emsI just finished one of the more fascinating nonfictions books I have read in a long time, Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

I have often posted about my penchant for biographies of people whose lives spanned the 20th century. There is no shortage of these stories – mostly about notables from politics, royalty, science, commerce and show business. However, in Empty Mansions, we have the tale of a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark that is as compelling as any much well-known figure of the past 100 years.

Part biography, part mystery and totally interesting, Empty Mansions tells a story of echoes of an era long past and a way of life that is hard to identify with but is thoroughly engaging. The tale of Huguette Clark, who lived to 104 years old, is full of interesting experiences (she was booked on the Titanic’s maiden voyage for example) and eccentricities (she was a recluse in the middle of bustling Manhattan) but is ultimately a cautionary tale about excess, generosity and the greed of humankind.

About Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.: “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.”

The more I read books about the super-rich – whether from the gilded age or those among us now – the more I am glad that I am just a regular dude. In the end it seems as though Huguette Clark was a prisoner or her wealth and her prison was her empty mansions.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. is available from Amazon and other fine book retailers.