≡ Menu

Review: ‘Empty Mansions’ by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.

Review: ‘Empty Mansions’ by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. post image

Title: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
Authors: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Acquired: Christmas present!
Rating: ★★★★½

Review: Apparently I’m on a kick reading books about rich people with big houses. In the last few weeks I read and adored both Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr., the subject of this review, and The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, which I think I’ll write about next week. I think there’s another crazy rich people book on my shelves somewhere, but at the moment I can’t remember which one and I’m feeling too lazy to go digging. C’est la vie.

Journalist Bill Dedman stumbled across the first pieces of the story told in Empty Mansions in 2009 when he discovered a grand Connecticut home for sale that had sat empty for almost 60 years. Dedman learned that the home was owned by reclusive heiress Huguette Clark who also owned enormous, unoccupied homes in New York and California. Despite her beautiful estates and vast wealth, Huguette spent the last 20 years of her life living in a hospital room, communicating with a few close friends over the phone while sending her lawyers on scavenger hunts for rare antique dolls and valuable paintings.

Throughout her life, Huguette was an extravagant gift-giver, sending checks to friends, acquaintances, and near-strangers when the mood struck, including more than $30 million in gifts to her long-time nurse. At her death, a dispute over two wills — one that left her fortune to her estranged family, the other which split it among the lawyers and staff working for her at her death — brought Huguette’s life and eccentricities into the open.

There are many odd, frustrating, and mysterious aspects of Huguette’s story. I think it’s tempting to look at her life and think of all the missed opportunities there were for her. With the fortune she inherited from her father, who made his money in copper during the Gilded Age, she could have done almost anything, yet she decided to shut herself away in an apartment filled with dolls and rare antiques. But Dedman and Newell (one of Huguette’s cousins who kept in contact with her) don’t fall into that trap and instead paint a portrait of a woman who lived life on her own terms, as eccentric as those terms may seem. 

More broadly, the story of the Clark family is a wonderful example of the way Gilded Age wealth changed the fabric of American society. Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, has a rags to riches story that perfectly illustrates the American Dream. Their lives, full of scandal and tragedy and family, are a wonderful lens to explore this period of American history. Add in the mystery of Huguette’s life and death, and you get a darn good read. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Other Reviews: Estella’s Revenge | MarysLibrary | Capricious Reader |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bookmammal January 17, 2014, 9:11 am

    What a coincidence–I just downloaded this book as an audiobook yesterday from my local library!
    I’m also a fan of reading about this type of subject–I think because it’s so far removed from what my life is like, so it’s pure escapism for me.
    After reading your review, I’m really looking forward to digging into this–I have a 1 hour commute each way to work, so it’s prime time for me to do some serious audio-booking each day!

    • Kim January 19, 2014, 11:36 am

      That’s a good way to put it — escapism. It’s nonfiction, but books like this really take me to a place that is so far outside my experience it’s hard to imagine.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge January 17, 2014, 11:55 am

    I’m so glad you liked this one! I simply lurved it, and I want to read more about crazy rich people with big houses.

    • Kim January 19, 2014, 11:36 am

      That’d be a good reading list. Now I have to think of the other books like this that I have sitting around.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading January 17, 2014, 12:37 pm

    I loved this book, too! It was such a great journey through American history, but it also really made me wonder what other secrets might be hiding behind families that we might never get to peek into.

    • Kim January 19, 2014, 11:37 am

      Oh man, I’m sure rich families have ALL SORTS of crazy secrets. With all that money and nothing to do, there have to be shenanigans.

  • Julie Merilatt January 17, 2014, 1:18 pm

    Isn’t it fun to live vicariously through other people with a fortune they don’t know what to do with?!

    • Kim January 19, 2014, 11:38 am

      It’s funny — part of me was happy for Huguette that she could do whatever she wanted, while part of me was annoyed she didn’t put the money to “better” use!

  • Heather January 17, 2014, 3:17 pm

    I’m so glad you liked this one too! I enjoyed it for the most part. At times it felt gossipy or tabloidy, but I think that is mainly because she died not that long ago. The history of her life and WA’s was so fascinating. I loved those parts SO much!

    • Kim January 19, 2014, 11:38 am

      The section near the end, with the contesting about her will and whatnot, is tricky, since it’s so recent. It’d be hard to do that without feeling a bit like a tabloid.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) January 17, 2014, 3:43 pm

    My mom is fascinated by Clark so I need to get this book for her.

  • Kailana January 17, 2014, 7:26 pm

    I am really looking forward to reading this sometime this year. 🙂

  • Allison @ The Book Wheel January 18, 2014, 12:17 am

    Jennifer (Bookalicious Mama) and I were JUST talking about this book! I can’t wait to read it.

  • Sheila (Book JOurney) January 18, 2014, 10:09 am

    I love big houses and tour them whenever I get a chance. This looks good!

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader January 18, 2014, 11:51 am

    This is absolutely going on my mental TBR pile 🙂

  • Sandy January 18, 2014, 4:27 pm

    I’m going to HAVE to read this. How fascinating! And I’m sure you can Google to your heart’s content as well.

    • Kim January 19, 2014, 11:39 am

      I did that as soon as I finished! There are some interesting news stories out there about Huguette and the controvery over her wills and fortune.

  • Bill Dedman November 3, 2014, 1:07 pm

    Thank you for your kind review of Empty Mansions. We’re bowled over by the reaction from readers.

    In addition to the 75 photos in the book, we’ve posted hundreds of photos on our website, showing Huguette Clark, her family, her homes, her paintings, and more. That website is http://emptymansionsbook.com/.

    The site also has info for book clubs, and updates on the upcoming film version of “Empty Mansions.”

    Also, information about the resolution of the estate case is in my articles at http://nbcnews.com/clark. (Information about the end of the legal case is also in the paperback book, in all new copies of the hardcover book, and in updates for the electronic book.)

    You can keep up our with updates on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/investigative.reporter.

    Thank you again.

    Best regards,

    Bill Dedman, co-author, Empty Mansions