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March 23, 2015

Empty Mansions

Empty MansionsWith not a few politicians accused of enriching themselves using public funds (and a deposed dictator’s rapacious family) making headlines again, one would think that the average Filipino would be unimpressed with accounts of immense wealth and stupendous spending.  We are, after all, a country whose former first lady is alleged to have dropped millions of pesos on art and jewelry in a single shopping spree in New York City. Apparently, there are other terribly rich people who are capable to spending untold sums in mind-boggling ways. EMPTY MANSIONS, subtitled “The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune”, weaves such a story.

Take one apartment occupying the entire eighth floor of a building and half of the top floor, for a grand total of forty two rooms, on Fifth Avenue. Add a castle-like mansion with twenty-two rooms in a wooded fifty-two acre property with its own waterfall and river in Connecticut. On top of that, add a vacation estate on twenty-three cliff-top acres in Santa Barbara that somebody had offered to buy for $100 million and got turned down. Most of the properties had stood unoccupied (and filled with priceless art―we are talking Renoirs and Stradivarius violins) in the last 50 years while the owner lived 20 years in self-imposed exile in a Manhattan hospital.

Huguette (pronounced “oo-GET”) Clark inherited one-fifth of her father’s $250 million estate (worth up to $3.4 billion today) upon his death in 1925. She was the heiress to one of America’s greatest copper mining fortunes. She had been famous in her childhood and was famous once again a hundred years later. Most recently she was featured on the Today Show, and the New York Times ran a lavish story on its front page. Remarkable is how elusive she was in between those years. Her last known photograph was taken in 1928, wearing furs, jewelry and a cloche hat.

In over 500 pages, the author traces the Clark family’s rise to wealth, starting with Huguette’s father. William A. Clark was born in a log cabin and went on to become the copper king and eventually, a U.S. senator. Meticulous research by the author provides intimate details of Huguette’s lavish properties, doll collections and artworks in five chapters. The heiress had been spending incredible amounts and also gave away millions in financial support, gifts and donations. Employees, friends, charities, god children, lawyers, her ex-husband (!) and her (Filipina) nurse were fortunate recipients of her largesse.  Google Hadassah Peri and articles about the $30 million in gifts that she received through the years comes up.

Was Huguette Clark defrauded of her wealth towards the end of her life? She died at the age of 104 in 2011 and lawsuits flew thick between lawyers, foundations, and relatives after that. After reading the book, I concluded that Huguette was in full command of her senses when she gave away millions, nay billions.  On the other hand, you may read the book AND decide otherwise.

EMPTY MANSIONS is available in both hardcover and paperback editions in bookstores.


PRHPenguin Random House is the world’s first truly global trade book publisher. It was formed on July 1, 2013, upon the completion of an agreement between Bertelsmann and Pearson. Penguin Random House employs more than 10,000 people globally across almost 250 editorially and creatively independent imprints and publishing houses that collectively publish more than 15,000 new titles annually. Its publishing lists include more than 70 Nobel Prize laureates and hundreds of the world’s most widely read authors.

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