Thursday, July 31, 2014

July Cultural Roundup

A scene from Boyhood
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
What Maisie Knew by Henry James

What Maisie Knew (U.S., 2014)
The Double (U.K., 2014)
Boyhood (U.S., 2014)
Ida (Poland, 2014)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (U.S., 1989) 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"To live happily, live hidden"

Pour vivre heureux, vivons cahes, 
To live happily, live hidden.
French fable by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Newell Clark Jr. (Random House, 2013) 470 pages

W.A. Clark was as rich (or richer) than the Rockafellers, Vanderbilts, Astors or Carnegies of the Gilded Age. Yet we know very little about him and even less about his daughter Huguette Clark, the subject of this book and the sole heir to his vast fortune. 

Huguette was an heiress to an enormous fortune created by her father, a copper baron. She was an artist intrigued by, some might say obsessed by, Japanese culture, dolls and doll houses. She was a true eccentric who lived to the age of 103 and was a generous friend and philanthropist. But she ended her days in a small room at the Beth Israel Hospital.

The book chronicles her father's rise from prospector to mine owner to copper baron who once built the most expensive house in NYC. 

Hugette experiences the loss of her teenage sister and father within a few years of each other in the 1920s. Already somewhat lonely and isolated, she lives with her mother until she marries in her early twenties, quickly divorces then returns to her mother's home. She lives withher mother until her mother's death in mid 20th c. 

Once her mother passes, her days are filled with obsessive collecting of vintage dolls, Japanese cultural artifacts and dollhouses as well as the meticulous supervision of the maintenance of numerous home that she never lives in. The building of these exquisitely made, highly detailed dollhouses run into the tens of thousands. She is fascinated by cartoons - The Flintstones and the Smurfs in particular. 

A recent news article intimated that Pearl Harbour and the subsequent questioning by the FBI about Hugette's connections to Japanese artisans may have forced Hugette into seclusion. Likely we will never know.

The mania for perfection, for order persisted into the continued maintenance of magnificent, opulent homes that she had not lived in for decades and refused to sell well into her nineties for some inexplicable reason.

Hugette in happier days ...

But it was not an entirely frivolous life even though the oddness of her preoccupations might suggest a retarded mental development or socialization. Her astute management of her estate well past her hundredth year belie that assessment. Ms. Clark was a generous philanthropist and friend to those causes that she supported and followed her mother's example in financially supporting a select group of friends, artists and persons connected to her employees and servants.

In the end, the descendents of W.A. Clark (he had a brood of five before his wife passed away and he remarried) fight ferociously with attorneys and accountants whom they felt had manipulated the heiress in the final years of her life.

Sadly, the biggest villain in the book appears to be the hospital where Hugette spent the last twenty years of her life. When it learns that likely Ms. Clark, their longest inhabiting hospital guest, would not be bequeathing a significant eight figure gift on the hospital, they move her into a much smaller, unsightly room with a view of the air conditioning units outside her window.  

The book is marred, I feel, by transcriptions of banal conversation between Hugette and her distant cousin Paul Newell Clark (cited as co-author of this biography) who did not stand to gain anything from her will. I feel these exchanges are disappointing but my book club colleagues felt that it was a way of illustrating Hugete's lucidity and clarity of mind.