Clark collection tells the story of a privileged and peculiar life

If you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket, then you’ve fantasized about what you’d do if money were suddenly no object. Maybe you’d buy an island, send all the kids in Camden to college or dehumidify some Italian art treasures.

Well, not Huguette Clark, whose billionaire father — the copper magnate and Montana Sen. William A. Clark — founded Las Vegas, built his family a 121-room mansion on Fifth Avenue and was believed to be the second-richest man in the country in 1907, behind only John D. Rockefeller, the year after Huguette was born.

Her story is a sort of forensic examination of what one woman who could have done anything at all did do. She lived increasingly carefully. Although physically healthy, she spent the last 20 years of her highly circumscribed life in a New York hospital room in which she constructed even smaller worlds, designing and commissioning miniature Japanese castles. And where, in all that time, she was never given a psychiatric evaluation.

Meryl Gordon’s new biography of the recluse, “The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark,” describes in detail how her lifelong fear of being taken advantage of by her relatives freed her to be taken advantage of by various caretakers, including at least two of her doctors at Beth Israel.

At Christie’s in New York on Wednesday, many of this pathologically private woman’s worldly goods — some of which she ordered up while in the hospital and never even saw — will be sold at public auction.


Mrs. Huguette Clark Gower, daughter of the late Senator William A. Clark of Montana, copper magnate. (AP)

In a preview of her things with Gordon and auctioneer Andrew McVinish, it was impossible not to think about how much Madame Clark, as her servants called her, would have hated having her things looked over and touched, as McVinish encourages all potential bidders to do.

“Of course!’’ Gordon says. “But you make a choice; either you give your things to your heirs’’ or leave it to the courts and auctioneers to sort out. Her $300 million estate was settled just last year, following her death at 104 in 2011.

“It’s part of the human spirit to collect things,’’ McVinish says. The things Clark collected tell the story of her privileged and peculiar life. And now, those things “need to be sold,’’ says the auctioneer, whose business, Gordon notes, depends on the “three Ds” of debt, divorce and death.

In a music gallery that Christie’s has recreated, Beethoven is playing, and the paintings of Japanese geisha and pagodas on the wall were done by Huguette. There are two harps that belonged to her mother, Anna, the senator’s much younger second wife. Under glass are violins, although the Stradivarius that Huguette’s parents bought her when she was 14 hadn’t been put out yet.

McVinish saw all these items when they were still in Clark’s home on Fifth Avenue. “It was a time capsule,’’ he said, because no one but her staff had been inside its 26 bedrooms or five art galleries in years — and the Strad had been stored in a butler’s pantry just off the kitchen.

“I don’t think things had changed greatly since Anna died in the mid-’60s,’’ McVinish said. “The older we get, the smaller the footprint’’ we make, he added, though Huguette Clark remained an avid consumer, even in her hospital bed, of exotic items she liked to purchase but never had any desire to see, so they went straight into storage in one of her three empty homes.

In the main hall of Christie’s, there’s a marble bust of Sen. Clark, who grew up in a log cabin in Pennsylvania. There, too, is more of Huguette Clark’s own artwork, including a painting of the view at twilight from her window at Fifth Avenue and 77th Street, where her father entertained J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. “She certainly had time to learn to do this,’’ McVinish said, because she left home rarely even in the years before she was admitted to Beth Israel to be treated for skin cancer in 1991. Once cured, she never wanted to leave.

In a recreated artist’s studio, there’s the palette that her painting teacher Tadeusz Styka gave her, along with some of her used brushes and a few of the objects she painted over and over, including rock crystal carvings of the Buddhist figure Guanyin, a jewelry box and a pale jade bracelet.

Clark left his much of his art collection to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and in another room, there’s a Sargent called “Girl Fishing at San Vigilio” that used to hang there, along with a William Merritt Chase painting of a fountain in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park that’s believed to have been a gift from the artist to Sen. Clark.

The colors in the George I armchairs, upholstered in 18th century petit-point needlework, are as vibrant as ever — not surprisingly, as they hadn’t been uncovered since their purchase in 1925. And are those red English armchairs what you’d call early bordello? No, early Wild West, Gordon thinks. “They’re robber baron red,’’ McVinish decides. And oh, there are bookend busts of Huguette’s only full sibling, Andree, whose early death from spinal meningitis at age 16 contributed to her mother’s and sister’s fast-growing fear of germs.

There are illustrated manuscripts on display, and first editions by Milton, Hobbes, Dickens, Baudelaire and of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Then come row upon row of cut-glass stemware — for the water, wine, champagne, port, sherry and sorbet served at parties that stopped half a century ago. Hanging nearby is what may or may not be a portrait of Huguette’s husband, William Gower, to whom she was married only briefly. And in Gordon’s telling, she seems to have preferred to carry on her romantic life by correspondence, exchanging effusive notes with her art teacher, her former French beau, and even her former husband.

The deepest human connection of her life, without any question, was with her mother, and while she was in the hospital, she ordered exact replicas of everything in Anna’s bedroom for herself, including an identically carved bed upholstered with Chinoiserie-patterned silk damask and a Tiffany’s dressing set including such necessities as a silver shoehorn and buttonhook. Though the two sets are hard to tell apart, “that’s mummy’s bed,’’ McVinish says, gesturing, “and these are the copies.”

In the last display room at Christie’s, where workers were still unpacking box after box, there’s a pigskin traveling case with the initials H.C., for the woman whose traveling days ended so long ago.

For Gordon, who spent three years researching and writing her book, the scene is “haunted,” but her subject’s highly unusual life was not without its compensations. In a sense, the author says, all the goods Clark left behind decades before she died might be seen to represent “the triumph of human connection, which she had in the hospital, over her attachment to material things.”

Beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday, some of those who fought over her estate will reassemble to bid on them.

READ MORE:

Huguette Clark’s Monet ready for auction

Clark’s secretive world explored by biographer

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

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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