Empty Mansions – Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. (2013)

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Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. 

An intriguing non-fiction about the Clark family who were a real rags-to-riches frontier family led by a ruthless businessman who traveled out to the hinterlands to find a better life through discovering and then selling copper and then growing his wealth even more through a series of savvy (and lucky) business deals. The patriarch, W. A. Clark, became nearly as wealthy as the Rockefellers and ended up being a controversial US Senator (with a bribery scandal to his name), a builder of railroads and the founder of Las Vegas.

But who was he really? Who was his French wife Anna, and what about his family?

With this background of privilege, the narrative traces the story of the Clark family from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to elegant Fifth Avenue in New York, from a one-room house to one of the largest houses in NYC with 121 different rooms for a family of four, and then in reverse when the only surviving member of the family chooses to seclude herself in an ordinary hospital room for twenty years.

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(Above) – Huguette (in white) stands with her father and elder sister.

It’s a really strange story but it’s fascinating, mainly because there are so many questions that still remain and no one seems to know the truth. As the youngest daughter, Huguette lived a life of extreme privilege far removed from the typical American life that surrounded her.

She had little formal schooling, but became an expert on Japanese culture; she owned Degas and Renoir paintings but without a successful painting career; she bought and owned a never-played Stradivarius violin which she rarely looked at and grew a large collection of antique dolls worth millions of dollars and with houses of their own to store the collection.

But with so many people sworn to secrecy about Huguette’s life, this is an NF based on rumors and family lore more so than actual fact. It’s also heavily based on memories that surround a $300 million fortune to be inherited and so it’s very difficult to know the actual truth of these events. Everyone has a stake in their perspective and so who’s to know what really occurred.

When Huguette retired from outside life and entered her hospital room, rarely to leave again despite being healthy and able-bodied, why was that? When Huguette gave $30 million to her personal nurse towards the end of her life, was she being manipulated by the nursing staff and the greedy hospital hoping for a “generous donation”? Why did she pull herself away from everyone she knew to choose to watch The Smurfs in a darkened room? Was she mentally ill or was she being blackmailed? So many questions!

So, this was an interesting read, although I did have to run it through the filter that it was co-authored by her great-nephew who trod very carefully when it came to the honest truth (what little there was). (Sort of a “Don’t annoy grandma or you’ll get left out of the will” idea.) In the end, this book was a mix of fact and fiction and although it rather veered towards sycophancy towards the last third of the book, it was still an interesting read.

How much is true? How much is Memorex? Who is to know, but it was interesting to learn about this filthy rich but slightly strange family.

 

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Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz (1995)

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A literary friend of mine lent me this rather fascinating coffee table book featuring the role of black (African American) pioneers in the old cowboy Wild West. As I’m really interested in learning more about the African American experience, this book ticked most of the boxes that I look for in a good read.

As it’s more of a coffee table book, it’s concentrated mostly on photographs of the sometimes anonymous women who were living the pioneer life at the time. Generally speaking, I don’t see much focus from many people on the life of African Americans during the late nineteenth century as America traveled west across its new territories, but they were there just as much as The Little House on the Prairie family were.

Afam_pioneer_familyA number of the women who were featured in this collection went west as domestic help to pioneering families, but quite a few of these folk were also determined to be successful independent farmers, ranchers and other professional workers (e.g. teachers, accountants etc.). (Check out my review of another fascinating read of the Exodusters who flowed into Kansas for the ranching opportunities.)

A number of young AfAm women came west as mail order brides for men who were in mining camps and doing other types of work. The men who signed up for the service bought a one-way ticket for the young woman in question, and then, sight-unseen, the two would contractually get married to live in the west. (How very brave were these mail order brides! For some, this invitation to the west was just what they needed to escape terrible home situations so it seems that it benefited both parties for the most part.)

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(Above) – Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) was the first AfAm postal carrier in the county.

Many freed slaves had little experience apart from working on the land or helping in a domestic role, and it was really interesting to me to learn that once freed, African-Americans (as a group) were intent on getting an education, both for themselves and especially for their children. Literacy was the key to freedom and success, and these families were typically much more educated than the other groups out on the frontier (whites, Hispanics etc.) and their school attendance was at a notably higher level. Former slaves knew and understood the important of knowledge, and so were determined that their families were going to be schooled.

I went ahead and made a few random notes from this read:

  • An African American woman used to own all the real estate in the area now called Beverly Hills in LA
  • In OK and other states, the newly freed slaves joined up with local Native American tribes (although initially the Native Americans embraced slavery as much as the white people had), and in the late 1800’s, 18% of Cherokees were AfAm, and 14% of Choctaws were AfAm.
  • The Native Americans had been introduced to the slavery concept by white people who wanted to make sure that the tribes would not harbor runaway slaves. Most tribes ended up embracing slavery, except for the Seminoles who had a fascinating overlap with the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • One of the earliest settlements of AfAms was in Mercer County, OH, in 1832.
  • Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) (photo above right) was the first AfAm mail carrier in the US, and drove a horse and wagon (not a stagecoach) on her route in the wilds of Montana. She wasn’t an employee of the US Postal Service, but had bid and won a contract to deliver mail as she was the fastest person who would drive a team of six horses. She never missed a day of work, and if there was deep snow, she would put on snowshoes and deliver the mail sacks on her back.

What I found to be most interesting to read was the common thread of how AfAms thrived in spite of the awful conditions and in spite of how challenging life was. Families had few resources, but they still came west. I wonder just how much more successful AfAms would have been if there’d be a stronger support system for them. There was the Freedman’s Bureau, but it was decades before the idea of ending slavery became common place and widely accepted. The sheer doggedness and determination of these AfAm pioneers is astonishing to me, and I wish their stories were told more often.

(If you haven’t already read this article on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, it’s a powerful and provocative piece.)

So, really enjoyed looking at the photos in this book. (The writing itself was pretty dreadful, so the pics made the book really.)

Other reads on similar topics and reviewed by JOMP are: