Living hidden...

by - Friday, January 10, 2014

I found her beautifully fascinating...
It was the headline noting her "peculiar life" that first piqued my interest. Delving deeper, I discovered her life story possessed the ingredients of a beguiling novel: immense wealth, mystery, art, solitude, and controversy, but with a twist - a lavish collection of dolls and menagerie of miniatures.
Born the youngest daughter of self-made Gilded Age copper magnate William A. Clark, Hugette lived a "rich life of love and loss, of creativity and quiet charity, of art and imagination". The number one New York Times bestseller Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. takes a closer look at her life and legacy through extensive research, personal letters, and interviews with those lucky enough to have had contact, blessed with the generous spirit of Hugette over the years.

As a child with her first dolls
W.A. Clark made his fortune mining in Montana, developed into a major art collector, and went on to become a U.S. senator, weathering several public scandals throughout life. Perhaps this was the contributing factor to Hugette's shyness, later translating into her defining attribute of privacy. She was fiercely close to her father, mother and older sister, suffering their losses as a young woman. She lived to a gallant 104, developing a passion for the arts as a trained painter, self-taught photographer, expert in Japanese culture, and in the fastidious collection of European antique dolls and reproductions of Japanese Kim, German fairytale houses to-scale, and even Barbie and Ken. Her hobby brought her to the French haute-couture shows in the 1950's since she needed to dress her 1100 dolls in the latest seasonal runway fashions. She would cable her orders to Paris for mini clones to be made since her dolls would have nothing but the best. Particular, yes, but peculiar? She had the funds to support her hobby, so why should anyone question it? "Eccentricity is not a psychiatric disorder."

Hugette paid a personal curator $90 an hour to create and catalog rooms for 1157 dolls.
She was one of the wealthiest women in America. Though she owned a lavish apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a luxurious chateau on 52-acres in Connecticut, and a sprawling Pacific-facing estate in California, she chose to live for her last twenty years in Beth Israel Hospital in a 14-by-24-foot standard two-bed room. Despite the severe melanoma that brought her to the hospital initially, she was completely cured and had nothing wrong with her physically. The only pill she took daily was a single vitamin. She had a full time nurse who was generously retained. And for those two decades, her three properties were meticulously maintained by a staff in each residence in her absence, preserving the multimillion dollar homes as real life-sized dollhouses.

A perfect recreation of the library in Queen Mary's Dolls' House
Eccentric, yes, I would agree, but immensely generous and full of self-expression. Throughout her life, she enjoyed giving gifts to the people she knew, not just throwing money away as many of her lawyers and staff believed, for she was healthy and sharp as a tack. The controversy came upon her death, settled in court with the surfacing of two different wills and a battle for the final decision of her actual wishes for the $300 million fortune. How ironic for someone preserving their privacy in life only to be exposed and examined upon their death in 2011. Regardless, Empty Mansions is a completely absorbing book, shedding light on her story filled with adept and impartial detail. 

Hugette was relentless in her pursuit of art and autonomy. She played the violin, wore pure cashmere, loved brioche, and artichokes with Hollandaise. She was strong-willed and lived life on her own terms, but with genteel kindness. Hugette's favorite poem, True Happiness by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian was found in Le Gillian (The Cricket), an old French fable from a book of Moroccan leather in her father's library at the Fifth Avenue Clark mansion. "Pour vivre heureux, vivous cache... To live happily, live hidden." Only the dolls know the real story, but they aren't talking... xoxo-Sonya
"In the same way that we emotionally connect to a good song, a doll can take you to a memory, a time of innocence, a life before complications and heartache." ~ Marie Osmond

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