Review: Empty Mansions / by Madeleine

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Empty Mansions is the story of one of America's wealthiest men, W.A. Clark, and his daughter, Huguette. Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, stumbles upon  Huguette's story while perusing the real estate listings during his own house hunt. He comes across a beautiful, ornate mansion, unoccupied for decades and up for sale. The property belonged to the daughter of a self-made billionaire and copper industrialist, W. A. Clark, Huguette. Huguette grew up with the same fairytale life as the children of the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller families, but rather than become a household name, she disappeared into obscurity early on in life. The heiress to a staggering fortune and owner of several incredible properties, Huguette limited her social interaction to her employees and select family friends. At the time of her death, at age 104, she had been living in a hospital room for twenty years, despite being in perfect health. After her passing, her family and employees engaged in a high-tension battle for her fortune, arguing blood versus service. Dedman deftly navigates the almost-surreal world of wealth and privilege and draws in readers with his narrative of Huguette's tale. 

I cannot say enough good things about this book. There are very few nonfiction stories that can draw me in with the same force as a novel, and this is one of them. I wouldn't hesitate to read it again in the near future, because it was just that good. I recently watched a series on the Smithsonian channel called Million Dollar American Princesses, and although this book had been sitting on my to-read shelf for over a year, loving the Smithsonian's show was the trigger for me to seek this out at my local library. (I'd also recommend the show, for those who are interested.) It's difficult to wrap your head around a fortune like Huguette's, but her story had a lot more to it than just her money. She had an incredible penchant for generosity and a genuine care for others, and was eccentric almost to a fault. I loved reading about her life in general, but it was the descriptions and photos of her properties that had me reading passages out loud to anyone who would listen. The everyday opulence was something that I just could not get over, so I devoured every page with disbelief-- certainly her story had to be the product of someone's imagination? The fact that everything was true only added to my shock, but in the end, I came out with an admiration for Huguette, for her humility and her quirkiness. Were it not for her aversion to notoriety, she could have been one of the biggest celebrities of her time. I'd recommend this for fans of nonfiction, of popular American history, and for anyone interested in learning more about the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

Bottom Line Rating: 5/5

  • Title: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
  • Author: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. 
  • Publisher: Ballantine, 2013
  • Price: $21  on Amazon
  • ISBN: 0345534522
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Public Library