Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue by Meryl Gordon

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue is subtitled “The mysterious life and scandalous death of heiress Huguette Clark.”  Huguette Clark died in 2011 at 104 years old.  She was born in 1906 and was the daughter of forgotten copper baron, William Andrews Clark.  Clark was at one time the second richest man in America and was also a Senator for Montana.  Huguette was his second daughter by his second much younger wife, Anna la Chapelle (William Clark was 39 years Anna’s senior).

Huguette Clark became a fixture of the news when she died as it was discovered that she owned three apartments on New York’s Fifth Avenue, a 23-acre oceanfront compound in Santa Barbara California, as well as a country house in Connecticut, none of which she lived in.  Huguette spent the last twenty years of her life living in a hospital.  After her death there was a fierce battle over her $300 million estate between her relatives and her late in life caregivers.  

Huguette’s life was fascinating.  For a non-fiction book, I read through it rather quickly and had a hard time putting it down.  Huguette has an older sister Andree that died tragically young.  She also had an ill-fated one year marriage to William MacDonald Gower that ended in divorce.  Her marriage and every move were reported by the press and one could see why she would want to close herself away from life and gossip and live a quiet life.

Huguette’s passion in life was painting and she was a very talented artist.  She studied under Tade Styka and was godmother to his daughter Wanda.  As Huguette aged, she kept in contact with Wanda and her other friends via phone calls and stopped seeing anyone in person.  The last time she was seen by her relatives was at a funeral in 1968.  In one poignant vignette, some of her family would stand across the street and wave at her apartment when they were in town.

After being diagnosed and treated for skin cancer, Huguette entered the hospital and refused to leave . . . for the next twenty years.  This all seemed very non-ethical to me.  The hospital and staff basically kept her on as she gave them large monetary gifts and they tried ways to convince her to give them more money.  She also hired a private nurse, Hadassah Peri, who worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day to be by Huguette’s side for the remainder of her life.  For this service, Hadassah received $31 million in cash throughout Huguette’s life and was also named in her will.  Also named in the will were her attorney Wallace Brock and her accountant Irving Kamsler.  Not named was her family.

Before Huguette’s death, some of her relatives started to wonder why they couldn’t see her and whether she was receiving proper care.  After her death the questions remained, especially on whether their aunt was being used for her money by those that should have been taking care of her.

Overall, I was saddened by the fact that Huguette wanted a private life and in death her life is anything but private.  I was also saddened that almost everyone around her was motivated by her wealth.  Although these two points made me sad, her story was riveting overall.  It gives you a glimpse of the Gilded Age and well as life of a wealthy lady through the twentieth century.  It also has themes of greed.   I highly recommend it.

Book Source:  The Kewaunee Public Library

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