An auction at Christie's last month brought to a conclusion a story very long in the making. The collection was remarkable, though not as remarkable as the history behind it. This was a story of superlatives – enormous wealth, great eccentricity, and a very long amount of time.
The items sold came from the estate of Huguette Clark, but the story begins with her father, William Andrews Clark. That name probably doesn't mean a lot to people today, but at one time it had a ring as familiar as the names Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie. They came to dinner at his mansion. William Andrews Clark was a man of extreme wealth.
Clark was born in a log cabin in Pennsylvania in 1839. We need to stop to answer the immediate question that jumps out – how could we be talking in 2014 about the estate of a woman whose father was born in 1839? Has this estate been in probate for a hundred years? This is where the part about a very long time comes in. Clark was 67 years old when his daughter, Huguette, was born. Huguette died in 2011, two weeks shy of her 105th birthday. That was two generations spanning 172 years. The number of people who live to see a parent's 172nd birthday must be small indeed.
Mr. Clark moved to Montana in 1863 during the early mining boom. He first sought gold, but became the most notable of Montana's “copper kings” in the 1880s. Like California and Colorado, Montana had gold, but it was the copper that filled the Montana hills that became its source of riches. The metal that once would have elicited limited interest was now in high demand. First the telegraph, and now electricity and telephones created a huge demand for copper transmission lines, rapidly being strung across the country. He made an enormous amount of money in mining, and parlayed that into other interests, such as banking and railroads. Everything he touched turned to gold. He personally paid for a rail line from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. Las Vegas was created as a water stop for his trains, and Clark County, in which the city is located, was named for him. By the turn of the century, William Andrews Clark was second only to Rockefeller in terms of personal wealth.
Clark wished to be a senator and his wish was granted. He bribed his way into a seat in the days when senators were appointed by the state legislature. As he famously pointed out, “I never bought a man who wasn't for sale.” It is said that the 17th amendment, which provided for direct election of senators, was passed in his honor. However, if not everything about Clark was wrapped in glory (Twain despised him), he was unusually generous in terms of pay and benefits for his miners. That was a huge exception to the rule of his day.
Clark's first wife died in 1893. He remarried a French woman, having two daughters, Andrée and Huguette, with his second wife, Anna. Huguette was born in 1906. Clark moved to New York and built his family a 121-room mansion (Andrée and Huguette did not have to share a bedroom). It had 26 bedrooms, 5 art galleries, and 31 bathrooms. It's always nice to have one of those close by in an emergency.
Clark died in 1925, which takes us to the second superlative of this story – extreme eccentricity. Clark's second family was never close to the children of his first. Mother and daughters of the second, however, were extremely close to each other. That may have been Huguette's downfall. Andrée died in 1919 at the age of 16. Huguette was devastated. When her father died, it was just she and her mother, left with a 121-room mansion. She did come out long enough to get married in 1928. However, that did not work, with claims that it was never consummated. Huguette was a shy woman who had trouble emerging from the childhood she shared with her beloved sister. In 1930 she divorced. There are no known photographs of Huguette taken after 1930, the last 81 years of her life. She and her mother moved to a more modest 42-room apartment where she lived until moving to a hospital room many years later.
She and her mother did some socializing over the years, including throwing lavish parties. They even had two country estates, one in California and the other in Connecticut. However, as her mother aged, socializing decreased. After her mother's death in 1963, it stopped entirely. While Huguette had these two beautiful estates, both meticulously cared for until the day she died, she hadn't visited either in over 50 years. Her last trips came in the 1950's.
If her father was like Rockefeller and Carnegie, Huguette became more like another wealthy man – Howard Hughes. She was a recluse in the extreme. All of her half-siblings save one had died by the 1930's, but she had little contact with the one who survived nor any of her nephews and nieces. Outside of a close aid/companion, and to some extent her lawyer, she saw almost no one. Even most of those people who worked for her had only indirect contact, or occasionally speaking through a closed door. However, she was a collector. Her estate included numerous books, though these were left from a different era. What she actively collected was dolls. Huguette apparently lived her life in her childhood, even as she reached the age of 104. From the 1960's on, she seems to have lived in the past.
In 1988, Huguette determined she was ill and needed to go to the hospital. She never left. She did not need to stay. Her health was fine for her age. Huguette preferred the even more secure environment of a hospital room (a very private one). She lived with her doll collection and a very few contacts, even as her three homes were kept waiting for her to arrive on a moment's notice. For the next 23 years she remained in her hospital room, until she died in 2011 at the age of 104.