Lifestyle

Monday 22 September 2014

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.

Eventually in 1889 Clark was elected but had to resign when envelopes full of thousand-dollar bills – probably bribes for officials – were discovered. In 1901 he was again elected but only for one term in the Senate – despite this he insisted on being called 'Senator Clark' for his whole life.

Mark Twain wrote of Clark: "He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a chain and ball on his legs."

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.

Anna was rarely seen in public and Huguette, too, was a child who preferred her own company. From the age of five she began amassing a large collection of dolls, which she would keep for her whole life and which frequently took the place of people. Her childhood was marred by the death of Andree, who contracted meningitis when she was 17. With her sister gone, much of the focus fell on Huguette. Throughout the 1920s, society pages chronicled her debutante years. "Miss Huguette Clark, daughter of Mr and Mrs. William Andrew Clark of 962 Fifth Avenue, entertained a party of girl friends yesterday at Sherry's," read one report.

William Clark died in 1925, aged 86. He was entombed in the Bronx alongside the Macy family, the Woolworth family and the Pulitzers. He had promised his older children that Anna would not inherit his fortune so the bulk of it – worth $3.6bn (€2.74bn) in today's money – went to them and to Huguette. After his death she attempted to establish herself as an artist – her paintings were shown at one of the galleries to which her father had left money. In 1928, when she was 22, she became engaged to 23-year-old William Gower, a law student whose father had worked for William Clark. The marriage was the toast of New York society. The New York Herald claimed that "no married couple ever started married life under more brilliant auspices". The couple moved into Clark's Folly where her mother lived in a different wing, known forever as 'mummy's apartment'.

The marriage lasted only two years. Huguette moved with her mother and six servants to Nevada while the divorce was finalised. They then took a cruise to Hawaii before returning to New York. The following year, Huguette was linked in several reports with Edward Fitzgerald, the 7th Duke Of Leinster and then Ireland's Premier Peer of the Realm.

Notoriously, Fitzgerald was a gambling addict and had lost his right to the family's ancestral seat, Carton House, near Maynooth. At a bankruptcy hearing, Fitzgerald would later testify that he travelled to the United States in 1928 with the intention of bagging himself a wealthy heiress. He borrowed money so that he could still entertain properly and play the part and the ruse worked. He was linked in the press to Huguette, but publicly said that he was not interested.

It was suggested that they had had a brief affair and the rebuttal was understood to have humiliated Huguette. She was forced to deny that they had been engaged and was mocked in newspaper cartoons.

Either way it marked the beginning of her withdrawal from society. (Fitzgerald didn't fare much better; he was found dead in London in 1976, having committed suicide.) Speaking to NBC last year, her great half-nephew, Andre Baeyens, a former French Ambassador (and one of the relatives embroiled in the legal battle) said: "She didn't want to go out. She didn't want to have beautiful things. She just wanted to be home and play with her dolls."

She collected dolls obsessively; they filled every surface in her apartment – which took up the entire eighth floor of the building. She became an eccentric in the mould of Howard Hughes, obsessively fearing death and given to bursts of wild extravagance. During the Great Depression, she and her mother had their Santa Barbara home torn down and rebuilt simply so starving workers would have jobs. Dolls were a constant theme. She sent them to friends as surprises, once buying two first-class seats to Paris: one for a doll and one for her personal doctor to make sure it arrived safely. She moved into Beth Israel hospital, but she was not ill. All across the US, she funded a millionaire lifestyle, which she herself did not live. The upkeep on the New York apartment alone was $342,000 per year (€260,000). The other properties lay empty. Le Beau Chateau in Connecticut had Paul Simon and Harry Connick Jr. among its neighbours, but its owner never spent a single night there.

Andre Baeyens said he was told by his mother that Huguette bought the place as a sort of bomb shelter during the Cold War. "She wanted a place where she could get away from the horrors."

Meanwhile, those in charge of her finances were making the wrong kind of name for themselves. Her long-time accountant, Irving Kamsler, was arrested in 2007, on Long Island, New York, in an internet sex sting. The indictment alleged that in 2005 and 2007 he had tried to lure 13- and 15-year-old girls in an online chatroom to meet with him, sending them pornography and describing touching their private areas. Of course, these weren't teenage girls, but undercover police.

Kamsler, now age 64, pleaded guilty in October 2008 to attempting to disseminate indecent material to minors in the first degree. He got no prison time, just five years of probation, a $5,000 fine, 100 hours of community service, and the usual sex-offender-related restrictions.

During the same period, Huguette, then in her 90s and hugely wealthy, had multiple tax issues. Each was paid off in less than a year, but they spoke of a suspicious disorganisation in her financial arrangements.

It was another incident that really raised suspicions about the way her affairs were being managed. In 2001, the year Huguette turned 95, one of her most personal possessions was sold; a Stradivarius violin. Her mother, Anna, had loved the instruments made by Antonio Stradivari, the renowned Italian craftsman. Anna had collected four of them – two violins, a viola and a cello – which had been owned by Niccolo Paganini, the Italian violinist and composer. But there was another violin, a rarer, more valuable one, which Anna kept in the family, giving it to Huguette in 1956 for her 50th birthday. This violin was from 1709, the beginning of Stradivari's golden period. It's called La Pucelle, or The Virgin.

The sale was handled by the London-based violin expert and dealer Charles Beare, who described it as one of the top five Stradivarius violins in existence. One of the conditions of the sale was that Beare not discuss the sale for 10 years. Beare recently revealed to NBC that Wallace Bock, who was responsible for the sale, told him that he – Bock – had never even met Huguette. In the year before her death, Bock said her hearing and eyesight had diminished with age but her mind was clear, and he received instructions from her frequently by phone. Relatives, meanwhile, reported that flowers and letters were discarded before they even reached her.

The relatives' case was given a boost as Manhattan surrogate court judge Kristen Booth Glen recently ruled that Kamsler and Bock had "violated the rules of professional conduct" while administering Clark's fortune, had been "dishonest to authorities" and were "unfit to serve." Evidence submitted by the public administrator's office in New York showed that Clark's estate may now owe $90m in back taxes. The judge summed up the case by saying that "you would need two hands and a couple of toes" to "count all of the ethical violations." Kamsler has since resigned as administrator of the estate. Bock was also reported to be "mulling a resignation". The lawyer for the public administrator's office in New York also predicted that they would move to recover a $5m gift made to Peri, Hugeutte's nurse. John Morken, the lawyer for the group of relatives, welcomed the news.

The real truth of Huguette's life will probably never be known. In the Havisham twilight of her Fifth Avenue dolls house, she apparently allowed no visitors but the losses of 'Papa', her beloved mother, and her brief failed attempts at love must have weighed on her. More may be revealed if the group of will beneficiaries have their day in court.

Meanwhile, one of her homes – Le Beau Chateau in Connecticut – remains on the market, its price tag seemingly inching down with each passing year.

Photographs show its sprawling rooms; tastefully decorated, never occupied, hauntingly empty.

Irish Independent

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