Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman

Dedman’s Empty Mansions Reveals Life of Huguette Clark – 2014

An Exclusive Interview with Bill Dedman,
Co-author of Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Columnist Anna Roins

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

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Bill Dedman’s best-selling book, ‘Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune’ (10 September 2013) is about the youngest daughter of copper tycoon W. A. Clark, one of the wealthiest men in American history. It connects the opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance, making it a perfect portal into America’s long past.

Co-authored by Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette Clark, Empty Mansions debuted at No. 4 on The New York Times Best Seller List for hardcover nonfiction and was on The Los Angeles Times bestseller list for ten weeks.

Empty Mansions is exceptional not only because of its clear writing style, but also for the incredible story Bill Dedman unearthed by accident about Huguette Clark, an heiress with a touch of whimsy and ‘the last jewel of the gilded age’.

AUTHORLINK: Bill, thank you for joining us for this interview, and for writing this extraordinary book. Congratulations on its success so far.

Do you believe that a person who is born into a family of unimaginable wealth has the same reference point of reality as the rest of us? Would not some ‘disability’, as you once referred to it be passed down which might make them seem eccentric?

“Co-author Paul Clark Newell, Jr., and I have been bowled over by the enthusiastic response of readers. . .”

DEDMAN: Thank you for your kindness. Co-author Paul Clark Newell, Jr., and I have been bowled over by the enthusiastic response of readers and reviewers.

I would say that the burdens of inherited wealth do change one’s perspective, in ways that we can see in the life of Huguette Clark, whose father was thought of in the early 1900s to be as rich as Rockefeller. She had her own style of elegance, of generosity, of stubbornness, of using money to maintain her privacy.

And her own fears. Kidnapping of the children of industrialists and celebrities had occurred in spectacular cases well before the Lindbergh baby was taken and killed. Even before Huguette Clark was born in her father’s house in Butte, Montana, it had a panic room with a new-fangled device to ring for help from the police, fire department, or hospital. Consider Huguette’s reaction, a century later in New York, when meeting the grandchild of her best friend: Huguette said the boy was so cute that someone might try to kidnap him. She said it wasn’t safe for him and his single mother to be living on the second floor of their apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. She insisted they trade up to an apartment on a higher floor, paying the $610,000 difference herself. And when Huguette’s friends in France, where she was born, asked her when she would come to visit them, she said, oh, no, she couldn’t do that — there might be another Revolution! She clearly had fears, and some of those fears seemed to draw on her financial circumstances.

AUTHORLINK: Interesting. The Clark family story encompasses the entire span of American history in just three generations. As you once said, “There’s the Titanic, Rockefeller, Twain, Lindbergh…so that you have the whole history of the country laid out through one daughter and her parents.”

Have you been approached to draft a film script? If so, which actress would you like to see playing Huguette Clark?

DEDMAN: Although we do hope that a film to be based on “Empty Mansions,” we wouldn’t typically be involved in the writing of the screenplay. Authors sign away the rights to the book, and hope for the best. We could advise or make suggestions, but at that point someone else gets to tell the story, adding the sort of made-up scenes and dialogue that we wouldn’t put in a nonfiction book.

As you say, the scope of the Clark saga is so wide that I could see 100 different screenwriters finding 100 different points of entry. Do you focus on the Gilded Age extravagance of New York, the Montana copper camps, the hospital years, the dolls, or the quiet life of a painter?

As for an actress, well, is Meryl Streep available? I would think finding a younger actress who could play Huguette in her 20s and age toward 104 would be more likely, but we shall see.

AUTHORLINK: We understand Ms. Clark was a positive, generous, wilful, and above all lucid person when she drafted her two final wills in 2005.

At what point do you believe a professional relationship becomes morphed into one of deep friendship that detaches any stain of ‘undue influence’, or does it only dissipate when wages are removed from the equation?

DEDMAN: Yes, Huguette certainly does seem to have been lucid, with a grace and elegance that was surprising if all you knew was that she was a recluse who loved her doll collection. In the audio book, you can hear how clear and comfortable Huguette was as she described to her cousin Paul how her family held tickets in 1912 for the Titanic’s return trip — explaining matter-of-factly, “We took another boat.”

Huguette called her nurse Hadassah Peri her companion. Hadassah worked for her for 20 years, and by all accounts was the one nurse whom Huguette listened to. Readers have had varying reactions to the $31 million in gifts that Huguette gave to the nurse and her family, clearly authorized, writing most of the checks herself over 20 years. Some readers are outraged and find the gifts disgusting. Others put it in perspective. I admit I’m less than outraged. If my mother died with $300,000 in total assets, and it turned out that she had given to her caregiver $30,000 over twenty years, that would be the same scale as the gifts Huguette gave to her favorite nurse. Still, we can all agree that $31 million is a lot of money, and that Hadassah could have said, “Madame, that’s enough. Or she even could have returned the checks to Huguette’s attorney, refusing to cash them.” But who would do that? As Hadassah said, “I dedicate my life to Madame.”

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Clark kept two mansions, and three New York apartments empty, spending millions to maintain every year. However, she chose to hide away for 21 years in a viewless hospital room in the Beth Israel Medical Center, where she died at 2011 at the age of 104.

This September, her Clark relatives (from her father’s first marriage), were successful in contesting the 2005 will by way of settlement. Was it fair, in your opinion? And under the amended will, the new executors of her estate have now instigated a lawsuit against the hospital and Ms. Clark’s primary doctor, with a $105 million lawsuit for putting profit ahead of their medical duty. They allegedly extracted millions in gifts and rent from their ‘Big Bucks’ patient; a breach of fiduciary duty. How do you think that’s going to pan out?

DEDMAN: It’s not my role to give approval or disapproval to the settlement. Readers can make up their own minds. I can say that Huguette told her best friend, Suzanne Pierre, that her relatives were out to get her money, and she was right. Based on her stubbornness and fierce protection of her privacy, it wouldn’t be surprising if she would be upset that her will was being questioned, that her nurse didn’t get what she had promised her, and that most of her relatives were telling the world that she was mentally ill and incompetent. Some solace might have come from the fact that the settlement, in the end, followed the will by creating an arts foundation at her beloved Bellosguardo, as she directed.

As to the continuing legal action, we’ll see whether that lawsuit survives a claim that is barred by the statute of limitations. I can understand that readers may be aghast at the machinations of the hospital in scheming ways to seek donations from Huguette, but it’s worth mentioning that the hospital was largely unsuccessful, that she gave the hospital a $3.5 million painting, but gave no donations in her last six years there. In other words, she gave what she wanted. And it’s worth noting that the hospital received only $1 million of her $300 million-plus estate through the will, a result that must have been terribly disappointing after she had lived in the hospital for 7,364 nights. It’s also clear that Huguette said she wanted to stay there — she wasn’t kidnapped.

“We don’t know, and probably will never know, what caused Huguette to be reclusive.”

AUTHORLINK: In the early thirties, Ms. Clark socialised and travelled and even got married. She would duck out to have her Stradivarius re-stringed or attend a private showing with Dior to buy clothes for her doll collection.

Why do you think she started to withdraw from society in the fifties, much to her eventual financial detriment? Like the time she didn’t involve the insurers when her mother’s jewellery was stolen from the bank; or when she instructed the FBI not to pursue the loss of her $10 million Degas masterpiece for fear of publicity?

DEDMAN: We don’t know, and probably will never know, what caused Huguette to be reclusive. As we wrote, “Easy answers fail because the question assumes that personalities have a single determinant.” That’s one of the lessons of the book: the folly of judging someone else’s life from the outside. I will say that it appears that Huguette was in some ways following her mother, Anna’s pattern. As soon as Huguette’s father died, she and her mother left that 121-room mansion on Fifth Avenue, retreating to a quiet apartment. Her mother, though lively in person, seemed quite reserved and uncomfortable in public. As you say, the extreme desire for privacy was used against Huguette time and again, as her bank and others realized that she wouldn’t fight for what she was due, wouldn’t sue, because she valued her privacy more than she valued a few million extra dollars.

AUTHORLINK: An Art Foundation was created as a charity under the amended will and given control of her largest mansion, Bellosguardo in Santa Barbara (valued at $85 million). This makes it the largest beneficiary under the amended will other than the Clark relatives share (approximately 34.5 million).

Are you aware of any exhibition of Ms. Clark’s collection of antique dolls, doll-houses and own personal artwork that is to take place? Do you know if the Art Foundation is keen to recover her mother’s jewelry that her bank ‘displaced’?

DEDMAN: Like Huguette, the Bellosguardo Foundation will be “house poor.” The foundation will have her summer home by the sea, worth at least $85 million, but only about $5 million to $6 million in cash, and even that amount could be reduced if the IRS insisted on collecting penalties from the estate on unpaid gift taxes. The foundation also will receive her doll collection and her Japanese model castles, altogether worth at least $1.7 million.

The home could be an art museum, displaying works from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art alongside paintings created by Huguette. (The fine art owned by Huguette, including a Monet and a Renoir, will be sold at auction, probably at one of the New York auction houses in spring 2014.) But the foundation inherited a property with millions in deferred maintenance, and could find that its only option is to sell Bellosguardo.

Perhaps someday tourists will be able to roam the mesa by the sea, touring a restored circular garden of Anna Clark’s roses, gawking at the paneling in the rooms transplanted from W.A. Clark’s old Clark Mansion on Fifth Avenue, imagining what it was like to live life in Huguette’s circumstances.

Or the foundation may decide that it has to do what Huguette could not: Give up the past.

“. . .we were researching right up to the last moment. Even late in the editing, we had a graduate student searching Paris for records on Huguette’s friend Etienne “

AUTHORLINK: You once said about your writing technique that you, “…aim for clarity using all of the materials that I have…I’m not trying to be literary. I think of myself as a reporter not as a writer…I don’t want readers to be confused or uncomfortable.”

How long did it take you to perfect your crystal-clear writing style and what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

DEDMAN: Our approach to the writing was to try to let the story tell itself. The details were so fantastic.

And we were researching right up to the last moment. Even late in the editing, we had a graduate student searching Paris for records on Huguette’s friend Etienne, documenting that he had not been a marquis, as he had been called in the 1930s and 1940s in the U.S. Our method in reporting was to explore every cul-de-sac and to enjoy where it led us. Huguette and her family were being revealed to us, too, in those details. If we don’t go to her hospital room, long after she died, we don’t get the photo of the desolate view from her window. Another small example: If we hadn’t found a book about the company that made the magnificent pipe organ in the old Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue, the one bought for $120,000 (in 1910 dollars), we would never have found the story about that pipe organ being sold, when the Clark mansion was demolished in 1927, for the price of one good cigar.

We soaked up every detail from old photos and new, including family photos from Huguette’s albums, and old snapshots she sent to Paul. We sat with a professor of art history to discuss Huguette’s paintings and the role of women painters in the early 20th century. We hired a landscape designer in Southern California to identify trees and plants in modern photos of Bellosguardo from the estate. A professor of the history of fashion helped us get the details right on a hobble skirt, a cloche hat. These details helped us try to recreate the world of the Clarks in the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age.

“As for the writing, I think of journalism as akin to teaching. You have to understand something to be able to explain it. “

As for the writing, I think of journalism as akin to teaching. You have to understand something to be able to explain it. You need an ear for what the reader knows, what the reader may care about, what the reader needs or wants to learn next. Unlike teaching, you don’t have a captive audience, so you have to worry every second that the reader may follow distractions and go elsewhere. I also believe that journalism is a social science, and that when done well, with transparency, the reader should be able to place each sentence on a spectrum of certainty: The reader should be able to tell what you know for sure, what you have contradictory information about, what you have one source on but that source may be unreliable, and when you have no information at all. I believe that saying what you don’t know increases your credibility. I also believe that one can rely on the readers to be smart, to notice connections, to be able to hold two thoughts at once, to see the themes and the humor and the sadness, so we don’t have to keep pointing with neon signs.

AUTHORLINK: Bill, it’s been an absolute pleasure interviewing you on your excellent book Empty Mansions. We wish you every success for your future investigative endeavours.

DEDMAN: Thank you. Paul and I have enjoyed meeting so many readers who found meaning in the Clark story. Readers can find information, with photos and videos, at http://emptymansionsbook.com.

About Bill Dedman:

Bill Dedman’s compelling series of narratives for NBCNews.com about Huguette Clark became the most popular feature in the history of its news website, topping 110 million page views.

In 1989, he received the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for ‘The Color of Money‘, about racial discrimination by mortgage lenders in middle-income neighborhoods. In 2008, he received a national award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his articles and video on fire-fighter deaths. In 2011, he received a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for his narrative on Huguette Clark and her family.

Bill has written for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and The New York Times and was the first director of computer-assisted reporting for The Associated Press. Dedman taught advanced reporting part-time at the University of Maryland, Northwestern University, and Boston University and created the Power Reporting site of research tools for journalists.

About Paul Clark Newell, Jr.:

Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette Clark, is the co-author (and not one of the relatives that sought her fortune under her will). He has researched the Clark family history for over 20 years, sharing many conversations with Huguette about her life and family and had been invited to the Bellosguardo mansion in Santa Barbara.

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked in a career in writing six years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles on social and community issues. She has also edited a number of books, websites and dissertations, as well as continued studies in creative literature with the University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to Authorlink.