NBC reporter Bill Dedman to discuss New York heiress controversy at Ventfort Hall
LENOX -- Imagine owning one of the most private, expansive mansions in all of New York, rich with history and luxury. Now imagine having all of that at your fingertips, but choosing instead to live in a generic hospital room for more than 20 years.
This is the story of Huguette Clark, heireiss to one of the largest fortunes in modern times and one of the last children of the gilded age. Now, some of her descendants have gone to court in an attempt to garner some of the fortune she left behind.
Clark's story was uncovered by NBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman, who turned what started out as a series of articles into a full-length hardcover book, "Mysterious Mansions," published Sept. 10.
Dedman will come to Ventfort Hall at the Gilded Age Museum on Saturday to give a special "tea and talk" about the incredible story of Clark, who was both generous and reclusive, with her millions of dollars.
Thomas Hayes, a longtime member of the programming committee at Ventfort Hall, said he first became interested in inviting Dedman to Ventfort Hall when he read the first stories Dedman wrote about Clark.
Dedman found Clark by accident. He and his wife were looking for a home in 2009 when he stumbled upon an old mansion that had remained unoccupied for more than 50 years.
Being an investigative reporter, Dedman started digging around. What he found was the story of a woman given everything a person could dream of, but who wanted very little.
Huguette Clark, born in 1904, was the daughter of a copper industrialist whose wealth rivaled that of the Rockerfeller's.
Clark's was a curious upbringing -- her father, W.A. Clark, was in his late 60s when she was born. He had grown up in a log cabin and made his own wealth.
Clark was insulated from birth. Her family's 121-room mansion was the largest in New York, and while her father was extravagant, her mother shied away from the spotlight, staying mostly to herself.
"You have to say, she was peculiar," Dedman said.
Clark as a character was interesting in herself, Dedman said, but what had begun as a feature story quickly turned into an investigative piece.
From her hospital room, Clark began selling her valuables. This move has lead some, including many in the family, to believe she was being taken advantage of.
Eventually Clark "wasn't poor but was running low on cash," he said.
She had given more than $30 million in gifts to her hospital nurse alone.
Relatives of Clark have sued her beneficiaries, saying she was taken advantage of in her final years. The family -- some of whom have never even met Clark -- are attempting to receive some of the inheritance.
Last week, Dedman reported, a proposed settlement would give the family nearly $30 million, while Clark's nurse would have to give back about $5 million of the gifts she received.
Dedman looked into the kinds of gifts and sales of valuables Clark made in her later years.
Clark sold a violin for $6 million -- and the buyers were told to keep the price a secret, which raised some eyebrows. Dedman also found that Clark's attorney and accountant had worked with another wealthy, elderly client and been written into his will.
But, Dedman said, "there was smoke, but no fire."
Working with his co-author, Paul Newell, a cousin of Huguette's, he came to believe that Clark was was lucid in her later years.
"She knew these things were being sold," Dedman said.
Newell was one of the few people who had been in frequent contact with Clark over the last 30 years.
On her death in 2010, Dedman and Newell poured over thousands of letters she had written over the years -- even to a boyfriend in France. They painted a picture very different from an aging woman being taken advantage of by her staff.
"She writes lovely letters," Dedman said.
When being examined by a neurologist, Clark told grand tales of her youth -- including having tickets to the Titantic, but eventually not going on that doomed ship.
The neurologist had to ask Clark's nurse if it was all true.
Oh yes, it is true.
Dedman said the reaction to his stories about Clark has been positive because people wonder "why someone would reject what so many of us would want" in life.
For example, Clark had loved studying and reading about Japanese culture but never went to Japan, even with every imaginable resource to travel.
Hayes found it fascinating that Clark was "running away from the wealth."
"She didn't really need these things; she'd grown up with them," he said.
Dedman has taken a slightly different direction in "Empty Mansions" than in his previous work -- most famously, he won the Pulitzer prize for his reporting in "The Color of Money," which exposed racial bias in home lending.
"I'm not sure this is what you're paying me to do," Dedman said he told his editors when he began to unravel the story. But his editors were intrigued enough to have him pursue the story further.
"We still haven't quite figured her out," Dedman said.
What: NBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman to speak on his new book, ‘Mysterious Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune'
Where: Ventfort Hall, 104 Walker St., Lenox
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Admission: $18 in advance and $23 at the door.
Dedman will sign copies of his book after the talk