The empty mansions of Huguette Clark

Huguette Clark, pronounced hyoo-GETT, died just short of her 105th birthday. Her death made news because she was the last surviving child of William Andrews Clark. Her father was born in 1839 to a poor family in Pennsylvania. He traveled to Montana, struck copper and made a fortune in that industry. When he died he was worth an estimated $150 million, which would be considered about $3 billion in today’s dollars. William Andrews Clark was considered a scoundrel, even purchasing his own Senate seat in 1899. He remarried a younger woman and was 67 years old when Huguette was born. Huguette was considered to be the last living person to represent the New York Gilded Age of the Vanderbilts and Astors.

Huguette grew up on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, in a 121-room mansion featuring 31 bathrooms, a theatre, a swimming pool and a massive pipe organ. The home also contained four art galleries displaying works by Rembrandt, Degas, Donatello and Reuben. Her family was considered to be among the elite of Manhattan and Huguette was formally introduced to society in 1926. Huguette’s father passed away shortly after her debut and she and her mother moved to a “smaller” 42-room apartment at another elegant 5th Avenue address.

Huguette married the son of one of her father’s business associates when she was 22 years old. The marriage lasted only nine months. She charged her husband with desertion and he claimed the marriage had never been consummated. Huguette never remarried, but continued to live with her mother in their elegant apartment, collecting dollhouses and artwork. She spent her time painting and playing the harp.

Huguette Clark led a quiet, reclusive life. The last photograph of her to be published was in 1928. She developed a strong distrust of people, even her family, because she believed they were after her money. She remained withdrawn from society and preferred to conduct all conversations in French, to hinder others from listening in.

During the late 1980’s, she was taken by ambulance to the hospital. From that time on she remained in hospitals, admitted under pseudonyms. She passed away at the Beth Israel hospital in 2011. She maintained her privacy until the end and left behind an estate valued at 300 million dollars. She had made generous donations to a variety of organizations during her lifetime and gave large gifts to her private nurse, friends, attorneys and other caregivers.

Huguette never had children so distant family members hired attorneys to question her charitable gifts and an investigation followed. The investigation determined that Huguette was of sound mind until the end of her life and her last will was considered valid. The executors of her estate have brought her name back into recent news. They are now claiming she was crazy and they are seeking $105 million dollars in gifts, donated during her later years and given to various doctors and employees, be returned to the estate.

A book has been written about her life, entitled, “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.” The book was published in 2013, and was #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. A movie based on the book is apparently in the works as well.

I found Huguette’s life story very interesting. She led a unique life, without a great deal of contact with others, and apparently with no family associations for most of her adult years. Her closest friend was an employee by the name of Suzanne Pierre, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in February of 2011. Interestingly, Huguette died that same year.

So why write a blog post about the life of Huguette Clark? She was a product of a fascinating era in American history, the 1920’s. In many ways our current culture is a product of that era as well. Some interesting facts about that time:

  • For the first time, more people in our nation lived in cities than on farms.
  • The nation’s wealth doubled between 1920 and 1929, creating an affluent, consumer society.
  • Chain stores and advertising caused people from coast to coast to want the same goods.
  • Radio meant the masses listened to the same music, the same programs and a “mass culture” mentality was created.
  • Women who made “the news” wore bobbed hair, shorter skirts, smoked, drank and appeared to be wild and free. (It was never true of most women, just those who made the news and achieved celebrity status.)
  • The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920 and women began to experience a new freedom in the culture.
  • The most important consumer product of the twenties was the automobile. Cars were luxuries at the beginning of the decade and necessities at the end.
  • Prohibition created a crime culture, fueled by need and greed.
  • Race relations intensified and an anti-Communist hysteria swept the country.
  • And the term “fundamentalist” was coined by some of the nation’s ministers in 1920 to describe those who did not want the church to alter historic doctrine and practices in favor of cultural, economic and scientific trends.

A “fundamentalist” in 1920 was a person who rallied around five beliefs as “fundamental” to the faith: 1. The inspiration of the Bible by the Holy Spirit, and therefore the inerrancy of the Scripture. 2. The virgin birth of Christ. 3. The belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin. 4. The bodily resurrection of Christ. 5. The historical reality of Christ’s miracles.

Arguments over these fundamentals split denominations, created new denominations and changed the church in the United States. The same things that created the consumer culture financially, began to create a consumer culture spiritually as well.

I could not find an article that mentioned the faith of Huguette Clark. She died wealthy and alone, owning well-maintained mansions she didn’t live in. I don’t know if she received a mansion in heaven, but there was nothing to indicate she had placed her faith in Jesus Christ.

How did the 1920’s change the American Church? Almost 100 years later, I also wonder about the changes the 2020’s will bring? One certainty is this: the promises in God’s word are as true today as they have always been. Psalm 33:12 reads: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.”

There is an intense battle for Huguette Clark’s financial inheritance right now. I can’t help but wish someone had fought for her spiritual inheritance with equal fervor. Huguette Clark left behind empty mansions, and apparently her inheritance was limited to this world.

God, on the other hand, chooses people for his inheritance and blessed is the nation that lives with God’s same priorities. Who will our churches bequeath to God, as his inheritance? Will God bless America?

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