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Relatives challenging reclusive heiress' will

Huguette was shy, but not sad. Her friends and the few relatives who knew her describe her as cheerful, gracious, stubborn, and devoted to her art and her charity to friends and strangers. She poses in a Japanese print dress at about age 37.
Source: The Estate of Huguette M. Clark, from the book "Empty Mansions."
Huguette was shy, but not sad. Her friends and the few relatives who knew her describe her as cheerful, gracious, stubborn, and devoted to her art and her charity to friends and strangers. She poses in a Japanese print dress at about age 37.

This is an excerpt adapted from "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune," the new book by NBC News investigative reporter Bill Dedman and Huguette's cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Newell is not involved in the legal battle over her $300 million copper-mining fortune. A trial is scheduled to start Sept. 17. Learn more about the book here . All of NBC's stories on Huguette Clark are at http://nbcnews.com/clark/.

Nineteen of Huguette's closest relatives, her Clark relatives, went to court in 2012 to throw out her last will and testament.

If the will were overturned, they would inherit her entire fortune, more than $300 million. The nineteen relatives were W.A.'s great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. To Huguette, eleven were her half-grandnieces and grandnephews, and eight were a generation further removed, her half-great-grandnieces and grandnephews.

You could say that they had already gotten their share of the copper mining fortune of W. A. Clark. The millions had been divided equally among his five surviving children: Huguette and her four half-siblings from his first marriage. Each of W.A.'s five children who lived to adulthood had received one-fifth of his estate after his death in 1925: equal shares for May, Katherine, Charlie, Will, and Huguette. Huguette got her allowance for a couple of years, and eventually got something extra, inheriting Bellosguardo and the jewels and cash that her mother had received from her prenup. But W.A.'s plan, it seemed, was to treat each of his children equally.

None of that mattered, under the law. If the nineteen relatives could persuade a judge or jury in Surrogate's Court to overturn the will, they would be allowed to sell the Bellosguardo vacation home in Santa Barbara, to sell the paintings, her castles, her dolls. Nothing would go to her nurse Hadassah Peri, her assistant Chris Sattler, her goddaughter Wanda Styka, nothing to the Corcoran museum or Beth Israel hospital—nothing to the people and institutions she had supported while she lived. Not only would attorney Wally Bock and accountant Irving Kamsler not get their $500,000 bequests, but they would lose their $3 million commissions as executors, and the chance to reap fees as trustees of a new Bellosguardo Foundation.

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The nineteen accused the attorney and accountant and nurse of fraud, and described Beth Israel as Huguette's jailer, keeping a scared, vulnerable old woman closeted as part of a plot to take her money. The doctors and hospital had treated Huguette's cancer, the family alleged, but hadn't treated an underlying psychiatric disorder that had caused Huguette to remain in her home with untreated cancer in the first place. The attorney for the nineteen, John R. Morken, wrote to his clients that their aim was not financial, but to ensure "that Huguette's true wishes are honored and that justice is done."

Fourteen of the nineteen acknowledged in court papers that they had never met Huguette. Of the other five, the last time each of them had met her was in 1957, 1954, 1952, 1951, and "during the second World War." A few of the relatives said they thought they had gotten a glimpse of her at the funeral for her half-sister's daughter, back in 1968. A few of the relatives did have limited contact with her from a distance. Eight of the nineteen said they had visited Bellosguardo in the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s, with Anna and Huguette present for some of these early visits. They had been awestruck by the beauty of the property, had played tennis, and sometimes got a peek inside the great house. Ten of the nineteen said they had sent cards or letters to Huguette for Christmas or birthdays, and four had received some kind of reply. Most of these relatives were far younger than Huguette. She was born in 1906, and they between 1921 and 1964, so in some cases their parents had sent Christmas cards or lilies, or had received holiday phone calls from Huguette into the 2000s. Huguette on these calls was always very interested in their families, referring to the children and grandchildren by name.

But in the past half a century, these relatives had only occasionally reached out to their elderly aunt, and she had not reached out to them.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Huguette did not call her relatives, as she called her goddaughter Wanda, to give reassurance that she was fine.

The Clark relatives said they were always respectful of their elderly aunt's obvious desire for privacy and dignity, and didn't thrust themselves into her cocoon until they felt it absolutely necessary. When New York City went dark for three days in an electrical blackout in August 2003 and people were suffering from the heat, Clark relatives who lived within a mile of her apartment did not stop in to check on her. Some years later, one relative did have her attorney call Huguette's attorney: Niece Karine McCall had her counsel call in 2008 to ask whether she was in Huguette's will. Karine says she needed that information for tax and estate planning, as she was moving from England. Karine, who had met Huguette as a child but never established a connection, says she always had the impression Huguette was "mentally slow." She says she was shocked to learn that she was not going to inherit any of the Clark money from Huguette.

The nineteen Clarks seeking Huguette's fortune include an international campaigner for human rights for torture victims, and an organizer of legal services for people with HIV/AIDS. One is an honored diplomat who served as the French ambassador to South Korea. Many Clarks support symphonies and museums. In recent years, several in the family have donated to environmental causes, such as campaigning against fracking, a method of extracting natural gas that environmental groups say contaminates groundwater. In that way, Clark money is being used to protect the environment from the ravages of mining.

Although some of W.A.'s children and grandchildren squandered their money on racehorses and divorces, others worked hard, making quiet contributions on Wall Street or in hospitals. Some wrote children's books or translated Tibetan poetry. Others bred quarter-horses or sailed yachts.

While proud of their association with "the senator," the Clarks are aware that their family has suffered at least its share of dysfunction: generations of alcoholism, a long stay in a mental hospital, drug abuse, sexual abuse by a trusted family servant, numerous suicide attempts. All while keeping up the facade that everything was well at home. As one of W.A.'s descendants explained, all of the splendor of the mansions seemed so normal that "I didn't believe that people actually lived in those tiny houses that dotted the edge of our property."

One of W.A.'s descendants described the mixed blessing effects of inherited wealth: "I think having such wealth can lead some people to have a lack of self-worth because of not having developed a lucrative career of their own or even having investigated their own potential. Having an overabundance of wealth can make people insecure around others who have far less than they do, since the former might wonder if potential partners or even friends are 'only' after them for their money. Well-meaning people of excessive wealth can feel anxious about the lack of perfection of charities they support, and about the fact that even as willing patrons they are powerless to obliterate suffering—all the while knowing that any small amount of money that they might spend on themselves is still enough to change or even save some lives. Wealth can lead to guilt over the unfairness of people working endlessly for them who have never been included fully into the family. In sum, having immense wealth can lead one to feel isolated and to have a false sense of being special."

Most of the relatives saw Huguette's Fifth Avenue apartments for the first time in April 2012, when the administrator of her estate allowed them to take a tour. They marveled at the view of Central Park, the ornate woodwork, the outdated bathrooms.

Her apartments were vacant, ready for showing by a real estate agent. The only belongings of Huguette, aside from a few pieces of furniture and a Steinway piano, were several of her paintings the agent had hung to give the apartments a bit of her personality. The relatives saw up close the Japanese woman with a dragonfly pin smoking a cigarette, the woman cutting flowers. All the paintings bore Huguette's signature.

After the tour, several of the relatives commented that their Tante Huguette couldn't have done those paintings herself. It wasn't possible, they said. These must be the work of her painting instructor.