the first books I listened to after getting started with audiobooks this past winter, and it'll probably end up on my Top 10 list at the end of the year. I kept wanting to go online to find photos of Huguette and the other "characters" but I made myself wait until I finished the book because I didn't want to accidently read any spoilers. Great book!

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    1. Bookmammalmusings - You sure chose a great book to get you started with audios! I love listening to nonfiction and can highly recommend The Boys in the Boat, Orange is the New Black, and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage - all are excellent in the audio format. I'll remember Empty Mansions for a long time!

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  3. Hm, I picked this book up at BEA and gave it to my mom to read since I figured she'd get to it before I did. She loved it and couldn't stop talking about it.

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    1. Kathy - I was really surprised this didn't go over better with my book club... almost everyone seems to love it.

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  4. our book club is a potluck book club, that is, every member shares the book they just read. One member shared about that book, and it did sound fascinating to me.

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    1. wordsandpeace - What an interesting twist on traditional book clubs! I love that you get exposed to so many new titles at each meeting. Empty Mansions is really an interesting story.

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  5. I read a biography of Huguette last month that I really enjoyed and wondered if I should take the time to read this one as well. It sounds like the perspective may be a little different so I'm definitely going to give it a try. I will definitely try to get my hands on both audio and book form. My main complaint with the Phantom of 5th Avenue was that there were very few pictures and it doesn't sound like that's the case at all. Thanks for the review! I had kind of decided not to pick this one up but it sounds like it's worth putting a little time into. That's too bad your book club didn't like it.

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    1. Katherine - Funny, I've been trying to decide whether to read The Phantom of 5th Avenue! Hearing Huguette in conversations with her nephew was definitely a highlight of the audio version of Empty Mansions. My book club's reaction came as a complete surprise... I expected at least a couple of them would have liked it.

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  6. Awww, I'm sorry it didn't go over so well for your book club. I absolutely loved it, but I have a wicked interest in the uber-wealthy, especially Clark as a recluse!

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    1. Andi - The book club reaction was totally unexpected! Still can't believe I was the only one to enjoy it :-(

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  7. Thank you, JoAnn, for your kind review of "Empty Mansions."

    I'm sorry your fellow club members didn't enjoy our book. Of course an author wants everyone to like the work, but we realize that not every book, or every author's voice, is for everyone. And this is an unusual book, telling three stories: the forgotten history of the making of one of the country's great fortunes, and Huguette's life, and the scramble for her money.

    I'm glad you mentioned the audiobook. Having Huguette's conversations with her cousin and my fellow author, Paul Clark Newell, was a great asset. We included about 20 minutes of them chatting at the back of the audiobook, and a fit bits interspersed in the story. I see those conversations as the best evidence of how clear and lucid Huguettte was, with a remarkable memory of having tickets on the Titanic's return trip, for example. And it's a surprise how perfectly normal she sounds. We've found that book clubs have enjoyed having one member download and a play a few snippets of conversations so everyone can hear her voice.

    By the way, we've added hundreds of photos to an updated website for the book, showing Huguette and her family, the paintings she made, her other treasures, and of course the insides of the homes. That's at http://emptymansionsbook.com.

    Thanks again. Meeting with book clubs via Skype has been one of the best parts of this experience of writing the book.

    All the best,

    Bill Dedman, co-author, "Empty Mansions."

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    1. All I can say is the members who couldn't get into the book must be the ones who just show up to drink wine. :)

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    2. Bill - Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here! I've decided to bring my audiobook to our meeting next week and play portions of the conversations with Huguette. After hearing them, I'm hopeful some members may return to the book. I really want them to enjoy it as much as I did!

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  8. Well that answers my question about whether or not this might make a good book club choice! I'm sure I'll take a shot at it at some point but I think most of my gals would give up early.

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    1. Lisa - To me, this seemed like the perfect book club selection. I can't believe the reaction from my group os typical...

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  9. How could they not be fascinated by this book? Just the fact that a woman who died in the 21st century had a father who was born in 1837 should have been enough of a hook.

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    1. Thomas - I just don't get it either... maybe we should have chosen something a little lighter for June.

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  10. One reason why I stopped going to my book club. People should have enough sense to skim or skip the dull parts.

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    1. James - Well, I think they missed a great story. This is definitely my kind of nonfiction!

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  11. This one has been on my audio TBR list, so I'm so glad you mentioned the print version includes photos. I'll have to check those out when I read it.

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    1. Melissa - Definitely borrow a print edition from the library, or browse through it in the B&N cafe!

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