Book Review: The Phantom of Fifth Avenue by Meryl Gordon
I remember reading about the death of Huguette Clark in 2011. Here was a woman who lived to be one hundred four years old and was worth over $300 million, and died alone in a hospital without any family around her. There was an instant frenzy among her family, doctors, nurses and various philanthropic groups to get their hands on some of her money. There were several issues raised about the validity of her will and it was almost instantly challenged. I also remember thinking at the time how interesting it would be to know more about her life, but I figured I would never be in a position to know. However, through this brilliantly-researched biography by Meryl Gordon, I feel like I almost knew Huguette--as much as anyone could really have known the reclusive heiress.
This book is no easy read. It takes a really long time to tell the life story of a woman who lived to be over one hundred years old. And what a life Huguette lived! She spent her early life traveling around the world from France to California and New York. Her family owned multiple homes on both coasts, including a huge mansion on 5th Avenue. She spent summers surfing in Hawaii and spent much of her time taking painting lessons. She became obsessed with all things Japanese, geishas, dolls, doll houses and the Japanese royal family. She was scarred in her childhood by the death of several family members, including a cousin who died on the Titanic. Her sister died tragically at a young age and Huguette never got over it. Her parents became terrified of germs and mostly stayed away from the public. Her father convinced her that no one would ever love her, and would only want her for her money. She took him at his word and never allowed anyone to get too close to her. She was married for a very brief period, less than two years, and then divorced.
Huguette and her mother still attended a few social events, but after her mother's death in the 1960s, she very rarely went out. She spent all of her time in the three apartments that she owned in one building on 5th Avenue. Of the few people that she did stay in contact with, most of them never saw her after the 1970s. She developed skin cancer in 1991 and went to the hospital for surgery. Even though she was given a clean bill of health after the surgery, she never went home again. She lived at the hospital for the rest of her life, under the care of several doctors and her own private nurses. During that time she gave away millions of dollars-over 30 million to her nurse alone. Her nurses, doctors and various hospital staffers were constantly asking her for money.
Huguette wrote two wills in the spring of 2004. They were vastly different. The first one left the bulk of her estate to her distant relatives--most of whom she had never met--and the second cut them out completely. She left money to her attorney (who prepared the wills), her accountant and her nurse, who all may or may not have been present during it's signing. After her death her family members came forward to contest the will, and a very lengthy court case ensued. The case never made it to trial, but was settled out of court in September, 2013. In the end, most people were satisfied with the results (except probably her nurse who ended up with nearly nothing). In the quest to satisfy everyone the attorneys pretty much threw out Huguette's wishes. No one will probably ever know what really happened in that hospital. Every person involved told the story in a way that made them look good. We'll never know what Huguette's last wishes really were.
The thing that struck me the most as I read this book was the sadness of Huguette's life. She was incredibly wealthy and had the entire world at her fingertips. But she was alone and lonely and afraid to die. She was so afraid of being left to die alone that she paid her nurses and doctors millions for their promised loyalty. I find it heartbreaking that this woman had everything she wanted--expect true happiness and peace.
I'm so happy I got a chance to read this book. It is very well-written, thorough and seemingly very accurate. It's not a quick summer read, and will require a significant time commitment, but I think it's well worth your while to give it a try.