The Phantom of Fifth Avenue

The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark

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By Meryl Gordon

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From New York Times bestselling author Meryl Gordon, the definitive biography of Huguette Clark, who went from being one of the wealthiest and most famous Jazz Age socialites to spending the last twenty years of her life hiding out in hospitals.

Born in 1906, Huguette Clark grew up in her family's 121-room Beaux Arts mansion in New York and was one of the leading celebrities of her day. Her father William Andrews Clark, was a copper magnate, the second richest man in America, and not above bribing his way into the Senate.

Huguette attended the coronation of King George V. And at twenty-two with a personal fortune of $50 million to her name, she married a Princeton man and childhood friend William MacDonald Gower. Two-years later the couple divorced. After a series of failed romances, Huguette began to withdraw from society–first living with her mother in a kind of Grey Gardens isolation then as a modern-day Miss Havisham, spending her days in a vast apartment overlooking Central Park, eating crackers and watching The Flintstones with only servants for company.

All her money and all her real estate could not protect her in her later life from being manipulated by shady hangers-on and hospitals that were only too happy to admit (and bill) a healthy woman. But what happened to Huguette that turned a vivacious, young socialite into a recluse? And what was her life like inside that gilded, copper cage?

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William Andrews Clark spent $7 million building his 121-room mansion, the largest private home in Manhattan. It was torn down in 1926, eleven years after it was completed. (Collection of the New York Historical Society, George P. Hall & Son Photograph Collection, negative #58976)




Character List

THE PATRIARCH

William Andrews Clark: (1839–1925) Montana copper mogul, U.S. senator, voracious art collector, one of the richest men in America, worth at minimum the equivalent of $3.3 billion in contemporary dollars.

First Marriage

Katherine Stauffer: First wife, childhood friend from Pennsylvania. Married in 1869, bore seven children, died in 1893 of typhoid after visiting the World's Fair in Chicago.

Children of Katherine and William Andrews Clark who survived to adulthood:

Mary Clark Culver Kling de Brabant: (1870–1939) Eldest daughter, married three times, based in Manhattan, known for lavish parties and romantic entanglements.

Charles Clark: (1871–1933) Spendthrift California horse-racing enthusiast, often sued by creditors, worked for father, said to be father's bagman in bribing Montana legislature, married three times.

Katherine Clark Morris: (1875–1974) Married to a Manhattan physician, a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, presided over 3,000-acre farm estate.

William Andrews Clark Jr.: (1877–1934) Founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, widowed twice, employed by his father, racy reputation, left fortune to seventeen-year-old boy.

Second Marriage

Anna La Chapelle: (1878–1963) Became William Andrews Clark's ward as a fifteen-year-old in Butte, trained to play the harp in Paris. Marriage to the senator belatedly claimed to have occurred in 1901 but license never produced. French-Canadian parents, mother ran a boardinghouse, father convicted of practicing medicine without a license.

Children from Anna's marriage to William Andrews Clark:

Andrée Clark: Born in France in 1902. Girl Scout, played piano, attended Spence School. Died on Maine vacation in 1919 of meningitis.

Huguette Clark: Born in France in 1906, died 2011. Talented artist (painter, photographer, miniaturist), played the violin, attended Spence School, exhibited her work at the Corcoran Gallery, passionate doll collector, became a recluse in later years.

Anna La Chapelle's siblings

Amelia La Chapelle: (1881–1969) Married three times, no children. Frequently traveled with Anna and the senator, very close to Huguette.

Arthur La Chapelle: (1883–1946) Based in California. His daughter, Anna La Chapelle, was supported by Huguette, her first cousin. Sued Huguette to break a trust.

THE FRIENDS AND SUITORS

Tadé Styka: (1889–1954) Polish artist, child prodigy in Paris. His portrait of Teddy Roosevelt hangs in the White House. Painted eleven portraits of Senator Clark. Huguette Clark's painting instructor for thirty years, frequent escort during the 1930s, closest man in her life.

Doris (Ford) Styka: Fashion model who walked into Tadé's studio during Huguette's painting lesson and stole his heart. Married the artist in 1942.

Wanda Styka: Their daughter. Huguette's goddaughter, museum archivist.

William M. Gower: (1905–1976) Huguette's only husband. Married in August 1928, separated in April 1929, divorced in 1930. Received $1 million to marry Huguette. Moved to France with second wife, Constance Baxter Tevis McKee Toulmin. Later reestablished affectionate connection with Huguette.

Etienne de Villermont: (1904–1982) French marquis and childhood family friend of the Clarks. In 1938, Walter Winchell announced the marquis's engagement to Huguette. Etienne married a Frenchwoman instead but conducted a decades-long flirtation with Huguette, who wrote him checks.

Edward FitzGerald: Duke of Leinster. Bankrupt Irish duke, briefly courted Huguette for her money.

Edward "Major" Bowes: (1874–1946) Radio pioneer, host of NBC's Original Amateur Hour, popular culture sensation in the 1930s, famous for his gong. Widower, began dating Anna Clark in 1935.

Dr. William Gordon Lyle: Family physician to the Clarks. Wife Leontine was a Spence classmate of Huguette. Their children: Gordon Lyle Jr. and Leontine "Tina" Lyle Harrower (goddaughter of Anna Clark).

Suzanne Pierre: French, widow of Dr. Jules Pierre, also a Clark family physician. Huguette's best friend dating from the mid-1970 s, saved Huguette's life. Died in 2011.

Agnes Clark Albert: Daughter of Huguette's half brother Charles Clark. Family member who had the closest relationship by far with Huguette and Anna Clark. Died in 2002.

HUGUETTE'S RETAINERS

Donald Wallace: Lawyer, worked for Huguette from 1976 to 1997. Exasperated by her failure to update her will. Died in 2002.

Wallace Bock: Attorney who inherited Huguette as a client from Donald Wallace, worked for her from 1997 until her 2011 death. Wrote her controversial final will, named an executor.

Irving Kamsler: Accountant, worked for Huguette from 1979 to 2011, visited often and held her medical proxy, executor of her will. Pled guilty to online sex offenses in 2008.

Christopher Sattler: Huguette's assistant from 1991 to 2011. Worked on her artistic photography projects, maintained her three apartments at 907 Fifth Avenue.

THE NURSES

Hadassah Peri: Filipino immigrant married to an Israeli cabdriver, Peri was Huguette's principal nurse from 1991 to 2011. Received $31 million in gifts from Huguette including extensive real estate, antique jewelry, and a Stradivarius.

Geraldine Coffey: Irish immigrant, private night nurse, worked for Huguette from 1991 to 2011.

Marie Pompei: Hospital staff nurse, one of the first people to treat Huguette, became her close friend.

THE HOSPITAL PERSONNEL

Dr. Robert Newman: Chief executive officer of Beth Israel Hospital, where Huguette lived for two decades. Repeatedly solicited gifts from Huguette, even had his mother visit the heiress in an effort to secure donations.

Dr. Jack Rudick: Surgeon who treated Huguette for skin cancer, later received $2.1 million in gifts from Huguette.

Dr. Henry Singman: Chief personal physician to Huguette. He made the 1991 house call that led to her admission to the hospital. Received more than $1 million in gifts from Huguette.

THE LEGAL FIGHT

Clark family members who launched original guardianship lawsuit

Karine McCall: Granddaughter of Charles Clark.

Ian Devine: Great-grandson of Mary Clark.

Carla Hall: Great-granddaughter of Katherine Clark.

The lawyers in the estate fight

Harvey Corn: Represented Hadassah Peri.

John Dadakis: Represented Wallace Bock and Huguette Clark estate.

John Graziano: Represented Wanda Styka.

Jason Lilien and Carl Distefano: New York State Attorney General's office.

John Morken: Represented Clark relatives.

Peter Schram: Appointed by the court to represent public administrator's office.

The judges

Kristin Glen: Tart-tongued Surrogate's Court justice.

Nora Anderson: Assigned Clark probate case in 2013 after Glen retired.




Chapter One

The Clark Family Reunion at the Corcoran

Located just two blocks from the White House, the Corcoran Gallery of Art feels as if it is off the beaten path in Washington, drawing just a fraction of the city's tourist throngs. The white marble 1897 Beaux Arts colossus usually closes promptly at 5 p.m. on Fridays. But on the rainy night of October 24, 2008, the lights were ablaze well into the evening. With a two-story atrium sporting forty Doric columns and a sweeping staircase to a grand balcony, the perennially cash-strapped private museum is often rented out for weddings and parties. However, tonight's more than seventy-five guests, who had flown in from Paris, London, Florida, Texas, California, and New York, had a personal connection to the museum and its paintings by Corot, Gainsborough, and Delacroix.

In his invitation, Corcoran director Paul Greenhalgh had described the two days of events as "a gathering of the Clark Family." Not just any family named Clark, but a reunion of the descendants and relatives of William Andrews Clark, who in 1907 was described as the second richest man in America, after John D. Rockefeller, with a personal fortune worth more than $3 billion in today's dollars. The copper mogul and Montana senator had been born in 1839 and died in 1925. A Corcoran benefactor, Clark's name is prominently featured in gold leaf on the museum's interior wall and credited in small type beside the many sculptures and paintings that he donated to the permanent collection.

The idea for the Clark family get-together had been jointly hatched by Greenhalgh, a British decorative arts scholar with a mop of brown hair, and Katherine Hall Friedman, known professionally as Carla Hall, a great-great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark, whose father and grandmother had served on the Corcoran board. Ever since he had joined the Corcoran two years earlier, Greenhalgh, the former head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, had been wooing potential donors, and he was eager to establish a stronger relationship to the Clarks. As Greenhalgh recalls, "It was clear a lot of the family had never been to the museum before."

The relatives of William Andrews Clark were a far-flung family and many had never met prior to the reunion. Some siblings were estranged and had not seen or spoken to one another in decades. In an e-mail that Carla Hall sent a month before the reunion, she seemed hopeful that the event would change the family dynamics: "We are all eager to get to know one another and learn more about the Clark family, with a specific focus on the life of WA Clark and his legacy that is reflected in the Corcoran's exquisite collection."

This night would prove to be a turning point in the tangled history of the Clarks, although not in a way that the organizers could have imagined. Four years later, the party guests would be quizzed by teams of lawyers about their memories of the evening and who said what to whom. In the whispered asides at the Corcoran party, one could hear the battle lines of a future family feud taking shape. The Clarks in attendance that night included descendants of three branches of the family tree and a representative from the fourth. The senator had sired seven children during his first marriage, and then as a widower married a much younger woman and produced two daughters. As a result, there was a thirty-six-year age gap between his oldest and youngest children: his grandchildren and young daughters were nearly the same age.

Three children from his first marriage—the scandal-prone Manhattan divorcée Mary (known as May), the booze- and racetrack-loving California bon vivant Charles, and the prim and proper Katherine—had produced seven children, and many of their descendants were in attendance this evening.

Strolling past the snarling bronze lions guarding the Corcoran's entrance, Karine Albert McCall, a petite and slender sixty-eight-year-old blonde, arrived with her husband, Donald McCall, a retired cellist. The grandchild of Charles Clark and his banking heiress wife, Celia, Karine had grown up in luxury at her grandmother's San Francisco Tudor castle, "House-on-Hill," a 35,000-square-foot estate on six acres with a fifty-five-foot-long music room, twelve bedrooms, and lush gardens.

An artist who painted colorful abstracts, the mother of three children, Karine had spent most of the previous forty years living in Europe, but she and her husband had just moved from London to Washington, D.C. She had recently discovered worrisome information about an elderly Clark relative and had been obsessing about what, if anything, to do. She had confided in her first cousin Jacqueline Baeyens-Clerte, who had flown in from her home in Paris to attend the reunion and give Karine moral support. Tonight Karine had a mission: finding allies to discuss her concerns. Karine had never met many of her Clark relatives. As she and Donald and Jacqueline circulated through the cocktail hour at the Corcoran, introducing themselves and making small talk, there was a subtext to the conversations. As Karine recalls, "We were trying to figure out, who can we trust?"

Karine's newfound worries centered on her great-aunt, a woman she had known all her life as "Tante Huguette." The frail and monied Manhattan centenarian had a haunting hold on the imaginations of several generations of Clark relatives.

Huguette Marcelle Clark, the sole surviving child of William Andrews Clark, was now 102 years old and resided in Beth Israel Hospital in New York. No family member had seen her in forty years. Born in 1906 in Paris to Clark's second wife, Anna, Huguette (pronounced you-GET) had been instantly famous for her wealth and constantly chased by photographers as a pretty child and desirable debutante, reluctantly starring in the society pages. Divorced in 1930 after a brief marriage, she never wed again or had children and cut herself off from the social whirl, deliberately cultivating an air of mystery. The gossip columnists of her era, Walter Winchell and Cholly Knickerbocker, had periodically run whatever-happened-to items about Huguette.

Several third-generation Clark relatives like Karine, now in their sixties and seventies, had met Huguette during their childhoods, but to the younger generation she was a cipher, an eccentric curiosity. The family members speculated about her life, and several had repeatedly asked to meet her to no avail, which only made them even more curious. She haunted the imaginations of three generations of Clark relatives, an elusive, reclusive figure. "Talking with the family, none of them knew her," says Corcoran director Greenhalgh. "I'm sure they were desperate to get an audience but none of them did." The professional photographer who had been hired to capture the reunion, Martha FitzSimon, had been briefed about Huguette in advance, recalling, "Carla told me that nobody had been able to talk to her for years."

The last time any family member could remember actually seeing Huguette was at the funeral of Carla Hall's grandmother in March 1968 at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan. "After the funeral, we all were together for a short while, greeting each other and expressing condolences," recalls Erika Hall, Carla's mother and the widow of Huguette's great-nephew John Hall. "Huguette was there also and did the same thing, very sweet, and disappeared rather soon."

Disappeared was an apt word to describe Huguette's behavior. She maintained sporadic phone contact for many years with a few Clark relatives, speaking in a soft voice with a hint of a French accent. When Erika Hall and her husband sent flowers once or twice a year, Huguette would call to say a brief thank-you. But even these kinds of communications had tapered off in recent years. Huguette had repeatedly declined to give out her phone number and had always taken a standoffish don't-call-me-I'll-call-you approach to her relatives. Most did not know that she was in the hospital and assumed she still resided at her sprawling complex of three apartments at 907 Fifth Avenue, with forty-two rooms.

Her two gatekeepers were Irving Kamsler, an accountant who had worked for her since 1979, and attorney Wallace Bock, a real estate tax specialist who had inherited Huguette as a client when her veteran lawyer became ill in 1997. At age seventy-six, Bock still handled Huguette's legal affairs and served as an intermediary between Huguette and her relatives. An Orthodox Jew, Bock had been invited to the Corcoran event as Huguette's representative, but the Friday-Saturday schedule conflicted with the Sabbath. He sent his colleague Kamsler to attend in his stead.

Huguette was, in fact, closer to the deferential sixty-one-year-old Kamsler, who visited her frequently and coordinated her medical care with her private nurses and doctors at Beth Israel Hospital. Bock and Kamsler viewed themselves as Huguette's protectors: they paid her bills, handled her taxes, supervised her staff, and even ran errands. "I found them very easy to deal with," says Greenhalgh of Kamsler and Bock. "My impression is what Huguette did is get faithful people who would stand by her and she would stand by them."

Paid generous monthly retainers (Bock received $15,000 per month; Kamsler got $5,000 per month plus a standard yearly $50,000 bonus), the men made themselves constantly available to their most important client. As Cynthia Garcia, a paralegal at Bock's firm from 1999 to 2002, recalls, "If Mr. Bock was in the men's room when she called, I had to put her on hold and run to the men's room and knock on the door. If he was smoking his pipe by the air shaft, I'd get him. I knew where he ate lunch, a kosher luncheonette. If she called, I'd run out to get him. She would call ten times a day." But Huguette Clark was older now and her hearing was fading; the calls had become much less frequent.

The Corcoran Gallery had been the recipient of William Andrews Clark's vast art collection, including nearly two hundred paintings, Rodin marble nudes, Oriental rugs, Egyptian antiquities, and majolica. His collection featured Corot landscapes and Degas ballet paintings, a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, and works by Chardin and Cazin. The Salon Doré, an ornate 1770s gilded room that Clark had imported from Paris to install in his turn-of-the-century robber-baron Fifth Avenue mansion, gleamed as the result of a recent restoration.

As William Andrews Clark's distant relations peered admiringly at the art, one implicit thought floated through the air: if only these valuable works of art had stayed in the family. Imagine the cachet of a Corot in one's very own living room. Or better yet, consider the millions of dollars that these artworks would fetch now at auction. A Sickle-Leaf Persian carpet that had once belonged to Clark was subsequently sold by the museum for $33.7 million.

William Andrews Clark, who made his fortune in mining and banking in Montana, expanded into building railroads. Clark showered his children with gifts, bragging in nouveau riche fashion about his generosity. On May 29, 1900, the New York Times recited the senator's wedding presents to his daughter Katherine, including $100,000 worth of jewelry—a diamond-and-ruby bodice ornament and diamond-and-emerald tiara—plus $4 million in securities and real estate. Just in case that sum did not convey his enduring fatherly love, the story noted that Clark had previously given his daughter $10 million.

Upon his death, the senator bequeathed an estimated $15 million each (inflation-adjusted, the equivalent of $200 million today) to his surviving children: two adult sons and two adult daughters from his first marriage, and the teenage Huguette. But fortunes have a way of dwindling as the money passes through several generations, especially in a family like the Clarks, with multiple marriages and divorces. Some of tonight's guests were trust funders, but others lived off their salaries. As the Corcoran's Greenhalgh recalls, "My impression was that a significant portion of the people at the reunion were not wealthy people. I think there was a range."

On the Corcoran's second floor, the tables were decorated with red-and-gold tablecloths and set with gold-rimmed glasses and gold-rimmed dinnerware. With just a half hour left before the seated dinner was to begin, Carla Hall, wearing a fitted navy cocktail dress with short sleeves, could be seen rearranging place cards. And she did not look happy about it.

A five-foot-ten, imposing fifty-six-year-old blonde with a take-charge personality, Carla had embraced her Clark heritage with pride. She ran a corporate branding business out of her Upper West Side brownstone in Manhattan, creating annual reports and marketing materials for clients such as the Ford Foundation and Morgan Stanley. Carla's great-grandmother, Katherine Clark Morris, had been the only one of William Andrews Clark's children to make a socially fortuitous marriage, to a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Lewis Morris.

Carla had been working on the arrangements for the Corcoran party for months with Ian Devine, another fourth-generation Clark descendant. A preppy-looking fifty-five-year-old consultant, Devine advised financial firms on how to market their services to wealthy families. His great-grandmother, Mary Clark Culver Kling de Brabant, had been the bad girl of her generation. Married three times, Mary, the oldest child of William Andrews Clark, was a darling of the gossip columns of her era for her acrimonious divorces and exotic galas.

Carla and Ian had only discovered by serendipity that they were related. In 2001, a business associate arranged for the duo to meet at Carla's home office to discuss a potential work project. Ian's brother had recently given him a family tree and certain names sounded familiar: his great-grandmother Mary and Carla's great-grandmother Katherine had been sisters. As Ian recalls, "At the end of our business meeting, I asked if her parents were John and Erika. She said yes, and we took it from there." Both of their families owned portraits of William Andrews Clark by Polish painter Tadé Styka (pronounced TAH-day STEE-ka), an artist popular in Washington and Hollywood, who had been commissioned by the senator to create an excessive eleven paintings.

Carla Hall had never met or spoken to her "Tante Huguette," but she had frequently been in touch by phone in recent years with Huguette's lawyer, Wallace Bock. Acting in 2006 as a self-appointed family liaison to the Corcoran, Carla had asked Bock to pass along a request to Huguette to donate archival Clark family material (letters, photos, documents) to the museum. Huguette declined to do so. Curious about William Andrews Clark's historic estate, Bellosguardo, in Santa Barbara, still owned by Huguette but vacant, Carla had requested and received permission, via Wallace Bock, to visit in 2007. She sent Huguette a thank-you note afterward but did not receive a reply.

As soon as Carla began planning the Corcoran party, she consulted Bock and then sent Huguette an invitation to the event with a request for a donation to underwrite expenses. It was cheeky to write to a distant relative and ask for money, but everyone in the family assumed, correctly, that Huguette could easily afford it. Huguette contributed $10,000 but, as expected, declined to attend. As her accountant, Irving Kamsler, recalls telling her, "If you want to go, we can absolutely arrange it, get you there in a luxury limousine." He adds, "But she had no desire to meet her family." Her absence was a disappointment. Beverly Bonner McCord, a descendant of one of the senator's sisters, says, "We would have loved to have met Huguette, even for just a few minutes."

The centenarian represented a living link to the most glittering era of family history. Huguette and her mother, Anna Clark, attended the opening of the Clark wing at the Corcoran in 1928—President Calvin Coolidge cut the silken cord—and she had an emotional attachment to the artworks. She had played with her older sister, Andrée, in the Salon Doré back when it was part of her father's Fifth Avenue house. The paintings and sculptures at the Corcoran had been the backdrop to her daily life. She had accompanied her father to museums in Europe and Manhattan. Art was a way that this shy girl could connect with her formidable father. Inspired to become an artist herself, she had taken private lessons for many years with Tadé Styka. The Corcoran had even mounted a show of Huguette Clark's artwork in 1929, which received favorable attention. With intricate brushwork, she created a striking self-portrait and romantic depictions of flowers.

Proud of her father's legacy as an art collector, she had been a loyal supporter of the Corcoran for many decades. "I talked to Huguette a number of times, she was very sweet," recalls David Levy, former Corcoran Gallery director. "She loved things that were French and she loved the Salon Doré. We were restoring that and she contributed." But he also thought her behavior was strange, to say the least. "She had some huge aversion to anyone seeing her. She would send me group photos, historic stuff, a group of people standing in front of a building. She would take a black magic marker and cross out her face. It was pretty weird. She never explained it and I never asked." Freed now from the diplomatic requirements of being a museum head, Levy adds, "She was a nutcase. If you have a nutcase giving you between $25,000 and $100,000 per year, you've got to let it ride."

Genre:

  • "A thrilling read...Meryl Gordon delivers quite a page-turner for this true-life mystery."—USA Today

On Sale
May 27, 2014
Page Count
400 pages
ISBN-13
9781455512645

Meryl Gordon

About the Author

Meryl Gordon is the author of Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of A Family Beyond Approach. She is an award-winning journalist and a regular contributor to Vanity Fair. She is on the graduate journalism faculty at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She is considered an expert on elder abuse and has appeared on NPR, CNN, and other outlets whenever there is a high-profile case.

Learn more about this author