Huguette Clark was born in 1906 into a life of wealth and privilege, the daughter of an American copper and railroad baron, raised in a 121-room Manhattan mansion, the city’s largest private residence.
She could have enjoyed the high life of parties and travel, but instead opted for seclusion and secrecy, withdrawing from society almost completely after her mother’s death in 1963 and locking herself away from the world over the last two decades of her 104 years in nondescript New York hospital rooms.
She chose those spartan surroundings despite not only needing little more than vitamins for her health, but also owning a $100 million (£64 million) Californian estate, a $20 million Connecticut property and a 40-room 15,000 sq ft suite of Fifth Avenue apartments with sweeping Central Park views.
When Clark died in 2011, her will left nearly 80 per cent of her $400 million estate to charity, the rest going to a small coterie of staff, doctors, professional advisers and a hospital. She specifically noted that nothing should go to family members, “having had minimal contacts with them over the years”. But on Sept. 17 those relations – only five of whom met her and that for the last time in the Fifties – will ask a court to throw out the 2005 document, arguing that she was a vulnerable, isolated old woman under the influence of an unscrupulous group of insiders who kept her confined in the hospital.
Nobody benefited more from Clark’s largesse in life – or stands to be rewarded more generously in her death – than Hadassah Peri, a Philippine-born nurse who moved to America in 1972 aged 22.
Born Gicela Tejada Oloroso, she married an Israeli-born New York cab driver in 1982, converting to Orthodox Judaism and changing her name.
Her life was to change beyond her wildest dreams in 1991 when she was randomly assigned by a private health care agency to look after an 84-year-old cancer patient.
The treatment was successful, but Huguette Clark never left hospital, spending the next 7,364 days there, revelling in its secrecy and protective security blanket. For 12 hours a day, seven days a week, her companion and confidante was Mrs Peri. “I give my life to Madame,” she said in an earlier deposition.
“Madame” rewarded her spectacularly. She showered the mother of three with gifts of $31 million, paying for five homes, including the three-story, waterfront house in Brooklyn where the Peris live, and a $200,000 Bentley that the nurse has since complained is ill-suited to the city. She also awarded her another $30 million – worth about half that after taxes – in her will.
Clark’s doctor, lawyer and accountant, the latter once convicted in an internet sex sting, are among other beneficiaries of the estate, although the biggest winners are charities, including an arts foundation established to run the old family home in California.
Her life would have remained cloaked in the obscurity she cherished had Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with NBC, not stumbled across the mystery while house-hunting with his wife outside New York City in 2009. That story is told in Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. He co-wrote the book, to be published on Tuesday, with Paul Clark Newell, a cousin of Clark and the only relation with whom she spoke regularly in her later life. He is not involved in the challenge to her will.
Born in Paris in 1906 to her father’s second wife, Clark trained as an artist and had a short-lived marriage with a young financial clerk in 1928, but divorced soon afterwards, with no children and possibly without consummating the relationship.
She lived with her mother until her death in 1963, inheriting and acquiring a world-class art collection, musical instruments including a 1709 Stradivarius violin, her prized and priceless collection of dolls, as well as the property portfolio, including the Connecticut mansion that she bought in 1951 but which was never occupied. It was this empty home that attracted Dedman’s notice during a random internet real estate search of the area. He drove there and was stunned when the caretaker of 20 years asked him if the employer he had never met was dead.
Dedman then visited the New York building in which Clark owned apartments since valued at $55 million, only to be told that she had not lived there for nearly two decades.
Instead, he discovered, she was living under an assumed name in a standard hospital room, paying $400,000 a year for the privilege.
She closely followed the news, read the papers, commented on share prices and, until her hearing started to fail, would call her small group of friends and a few relations, carefully never revealing her number, or even that she was in hospital. She kept the blinds drawn and almost never left the room. Her exercise would be a perambulation of those quarters a few times a day with Peri in what they called their “walk around Central Park”.
The nurse has never given an interview, but, in a statement issued after she was named in the will, she said: “I saw Madame Clark virtually every day for 20 years. I was her private duty nurse but also her close friend. I knew her as a kind and generous person, with whom I shared many wonderful moments and whom I loved very much. “I am profoundly sad at her passing, awed at the generosity she has shown me and my family, and eternally grateful. Just as Madame Clark demonstrated kindness toward others in her actions, so, too, will I and my family devote a substantial portion of this bequest toward making the world a better place for all people.”
Mrs Peri, now 63, has talked of “Madame” in her still broken English in court depositions. Clark was, she said, “a beautiful lady. Very respectful. Love people. Very refined lady. Very cultured. Never hurt anybody. Very, very generous”.
But she was generous beyond her own understanding, according to the 19 descendants of her father’s first marriage. Not that they are of poor stock themselves – the fortune of the self-made tycoon, a son of Irish farming parents, was split equally among his five children when he died in 1925.
They contend that they should get Huguette’s share. “Before the court are substantial and gravely serious issues of alleged deceit, undue influence and exploitation of a very elderly and extraordinarily wealthy woman at the hands of two professionals who, with the help of certain others, took control of her life, isolated her from family, and ultimately stripped her of her free will, as well as millions of dollars”, their lawyer, John Morken, wrote to the court.
Dedman describes Huguette Clark’s life and times as “unfathomable”.
But she once offered a clue to her choices when she shared her favourite 18th century French fable. It was better, so the moral of the story went, to live unobtrusively as a cricket rather than glamorously as a butterfly. For most of her 100-plus years, she lived to that maxim. She would probably be aghast that her life is about to subjected to the scrutiny of a court case.
The $400m reclusive heiress, her nurse and a battle of wills
Barring a last-minute legal settlement, the remarkable story of Huguette Clark will soon be played out in a New York courtroom – where 19 distant kin are pursuing the fortune of a woman whom most have never met.
September 7, 2013