The One with Noble Paiges: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Hey howdy hey book lovin' friends! Today we're hosting our 9th Noble Paiges book discussion: EMPTY MANSIONS by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. When my mom first told me about this book a few months ago and she said it was non-fiction, my brain immediately tuned out. Non-fiction? What is this, high school? No way jose. But then, she kept going on and on and the more she talked, the more intriguing it sounded! When I was in Denver I finished up the book I was reading and picked this one up. I remember clearly I was sitting in the hotel restaurant eating my breakfast and some oldies music was playing - PERFECT for this book about a woman who grew up in the 1900s, and from the very first page, I was enchanted. Nearly every single page of this novel is absolutely FASCINATING. If you like interesting tidbits and facts and crazy stories that are ALL TRUE, this book is for you.

Synopsis: When Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. EMPTY MANSIONS is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for twenty years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?

Dedman has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have frequent conversations with her. Dedman and Newell tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter, born into a family of extreme wealth and privilege, who secrets herself away from the outside world.

Huguette was the daughter of self-made copper industrialist W. A. Clark, nearly as rich as Rockefeller in his day, a controversial senator, railroad builder, and founder of Las Vegas. She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a remarkable dwelling with 121 rooms for a family of four. She owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, a vast collection of antique dolls. But wanting more than treasures, she devoted her wealth to buying gifts for friends and strangers alike, to quietly pursuing her own work as an artist, and to guarding the privacy she valued above all else.

The Clark family story spans nearly all of American history in three generations, from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to mining camps in the Montana gold rush, from backdoor politics in Washington to a distress call from an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. The same Huguette who was touched by the terror attacks of 9/11 held a ticket nine decades earlier for a first-class stateroom on the second voyage of the Titanic.

1. The authors say that Huguette was always shy, even as a child. Do you think that's true or do you think she was more reclusive as she got older? If so, why?
I'm sure she was shy as a child, but then I think it got supremely worse over the years as all of the different tragedies happened to her: her older sister died at only 16, her muuuuuuch older father died, she got divorced after only a year or so, her mother died, people started asking her for money more and more, etc. She barely ever left her mother's side and never needed to get a job - very different circumstances for the average person so I think her characteristics and mannerisms were very uncharacteristic. But what do I know? :)

2. What did you think of the $31 million in gifts that Huguette gave to her nurse, Hadassah?
I'm so iffy about this. On the one hand, Hadassha devoted her life to Huguette - she was with her from sun up until sun down, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and pretty much never saw her family. Talk about selfless! But, she also took money and cars and houses from Huguette and refused to be her nurse if she didn't go to a certain hospital. I don't know, just seems strange.

3. Was Huguette's life a happy one?
From all of the different accounts and people's stories, it seems like she was very happy. She stayed busy with phenomenally expensive and crazy "projects." But then why the hermit crab nature? Why didn't she marry her second lover and instead wrote to him the rest of this life?

4. What did you think of W.A. Clark? He was a charitable man, but he also bribed his way to a Senate seat - what are your thoughts?
Politics. Yeah. Not my thang. I just think it's remarkable that he became a millionaire from NOTHING. It was really awesome to read and find out all about his past and how he made his fortune.

5. Did you like the writing style of this book or would you have preferred a fictionalized version of Huguette's story?
The authors had so many facts and stories that reading this book almost seemed like I was reading a fiction book - goodness knows the stories and facts were crazy enough to BE fiction!

6. If Empty Mansions were made into a movie who would you like to see in some of the major roles?
Huguette would obviously have to be played by many different characters from birth until her death at 104(!!!). I haven't figured out who I'd like to see play her - but I do know I'd be first in line to see it! What a tale to tell!

7. Had you ever heard of the Clark family before reading this book?
NO! Which is crazy! It seems like they're everywhere and I've lived in and been so many places where they have roots, but I've never heard of them until now. Reminds me of "Enigma."

8. Did you like Huguette after reading the book?
Overall? Sure. I think she's a bit of a nutter, but who wouldn't be with a life like that? I love that she was an artist.

9. What do you think of Huguette remaining friends with her ex the rest of their lives? And what about her secret (or not-so-secret) written romance? 
Weird. So so weird. And her secret lover was married and friends with Huguette - they were like one big lovers triangle haha.

10. If you were one of the 19 STEP-great nephews/nieces, what have you, would you have contested the will and gone after some cash?
I'd like to think I wouldn't, but who knows. It bugs me though that the family members were SO FAR REMOVED from Huguette and yet they still felt they were entitled to her fortune.


Kelsey Noble is answering most of, if not all of these questions about EMPTY MANSIONS by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jron her blog!


Our next Noble Paiges book club discussion will be: INSIDE THE O'BRIENS by Lisa Genova. I've never read anything by her before so this will be a fun and new adventure!

Synopsis: Joe O’Brien is a forty-four-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband, proud father of four children in their twenties, and respected officer, Joe begins experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and strange, involuntary movements. He initially attributes these episodes to the stress of his job, but as these symptoms worsen, he agrees to see a neurologist and is handed a diagnosis that will change his and his family’s lives forever: Huntington’s Disease.

Huntington’s is a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment and no cure. Each of Joe’s four children has a 50 percent chance of inheriting their father’s disease, and a simple blood test can reveal their genetic fate. While watching her potential future in her father’s escalating symptoms, twenty-one-year-old daughter Katie struggles with the questions this test imposes on her young adult life. Does she want to know? What if she’s gene positive? Can she live with the constant anxiety of not knowing?

As Joe’s symptoms worsen and he’s eventually stripped of his badge and more, Joe struggles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose, while Katie and her siblings must find the courage to either live a life “at risk” or learn their fate.

Praised for writing that “explores the resilience of the human spirit” (The San Francisco Chronicle), Lisa Genova has once again delivered a novel as powerful and unforgettable as the human insights at its core.

Our next Noble Paiges discussion of INSIDE THE O'BRIENS by Lisa Genova will be on Saturday June 20th 2015, so put it on your calendars and "see" you then! And make sure to visit Kelsey's blog to read her answers to the questions!


  1. This book sounds GOOD!!!!! Will have to check it out!! And have heard good things about your next one! Can't wait to get your take on it!!!!

  2. I'll have to get back to you on answering the questions after i read it, but it sounds fascinating! You were cracking me up how you would stop almost every page and exclaim, "Chris, listen to this!" with some new insane tidbit.

  3. I really enjoyed this book. That nurse always seemed a little off to me...and so did the hospital, for that matter. I did think that Huguette loved giving gifts, but I didn't love that the nurse kept sending her kids to not-so-subtly beg for even more presents on top of how much she had already given.

    I really don't think that relatives should have any sort of inherent right to money if they don't know them well at all. None of my relatives are rich anyways, so that's probably not going to come up in my life :)

  4. I'm glad I went on and on and on until you finally decided to read it this book. Spending a night at the Clark Mansion in Butte, Montana is on our bucket list. Wanna come?


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