Most people have heard of the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts
and the Carnegies. But William Andrews Clark, who amassed
a fortune even greater than these wealthy families, seems
to be little mentioned among these Gilded Age elite. That
is, until his daughter, Hugette Clark, died in the spring
of 2011 at the age of 104 and left behind a massive fortune
and a contested will.
THE PHANTOM OF FIFTH AVENUE is the
comprehensive retelling of the Clark family's story,
beginning with its patriarch, William Andrews Clark who
made his fortune from copper mines in Butte, Montana.
Clark, who would also become a U.S. Senator, married
Katherine Stauffer and together they had four children that
survived to adulthood. Katherine died in 1893 of Typhoid
and Clark eventually remarried Anna La Chapelle, who was 39
years his junior. Clark and Chapelle had two daughters,
Andree and Hugette. By all accounts Hugette had a happy
and very privileged childhood. The Clark family of four
lived together in their mansion on Fifth Avenue and
vacationed often in Paris, Hawaii and on their twenty-three
acre estate in Santa Barbara, California.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is
Hugette's relationship with men. In 1928, at the age of
22, Hugette married her father's accountant's son, William
Gower. However, the marriage only lasted 9 months and was
a popular topic in the tabloids. Meryl Gordon also hints
at a very flirtatious relationship that Hugette had with
her art instructor, Tade Styka but this never amounted to
any type of an intimate relationship. Hugette seems to
also have been courted by Etienne de Villermont, an old
family friend but their time together did not end in a
marriage either. It seems that Hugette could never really
be sure which suitors had genuine love and affection for
her and which ones were just after her money. So she
decided to stay single for most of her life.
Hugette's relationships with men and her attitude towards
them also reflect how she lived the other aspects of her
life. She had enough money to do what she wanted pretty
much all of the time. She collected antique French
porcelain dolls, she amassed an impressive collection of
French impressionist art and she gave millions of dollars
in gifts to her caretakers. When she was admitted to the
hospital in the 1990's to treat a severe case of melanoma,
she decided that she liked the hospital surroundings and
she paid the hospital an outrageous amount of money so that
she could make her room there her permanent home. She was
the kind of person that, because of her massive fortune,
she was not used to hearing the word no.
nurse, Hadassah Peri, was required to work 12 hour shifts,
7 days a week, 365 days a year. Even when Peri was at
home, she would talk to Hugette on the phone, do her
laundry and cook meals for her.
When Hugette died at the age of 104 she left behind an
outrageous fortune which included precious pieces of
artwork, a sprawling 42 room apartment on Fifth Avenue, a
mansion in Santa Barbara, California and another mansion in
New Canaan, Connecticut. She wanted most of her fortune to
go to her caretakers and she wanted the California mansion
to be established as an art foundation. However, her Clark
relatives from her father's first marriage, with whom she
had not had any contact in decades, contested the will and
decided that her caretakers took advantage of the old woman
in her twilight years.
Meryl Gordan has done an
exhaustive job of researching the interesting life of
Hugette Clark and battle that ensued after her death. THE
PHANTOM OF FIFTH AVENUE is one of those rare books that
keeps you thinking about it long after you have finished
reading the last page.
Born in 1906, Huguette Clark grew up in her family's
121-room Beaux Arts mansion in New York and was one of the
leading celebrities of her day. Her father William Andrews
Clark, was a copper magnate, the second richest man in
American, and not above bribing his way into the Senate.
Huguette attended the coronation of King George V. And at
twenty-two with a personal fortune of $50 million to her
name, she married a Princeton man and childhood friend
William MacDonald Gower. Two-years later the couple
divorced. After a series of failed romances, Huguette began
to withdraw from society--first living with her mother in a
kind of Grey Gardens isolation then as a modern-day Miss
Havisham, spending her days in a vast apartment overlooking
Central Park, eating crackers and watching The Flintstones
with only servants for company.
All her money and all her real estate could not protect her
in her later life from being manipulated by shady hangers-on
and hospitals that were only too happy to admit (and bill) a
healthy woman. But what happened to Huguette that turned a
vivacious, young socialite into a recluse? And what was her
life like inside that gilded, copper cage?