Death of Eccentric, 104-Year-Old Lady Leads to a Museum for her Art and Books
Huguette Clark (right) at age 11 in Montana, with father and sister Andrée.
A 21,000 square-foot mansion in Santa Barbara, California, will one day be the home of a fabulous museum, including art and books from an old and spectacular personal collection. Not much is known about the collection, especially the books, though a first edition of Paradise Lost is said to be part of the library. It seems to be more oriented to visual art, but the owner was the half-sister of William Andrews Clark, Jr., whose books were bequeathed to the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California Los Angeles when he died in 1934. It is one of the more important rare book libraries in the country.
This magnificent gift is filled with intrigue, a bit of Howard Hughes combined with a person connected to times very long ago. The mansion and collection are the gifts of Huguette Marcelle Clark, a 104-year-old woman who, like Howard Hughes, disappeared from public view many decades ago. She died in May, just two weeks short of her 105th birthday.
This story goes well back into the 19th century. Ms. Clark's father, William Andrews Clark, was born in 1839. Is there anyone else still alive whose father was born in 1839? Probably not. Two generations spanning 172 years. William Clark was a clever man. Born in Pennsylvania, he moved west to the Montana Territory, where he became one of Butte's legendary "copper kings." By the 1880s, he was an extraordinarily wealthy man, with business interests extending far beyond mining. By the turn of the century, he was one of the richest men in America, with wealth equivalent to something like $3 billion today. It was Clark who established Las Vegas, as a stop for his railroad (Clark County is named for him).
Clark developed friends, enemies, and sycophants along the way. Some saw him as unscrupulous. Mark Twain has been quoted as saying of Clark, "He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs." Twain apparently didn't care much for him. The reference to the senate came from Clark's desire to be a senator in the days when U.S. senators were appointed by the state legislature. Clark simply bribed his way to the appointment. As he later was said to have quite accurately pointed out, "I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale." It was reputedly at least partly because of Clark that the 17th Amendment, providing for direct election of senators, was passed. The Senate refused to seat Clark, but he later would be successfully selected to a term in the Senate in 1901.
Clark was married twice. He and his first wife had five children. In fact, the late Huguette Clark actually had a sibling who died in the 19th century. Mr. Clark's first wife died in 1893, and he later married Anna La Chapelle, 39 years his junior. She had two daughters, Andrée, born in 1902, and Huguette, born in 1906, when her father was 67 years old. Mr. Clark built himself and his family a 121-room (including 31 bathrooms) mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York, where he lived until he died in 1925.
Undoubtedly, Huguette did not have a typical childhood, though it seems to have been a pleasant one. She probably never bonded much with her father's first family, but was close to her mother and full sister, Andrée. Andrée died in 1919 at the age of 16, and this tragic event may partly explain the reclusiveness Huguette developed as the years wore on. Huguette did get married once, but it didn't last. In 1928, she married a man who had worked for her father. She claimed desertion, a 1940 book asserted the marriage was never consummated. By 1930, she was divorced, shy, and never to be married again.
She then moved in with her mother, sharing a "smaller," 42-room apartment in New York. It would be her official residence for the remainder of her life. There are no known photographs taken of Huguette Clark after 1930.
Death of Eccentric, 104-Year-Old Lady Leads to a Museum for her Art and Books
Huguette Clark in her teens, and her last known photograph, taken over 80 years ago.
In the 1950s, Huguette still participated in some private social events, and must have thought about coming out of her shell a bit more. She visited the Santa Barbara estate donated to charity through her will, and purchased another in New Canaan, Connecticut. However, she hadn't visited the Santa Barbara estate in over 50 years, and reportedly never saw the one in New Canaan, though she owned it almost 60 years. Surprisingly, despite her over half century absence from her estates, she had each meticulously cared for by people she never met through all of the years. Meanwhile, she stayed in her New York apartment. After her mother died in 1963, she lived alone, and withdrew even more. All of her siblings, save one, had died by the 1930s. She drifted deeper into her spectacular doll collection, seemingly returning, at least emotionally, to childhood. Neighbors reported they rarely saw her. She had virtually no friends. Even people who regularly worked for her were limited to indirect contact, or an occasional conversation through a closed door.
In 1988, Huguette apparently determined she needed to be in a hospital, although there does not appear to have been a medical emergency, just a certain frailness resulting from old age. It appears she simply may have been more comfortable in the small but safer surroundings. She never returned home. She chose to stay in various hospital rooms, living under assumed names, with one or two caretaker-friends who would visit, and part of her collection of dolls. She died in such a room in May, no children, all connections to family long ago abandoned. Her will specifically denied any inheritances going to family. Other than charitable donations, she left $30 million-plus to the one surviving long-term caretaker/friend and relatively small amounts to her lawyer and accountant. Despite the extreme reclusiveness and lack of ties to family, it should be noted that those who knew Huguette Clark, particularly families of various caretaker/companions, speak of her as a kind, generous and caring woman. She just, for whatever reason, could not bear to be seen by others.
Of course, when someone dies with a $400 million fortune and no visible heirs, there is bound to be some controversy. Even before her death there were questions about the isolation and care of Ms. Clark. Her lawyer and accountant received comparatively modest bequests ($500,000 each), but may stand to make much more managing her estate and foundation. It is unknown at this point whether this investigation will lead anywhere or whether the distant relatives will make claims. Those relatives, descendants of half-siblings, long denied contact with Ms. Clark, may believe her representatives were keeping them from her, but whether they were encouraging isolation, or just acquiescing to the wishes of an eccentric, shy old lady is anyone's guess. Huguette certainly could have given today's generation a wonderful, personal account of long ago history, but sadly, for whatever reason, she chose not.
The foundation Ms. Clark created for her estate, art and books is just a vague entity at this point. She did not give specific directions as to what it should become, just general guidelines. That will surely take years to unfold, but once it does, the world will be better off for Huguette Clark's generosity in passing on the remains of one of America's great 19th century fortunes.