Will the Corcoran get the Monet? The battle over an eccentric heiress’s last wishes

William Clark with daughters Andree, left, and Hugette, then about 11. Andree would soon die, and Huguette would never replace her in her father's affections.(Montanta Historical Society Research Center)

Copper magnate and Corcoran Gallery of Art benefactor William Clark with daughters Andree, 15, left, and Huguette, 11, circa 1917 in Butte, Mont. Huguette, who died in 2011 at age104, bequeathed a $25 million Monet to the Corcoran in her third will, which is being contested.
(Montanta Historical Society Research Center)

Huguette Clark, the copper heiress and benefactor of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, had a treat for her visitor this afternoon in March 2005. She received him in her hospital room in New York, where she lived the last 20 years of her life even though she was healthy. Her two mansions and three luxury apartments stood empty. Her paintings by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne and Sargent hung unadmired. Her $16 million, 9-carat pink diamond ring sat sparkle-less in a bank vault last opened in the 1940s. She lived simply in an ordinary patient’s room, surrounded by favorite pieces from her multimillion-dollar doll collection.

At 98, she was slight and fragile, scarcely 100 pounds. She wore several cashmere sweaters at once. She had a sweet, shy voice but a firm, formal way of addressing people. She kept her hair beautifully combed, with the help of nurses. She liked to watch “The Flintstones” and “The Smurfs” on television.

She was one of the last living links to the robber baron epoch, when brilliant, brutal industrialists amassed astounding wealth in the late 1800s. Huguette’s father, William A. Clark, rose from poor prospector to billionaire, then U.S. senator from Montana and trustee of the Corcoran. When he died in 1925, he left his art collection to the museum. The trove of 200 works was so vast that, to display even a portion, Huguette, her two half-sisters and her mother financed a $700,000 addition — $9 million in today’s dollars.

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Huguette Clark in 1930, at age 24.
(Associated Press)

Huguette’s share of her father’s fortune would be worth $500 million to $700 million now, though it dwindled to half that over the years.

Her visitor this day was one of the few people she had allowed in her presence for the past quarter-century. He was her doctor, Henry Singman.

Singman — who was past retirement age himself and had no other patients — considered her “an eccentric of the first order.”

But he had affection for her — and she was generous to him. Three months earlier, she had written him a gift check for $50,000, and there was more to come.

But today the treat was a poem. Huguette recited it in French, then in Spanish. It was a fable in verse called “Le Petit Grillon” — “The Little Cricket” — by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, a French writer of the 1700s.

The fable tells the story of a cricket hidden in the grass who admires a beautiful butterfly. The showy butterfly draws the attention of children. They chase it, catch it and, in their eagerness, tear the butterfly apart.

Oh! says the little cricket
I no longer regret
My obscure condition
It costs too much to shine
in this world

The doctor realized that the copper heiress — who had once been a reluctant butterfly of society herself — was summing up her life.

How I will love
My sweet and peaceful retreat
True happiness
Is found more easily
In modest circumstances

Or, as the moral of the fable has been summed up in other translations:

To live happy, live hidden

Yet, by then, the forces of intrusion and, perhaps, exploitation were closing in on the little cricket.

***

A few days after she recited the poem, Huguette was visited by her lawyer, her accountant and some witnesses. For the first time since 1929, she signed a will. Her signature had grown shaky over the years, but it was still recognizable, with the antique looping letter H. Her 1929 will had left everything to her mother, Anna La Chapelle Clark, William Clark’s second wife. She died in 1963. Huguette had been briefly married in the late 1920s and had no children.

For decades, Huguette resisted entreaties from advisers to make a new will. Why she refused, and why she now relented, is unknown. Her former lawyer, whom she outlived, speculated that she feared that if she signed a will, she would die. She also declined to permit doctors to forgo extraordinary measures to resuscitate her, if the need arose. She wanted to stay alive.

The new will was brief. She left $5 million to her private nurse, Hadassah Peri, and everything else to who­ever would have inherited it anyway if she had made no will at all. Those beneficiaries included 21 grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Huguette’s two half-sisters and a half-brother from William Clark’s first marriage.

The Corcoran, though, would lose its claim to a trust created by Huguette’s mother in the 1920s and worth at least $3 million.

Entrance to the W.A. Clark Collection at the Corcoran Museum of Art. Corcoran leaders had been hoping the museum would be remembered in Huguette Clark's will. (Linda Davidson)

Entrance to the Clark Wing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, funded by William Clark’s widow and daughters.
(Linda Davidson)

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A plaque at the Corcoran recognizes Clark’s widow and daughters, including Huguette.
(Linda Davidson)

Leaders of the cash-strapped Corcoran would have liked more. They had been mailing carefully crafted pitches to Huguette for endowment gifts of up to $10 million. To make one solicitation extra appealing, the Corcoran sent it in English and French. Huguette would respond, through her lawyer, with $50,000 one year, $250,000 another, and some years, nothing. She always insisted on anonymity.

Then, just six weeks later, in April 2005, Huguette signed another will. It was very different. This one specifically excluded the descendants of her half-sisters and -brother, “having had minimal contacts with them over the years.”

Instead, she would create an arts foundation in her $85 million seaside mansion known as Bellosguardo, in Santa Barbara, Calif. The Bellosguardo Foundation would receive 15 percent of her fortune and all her artworks — except one painting.

That last painting would go to the Corcoran. It was one of Monet’s celebrated “Water Lilies” series, painted in 1907. Huguette bought it in Paris in May 1930, when she was 23 and on her way to Reno for a quickie divorce.

The painting has never been seen in public since. Huguette hung it in one of her Fifth Avenue apartments. Now it’s appraised for $25 million.

The Corcoran — which last year considered a plan to sell its landmark building to help balance its books — could dearly use a crowd-pleasing Monet to attract visitors, or, perhaps better, $25 million in cash.

 "The Dance Class" by Degas, one of  the paintings in the William A. Clark collection at the Corcoran. Officials there say Huguette Clark had promised them one of Monet's famed "Water Lilies" paintings. (Linda Davidson)

“The Dance Class” by Degas, one of roughly 200 paintings and drawings donated to the Corcoran by William Clark.
(Linda Davidson)

But before the Corcoran’s stake can be sorted out, the plot grows much, much thicker.

The third will also rewarded a sizable cast of characters, including: Singman, $100,000. Huguette’s personal assistant, Christopher Sattler, who assembled her doll sets, $500,000. Her lawyer, Wallace Bock, and accountant, Irving Kamsler, $500,000 each, plus being named executors, an assignment worth an estimated $8 million. The hospital, Beth Israel Medical Center, $1 million. Peri, the nurse, would receive the doll collection and 60 percent of the remaining estate.

The wills were kept secret until Huguette died on May 24, 2011, two weeks shy of her 105th birthday. (A breakdown of the three wills.)

In short order, the April will was unveiled, the existence of the March will became known, and a legal free-for-all erupted in stately stone Surrogate’s Court in Lower Manhattan.

The estate was officially valued at $306,489,687.23. The descendants from her father’s first marriage alleged that the third will was improperly executed, and that Huguette had been taken advantage of by Bock, Kamsler, Peri and others. They said that, in fact, relatives had been in contact with Huguette for decades. Should both recent wills be deemed invalid, the descendants would inherit the estate by default, and the Corcoran would get the $3 million trust.

Fifteen law firms leaped into the fray. Late last year, public administrator Ethel Griffin — an official representing Huguette’s estate — filed a scathing 101-page complaint. She alleged that a tight circle including Bock, Kamsler, Peri, doctors, hospital officials and others induced or allowed Huguette to improperly give away more than $40 million during her 20 years in the hospital. In the process, Huguette racked up millions in gift taxes that her advisers allegedly failed to pay, and she had to sell valuable paintings to keep the cash flowing.

Most of the $40 million — nearly $32 million — allegedly went to Peri and her family, according to the complaint. Beth Israel got $4 million, including a $3.5 million Manet painting. Singman got nearly $900,000. Bock and Kamsler received comparatively little money but are alleged to have mishandled her affairs.

Lawyers for Bock, Kamsler, Peri, Singman and a hospital spokesman said the gifts were a voluntary show of Huguette’s gratitude for excellent care that enabled her to live a long life.

The public administrator has asked the court to order the return of all those gifts. A decision on that request and a trial on the broader question of which, if any, of Huguette’s wills is valid could come late this year. Lawyers also have begun settlement talks.

“This whole thing was a huge tragedy,” said David Levy, a former director of the Corcoran who spoke to Huguette a few times on the phone and wrote to her frequently. “Here is a family that has this one surviving direct member and a significant legacy in this museum. … There was enough money in her pocket to have established a financial base and maybe even an artistic base that could have supported the Corcoran in perpetuity. In terms of the family legacy, that would have been a great thing to do.

“Instead all this got exploded into the ether.”

Maybe, after all, Huguette was uninterested in legacy — wanted to disappear, along with her wealth. Occasionally, Levy recalled, she would mail historic photos of bygone personages. If she happened to be included in a portrait, she would black out her own face.

***

Mark Twain felt himself getting crankier and crankier. He was one of 10 guests at a dinner in a stuffy men’s club where, to his surprise, the senator from Montana was being feted for his art philanthropy.

Twain vented in a 1907 sketch of Clark:

“His history is known to everybody; he is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a chain and a ball on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.”

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Mark Twain
(Circa 1907 photograph by A.F. Bradley courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

Twain must have had in mind the $1,000 bills that Clark supporters allegedly distributed to Montana legislators in return for their votes in the 1899 campaign. (At the time, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislators.) Clark won, but a Senate committee rejected the election results.

In a tearful resignation speech on Senate floor, Clark said, “I propose to leave to my children a legacy worth more than gold: that of an unblemished name,” according to historian Michael P. Malone.

In 1901, Clark was elected again and served one term.

By then, Clark, 62, had carved his fortune out of the West and was looking to the East for political and cultural esteem. He went on art-buying binges in Europe and built a Fifth Avenue palace to outshine the Vanderbilts and Astors. He commissioned a fancy mausoleum in the best section of tony Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

He also started a new family. His first wife, Katherine Stauffer Clark, had died in 1893. A Butte teenager of French-Canadian heritage named Anna La Chapelle became his ward. By one account, she first approached another businessman to finance her education. He refused, but Clark sent her to Paris to study. In 1902, she gave birth to a daughter, Andrée.

Not until 1904 did Clark reveal that he had married Anna in France, in 1901, when she was 23. In Paris in 1906, Anna gave birth to Huguette.

The girls’ arrival in the United States aboard the oceanliner Teutonic was duly noted in The Washington Post on July 2, 1910:

“Andrée, who speaks a few words of English, has been in this country once before. She spent a winter with her parents in Washington. Little Huguette speaks no English whatever.

“The senator and his family are going to Butte, Mont., where they will remain until their Fifth Avenue palace is completed.”

William with Anna Clark, his second wife and Huguette's mother

William with Anna Clark, his second wife and Huguette’s mother, strolling on Fifth Avenue, circa 1920.
(King Features Syndicate via NBCNews.com)

During a family summer vacation at a lake in Maine in 1919, Andrée died of meningitis. Huguette, then 13, never could replace Andrée in her father’s affections, wrote tell-all biographer William D. Mangam in 1941. But her mother, who was closer in age to the girl than to the father, more than compensated for the lack of attention.

“Huguette’s early training in France and her tutelage at Miss Spence’s school in New York were able to give her a presentable exterior but did not overcome the natural results of excessive maternal affection and protection,” Mangam wrote. “She had a mother complex.”

The society pages were spellbound:

“Miss Huguette Clark, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Andrews Clark of 962 Fifth Avenue, entertained a party of girlfriends yesterday at Sherry’s,” noted the New York Times in May 1922, when Huguette was 15.

In this Dec. 24, 2011 photo, a portrait of heiress Huguette Clark hangs in one of the bedrooms of the Copper King Mansion in Butte, Mont. The 34-room mansion that W.A. Clark built in Butte more than a century ago is now a bed-and-breakfast and offers visitors a glimpse into the pampered lives of the robber barons who ruled American business at the turn of the previous century. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)

This portrait of a young Huguette hangs in the Copper King Mansion in Butte, Mont., built by her father during his robber baron days and now a bed-and-breakfast.
(AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)

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The Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City, which was later torn down to make room for an apartment building.
(Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

After her father died in 1925 at 86, Huguette and her mother moved into apartments on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. They eventually owned three, a total of 40 rooms.

Huguette’s portrait soon appeared in the Times among “the Debutantes of the Season.” Her hair was side-parted in a smart bob, and she wore a string of pearls from Tiffany. Her name appeared in newspaper roundups of rich young Misters and Misses attending teas and parties, until her engagement was announced in December 1927.

Her fiance was William MacDonald Gower, Princeton Class of 1925, the son of one of her father’s financial controllers. He was starting a career in banking.

In March 1928, Huguette and her mother stopped in Washington for the opening of the Clark Wing of the Corcoran, attended by President Calvin Coolidge. William Clark’s will had named the Metropolitan Museum in New York ahead of the Corcoran, but the Met declined because of the will’s instruction that the collection be displayed intact. The Corcoran was granted leeway to show the billionaire’s art in rotation.

That August 1928, Huguette, 22, was married at Bellosguardo.

She was not a mere social butterfly. She was a dedicated painter who had a show at the Corcoran in April 1929. The trustees hardly needed persuasion to accommodate a member of the Clark family — but her work showed talent. The seven paintings included “Scene From My Window — After the Snow Storm,” “Typical Japanese Doll” and “Portrait of Myself.”

A self-portrait would later be found among her possessions. It shows the pretty, blond artist at work. Her hair is coiffed and her face made up as if for a party. She holds a colorful palette and gazes confidently over her shoulder at the viewer. Before her stretches a blank canvas.

Two weeks after her Corcoran show closed, the new Mrs. Gower signed a will that did not mention her husband and left everything to her mother. Fifteen months later, the divorce was finalized in Reno. Huguette charged desertion, according to press accounts, though the full drama behind the dissolution has never been disclosed. Biographer Mangam asserts without naming his source that the marriage was never consummated.

Huguette reclaimed her maiden name but preferred to be addressed as Mrs. Clark. Now she began her retreat from the society pages, then from society.

She endured rumors linking her to a young Irish duke, who finally dished to gossip writers that he “is not going to be married to anyone.” She was the largest check-writer ($2,500) to the Times’ annual fundraising drive for the city’s neediest in 1931.

Little more was said of her in the press for the next 80 years.

Huguette and her mother divided their time between New York and Santa Barbara. “Their social contacts in these communities are rather desultory,” Mangam wrote, “and they seem now to live largely for each other.”

For a while, in private, Huguette entertained visitors, usually at her mother’s side.

“Huguette wasn’t reclusive in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s; she was exclusive, and had her circle of good friends,” said Barbara Hoelscher Doran, whose father was a manager of the 23-acre Bellosguardo estate.

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The Bellosguardo estate in Santa Barbara, Calif. Though Huguette Clark had stopped going there by the early 1960s, she spent millions to have it maintained exactly as she remembered it, down to a hole in a hedge.
(John Wiley/JW4PIX via FLICR)

Next door, Huguette established the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge in memory of her sister. She kept a studio for painting.

Jacqueline Baeyens-Clerte, granddaughter of one of Huguette’s half-brothers, remembers visiting Bellosguardo in the summer of 1952: “Aunt Huguette was very shy,” she said in a recent court deposition, “and her mother did all the talking.”

That companionship ended 11 years later. Huguette’s mother died in one of the New York apartments in 1963, at 85. Huguette was 57, now on her own.

“Everything stopped for her when her mother died,” Andre Baeyens, a retired French diplomat and grandson of a half-brother, told NBC in 2010.

Little is known of her years that followed. She had stopped going to Bellosguardo by the time her mother died, yet spent millions on staff to maintain all her properties just as if she and her mother inhabited them. She had bought a mansion with 50 acres in New Canaan, Conn., but apparently never spent a night.

When Clark descendant Paul F. Albert visited Bellosguardo in about 1989, “I was struck by how up-tight the head housekeeper was that everything had to be arranged exactly as Huguette remembered it,” he wrote to family members. “When we went into one room, for example, the housekeeper snapped at another employee, ‘Who moved that chair?’ She then moved a chair some three feet to exactly the required spot.”

Albert also learned that the gardeners were maintaining a hole in the hedge that had existed in Huguette’s time. Huguette or her lawyer “would call periodically to check to make sure that the hole was still there.”

In New York, Huguette’s elderly caretaker’s responsibilities included: preparing lunches of crackers and sardines; washing and ironing dolls’ clothing; and taping and transcribing episodes of “The Flintstones,” according to reporting by Bill Dedman of NBC News, who is co-writing a book about her.

She is known to have had one friend in later years who wasn’t an employee, an elderly French widow in New York. Huguette gave that woman $10 million.

When out-of-town relatives would call for a visit, she would decline, saying, “Je suis enrhumee” — I have a cold.

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The apartment at 907 Fifth Avenue. Huguette Clark owned half the 12th floor and all of the 8th floor, with a view of Central Park. But she spent the last 20 years of her life in a hospital room, though she was not sick.
(David Montgomery)

Thanksgivings in the 1980s, some relatives would arrange to be on the sidewalk next to Central Park and wave up to the apartment at 3 p.m. Huguette said she would be looking out, but they never knew for sure.

***

In March 1991, Singman, the doctor, was summoned to make an emergency house call on a mysterious new patient.

He stepped inside the apartment — and “came face to face with an apparition, in an old soiled bathrobe and a towel wrapped around her lower face.”

The apartment “was lit by a small candle in one room and chaos present in the rest of the place,” Singman recalled in a handwritten memo describing his first encounter with Huguette Clark.

“She was very thin, to the point of emaciated, and when she exposed her face, she resembled an advanced leper patient.”

Part of her lower lip was missing, and ulcers engulfed her lower right eyelid, exposing the entire eyeball — disfigurements caused by skin cancer.

“She weighed all of 75 pounds and appeared nearly at death’s door.”

Surgeons at Beth Israel removed tumors and repaired her face. She gained weight. Singman taught her solitaire, “and she learned every game in the book, improvising and inventing new games. She had a steel-trap memory but remained shy and reticent.”

Over the next year or so she became healthy enough to return to her apartment, especially with the round-the-clock private nurses she had hired. Doctors raised the subject of her eventual discharge, but Huguette wouldn’t discuss it. The idea made her anxious. She ultimately refused to leave the hospital, and Beth Israel let her stay, charging about $300,000 to $400,000 a year, according to the complaint and the hospital.

A hospital spokesman declined to comment on the decision to permit a patient to reside in her room for two decades.

So began the final chapter of Huguette’s life that is the subject of the titanic legal battle. Piles of court records in the still-evolving case yield a portrait that is blurry in some respects, precise in others. The core questions involve the frontier between eccentric and incompetent, friendship and ma­nipu­la­tion. In 2010, she received a diagnosis of dementia, according to the public administrator.

Her pricey doll passion resembled that of a connoisseur and of a child. From her hospital room, she made exacting demands on craftsmen in Japan, yet also delighted in Playmobil sets from toy stores. The craft doll sets included replicas of historic castles and kabuki stages. Sattler, her assistant, would search among the inventory that filled one of her apartments, he recalled in a deposition. Sometimes she asked him to assemble a set in the apartment and bring a photo to the hospital. She would critique his setups. Or she would instruct him to bring specific pieces to the hospital.

Similarly, while she seemed to take a child’s pleasure in cartoons, at the same time, more like an artist, she also made high-speed photos of them, creating her own animation effect by flipping the pictures.

Peri, an immigrant from the Philippines, according to her deposition, was assigned to work for Clark by a nursing agency. For 20 years, Peri spent 12 hours a day, up to seven days a week, attending to Clark’s most personal physical needs. On top of her $131,000 salary, Peri received hundreds of gift checks, as well as jewelry and musical instruments, according to the public administrator’s complaint. In 2000, Clark gave her $10 million from the sale of a Cézanne painting.

“They had a mother-daughter relationship,” said Peri’s lawyer Harvey Corn.

Peri and Singman were among the few who could get Huguette to comply with her treatment regimen. Huguette fired another nurse who urged her too strongly to leave the hospital.

“Mrs. Clark wanted her people around,” Corn said. “If you were there, you put in your time, you put in your service, she rewarded you. Generously.”

Singman pocketed checks ranging from $600 to $65,000, totaling nearly $900,000 made out to him or his family, according to the complaint.

“Miss Clark was a generous person who gave Dr. Singman on an unsolicited basis Christmas gifts and at times other gifts,” said Harold Lee Schwab, Singman’s lawyer. “Although in round numbers these gifts totaled a large amount … one has to consider the fact that the gift-giving covered a period of approximately 20 years, and for Miss Clark the amounts that she gave to Dr. Singman were paltry in terms of her overall wealth and her other gift-giving.”

Beth Israel executives did not know that doctors and nurses were receiving gifts, said Jim Mandler, vice president for public affairs of Continuum Health Partners, Beth Israel’s corporate parent.

However, the executives themselves solicited charitable contributions to the hospital. Former Beth Israel president Robert Newman had his elderly mother visit Huguette in May 1998 to watch a recording of “Merry Christmas With the Smurfs” and discuss “the great joy and spiritual satisfaction of preparing her will,” according to internal communications among hospital executives cited by the public administrator.

“I kid you not! My mom spent 30 minutes watching the Smurfs celebrate Christmas; she deserves a medal,” Newman reported to colleagues, according to the complaint.

Huguette responded to one request for funds by giving the hospital the Manet worth $3.5 million.

Newman declined to be interviewed, said Mandler, who added that it is common for wealthy patients to donate to the hospital. In a statement, Beth Israel vowed to contest the public administrator’s claims:

“We are disappointed at the attempt to take back charitable donations that Ms. Clark freely made to Beth Israel to express her gratitude for the hospital’s life-saving and compassionate care, and her recognition of the hospital’s important mission.”

By 2003, Huguette was running out of cash. Bock wrote to her confirming that in order to raise funds needed for gift taxes, living expenses, property maintenance “and [to] allow you to continue to take care of the many individuals that you help support through your generosity,” she should proceed with the sale of “Dans les Roses” by Renoir. It brought $23.5 million at auction.

Yet in 2005, she was still giving away more than she had in cash.

“There is currently not enough money available to pay these [gift] taxes and to make substantial additional gifts to Hadassah (Peri) or anyone else,” Kamsler wrote to her. He suggested she sell more assets.

The financial records “provide a chilling report of the mishandling, misappropriation and mismanagement of Huguette’s assets over a period of 15 years,” lawyer John Morken, representing descendants of Huguette’s half-siblings, wrote in an affidavit.

Kamsler’s lawyer, Robert Giacovas, said in an interview: “He was doing the absolute best that he could looking out for her interests and complying with her wishes.”

“Bock stood by and facilitated the unlawful siphoning of tens of millions of dollars in purported ‘gifts’ from Mrs. Clark by Hadassah and others,” public administrator Griffin wrote in the complaint.

Yet taking away Huguette’s right to spend her money would have required a court order, and there was no evidence she was incompetent, said John Dadakis, a lawyer for Bock.

“What we’re missing is who this lady was and how competent she was and what her desires were,” Dadakis said. “She wanted to spend her money the way she wanted to spend it. [Bock] was hired to do what she wanted him to do.

“Undue influence means you took the person’s free will. How does he know if it’s undue influence or just this over-generous person doing things she’d tell him she wanted to do?”

***

The Corcoran was one of the first objects of Huguette’s philanthropy, when she shared the bill for construction of the Clark Wing. And it would be one of the last.

To generations of gallery administrators, she was an enigma with great untapped potential, whose care and feeding were an annual improvisation.

The tale was handed down among Corcoran staff members that she declined to underwrite the installation of air conditioning in the early 1980s, because when she toured the galleries of Europe, none had been air conditioned.

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In the 1990s, Huguette Clark contributed to the restoration of the Salon Dore at the Corcoran. The neoclassical French interior had been removed to her father’s Fifth Avenue mansion before being rebuilt in the Corcoran.
(Linda Davidson)

Yet in the 1990s, when she was already living in the hospital, she was a significant contributor to the $1 million restoration of the Salon Doré. That luxurious gilded chamber had been removed from an 18th-century French palace to her father’s Fifth Avenue mansion, then rebuilt in the Corcoran.

She indirectly had a hand in another Corcoran windfall. In the 1940s, her mother acquired a Stradivarius viola, two Stradivarius violins and a cello that had been owned by Paganini. Her mother left them to the Corcoran. By the 1990s, the Corcoran needed money. Levy, the director, received Huguette’s blessing to sell them, he said. The Corcoran reaped $15 million.

On the phone, her voice was a distant sweet murmur, Levy said of their few brief conversations.

“She never wanted her name anywhere,” Levy said. After one donation, “she called me and said, ‘I don’t think we should use my name. I don’t think that’s necessary.’ ”

Before long, all communication was by letter, through lawyers. A succession of gallery directors made pilgrimages to New York to have lunch with Donald Wallace, the original lawyer, or Bock and Kamsler. Huguette’s advisers would attend the Corcoran Ball. Levy asked to meet her several times, in vain.

“We’re dealing with a very nutty situation,” Levy said.

In 2000, Levy made an unsuccessful pitch for an endowment gift of $5 million to $10 million. In 2002, after he asked for $100,000, a check for $50,000 arrived, signed by Bock on Huguette’s behalf.

The following year, 2003, Bock informed the Corcoran that she would be unable to give any money, though she did donate a minor watercolor by Boutet de Monvel.

This was the year of Huguette’s cash crunch. It was also when the Corcoran’s plans for the modernist expansion designed by Frank Gehry were well under way. The project would have destroyed a portion of the wing Huguette had paid for. Carla Hall, a great-granddaughter of a half-sister, surmised that Huguette “hates the idea … and therefore has discontinued her annual gifts to the gallery,” as Hall wrote in an e-mail to Levy.

Corcoran officials, meanwhile, were stunned to read in the newspaper in 2003 that Huguette had sold “Dans les Roses,” the $23.5 million Renoir.

“In truth, I have some disturbing thoughts about the whole matter, and in particular, Mrs. Clark’s relationship to Wallace Bock, her current lawyer, who may have his own agenda,” Levy wrote to Hall. “Of course, though the Corcoran has a 75 [-year] relationship with the family, it has no legal standing if the matter were to be looked into.”

Hall, a brand communication designer in New York, had her own Corcoran roots but never met Huguette. Her father had been a trustee, and she was on the board of overseers for the Corcoran College of Art & Design. Her family had given $250,000 to $500,000 to the Corcoran over the years, according to the gallery. Hall declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Do you know if she has (had) any intention to gift this [Renoir] to the Corcoran?” Hall wrote to Levy. “Is she in touch with the Corcoran? I sure wish we [the Corcoran] could have this one but there may be more.”

Early in 2006 — after the Gehry project was cancelled and Levy resigned — Corcoran chairwoman Jeanne Ruesch wrote to Huguette, care of Bock, asking her to consider giving her paintings and archives to the gallery, and contributing an endowment of $10 million for the perpetual care of the Clark Wing. But even Ruesch’s thoughtful touch of having the letter translated into French did not elicit a response from Huguette. No one at the Corcoran knew that Clark’s signature now appeared on a will that left the gallery one painting and no cash.

Later that year, Hall wrote to her great-great aunt — “Dear Tante Huguette” — to ask again about the archives, and to tout the Corcoran’s new director, Paul Greenhalgh, a British art scholar who, she said, kept a portrait of William Clark in his office.

Greenhalgh’s courting of Huguette and her advisers bore fruit in 2009. Bock transmitted a pledge of $1 million, to be paid in installments of $250,000. Huguette also contributed $10,000 to underwrite a Clark family reunion weekend in late 2008 at the Corcoran. Some 75 relatives dined in the Salon Doré. Kamsler attended on Huguette’s behalf.

Before the full $1 million pledge was paid, Huguette died early on a May morning in 2011. The second $250,000 check, signed by Bock on her behalf, had arrived in 2010 — the year her dementia was diagnosed, the public administrator later said.

The family mausoleum, in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where Huguette Clark insisted on being buried. (David Montgomery)

The family masoleum, where Huguette Clark insisted on being buried.
(David Montgomery)

Counterintuitively, the Corcoran has joined the family in objecting to the third will, arguing that the bequest of the $25 million Monet may not be legitimate. Lawyers for rival parties are suspicious of the Corcoran’s motives. It is seeming to act against its economic interest by siding with the family.

“They’ve got a $25 million painting that they are not protecting,” Peri’s lawyer Corn said in a hearing. “This is an institution that’s going broke. … They ought to be sitting here and protecting their $25 million asset. … They may be doing the bidding of family members when they should be doing the bidding of the beneficiaries of the Corcoran.”

Corcoran executives deny there is a side deal for the family to reward the gallery after the case is concluded. Rather, they say, the gallery must respect the “true intentions” of donors. Given questions raised about whether Huguette was competent to make a will, and whether she was unduly influenced, the gallery won’t accept the painting unless those questions are resolved.

Yet the Corcoran is holding on to the $500,000 it received four years after the will was signed, when the public administrator now says Huguette was slipping into dementia. Gallery executives say they were assured by Bock and Kamsler in 2009 that Huguette wanted to pledge the $1 million.

The public administrator initially sought an inquiry into the $500,000. After the Corcoran agreed not to pursue the balance of the $1 million pledge from the estate, the public administrator agreed not to seek return of the $500,000 already paid, gallery director Fred Bollerer said in a deposition. A lawyer for the public administrator declined to comment.

There was one last contribution to the Corcoran from Huguette: the recent loan of paintings by Sargent and Renoir. The Sargent, a portrait of a woman in a formal dress casting a fishing net, continues on display in the Clark Wing. All it takes is one look to know that no one is left to guard Huguette’s precious anonymity. A printed label beside the painting says, in tiny letters, “Courtesy of Mrs. Huguette Clark.”

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The death certificate listed her occupation as “Artist.”

She was buried in the family mausoleum at Woodlawn, without any relatives invited to attend.

Her father had hired a top architect and artist more than a century earlier to design and decorate the resting place in the style of a Greek temple on a slight hill. The granite and marble monument stands as a self-conscious assertion of the family’s stature. Jay Gould and Joseph Pulitzer repose nearby.

Huguette insisted that she be buried in the mausoleum, too, but it took some work: By the time her turn neared, the place was full. The eight crypts contained William Clark, his two wives, Huguette’s beloved sister Andrée and other family members. Huguette rejected the option that she be buried outside the walls, in an adjacent plot. She paid for an intricate project to make room for her.

Engineers inserted a tiny camera to explore beneath the mosaic floor. They discovered void space in the barrel vaults dug into the hill to support the mausoleum. Huguette’s remains were placed there, in a custom-designed crypt, directly below the crypts containing her mother and her sister. She is doubly enclosed and concealed, beneath the ancestors and within the earth.

David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.