Saturday, September 14, 2013

Inheritance ("Empty Mansions" by Bill Dedman and Paul Newell, Jr.)

When William A. Clark--copper industrialist, mining magnate, railroad tycoon, former United States senator--died in 1925 at the age of 86, his youngest child was only 19 years old:  a shy, sparkling daughter by the name of Huguette (pronounced "ooh-GET"). Born during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, Huguette would live long enough to see the election of Barack Obama--a life spanning almost 105 years. Taken with her father's lifespan, not to mention the late age at which he became a father for the sixth and last time, their story is one of two generations spanning 172 years, a monumental feat by any stretch of the imagination, and one that connects elements of American history that would otherwise seem too distant:  Martin Van Buren to Barack Obama; a union of 26 states to one of 50; the American Civil War, waged face to face with cannons and muskets, to the War on Terrorism, waged by tanks and Humvees and unmanned aerial drones; tintype photographs to digital cameras, telegraphs to Skype, the Pony Express to e-mail. The changes are endless.

But the story of these two individuals--an accomplished, cutthroat father and his beloved but withdrawn daughter--is more than one of historical bridges. It's the story of legacy:  what we leave behind when we depart this world. Both W.A. Clark and daughter Huguette lived full, interesting lives--lives supported almost entirely by unimaginable wealth and opportunity--but left behind vastly different legacies. Empty Mansions, ostensibly about how Huguette Clark spent her vast inheritance over her 105 years, is really the story of how two people connected through blood could walk such thoroughly different paths.

The first half of Dedman and Newell's book is devoted almost exclusively to W.A. Clark, with a special emphasis on his rags-to-riches early life and how, as he grew older, his ethics and his wealth fought for control over him. On the surface there seems to be little here concerning Huguette, other than to offer a backstory about where her eventual millions came from (and for the occasional anecdote about a doting father); however, in beginning with the story of Huguette's wealth rather than, say, her life interrupted every so often by backstory, the co-authors are offering up a financial contrast between father and daughter--how they used their money, how money affected them--rather than a biographical one, as much of Huguette's life revolved around artwork, real estate, a vast doll collection, and her correspondences with friends and family. The emphasis here is not on their obvious differences--W.A. Clark was a public man, whereas Huguette was private, downright reclusive--but their material ones. It is on these terms that Huguette Clark is defined, and it is also how the story of Huguette Clark becomes something akin to a Shakespearean tragedy.

You see, W.A. Clark used his money to gain influence and power over others, often for the benefit of his own status and legacy. This included buying his way into the United States Senate, which would eventually get him removed from office. (He would return to office, Dedman and Newell say, on his own merits a few years later, though he would accomplish very little there.) He used his power to gather up businesses, fight against competitors, and muscle his way into social circles that would have otherwise pushed back against his advances. He also built himself and his family a large, ugly behemoth of a mansion in the middle of Manhattan--one the family occupied for less than two decades and had to be torn down afterwards because of its cost, which no other buyer could afford--which would be the first of many Clark Family houses that would stand opulent but empty over the coming decades.

In contrast, Huguette used her inheritance to not only buy up expensive works of art, many of them handmade dollhouses built to her specifications in Europe and Japan, but to make the lives of her friends and family, not to mention casual acquaintances and even strangers, extremely comfortable. The depiction of Huguette's habits is one of a woman who has an innate understanding of how money can be spent--this becomes obvious in her later years--but not how it should be saved. Not that she was ever in danging of depleting her accounts, but Huguette's seemingly carefree ability to write a check for tens of thousands, continue paying pensions to the spouses of long-dead family employees, or pay in full the tuition for a friend's children is a direct challenge to the legacy of her father. It's an interesting and admirable way for one person to use their wealth, though it invited quite the number of blackmailers and thieves as she grew older--the very same kind of people who, a century earlier, would have seemed like successors to the practices of W.A. Clark himself.

In an era before campaign finance and the direct election of senators, when safety regulations, strong labor unions, and income equality were still fantasies of a majority of Americans--an era much like our own, the authors suggest--Clark used money like a weapon. His wealth poisoned him, and while he was far from a ruthless Scrooge, it's safe to say that he would never have accomplished so much had he been worth half as much as he was. Seventy-some years after his death, Huguette sat in a New York City hospital room--a place where she'd spend the previous twenty years of her life--as those around her seemed hell-bent on gathering up weapons of their own. Her cherished nurse, as well as the nurse's family, received checks from the old woman, which slowly gave way to requests for more--in one instance, one of her sons asking for a car--until they had received upwards of thirty million dollars in money and gifts...quite the income, even for a nurse who worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Banks stole from her safety deposit boxes, knowing she wouldn't report it for fear of drawing unwanted attention to herself, and artwork was pilfered. Even her attorney and accountant, two men who should have had her best interest in mind, seemed to be drawing a suspiciously high amount from her, especially in a revised will that looked to benefit them greatly when she passed away. (Clark's wills are currently the subject of a massive court case pitting both of those men and Clark's trusted nurse against more than a dozen members of the Clark family, many of whom never met Huguette.)

W.A. Clark used his power, wealth, and influence to gather even more power, wealth, and influence; in turn, Huguette suffered at the hands of those who wished to gain the same from her. It's a strange cycle, perhaps the saddest aspect of the Clark Family's legacy--a moral on how the sins committed by our parents can come back as sins committed against us--and one that is tinged with an even greater sadness considering how much more goodness such wealth could have brought so many others over that century and a half. And regardless of how Huguette Clark's wealth and possessions are eventually distributed, there's little question that its inheritors will find themselves rich with money and objects that, despite their value, are little more than physical embodiments of the emptiness that comes with such fortune. After all, no matter how much art you store within their walls, empty mansions are still empty.