When a Connecticut mansion located near journalist Bill Dedman went on the market, it was simple curiosity that made him inquire how much it was selling for and who owned it.
The name of 103-year-old Huguette Clark didn’t ring a bell.
But still he looked up the minutes from a local planning board meeting and found his curiosity piqued again when a lawyer representing Clark claimed she had never spent a night in the $24 million mansion she bought in 1952.
“I just thought ‘What’s up with that? That is crazy!’ ” Dedman said in a recent phone interview with The Montana Standard.
He started researching Huguette and discovered she was the daughter of William A. Clark, one of the richest men in America, and one of Butte’s Copper Kings.
Dedman delved into months of intensive research, reading every book he could find on the Clarks, flipping through data at the Butte Archives, the Montana Historical Society and the New York Historical Society, property records, ship registries, passport applications and census records. He contacted André Baeyens, William’s great-grandson who lives in Austria, who recently wrote a book about his great-grandfather.
The tipping point
Dedman attempted to find the reclusive, ultra-rich Huguette, and also determine why history had largely forgotten her father.
A few months in, he knew he had stumbled onto something interesting.
“I hit a tipping point,” said Dedman. “I didn’t have it all together yet, but I knew what I would find or not find would be enough.”
There is a lot Dedman didn’t find. He never spoke to the reclusive Huguette and never found out why she owns nearly $200 million in property she has rarely visited.
But Dedman did unearth interesting tidbits as to what happened to the estate of the man who may have extracted more wealth out of Montana than anyone, who owned the Original, Gambetta and Mountain Chief mines in Butte, who built the Columbia Gardens, who helped found Las Vegas, who served as Montana senator, who built his own railroad, whose second wife was a French woman 39 years younger than him, and with whom he had two daughters. The youngest of those daughters was Huguette, born June 9, 1906, in Paris.
The final project went up on www.msnbc.msn.com, a news Web site and joint venture of NBC and Microsoft. It is a slideshow of 47 photographs of the Clarks in Butte and New York, of Huguette’s real estate, of Clark’s extensive collection of art. Each is accompanied by a short caption explaining the photo.
“I’ve gotten a lot of e-mail, maybe heard from 400 readers, more response then I’ve gotten on anything else in my career,” said Dedman, who visited Haiti after the earthquake and has done numerous investigate reports.
“It captivated attention, and told it in a different way than a traditional story. It’s all a little abstract — empty houses, old women — but with the photos you can say, ‘Look here it is, Clark, and here is his daughter, and she’s still alive.’ ”
It’s this connection to the Gilded Age, to an America that seems so long ago, that spoke to Dedman. He called the story a “historical curiosity.”
Dedman said while researching Clark he found him to be a much more nuanced and principled man than he is depicted by history. He left no substantial legacy, at least compared to some of his still-household-name contemporaries: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Macy and Pulitzer.
“Sure (Clark) cheated in politics,” said Dedman. “But he was smart to get his money. He didn’t luck into it. He comes off as a very sharp character, though not a very interesting one.”
Dedman said his legacy of tycoon and environmentally destructive industrialist may be unfair.
“If you read the history, there were others who fit more into that ‘robber baron’ profile more than Clark,” said Dedman. “There were definitely others who were worse to labor.”
Less is known about Huguette.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” said Dedman.
Society pages spoke of parties thrown by her in the 1920s, before she studied dance and art with some of world’s most famous teachers. She was married in 1928 in her mother’s Santa Barbara, Calif., mansion, but divorced two years later. By the time she turned 24, she was rarely seen in public. Family members told Dedman she had a small group of friends and rarely socialized outside of them.
In 2003, she sold a Renoir painting for $23.5 million, a sign to Dedman that she “may have needed the money.” She is still trying to sell the 22-room mansion in Connecticut and asking $20 million, down from an original price tag of $34 million.
She kept the California mansion and keeps nearly $100 million worth of property on Fifth Avenue in New York City, overlooking Central Park. Staff who work at her building say they have only seen her a few times in decades.
Where Huguette resides now, what she is like, and how much of Clark’s fortune remains, are questions that were not answered in Dedman’s reportage. But the journalist remains optimistic that maybe, in the future, some information will be released.
“The family has always respected her privacy and been protective of Clark’s reputation,” said Dedman. “After she’s gone we may get an opportunity to learn some more, her family will feel free to talk.”
But, as of today, one of the last remaining people who knew William Clark remains silent, her mansions empty.