Discovering Empty Mansions

empty mansion

If you’ve ever been house hunting, you’ve likely spent some time looking at houses way out of your price range. Bill Dedman did the same thing. He discovered Le Beau Chateau, a $24 million mansion containing almost 15,000 square feet on 52 acres. The property taxes alone were $161,000 per year. But what really caught his eye was that the property had been unoccupied since the owner bought it. In 1951.

Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, smelled a story.

He discovered the owner of the property was Huguette Clark, and she owned another, bigger mansion in Southern California that had also sat vacant for decades. There was definitely a story here. It became Empty Mansions.

Ms. Clark’s father was W.A. Clark, a copper miner, railroad entrepreneur, and a U.S. Senator. In the early 20th century he was one of the wealthiest men in America.

Ms. Clark’s homes had not sat vacant because she was dead. Dedman found her alive, “happily” living for the prior two decades in a New York City hospital room.

Dedman puts together a great history of W.A. Clark, how he amassed his fortune, and how he extravagantly spent some of that wealth. The middle of the story focusing on the decades of Huguette’s life runs a bit flat. That would seem to happen because she lived such an intensely private life and lived as a recluse. The story loses some flair because there is no flair there.

The story once again gets interesting as Ms. Clark gets admitted to the hospital after her health deteriorated, her staff had all retired, and there was no one to take care of her. She seemed to enjoy the hospital and took up permanent residence, even though there seemed to be no medical reason to stay.

Ms. Clark is over 100 years old by the time the her story comes out. Everyone starts wondering what will happen to her fortune and many want a piece of it. Many of the likely beneficiaries want a bigger piece. Her relatives had little contact with her over the prior decades. It’s a mess that I’m sure a trust and estates lawyer could use as a learning tool for recalcitrant clients.

The ethical and compliance issues come to the front. Ms. Clark begins giving millions to her nurse. It seems to be a violation of hospital policy. Dedham portrays the hospital to be itself looking to be a recipient of Ms. Clark’s generosity. Perhaps they are even hiding her from auditors who would question why she has not been discharged.

I think Dedham pulls some punches at the end because the estate is still unsettled and the potential liability is still in play. It’s hard tell if Ms. Clark was of sound mind when she was writing her will or whether she was unduly influenced by her advisers and caregiver.

It’s an interesting story and a well-written book.