When investigative reporter Bill Dedman was looking for a house in Connecticut, he wandered “a little bit out of the price range” and noticed a $24 million mansion on sale that had been vacant since the owners purchased it in 1951.
His interest piqued, he went on to dig into the enigmatic life of Huguette Clark, the daughter of copper tycoon and Idaho Sen. William Clark who made his fortune from copper mining, banks and railroads.
When Huguette Clark died in May 2011 at age 104, more details of her life became public and a legal battle started over her two wills that were signed six weeks apart. Descendants of her father’s first marriage were cut out of the second version and claimed that Clark was incompetent and under the influence of her accountant and attorney in her later years.
Dedman writes for NBC News and authored the bestselling book Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, with Paul Clark Newell Jr., one of Clark’s cousins.
Both men visited Santa Barbara this week to talk about Clark’s life and her beloved Bellosguardo estate on Cabrillo Boulevard, which was bequeathed to an arts foundation. They sat down with Noozhawk before a Monday morning talk at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
“I didn’t believe the legends about Bellosguardo at first — that gardeners were still at work, that there were cars in the garage from the 1930s and people kept it ready for her to show up at any moment,” Dedman said.
Bellosguardo’s estate manager, John Douglas, wasn’t exactly setting the table for Clark every night, but the home and its grounds were kept in first-class condition per Clark’s instructions.
If a piece of furniture was moved, the old location was marked with a note on the floor. If a tree fell, a new tree was planted — one that was a similar size to the fallen one, Dedman said.
Newell, who spoke to Clark on the phone frequently in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Clark never visited the Santa Barbara home because it made her sad. It was her mother’s house, and she was obsessively interested in keeping things the way they were, Dedman said.
Newell visited with his daughter in 2004, with Clark’s permission, and says the estate looks so good inside it could be ready for occupancy within a week’s notice.
There are many locals who have been inside over the years. One with the most experience there is Barbara Doran, who grew up there when her father worked as estate manager. She got permission to visit as an adult and remembered exactly how the inside used to be, so she was telling the current staff where furniture should be.
“I was as bad as Huguette!” she said with a laugh.
She even gave Dedman some notes for revisions to the book, which he said he would make for the next printings.
Too many people jump to conclusions when they hear about this incredibly wealthy woman who lived voluntarily at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York while her three enormous homes — in Connecticut, Manhattan and Santa Barbara — were empty, Dedman said.
“She had some peculiar aspects to her personality,” he said, adding that Clark was shy and not good with strangers, but in conversation she was lively and chatty. “She was anything but a shrinking violet.”
It’s still a bit of a mystery why Clark spent so long in a normal hospital room when she had such a great fortune in her hands.
“She found that as a sort of cocoon-like environment, I think,” Newell said, adding that she was always very friendly on the phone and wouldn’t strike anyone as being deranged or mentally ill at all — she was lucid and had a fantastic memory. “She could talk easily about things that happened 70 or 80 years ago.”
Newell was interested in writing a biography of William Clark and got in touch with Huguette through her attorney in New York. She called in response to his letter and they kept in touch for several years.
“She was sort of legendary with the family on the West Coast, and I knew there was a mansion here since I was a kid,” he said.
Even after years or correspondence and phone calls, he hadn’t known she was living in a hospital, he said. It turns out even close relatives and friends didn’t know.
He was getting in touch with Clarks all over the country, and had quite the archive of family history already when he met Dedman. Clark hadn’t had the same legacy — or philanthropic nature — as Carnegies and Rockefellers, so there isn’t the same name recognition today, Newell noted.
It became clear after some digging that the real story was with his daughter.
“Her life is remarkable because of her longevity — her grandfather was born in the 18th century and she died in the 21st century,” he said, adding that it was almost like time travel talking to her.
Dedman was fascinated by the fact that Clark had so much wealth but wasn’t using it, besides to protect her privacy and pay hospital bills.
Even with her quirks, her solitary life “feels just unfathomable,” Dedman said.
She was a woman with $300 million to her name and yet had never traveled to Japan, despite her love of Japanese Hinamatsuri dolls and Japanese culture. Her love of dolls is legendary by now, and her $2 million collection was given to the Belloguardo Foundation along with the Santa Barbara estate and an endowment.
Nineteen relatives — descendants of her father’s first marriage, Newell not included — challenged the will in court and won $34 million plus legal fees. The arts foundation will be created in New York with some Santa Barbara-based board members, which Mayor Helene Schneider is working on now.
There are still questions about funding the settlement, and Dedman believes it’s likely that some dolls and artwork will be sold while others will be kept for display.
Clark also owes millions of dollars in gift taxes and penalties, and the Internal Revenue Service bills could take a bite out of the arts foundation’s money.
“The foundation may not get the keys or the bills (for the estate) for another 18 months,” Dedman said.