When a search for a new home leads to discovering a huge, wildly expensive home which apparently had been owned and maintained but not lived in for decades, a journalist decided to look into the history behind them. What he found was a remarkable woman whose life was one of secrecy and incredible generosity.
Huguette Clark, daughter of a man who made an outrageous fortune in mining, is an interesting subject for a book. A woman who married only briefly, maintained friendships for a lifetime and allowed herself to take joy in her hobbies rather than forcing herself to abandon them as she grew older, she was eccentric in a good way. She loved to paint, adored her doll and cartoon collection, and threw herself into the meticulous creation of complex story houses of famed fairy tales. She didn't talk to most of her family, but maintained close relationships with the family she chose. She valued her privacy so strongly that others took advantage of that cruelly. She owned a beautiful home each on the West Coast and the East Coast, as well as two immense apartments in NYC, but she lived out the last years of her life, perfectly healthy, in a hospital room.
Unfortunately, while there's a lot of interesting stuff about her and her family and friends, I feel like there was more book than there was information. While she's a fascinating figure, that paragraph above tells you maybe half of the interesting stuff there is in the story. As a result, the book hits a point where it starts to feel sort of samey. Once her mother died and Huguette really withdrew from society, the story for a while falls into a pattern of introduce someone from her circle, give a little of their history, and detail how much money Huguette gave to them and for what. It also ran on a bit long in other areas, but that was really the biggest offender.
Honestly there are also times when the numbers in play were just so immense that I simply had a hard time grasping what the amounts were. It all started to blur into "a lot." She gave a lot to friend 1, then she gave a lot to friend 2, then she spent a lot on a French doll. She started with a lot, her homes cost a lot to maintain, she dropped a lot on a new violin...
To give you an idea, there's a home early on in the book that has 121 rooms in it. Can you honestly conceive of what a home with 121 rooms looks like? I thought about the biggest home I'd ever been in, a modest mansion in the town I grew up in. Total number of rooms? 35. I cannot conceive of what 121 rooms is. The home also required 7 tons of coal per day to power and heat it. 7 tons. How much coal is 7 tons? And so it goes with the cash, the checks, the prices of the jewelry and paintings and instruments. The numbers are so big that they just become sort of nebulous. And yet, because Huguette's life became sort of stasis-y at some point, these numbers become more and more important to the story.
But this was a good read for the first half and for the last few chapters. Huguette seems to have been a simple person - not simple-minded, but just finding joy in simple things. She loved her dolls and dollhouses, music and art, and she loved her friends and making them happy. That she had such a remarkable pool of money from which to fund her interests is just another facet. I recommend reading it if you ever heard about Huguette Clark and wondered about her life, because it IS interesting. Just maybe be prepared to skim in the middle.