Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. – Review

I feel like we’re all hardwired to be suckers for good mysteries. It doesn’t have to be murder all the time (although my podcast lineup would beg to disagree), but when there’s something unknown, human nature drives to to try and figure it out. If there was the chance of foul play, especially with a huge fortune on the line, it can be hard to shrug your shoulders and walk away.

Empty Mansions feels a bit like a non-fiction carnival that has a little bit of everything, or perhaps it would be better described as an eclectic museum that has strange exhibits that you wouldn’t think were connected to each other at all. What does political corruption, Japanese paintings, dollhouses made to scale, running around the wild west, and ornate empty mansions have in common? If you were to walk into a museum and see these exhibits in place, they would probably seem bizarre.

But in Empty Mansions, we do have a connection in Mrs. Huguette Clark.

Huguette Clark was a reclusive heiress to the great American fortune. She was the daughter of a copper mine baron and raised by her mother after her father passed on. The true mystery came to light once Huguette had passed on. Her will was contested by her relatives since it didn’t leave anything to them out of the 300 million dollars of Huguette’s estate and normally it would seem like an open and shut case.

A young Huguette Clark and her Father

The relatives are greedy, done and done.

But was Huguette in her right state of mind when she signed the new will? She was so reclusive that no one ever was able to talk to her face to face aside from her trusted doctors and nurses. Even her solicitors seldom got the chance to meet her and people in her family were lucky if they were able to speak to her through the phone. How could anyone be sure that her true desires were being carried out with this new will?

At first, the novel focused mostly on Huguette’s father, William, and how he built the family fortune up from nothing. There’s a clear note of an underdog story in there. During those first few years, the Clarks could have ended up never being noted in the history books, but through determination and a bit of luck, Clark was able to multiply his small initial investment into millions.

Huguette, later in life.

As for Huguette, his daughter, she seems sweet and perhaps a little lonely by the time we meet her. After all, she’s lived more than a century and any family she was close to would have passed away long ago. Isolated and with little interest in the traditional relationships that were sought after in the early 1900s (such as romantic ones), Huguette could have been defined as cold. At first, I thought that this would be nothing more than a story about a woman who had too much money and no idea what to do with it.

And it was. Huguette had more money than anyone could ever need, but it was how she spent it that was fascinating. She obviously cared about the people she came into contact with, wanting to solve their problems in the most effective way she knew. Money was thrown at people in order to ease their burdens or to thank them for their service. Huguette’s nurse was given over five million dollars for staying by her side.

So was she taken advantage of by her nurses, doctors, and solicitors?

Or is it the family who is trying to take advantage of an aunt that they didn’t care about until she died?

While I have my theories, I’d rather you read the book and made your own. Empty Mansions is a satisfying non-fiction book that reads like fiction with an enigma at the heart of it. Who was Huguette Clark really and did she really want her estate to be fought over like this? What was it like for a woman who survived over a century with the majority of that time being spent in seclusion? And if you’re so rich that money doesn’t mean anything to you, how do you protect yourself from the people who want to take advantage?

7/10
A mystery without a murder that will keep your attention to the very end.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune


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