Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Hugette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Nursing Book Club

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Hugette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

The nurse and the heiress

By Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. (Random House, 2013)
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Huguette Clark, who died in 2011, might not be a familiar name to many people; she lived a very mysterious life, which she spent accumulating expensive homes, valuable art, antique dolls and rare Stradivarius violins.

In the last few years, I’d read about the sale of her real estate in the heart of New York City and wondered how someone could accumulate entire floors of expensive apartment buildings and leave them unused. Stranger still was that while Clark’s apartments sat empty, she was living in a hospital even though she was in almost perfect health (albeit elderly and frail).

In their new book, Empty Mansions, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a distant relative of Hugette Clark’s, try to get to the bottom of this strange tale.

Eccentric and Reclusive
New York has never had any shortage of ultra-wealthy people, but what makes Huguette Clark’s story immensely interesting to me is that she seemed to straddle the border of normalcy. She was almost frighteningly reclusive, but still able to make brilliant financial choices. While she eschewed company, she left more than 20,000 pages of correspondence. Today, we might say she lived a “virtual” life.

Clark was the daughter of W.A. Clark, a “robber baron” copper magnate of the 1800s and later a U.S. senator who left an estate that today would be worth $3.4 billion. After her father’s death in 1925, Clark lived with her mother, eventually acquiring apartments in New York City that comprised the entire eighth floor and half of the top floor of a building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

Although Clark’s apartments had 42 rooms and 15,000 square feet, costing $342,000 a year in taxes and maintenance, Clark left her home at the age of 84 for Doctors Hospital on the Upper East Side (and later Beth Israel Medical Center) and never returned. While staying in the hospital, she became accustomed to its security and privacy and was only too happy to pay for them.

Meet the Nurse
In addition to the hospital charges, which started at more than $800 per day, Clark began to give her doctors and private nurse monetary gifts, sometimes writing checks so large that she had to sell off assets to pay the gift taxes.

The scale of those gifts is hard to imagine. In only one year (2003), Clark’s private-duty nurse, Hadassah Peri, RN, received $955,200 in gifts in addition to a salary of $131,040. Clark also bought Peri an assortment of vehicles, including a Dodge Caravan, a Lincoln Navigator and later a Bentley; bought Peri’s family a house at the shore so they could vacation together; provided a nearby apartment; and paid the tuition for Peri’s three children through graduate school. Peri later accepted a check for $5 million and held the pen to help Clark sign a will under which Peri was to receive over $30 million more.

Was it ethical for the nurse to accept such gifts? Peri later maintained that since she didn’t work for the hospital, she wasn’t obliged to follow their gift policy. After caring for Clark for 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 20 years, Peri felt she was entitled to every cent. “I give my life for Madame,” she said.

The Legal Battle
I’m proud to be a nurse, consider it a calling and accept that it won’t make me rich. However, the medical (and legal) team caring for Clark all benefited mightily from her situation. Was it her wish that her vast fortune be spent in this way? Were Peri and her other caretakers the people Clark really loved? (She had no surviving immediate family.) Or was she being manipulated? Dedman and Newell explore that mystery, which has a cast of characters who often seem fascinatingly evil.

It’s probably not a spoiler to tell you that there was a lengthy legal battle over Clark’s will, which was only recently resolved. The mystery remains, though, and will probably have you wondering  just where were the people who should have been protecting her all along.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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