In the middle of her otherwise fascinating story about reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, Meryl Gordon’s narrative suddenly flattens. The daily details of Clark’s life during this long period of seclusion are assembled from wan notes to almost-lost relatives, bank statements and legal correspondence, and the memories of the few close friends who received cards and phone calls—but never visits—from Mrs. Clark.
This flattening of narrative occurs because the subject of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue—the youngest daughter from the scandalous second marriage of robber baron William Andrews Clark—had almost succeeded in her desire to disappear. The last published photo of her was taken in 1928 during the honeymoon of her brief, ill-fated marriage. Some longtime members of the household staff in her 42-room apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue had rarely if ever seen her.
A clearer picture of Clark emerges after she was admitted to Doctor’s Hospital for treatment of advanced skin cancer in 1991, when she was 84 years old. After multiple surgeries, she was successfully treated, but the eccentric Clark negotiated to stay in the hospital and hire private nurses for around-the-clock care and companionship. This set off an unseemly “cash crusade” at the hospital. Over the next 20 years, one of those nurses, who worked 12-hour shifts 365 days a year, would receive from the always generous Clark roughly $31 million, in addition to houses, cars and jewelry. The nurse, who had a genuine if manipulative relationship with her patient, stood to inherit even more when Clark, who resisted acknowledging her own mortality, was finally convinced to update her 75-year-old will.
After Clark’s death, a nasty battle over her $300 million fortune was launched by descendants of her half-brothers and half-sisters, the side of the family she felt had grievously mistreated her mother. This very public dispute led to a cartoonish portrayal of Clark in the media. Extreme wealth and extreme eccentricity do sell, after all.
Through her assiduous research—she conducted more than 100 interviews and plowed through boxes of documents seized during the court battle—and canny analysis, Gordon gives us, yes, Clark’s perplexing eccentricities and the ins and outs of the fight between family members and loyal-but-incompetent friends and helpers. But The Phantom of Fifth Avenue also offers a believable, sympathetic portrait of a vulnerable perfectionist with an artistic temperament, who, as one of Clark’s young helpers would say, was “a very special person from a different epoch.”
This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.