Maybe Huguette Clark wasn’t so crazy after all.
In her new book, “The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark,” biographer Meryl Gordon fills in enough of the details of the reclusive copper heiress’s long life to portray a singular lady who faced challenges and made choices that weren’t entirely unreasonable — even if they did involve spending vast sums on dolls, refusing to meet longtime employees in person and living the last 20 years of her life as the more-or-less healthy resident of a New York hospital.
But getting the story wasn’t easy, as she told guests at a book party in her honor Thursday night at the Georgetown home of Joyce Thornhill and Josh Gotbaum.
Now and then during the three-year project, Gordon said, she would find herself at 3 a.m. pouring out her anxieties to her husband, Walter Shapiro: “No one will speak to me, I have to return the advance!”
Persistence paid off. Eventually people spoke to her, and Gordon also got access to Clark’s papers, as well as the letters and diaries of people who knew her. Gordon previously wrote “Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach.” (Disclosure: Gordon includes me in the acknowledgement pages, for passing on a morsel of research about a 1929 exhibit of Clark’s own artwork at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, previously published in The Washington Post.)
Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104. Her father, William A. Clark (1839-1925), was the billionaire robber baron, arts patron and U.S. senator from Montana who founded Las Vegas. He left his art collection to the Corcoran, and Huguette, along with her mother and sisters, paid for an expansion of the gallery on 17th Street NW near the White House. The long lives of father and daughter spanned most of American history.
Clark’s Jazz Age marriage lasted two years, and she died childless — prompting the big battle over her estimated $300 million estate, finally settled last year. Distant relatives and lawyers collectively were awarded the biggest payout, an arts foundation was created in Santa Barbara and the Corcoran is to receive $11.5 million, among other beneficiaries.
On June 18, Christie’s will auction a trove of more than 350 lots of Clark’s possessions on behalf of her estate. Separately, a first round of sealed bidding on Clark’s Kreutzer Stadavarius violin — estimated to be worth $7.5 million to $10 million — closed Thursday. Starting Friday morning, the top three bidders were invited to submit sealed final offers, with the winner to be announced June 18. Clark studied violin as a youth, and her parents bought the Kreutzer for her when she was about 14.
As detailed in Gordon’s book, while she had no children, there were men in Clark’s life.
* William Gower was the fleeting husband. Gordon adds some support to previous speculation that the marriage was never consummated, and that Clark was puzzled or intimidated by sex. In the 1960s — when Clark had all but withdrawn from society — she and Gower reconnected by mail, exchanging chatty letters and commentary on Huguette’s photography. She didn’t go out much, but she took photos inside her luxurious Fifth Avenue apartment, or aimed her lens out the window.
* Tadeusz “Tadé” Styka, a noted painter of the era, was Clark’s painting teacher. Clark was devoted to her art. Her show at the Corcoran came just as her marriage was falling apart. After her Reno divorce, she looked forward to returning to New York and rededicating herself to painting. “I would like to seriously work with you this winter,” she wrote to the teacher. Her lessons continued for 20 years, and early on, in the 1930s, Styka escorted Clark to dinners and shows in an affectionate but platonic relationship. Gordon documents the moment when a beautiful model walked into Styka’s studio and his life. Clark was present and saw the look they exchanged. She put down her brushes and excused herself.
Styka married the model but Clark remained friends with the couple, and continued her lessons. She became a doting godmother to the couple’s daughter. After the painter’s death in the early 1950s, her disengagement from society had begun, and she chose never to see his widow or daughter again, though she corresponded and spoke on the phone. She left her goddaughter 25 percent of her estate (not counting artworks and certain gifts to others) — later reduced to $3.5 million in the settlement.
* Etienne de Villermont was a Frenchman who squired Clark around New York in the 1930s. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell reported they would likely be married in 1939, but by 1940 another columnist said Huguette was not seeing anyone. De Villermont married someone else in the early 1950s, around the same time that Styka died. As with Gower, Clark kept up an active correspondence with de Villermont, which continued into the late 1960s.
Unlucky in love — or unsuited for it — Clark had other disappointments that may have made her retreat into a comfortable cocoon seem more satisfying than engaging with society. She was a huge admirer of Japanese culture, and such a frequent importer of Japanese dolls and dollhouses, that when World War II broke out, the FBI visited to ask her about it. She knew Japanese Americans who were interned. The shock of the war caused a “psychological breakdown,” Gordon writes, and Clark was under doctors’ care for several months.
By the 1950s, her closest companion was her mother. They worried about germs and nuclear calamity. After her mother died in 1963, Clark hardly left her Fifth Avenue apartment, and declined to receive most visitors, or even to be in the room with people she hired to help run her affairs.
But she maintained her lively telephone, telegram and mail correspondence with friends and relatives. And while she apparently stopped painting, she pursued her passion for fine dolls and photography with an artist’s dedication. Her oft-reported fondness for shows such as the “The Flintstones” was an off-shoot of her painstaking attempts to make her own animations by taking sequences of photos of videotaped frames from television cartoons.
“People make her out to be crazy, but she wasn’t like that,” said a high-end apartment renovator quoted by Gordon. “She was discerning, she had the money and wanted things perfect.”
“She was supposed to be unworldly,” said another man who worked for Clark. “But she had so much more knowledge of the real world than people gave her credit for.”
After she was admitted to a hospital with skin cancer in 1991, and then cured, she decided to stay, possibly because there she found a safe, secluded micro-society where she could still do everything she had loved doing alone in her apartment.
Gordon’s book follows the equally thorough biography “Empty Mansions” published last year by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. Their book became a bestseller and reportedly has been optioned to be made into a film. Gordon’s book has been caught in the stand-off between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group, which owns Gordon’s publisher, Grand Central Books. “The Phantom of Fifth Avenue” ships “within 2 to 5 weeks,” according to a note on Amazon’s Web site Friday. Meanwhile, “Empty Mansions” (Ballantine Books) is available immediately. (Amazon’s chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“We love our independent bookstores,” Gordon said at the book party.
And she announced her next project: She has just signed a contract to write a biography of arts patron Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who died in March at the age of 103. Mellon, the biographer noted with relief, led a much more public life than Huguette Clark, and with any luck, Gordon won’t be up at 3 a.m. fretting over people not talking to her.
“If you knew Bunny, or know people who knew Bunny, keep me in mind!” she said.