Living until 104 years of age is a feat in and of itself, but that is neither where Huguette Clark’s story begins nor ends. The Paris-born heiress to a Montana copper mining fortune was born in 1907 to 67-year-old William Andrews Clark and his 28-year-old wife, Anna. Huguette’s life began in the spotlight until she turned it off herself in the 1960s, choosing to reside alone inside her multi-million-dollar New York City apartment overlooking Central Park until illness landed her in a hospital for the final 22 years of her life. After her death, her final will and testament came into question by relatives whom Huguette had never had contact with, putting her right back into the spotlight she had tried so desperately to avoid for her entire life. So many questions shroud Huguette’s life and death: What forced Huguette into a reclusive lifestyle? How did the heiress spend her days with such little contact with the outside world? What became of her three estates after her death in 2011? But mostly, who exactly was Huguette Clark?
Details from her childhood and early adulthood are readily available due to her father’s undeniable notoriety and massive fortune. WA Clark’s resume was nearly as tall as the 5’6” tycoon, seemingly staking a claim in each and every industry he touched. According to “Empty Mansions” by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Mr. Clark oversaw copper mines across several different states, purchased and sold the lots that would later become downtown Las Vegas, built a railroad from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, operated electric power and streetcar companies as well as a bronze foundry and a copper wire factory, grew sugar beets in California, maintained the publication of newspapers across the country, and held a seat on the US Senate, all while building the most expensive house in New York City and somehow finding the time to spend with his family. Huguette was his youngest daughter, preceded by her sister Andreé and four siblings from her father’s first marriage.
While her father was quite the go-getter, Huguette preferred to quietly enjoy the finer things in life. Her childhood home was situated on Millionaires’ Row in Manhattan, on 77th Street and Broadway. It was here that Huguette first fell in love with the fine arts, each of the five art galleries in the mansion showing off paintings from Degas to da Vinci and everything in between; harps and pianos with which the women of the house filled the rooms with music; and the most luxurious carpeting, furniture, and window treatments money could buy.
But money could not buy happiness for the Clark family when tragedy struck in the summer of 1919. On August 7, 1919, Huguette’s older sister contracted tubercular meningitis while on a trip to Maine. Within just a few days of her diagnosis, Andreé Clark died. Heartbreak struck again four years later, when 86-year-old W.A. Clark died, reportedly of pneumonia. Anna and Huguette then moved down the street to 907 Fifth Avenue, where Huguette would reside for the better part of her life.
Huguette and her mother Anna would take summer trips to their mansion, Bellosguardo, in Santa Barbara, California. It was in that mansion that Huguette wed childhood acquaintance Bill Gower, who was the son of her father’s accountant. Upon their return to New York, Huguette and Bill moved into the entire 12th floor of their apartment building , while Anna occupied her apartment on the 8th floor. The two separated nine months later and officially divorced almost two years later. The reason for the divorce was never publicized, but the two kept in contact through letters for the rest of their lives. Later, Huguette was tied to Etienne Allard de Villermont, a longtime family friend. There were rumors of an engagement between the two, but Huguette never married again.
The two Clark women continued to live on Fifth Avenue until Anna passed away in October 1963. Even before then, Huguette had been slowly withdrawing from society, choosing instead to write letters and make phone calls rather than venturing outside. She moved into her mother’s apartment on the 8th floor, but still kept her 12th floor apartment. Huguette was selective about the visitors she would see, but did allow Etienne and his family to visit. His daughter revealed years later that Huguette was afraid of germs and illness.
Huguette threw herself into hobbies, including the design of dollhouses. She was extremely meticulous in her designs, and would not hesitate to instruct the builders on the minutest of details. She would often send them back for more work if something was wrong, or if she decided that something (such as the size of a doorframe or the type of shutter) needed fixing. She played with the dolls and the dollhouses for most of her life. Huguette also had a passion for Japanese architecture. She commissioned scaled-down replicas of castles and buildings in Japan, even sending someone to take measurements of a building to ensure its accuracy.
Huguette had caretakers throughout her life, including Delia Healey, whose responsibilities included preparing Huguette’s simple meals (often crackers and sardines for lunch), washing and ironing the dolls’ clothing, and recording cartoons like “The Flintstones.”
After Delia passed away, Huguette maintained contact with select people through telephone calls and letters rather than hiring another caretaker. Besides one maid and one a handyman, she would often call her antiques dealer to fix furniture in her apartment, and kept in contact with a very small circle of friends. It was one of them, Suzanne Pierre, who called a doctor to check on Huguette in 1991. Huguette had not seen a doctor in years, so it was no shock to learn that the skin cancers on her face and lips had been untreated and nearly caused her to starve to death. She was brought to the Doctor’s Hospital in New York, where she recovered to full health. But Huguette chose to stay in the hospital for the remaining 20 years of her life, with around-the-clock care. Her private nurse, Hadassah Peri, became very friendly with Huguette, and she was the only person Huguette truly trusted to guide her in medical decisions.
Throughout her life, Huguette was very generous with her money. She would send gifts and donations to those close to her, such as buying groceries for Etienne’s family for years, and sending money to her antique dealer’s family. It was no surprise that she made donations to the Doctor’s Hospital while she lived there, and give sizeable monetary gifts to Hadassah. When Huguette Clark died in 2011, she was surrounded by controversy. Her will did not leave anything to her distant relatives, who were concerned that Huguette’s accountant and private nurse had been swindling her for years, and that Huguette was not competent to make decisions any longer. According to them, Huguette’s relatives had entered the picture only a few years prior, and she felt that they were trying to get to her fortune. After a court battle for her $300 million fortune between 19 of Huguette’s relatives, Hadassah, and her doctor, her will was divided up. She left Bellosguardo as an arts foundation, her relatives received $34.5 million, and Hadassah received $26 million as well as the right to keep the houses Huguette had purchased for her. Regardless of Huguette’s choice of lifestyle, she was a meticulous, generous woman, and she lived exactly as she pleased.