Monday, January 11, 2016

Publisher description: When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty 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 nineteenth century with a twenty-first-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. 

The library's Tuesday/Thursday book clubs will be discussing Empty Mansions this week. I found parts of it quite interesting (the personal information about the life of Huguette Clark) and parts of it a bit dull (the background about her father and his children).

As Dedman notes in the introduction, "The length of history spanned by father and daughter is hard to comprehend. W.A. Clark was born in 1839, during the administration of the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren. W.A. was twenty-two when the Civil War began. When Huguette was born in 1906, Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president, was in the White House. Yet 170 years after W.A.'s birth, his youngest child was still alive at age 103 during the time of the forty-fourth president, Barack Obama." (p. xviii)

Overall I felt sad for Huguette Clark and her legacy. She was painfully shy – so shy, for example, that she declined to prosecute when robbed because she didn’t want her privacy invaded. Because she was so private, now that she is dead people speculate over why she married and divorced so quickly, why she would call people but not give them her phone number so they could call her, why she lived the last 20 years of her life in a hospital when she owned luxury apartments and mansions. Under different circumstances she might have met some kindred spirits to share her passions with.

The author seems a bit conflicted in his attempt to be neutral. He praises her skills at buying art and musical instruments but treats collecting antique dolls as part of her eccentricity. He includes this passage:
Caterina Marsh said that neither Huguette nor her hobbies seemed the least bit odd – once you talked with her.
“We are all taken by customs and culture,” she said. “I have a brother who became fascinated by trains. There’s nothing strange about having a fascination like collecting stamps.” (p. 185)
While I agree with Caterina Marsh, I’m not sure Bill Dedman does. At least in the Epilogue he does acknowledge “Eccentricity is not a psychiatric disorder.” (p. 353) 

I'm glad a family tree was included. There were places where photos were described and I kept wanting to see the photos. Maybe there were reasons they could not be included. There are a fair number of photos scattered throughout. The book seems to have been well researched, and I was led by it to do some further research into what has happened with the battle over her estate since the book was published.

Huguette Clark certainly does seem to have been eccentric, although I don’t think her doll collecting specifically speaks to eccentricity. If you like historical nonfiction about interesting people with secrets that will never be known, you might enjoy Empty Mansions. It is located in the Galesburg Public Library at NFIC 328.73/CLA.

No comments:

Post a Comment