Manhattan mystery of heiress cut off from world by her fortune
Published 29/05/2011 | 05:00
Huguette Clark owned a 42-room apartment overlooking New York's Central Park, a castle in Connecticut set in 52 acres and a house in California, built on a 23-acre bluff overlooking the Pacific. Yet she spent the past 20 years of her life in various hospitals, and died last week aged 104 in one of them, having been registered under an alias.
Her life was defined by the stupendous inheritance she received in 1925 from her father, William A Clark, who was of Irish, Scottish and Huguenot descent. He built railways, mined copper in Montana, and became a US senator, leaving his daughter an estimated half a billion dollars.
The fortune, however, led to increasing isolation. Over the years she developed a distrust of outsiders, including her own family, because it was said she thought that they were after her money. She reportedly had only a small group of friends -- her closest being her former secretary, Suzanne Pierre, who died last February.
Born in Paris, Clark conducted all her conversations in French so others were unlikely to understand what was said.
The last known photograph of her was taken in 1930; and, following her mother's death in 1963, she seldom left her Fifth Avenue home.
The District Attorney's office in Manhattan is reported to have been looking into claims made by Clark's family that she was kept isolated from almost everyone. Clark's distant relatives claimed that they never saw her.
She apparently avoided most visitors and left her lawyer to make decisions on her behalf -- from bidding on vintage dolls at auction to settling disputes among her nurses. The isolation that marked most of her life was in contrast to her earlier life. In 1928, when she was 22, she married an impoverished law student, William MacDonald Gower, but they divorced in 1930. By then Clark had become proficient in music and art and, in 1929, had exhibited seven of her paintings at a Washington gallery.
The next 80 years are, however, almost completely blank. In February 2010, caretakers at Clark's homes were reported as saying that they had not seen her in decades.
It was subsequently discovered that she was being cared for in a New York City hospital and that some of her personal possessions had been quietly sold.
These included a rare 1709 Stradivarius called La Pucelle (or The Virgin) and an 1882 painting by Renoir, In the Roses.
In August 2010, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office launched its investigation into her affairs, led by the prosecutor in the case involving Brooke Astor, the heiress whose son was convicted of colluding with her lawyer to steal millions of dollars from her.
Last September, a judge rejected a request from Clark's relatives to appoint an independent guardian to manage her affairs.
Huguette Marcelle Clark died in a New York hospital where she was registered under the alias Harriet Chase.
Her third-floor room was under guard and she was cared for by full-time private nurses. The room had a card with the fake number "1B" and the name "Chase" taped over the real room number.