A new book explores the mysterious life of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark
What is believed to be a self-portrait of Clark in her early twenties
After relocating from Boston in 2009, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman was having no luck finding his family’s Fairfield County dream home. “What we loved we couldn’t afford. What we could buy, we didn’t want,” he says. So in an exercise he describes as “part entertainment, part frustration,” he began researching the most expensive places on the market. He found the top of the price range in Le Beau Chateau, a vacant 12,000-plus-square-foot mansion on fifty-two wooded acres in New Canaan. Listed then at $24 million—reduced from $35 million—the Dans Highway estate was a veritable bargain. (At press time, the home had been even further reduced to $15.9 million.) His home search was also the source of the NBC News investigative reporter’s next story, for the unoccupied mansion was home to an intriguing domestic mystery. The seller was the reclusive copper heiress Huguette Clark, who Dedman would learn purchased the property in Cold War 1951, with the intention of using it as a refuge for her servants should they ever need to flee New York. But Clark “never put so much as a stick of furniture inside,” says Dedman. The mansion’s caretaker even told the reporter there were many times he wondered if Clark was dead.
Dedman would discover Clark was actually living of her own accord in a simple New York City hospital room while her palatial homes in New Canaan and Santa Barbara, California, and three apartments on New York’s Fifth Avenue, sat vacant. Was Clark insane? It may sound that way, but Dedman developed a different impression of the unmarried heiress, who died in 2011 at 104. “She was charming, elegant and private, someone who might sound like your lovely great aunt. But instead of seeing her as crazy, I came to view her as someone who lived on her own terms.”
Dedman tells the story of Clark’s Gilded Age upbringing and self-imposed isolation in the new bestseller Empty Mansions (Ballantine Books), which he wrote in collaboration with the heiress’s cousin Paul Clark Newell Jr. Dedman attributes the interest in Empty Mansions, which quickly topped several bestseller lists after its September publication, to Clark’s staggering wealth and newsworthiness as her distant heirs engaged in a legal tug-of-war over her estate. “Also, I think many of us are consumed by houses,” Dedman says. “We want bigger ones, more fabulous ones. She had them and didn’t even bother to live in them. People find that really fascinating.”
Dedman’s new book