Monday 26 January 2015

Family at war over recluse in doll's house

The death at 104 of Irish-American heiress Huguette Clark has started a €226m battle over her assets. Donal Lynch tells the remarkable story of the hugely rich recluse, who lived for decades in a nursing home, alone except for her vast collection of dolls, after she was jilted by a Co Kildare nobleman

They are some of America's finest homes and for 50 long, dark years they have lain empty.

A $24m (€18m) art deco mansion in leafy Connecticut that like its name – Le Beau Chateau – recalls the grandeur of a former era; a $100m (€77m) cliff-top palace in Santa Barbara called Bellosguarda in reference to its "beautiful views" of the Pacific Ocean; a Central Park West apartment which spans 42 rooms and is also worth around the $100m mark.

For five decades each of these homes was kept in immaculate condition by teams of staff in anticipation of the arrival of the properties' owners. In March of 2011 it was finally understood that that day would never come.

Two weeks shy of her 105th birthday, Irish-American heiress Huguette Clark, who had spent the previous three decades of her life in seclusion at New York's Beth Israel hospital, passed away suddenly, leaving in her wake the prospect of a protracted court case and a slew of unanswered questions: Who was this woman who was as wealthy as a Rockefeller, as reclusive as Howard Hughes and described by one New York paper as "the Paris Hilton of her day"? Why had she retreated to the twilight of a life-sized doll's house after being jilted by a nobleman from Co Kildare?

And who, now, would inherit her hundreds of millions?

Into this gilded-era mystery came a lonely homeless man, who died in the snow not knowing he stood to inherit a king's ransom. Just before Christmas, Timothy Henry Grey, Huguette's great half-nephew, was found dead under a bridge in rural Wyoming. He had been suffering from advanced hypothermia and had died before he could be told that he was in line to inherit $19m (€14.5m). His portion of the fortune will now be divided among his three half-siblings but much of the rest of Clark's will is the subject of a legal dispute. Family members lodged court papers last February in a bid to prove that the heiress was not in a fit state to sanction her second will, written in April 2005.

While the first will detailed a long list of family beneficiaries, this second will makes no reference to her relatives, some of whom had not seen Clark in more than 40 years. Instead it divided the estate between her nurse, goddaughter, attorney, accountant, hospital, doctor, a favourite museum, various employees and an art foundation that Huguette wanted established at her Santa Barbara oceanfront estate.

The 'first will' beneficiaries – 21 of them – want this will overturned. They claim that Huguette "was not competent to make a will in that she did not know the nature, extent or value of her assets". (Most estimates put the fortune, inherited from her father William Clark's copper mines, at around $307m, €226m).

They describe a vulnerable and elderly woman, who had withdrawn mentally and physically from the real world, and was coerced and defrauded by her closest advisors – attorney Wallace Bock, accountant Irving Kamsler (who in 2008 was convicted of attempting to disseminate indecent material to minors) – and nurse, Hadassah Peri. The lawyer for the family group, John Morken of renowned New York firm Farrell Fitz, described a court-ordered accounting of Huguette's finances as overseen by Bock and Kamsler in the last 15 years of her life as, "a chilling report of mishandling, misappropriation and mismanagement", while Bock, Kamsler and Peri have vociferously denied any wrongdoing.

The same could not be said of Clark's earlier life. She was born in Paris into great wealth but described it as a "menace to happiness".

Her father, William Andrew Clark, second generation Scots-Irish, had been a lowly miner panning for gold, about whom a contemporary once wrote "there's craft in his stereotyped smile and ice in his handshake. He is about as magnetic as last year's bird's nest".

During the 1860s he sold a type of brandy eggnog, which he called 'Tom and Jerry', to fellow miners. This made him enough money to allow him to take a year off to study geology at Columbia University in New York. After his studies he decided to return to his home state of Montana where he put theory into practice in the town of Butte, which had on its outskirts "the richest hill on earth" – containing lucrative veins of copper and silver.

It was in the southwest of the United States, however, that Clark would make his greatest fortune. Leveraging the money he made in Montana, he began mining in Arizona. His United Verde copper mine in Jerome soon yielded a profit of about $400,000 a month (or $10m (€7.6m) a month in today's money).

By the turn of the century, Clark had gone from being merely a successful businessman to being a mining magnate. Clark County, of which Las Vegas is a part, was named after him. Having secured generational wealth for himself and his family, he now set about acquiring himself a title. Clark felt that any man and any title could be bought and set about purchasing a seat in the US Senate "as casually as one might purchase a pair of shoes" (according to The New York Times). His big political rival was Senator Marcus Daly, a Catholic mine owner who took on Clark in a battle reported on as The War of The Copper Kings.

Clark saw things differently. He wrote: "I propose to leave my children something worth more than gold, that of an unblemished name." One of those children was Huguette Clark, the product of his marriage to his second wife, Anna, who was almost 40 years his junior (Clark's first wife had died some years before). His older children from his first union were appalled at the marriage – Clark had been mentoring Anna, helping pay her tuition fees.

Clark moved his Anna, Huguette, who was born during a trip to Paris, and Huguette's sister, Andree, into a Beaux-Arts house which he had built at 77th street and 5th Avenue in New York for about $7m (€5.34m) – triple the building cost of Yankee Stadium, which would be constructed a few years later.

The house was one of the most opulent in the city at the time. It had 121 rooms, four art galleries, Turkish baths, a vaulted rotunda and its own railroad line to bring in coal. Its other highlights included a Louis XVI salon, a priceless marble statue of Eve by Rodin, soaring ceilings from Sherwood Forest oak, and a world-renowned collection of European paintings and tapestries. Clark hosted organ recitals and bought paintings by Degas, Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, van Dyck, Gainsborough, Cazin and Rousseau. His neighbours were the Astors and the Vanderbilts, but he was still regarded as 'new money.' For its vulgar aesthetic and ostentation the mansion was known as Clark's Folly.

Irish Independent

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