Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Empty Mansions - Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Empty Mansions:
The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark
and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
Back at the beginning of the year, Heather from Capricious Reader wrote about Empty Mansions.  It's the true story of one of America's wealthiest families and their journey into obscurity.

The story is completely intriguing. A bit slow at times, but incredibly interesting. The Clark family, who were launched into the public eye by patriarch W.A. Clark in the late 1800s, are as near to American royalty as we're likely to get.

Their money was made in the same era as other iconic families, the Rockefellers and Carnegies, to name a few. The first half of the book covers how W.A. made his money and the family became prominently known in American society circles.

The second half talks more specifically about W.A.'s youngest daughter, Huguette. She lived a long, reclusive life, largely shrouded in mystery. She worked her way through her families fortune with incredible generosity and extravagance.

The book gets its title from the large homes built and purchased by the Clark family. These homes each stood empty for decades while Huguette lived our her days in a small hospital rooms.

Sound weird? Yeah, it is.

The story is absolutely fascinating, if a bit slow at times. I'll admit that I skimmed a bit in the sections on how W.A. made his money. I don't have a big interest in 19th century mining, so some of the details felt unnecessary. The details on Huguette and the ridiculous things she spent her money on, though, I ate those up.

Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr (yes, Paul is one of those Clarks) did a great job on this work. You may remember this story from Dedman's NBC News stories a few years back. The book fleshes it all out in much more detail. The authors did a fine job presenting a balanced perspective, as well. It would have been easy to portray Huguette as a mentally unbalanced woman or to paint those around her as gold diggers. Instead, they struck a nice tone somewhere in the middle and leave the reader to cast judgement on their own.

If stories of rich people and their money interest you, pick up this book. If stories of the 19th century industrial boom interest you, pick up this book and skip the second half. If gossipy stories of eccentric old women interest you, pick up this book and skip most of the first half. If you just like interesting nonfiction stories about obscure historical figures, pick up this book.

Pages: 456
Date Completed: March 25, 2014


  1. I keep meaning to put this one on my TBR -- I like 19th century industrial boom and eccentric old women!!

    1. Then you'll definitely like this one! I really enjoyed it. It's such a unique story.