Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark


Rating: 4 Stars

Basically this book shows you that everything you think is probably true about people that you wish was not actually true, is true.

Is that a sentence?

At least it makes sense in my head. People are selfish and manipulative and will do whatever they can to cash in on an inheritance that does not belong to them, all under the guise of 'caring for a family member'. What bullshit.

Having first read Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman, I feel like both are well-written and engaging. I don't really recommend one over the other and think that if you are interested in the strange life and sad death of Huguette Clark, you should read both.

This book doesn't just cover the end of Huguette's life when she voluntarily chose to leave her number of homes and live in Beth Israel Hospital. Instead, the author traces Huguette's life from the start - her life in Paris, growing up in Butte, Montana, the family's home in Santa Barbara at Bellosguardo, and the main residence on Fifth Avenue that stood for only eleven years before being torn down after her father's death. By all accounts, Huguette was an active social - albeit shy - young lady who  enjoyed the life that her robber baron of a father provided with his copper fortune.

So what changed?

First, Huguette's beloved older sister Andree died of meningitis at 17, when Huguette was only 13. I feel like this was really the point that changed Huguette and her mother. Then her father passed away in 1925 - but not before imparting this gem on his youngest daughter: "No one will love you for who you are. They will love you for your money." It seems like a harsh lesson to have dropped on such a 16 year old, but he was not wrong. As Huguette neared the end of her life, family members from her father's first marriage seemed to come out of the woodwork to get their hands on her inheritance - despite the fact that they had all already received their shares of the family fortune. Not that anyone else in Huguette's life was any better. Her nurse, doctors, the hospital, her lawyer, and accountant - all of these people just wanted her money and it was painfully obvious that the only two people in her life who were not gold diggers were her goddaughter Wanda and her assistant Chris. I get the fact that there was concern about elder abuse, that Huguette might be a hostage of some kind and being coerced into giving her money to those around her. However, her money-grubbing family members had no footing on which to claim they were looking out for her best interests.

There are so many aspects of Huguette's life that are intriguing and tragic and heartbreaking. The whole 'eviction' notice from her father in his will was awful. So, basically Clark spent a ton of money to build this house that everyone said was ugly. I thought it was beautiful, and wish all these old mansions still existed as a testament to this bygone time.

"The public be damned - William Clark was happy with his new home" (page 82). I'd agree with the sentiment.

Huguette and her family lived in the house for only eleven years and then it was demolished to make way for apartment buildings. Huguette and her mother moved into an apartment and slowly but surely withdrew from their once active social lives. They stopped visiting Bellosguardo in the 1950s, but continued to maintain the home at a cost of $1 million per year. Were they just so dependent on one another, or was it more so that Huguette was terrified of losing the last person she loved and cared about, and so they kind of wrapped themselves in this cocoon and never went anywhere or saw anyone because they were so afraid of losing one another? I don't know. And now, after Huguette passing in 2011, we will never have the answers to any of the questions we might have about what made Huguette behave the way she did, make the choices that she did, and ultimately end her days in a hospital as a healthy individual who could have gone home.

In the early 1990s it was discovered that Huguette had skin cancer and she was taken to the hospital, from which she would never leave. This is another issue that will never really be resolved - why would she refuse to go home once she was cancer-free and healthy again? The author contends that while change was difficult for Huguette, once she discovered this new world she could live in and have limited contact with other people on her own terms, she did not want to return to her home.

The problem became that everyone she came in contact with after her arrival and subsequent stay in the hospital, they are wanted her money. It is absolutely disgusting how these people behaved. Huguette's close friend Suzanna helped to hire a full time private nurse named Hadassah, who for many years worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week to be with Huguette at the hospital. So apparently, because Hadassah agreed to Huguette's outrageous terms, she felt entitled to every penny she could get out of her employer? Whether that was the intent or not, that is exactly how she comes across - especially with the issue of this check for $5 million that she felt she was owed because Huguette has promised it. THEN she and her husband had the nerve to be pissed that they did not have the money when they wanted it. It's all just so gross.

If you are in any doubt about how yucky these people were in grubbing for Huguette's money, here are a few gems from the book:

"What Hadassah learned was that if she simply mentioned her problems to Huguette, her wealthy and healthy patient would reach for her checkbook" (page 245).

"The secret of Hadassah's salesmanship was that she never had to directly ask for anything. All she had to do was discuss her concerns over the high cost of private school (and the college) for her three children; Huguette began paying not only the tuition bills but the cost of after school activities" (page 245).

The hospital staffers were no better, from the CEO to her doctors, they all wanted money for the hospital. They were constantly coming up with ways to mention to Huguette that the hospital was in need of donations; one doctor even used his own mother to spend time with Huguette in order to try and get money that way. All of these people were taking advantage of her kindness, and had not done anything to deserve the thousands and thousands of dollars she gave to them. At first they were keen to send her home, but when they realized how much money she was worth, it is pretty clear they wanted her to stay to keep the money coming in.

"The nurse was not alone in seeing dollar signs above Huguette's hospital bed; the administrators and doctors running Beth Israel Hospital wanted their share, too" (page 264). Except, wait, they were not entitled to her money just because. Again, so disgusting.

So many of Huguette's actions I simply do not understand. Perhaps it is because she had so much money her entire life to do whatever she wanted with, that $1 million meant nothing to her? For example, she never took any legal action when she was wronged. Was it really that terrible to have her name in the papers, that she would rather just let the money go than claim what belonged to her? At one point, "Even when she was wronged, she refused to sue. Citibank had informed the heiress several years earlier that more than $5 million worth of jewelry, including her mother's wedding ring and a magnificent bracelet adorned with sapphires and diamonds, had been pilfered from a custodial account at a bank branch" (page 259). How does this happen? I don't understand. THEN, on top of that, the remaining pieces that had not been stolen had been put into a new safety deposit box, which was 'inadvertantly' listed as abandoned and the rest of the contents sold at auction. These were family pieces that Huguette had thought were safe, and twice she was robbed. But again she did not choose to sue. Instead she accepted a monetary settlement for far less than the pieces had been worth. It's just so sad that all these terrible things kept happening to Huguette and she continued to just grin and bear it.

So, in the end, the book paints a pretty grim picture of a woman who was completely surrounded by vultures. Even so, she continued to spend her time as she wished, creating grand art projects that occupied her time up until the very end. Perhaps she did not mind people constantly asking for money? Perhaps it really meant nothing to her. When her attorneys continually tried to get her to sign a new will (her previous one left her inheritance to her mother), she was reminded time and again that without a new will, the descendents of her half-siblings would get her money. And still she refused to entertain the idea of a new will. It doesn't make it right that they all came after her money anyway, but still.

Anyway, Huguette Clark is a fascinating figure. The people around her will infuriate you with their greed. I would like to think that she was mentally competent to be signing these checks, and that all the money really did mean nothing to her. Above all, I hope she was happy with her choices. Highly recommended.

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