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Posted at 02:03 PM ET, 05/25/2011

The remarkable Huguette Clark

In writing about the remarkable life of Huguette Clark – or what little we know about it – there was a lot of fascinating material I had to leave out for lack of space.

 Much of it was about her larger-than-life father, William A. Clark, who was a copper king from Montana and a one-term U.S. senator. He and John D. Rockefeller  were often considered the two richest Americans at the turn of the 20th century. (By the way, both Clark and Rockefeller were born in 1839; I think it’s remarkable that someone alive in 2011 — even she was 104 years old — had a father who was born in 1839.)

Clark may not have been a robber baron, exactly, but he was a self-made, top-hat-wearing 19th-century businessman of the most ruthless variety. In the late 1890s, he tried to buy his way into the U.S. Senate by bribing the Montana legislature, which elected senators at the time.

 “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale,” he said. Eventually, the 17th Amendment, requiring the direct election of senators by the public, was passed to prevent such wholesale corruption.

In 1907, Mark Twain wrote of Clark: “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 pentitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs.”

 Clark’s first wife, with whom he had five children, died in 1893. Soon after her death, a young woman named Anna Eugenia La Chapelle became Clark’s ward. She was about 15 at the time and ultimately became Clark’s lover. Clark maintained that he and Anna were married in France in 1901, but historians have yet to find a marriage certificate. In any case, a daughter was born in 1902, followed by the birth of Huguette in 1906.

The girls were raised in an elaborate New York mansion that their father built in 1908. The ornate Victorian building, at 77th Streeet and Fifth Avenue in New York, contained 121 rooms and a priceless collection of artwork by Degas, Monet, Renoir and others. The building stood for only 19 years and was demolished in 1926, one year after the senator died.

The older Clark daughter, Andree, died of meningitis in 1919 at age 16 – a loss that Huguette, then 13, may never have overcome. Huguette was well known throughout the 1920s as an eligible young heiress, and she did have a short-lived marriage to a man who worked for her father, making $30 a week.

 But after she was divorced in 1930, she retreated into silence and a private world of dolls, music and eccentricity. She had an estate in Connecticut that she had owned since 1952 – but had never spent a night there.

 She had an oceanfront mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif., that she hadn’t visited since the 1950s. (Supposedly, a herd of cows grazed on the property at Santa Barbara, and Huguette and her mother had freshly churned butter air-mailed to wherever they were staying. In later years, her lunchtime snack consisted of crackers and sardines.) There was also a 42-room Manhattan apartment – the largest on Fifth Avenue – but Huguette hadn’t been seen there since 1988. Instead, despite being in decent health, she spent the last 23 years of her life in hospitals.

 Was Huguette just shy, or was she crazy? I’m not sure anyone will ever know what made her lead such a reclusive life – except that her immense wealth made it possible for her to be locked away from the larger world.

By  |  02:03 PM ET, 05/25/2011

 
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