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

Empty_Mansions_paperback_cover_small

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.

WAClarkHugetteClark

(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.

 

Advertisements

This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

book396

Wanting to read something from the Lost Generation time period and having really enjoyed The Great Gatsby, I picked up this 1920 fiction book from F. Scott Fitzgerald. It follows the course of lead character Amory Blaine as he enjoys a privileged childhood of much traveling and little school, until, with the realization that college would be soon on the horizon, his mother enrolls him in his first middle school. This is rather a shock to the old bean of Amory, and as the novel progresses through his adolescence and young adulthood, it’s easy to see that his peripatetic childhood was fun but had not done him any favors in regard to his academics.

So Fitzgerald shows the reader how Amory’s life progresses (or doesn’t as the case may be), and how he is unmoored in life, not really understanding that academics are important (because they haven’t been up until this point in his life), fully aware that who he knows and who knows him is of utmost importance, and realizing he has very little intention of having a serious career of any type with not many consequences for him. His mum will always be able to rescue him.

This was written right after the Great War (WWI) had just ended (1918), and so Europe and the U.S. were still reeling from the high death count of their soldiers, the unrecognized PTSD (or shell shock, as it was called back then), and the large numbers of young men returning to an indifferent home after having survived the terrifying experiences of trench warfare. It’s around now that the U.S. has what’s termed the Gilded Age*, the “gilding” piece referring to something that is bright and shiny on the outside, but is shallow beneath the surface – just a superficial layer to cover deeper problems below.

Up until now, war had been rather a glorious thing for the returning soldiers (now free to live their own lives), and I would think that it must have been rather a let-down for them to return back to their home towns and try to pick up their lives from before the war. Another name for this time period is the Lost Generation which references back to the view that once the war was over, many did not know what would be next. For some young men, soldiering was all that they ever known, career-wise, and those skills didn’t always translate once they were demobbed. Thus, the idea of the Lost Generation – what would they do now that was peace?

So you have this idealistic young man, who had grown up in the earlier war time, who had few goals and even less structure in his life, and this rather aimless mooning around is cleverly reflected in the narrative structure – it reads as a collection of short paragraphs (almost notes) about different pieces of Amory’s life. It’s an unusual set up (especially for writing in the 1920’s) and is quite PoMo in some ways, It’s a narrative structure that works really well – the random jumping around from subject to subject, and the changes in perspective all echo the rapidly changing opinions and moods of Amory as an undergraduate finding his way through college life at Princeton.

Wiki reports that this spotty narrative structure comes from the fact that Fitzgerald only had some bits and pieces of writing put together when he first started to write the novel. The deadline for the novel came very quickly for him, and so he had to throw some writing pieces together to make a complete project. Thus, the short pieces (poems, essays, sometimes just thoughts) carry the reader along with Amory on his coming-of-age experiences as he starts the process to become an adult. (So, not sure whether Fitzgerald was structuring it like on purpose or whether it was just a lucky break for him. Either way, it worked for the most part.)

So a pretty fast read which mostly kept my attention. There were parts that you could tell were just thrown together and the ending gets very serious and philosophical (and a wee bit boring if I’m honest with you), so you can tell it’s a first novel effort. Overall, it was a pretty good read though.

* (Actually, just found out that the Gilded Age phrase was actually referring to the last 20 years or so of the nineteenth century, but only came into common knowledge about 1920 or so. Thought to be coined by Mark Twain. Huh. Now you know…)

Related Reading: