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During America’s Gilded Age, former Montana Sen. W.A. Clark made a fortune in copper mining and railroads — and collected art. When he died in 1925, he donated hundreds of works to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His reclusive youngest daughter, Huguette, was also a major benefactor of the museum, paying for a major expansion and donating millions more over the years. We consider the family’s patronage and influence at the Corcoran, which is becoming part of George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art.
- Bill Dedman Investigative reporter, NBC News; co-author, "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs The Corcoran Gallery of Art prepares to merge with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art, the estate of a woman whose familial largess contributed to the institutions collections and coffers over the years is finally settled. After years of questioning by peers and organizations, she was a sponsor of including the Corcoran, the mystery surrounding Huguette Clark in her later years remains.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIQuestions of why she chose to live in a hospital rather than any of the three mansion she owned that sat vacant for decades and many others still remain after her death that nearly 105 years of age in 2011. But the Clark family connection to the Corcoran is clear. And here to help us understand it Bill Dedman.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, currently an investigative reporter with NBC News and the co-author of "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune." He joins us from NPR's Bryant Park Studios in New York. Bill Dedman, thank you for joining us.
MR. BILL DEDMANGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIOne of the barons of the Gilded Age, W.A. Clark was not quite as prolific as, say, Carnegie or Rockefeller when it came to spreading his wealth around, which may explain why his name is less familiar. How did he earn his money? And on what did he spend it?
DEDMANYes, lack of philanthropy probably did and having a common last name probably did mean an end to his legacy. W.A. Clark was born in a log cabin. He was 22 years old when the Civil War began and he went west to Colorado and then to Montana in search of gold where he found a bit of that. He became a merchant, a banker and became fabulously wealthy in copper mining. And in 1907, the New York Times said, we're not sure who the richest man in America is, but we are sure that it's Rockefeller or W.A. Clark of Montana.
DEDMANHe became a Washingtonian as a senator. He was elected to the United States Senate in a much disputed election, basically set for a year waiting while a committee investigated his election by the legislators of Montana. And it was found that he had paid the legislators to vote for him. The men went to the legislature with debts at the beginning at the session, voted for Clark and went home with their debts paid off.
DEDMANAnd he resigned, but then was reelected and served a full term, 1901 to 1907. Remarkably, his daughter, born while he was serving in the U.S. Senate, Huguette Clark, his youngest daughter, was still alive on 9/11 in New York City and lived into the Obama administration.
NNAMDIWhat, if any, lasting mark did W.A. Clark leave on the U.S. Senate and the public's relation to it?
DEDMANHis legacy politically has to be the 17th Amendment, which gave two individual voters to the people the right to select senators. His was not the only scandal leading to that amendment, but the scholars who studied it say that they see his as the signal event, the most prominent scandal. And, you know, by the way, there's an effort afoot today to overturn the 17th Amendment. It's a popular Tea Party agenda item. We can save that for another show. But whether who should elect senators continues to be a matter of debate.
NNAMDIOur guest is Bill Dedman. He is co-author of "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune." He's also a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, currently an investigative reporter with NBC News. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you followed the story of Huguette Clark? Call us with your questions.
NNAMDIDo you think Clark's organizations have become overly reliant on private patrons? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Bill, how did a miner who was literally born in a log cabin come to be an art collector?
DEDMANIt was fashionable for the bonanza rich to acquire great art, to take the European tour, to work through dealers and make a lot of purchases. The saying was that of the 800 paintings by Corot know to exist, American millionaires owned 1,200 of them. But Clark was better educated than most of them. He had a bit of college and a bit of law study as well. He collected mostly Europeans before the impressionists.
DEDMANHe could have bought a ball of Monet and Van Gogh for a song. He bought a few of those. How his art ended up at the Corcoran is surprising. His first choice was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And the will allowed for the art to go there, but with conditions. What's called the dead hand that his conditions that exist -- continue after death. He said, you can have all my art, about 800 pieces, only if you'll keep it all together and show it all. Keep it in its own room.
DEDMANAnd the Met said we can't see how we can do that and finally said no. And so, the art went to his second choice, the Corcoran. He had a relationship with the Corcoran already. He had given Teddy Roosevelt a tour of the Corcoran in 1904 when art owned by Clark was exhibited there. It was on loan while his great house in New York was being built. He served as a trustee of the Corcoran from 1914 to his death in '25.
DEDMANAnd so, that was a natural second choice. And people may not know the Clark name, but if you've been to the Corcoran, you go in through the bronze doors into that 40-foot high atrium and you look up that marble staircase, you're looking up at the Clark Wing, at the top of that staircase, go in to the Clark rotunda there. And many people also have seen the Golden Room, the Salon Dore in the Corcoran, which was brought whole by Clark from Paris.
DEDMANIt's an 18th century room. He put it in his house at 5th Avenue and 77th Street. That's his daughter Huguette's childhood home, 121 rooms for a family of four. And this room adorned with gold. And after he died, that room went to the Corcoran, which in the Clark Wing, built a room precisely to hold it. So it's still there today. It may be the most prominent piece from his collection that people in Washington recognize.
NNAMDISince we've mentioned his youngest daughter, Huguette's name, so many times, we shall talk a little bit more about her. She established the closest ties to the Corcoran after her father's death, but she also withdrew from public life over the years. How did her connections to the museum change as she withdrew from society? And how did that relationship influenced the museum's finances?
DEDMANHuguettes was a consistent donor to the Corcoran. First of all, she and her half sisters had built the Clark Wing, giving $700,000 in 1929. And she had paintings that were shown there in '29, some of her -- paintings created by Huguette. She was a consistent donor, $50,000 to $100,000 a year, even through the '40s, '50s, '60s, even as she generally withdrew from society.
DEDMANWe know of a time she went out in the '50s to shop for Christian Dior clothes for her dolls. We know of a time in the '60s when she went out to have her -- the best of her Stradivarius violins restrung. But she was generally in her apartment on Fifth Avenue for all those decades. But that didn't cause her to stop giving money to the Corcoran. She continued to be a donor.
DEDMANHer donations to the Corcoran stopped in 1999, and really dwindled then. And by 2003 had stopped completely. And it's probably not coincidental that that was the same time that the director of the Corcoran was pushing the plan to build a wing by the architect Gehry, Frank Gehry, a $200 million addition to the Corcoran, with these flowing metal panels. My co-author in the book, Paul Clark Newell's Huguette's cousin -- they spoke on the phone many times -- and she told Paul that she thought the Gary edition was a little fussy.
DEDMANAnd in 2003, she gave only $1,000 to the Corcoran. And this began a chain of events because the Corcoran got quite exercised about this. They saw in the paper that she'd sold a $23 million Renoir painting that same year. None of that money went to the Corcoran. That painting didn't go to the Corcoran. Here she was reducing her gifts. She could have paid herself that $200 million Gehry edition. She died with more $300 million, after giving a great deal away to friends and staff.
DEDMANSo here you have this consistent donor, now withdrawing her donations. And she hadn't signed a will yet. And the Corcoran knew that. So the Corcoran started getting her relatives to try to get her to give more money to the Corcoran. Having relatives who had association with the Corcoran to write to her, to suggest that she give for an archive, to suggest that she give for the Gehry edition, try to explain to her how it was not, you know, a bad thing.
DEDMANWell, that edition would have destroyed half of the Clark wing that she had paid for. It's not clear that the Corcoran informed her of that, but she was certainly -- had her wits about her. And she had pulled back her donations.
NNAMDIHere is Stacy, in Fairfax, Va., entering the conversation. Stacy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STACYOh, thank you for taking my call. And I very much enjoyed the book, "Empty Mansions," and have encouraged many family members and friends to read it. I happened to be in Santa Barbara the week that I brought that book with me. And what a coincidence to have it cover both the East and West Coast. So I was fascinated by the topic and thank you so much for writing the book.
STACYMy question is regarding to the ongoing litigation with her inheritance, and have they settled, that the Corcoran will be looking, I mean, looked after in the future with remains of her inheritance? Have they settled that since the writing of your book? Do you know?
DEDMANIt's an excellent question.
NNAMDI…before Bill answers that question, I should mention that despite the slowing of her support, the Corcoran did bring the Clark family together for a reunion in 2008, which Huguette did not attend, but did help finance. As you answer Stacy's question, Bill, you can talk about what family members learned at that gathering and how that information shaped her final years and the settlement of her estate.
DEDMANYes. Thank you, Stacy, for your kind words about our book. The members of the far-flung Clark family -- many of whom had never met each other, even if they'd attended the same prep school, they didn't know they were related -- came together at this reunion at the Corcoran in 2008. And at that -- we describe in "Empty Mansions" how at that gathering word spread among the relatives that Huguette's accountant had been arrested on a felony charge.
DEDMANIt turns out there are no 15-year-old girls on AOL who want to date 60-year-old accountants, but there are undercover police officers pretending to be 15-year-old girls. And that word got around. And it raised anxiety among the relatives, what was happening with their dear aunt? Here she had helped pay for this reunion, but he representative there didn't seem to be trustworthy. And her donations to the Corcoran had declined. Mr. Levy, the director of the Corcoran, wrote to relatives saying something insidious is going on.
DEDMANWell, part of what was insidious was that she had stopped giving money to the Corcoran. The -- after Huguette died these relatives -- most of whom had never met her, but had had some relations through their parents and phone calls and a few letters -- challenged her will. And the Corcoran's activities in this are very strange. After, you know, having enough money to pay for the Gehry wing, what did Huguette Clark leave Corcoran in her will?
DEDMANShe left it one painting, a single painting, a Monet, "Water Lilies," a valuable painting. It was in her sitting room. And we now know it's been auctioned. That it was worth $24 million. Well, the Corcoran joined with the relatives to challenge Huguette's will. Like the relatives, the Corcoran wrote to the court and said, "We object to this will, to which we are a beneficiary. She must be incompetent. She must be crazy. She wasn't using her houses. She's playing with dolls. She must be incompetent."
DEDMANNow, this is a very unusual position for a beneficiary to take. The Corcoran didn't give back the money that it had received from her all through the years, but it was challenging this will. And in the settlement the Corcoran accepted a bequest of $10 million. It later got another million on the side. But so 10 or you could say 11 and a quarter it got out of the value of a $24 million painting. The Corcoran was represented by pro bono lawyers in this case. And you'd have to say that it got every penny's worth.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Stacy. Does that answer your question?
STACYIt does in a way. Thank you for asking. But would they not have been better off just keeping the $24 million picture as opposed to reducing their income to $11 million.
DEDMANThat's an excellent question. They -- part of what's going on, of course, is that the Corcoran's giving up the ghost. It's being taken over, in effect, by the National Gallery of Art, which is going to take about half of its collection. The Clark -- the Salon Dore will be managed by George Washington University, maybe it'll be open to the public, we're not sure. The cash that they received from the painting may have been more valuable, even if it's a smaller amount, in that negotiation, having some money to go along with the corpse, to go the National Gallery.
DEDMANThey also had been selling off through the years W.A. Clark, that's Huguette's father's rugs and some of his paintings. I mean when I say rug or carpet, that doesn't quite convey that a single item sold for $33 million. And some of -- most of that money is still there at the Corcoran and is passing along with the body to the National Gallery. So it may be that they calculated that it would be better to have $10 million, $11 million in cash than to have a painting.
NNAMDIStacy, thank you so much for your call. We've got to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Bill Dedman. He is co-author of the book, "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune." You can still call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What role do you think patrons of arts institutions should have in the governance of those organizations? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Bill Dedman. He's a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and investigative reporter with NBC News and co-author of the book "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune." Bill, we got an email from Scott, who says, "In talking about the Clark family and Corcoran, I wonder if your guest knows what Mark Twain said about W.A. Clark." Bill?
DEDMANYes. We described this in detail in the book. The Wikipedia entry, for example, on W.A. Clark, will tell you that Mark Twain said he was a shame a scandal to the American people and no one sent him to the Senate who didn't know that he should better be in a ball and chains in a penitentiary. Well, usually what's not attached to that, as we explain in the book, is the fact that Mark Twain was in the copper business. Mark Twain, with the Standard Oil men, had gone into copper.
DEDMANHe was one of the beneficiaries of an insider stock scam, called the Amalgamated Copper, which was the Enron of its day. And the number two man at Standard Oil had pulled Mark Twain out of bankruptcy. Standard Oil men were trying to take over Clark's copper in Montana. And when Mark Twain is amusing his friends and benefactors by writing that piece about W.A. Clark, that's what's really going on.
DEDMANIt's the wallet of Samuel Clemons talking, but let's grant that if Mark Twain gets you, you've been got. And those words have stayed attached to W.A. Clark. There's no doubt that he was corrupt in politics, paying people to send him to the Senate, as was his opponent and many others in that time. And one can argue how he should be judged for that. And he suffered for it. His reputation suffered. He was lampooned on the magazine covers.
DEDMANThe -- in business, W.A. Clark was known as an honest man. So he has, really, a great legacy of business acumen. He was a Horatio Alger character, and then he squandered his reputation through his corruption in politics.
NNAMDITwain was not exactly an innocent bystander in that situation.
DEDMANNot at all.
NNAMDIHere is Robin, in Silver Spring, Md. Robin, your turn.
ROBINHi there. I am a native of Santa Barbara, Calif., where one of Huguette Clark's estates is located. And as a child I could always glimpse it from the zoo or from the beach. You can just barely see it if you're not able to go on the premises. And my understanding is that it is now planned to be turned into a museum to house some of her artwork. And I wondered if that is still the plan or if the estate still needs to be wrangled out before that can happen, and if the author knew anything more about that museum.
DEDMANYes. The -- you've described it right. It's a little premature. The largest beneficiary of Huguette's will, as she wrote it and as in the settlement, is that this home, valued $85 million to $100 million, on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, in Santa Barbara, goes to new foundation called the Bellosguardo Foundation, named for her home, Bellosguardo. Beautiful view or lookout, in Italian. And the foundation isn't standing up yet. It doesn't have a board. It doesn't exist yet.
DEDMANBut it exists it will get this great house and a few million dollars and will have to decide how to raise enough money, whether to keep, make it open as a museum or not. I was privileged to be able to take tour of it. The estate allowed me to be the first journalist to report from the inside of the house, and we have many photographs up on our website, emptymansionsbook.com. We have photos from the 1940s of the interior. And we have photos from after Huguette died. The car's in the garage, just as the legend always said, the cars are still in the carriage house, with license plates that say 1949.
NNAMDIRobin, you should know that we have a link to Bill's coverage for the Clark story -- of the Clark story for NBC at our website, kojoshow.org. And there you will find photos inside that estate. We'll also add another link that Bill just mentioned. But thank you so much for your call.
NNAMDIBill, in writing about Huguette, you worked closely with one relative, your co-author, Paul Clark Newell Jr. and you talked with others. What have you heard from the family about their thoughts on the changes underway at the Corcoran and how they think she might have reacted?
DEDMANYes. Let me first make sure everyone understands that my co-author, Paul, he cousin, was not in line for her fortune. He wasn't one of the relatives who sued to overturn her will. These were nieces and nephews or half-great-great nieces and nephews. The contention by those relatives was that Huguette was insane, was that she was incompetent. Paul talked with Huguette over a period of nine years and he tape-recorded some of those phone calls.
DEDMANAnd you can hear them in the audio book, the audio version of our -- of "Empty Mansions," has about 20 minutes of their conversations. And you can make up your own mind. She is as clear as a bell. She recalls having tickets on the Titanic, 1912, with her family. That is for the return trip of the Titanic. As she matter-of-factly put it, "We had to take another boat." She -- when Paul misstates the name of a hotel on Waikiki Beach where she stayed in the teens or '20s, she knows the name of it.
DEDMANShe comes across as quite proper, reserved, elegant, private. Remember, here she is talking with a man, her cousin, over a period of nine years, and never tells him that she's living in a hospital room in New York. He thinks she must be in her Fifth Avenue apartment. She maintains her privacy. She's in control. He would call her attorney and she would call him back at the appointed time. But there's no doubt about her lucidity, her competence, her memory. She knew what she owned. And, as she said, she thought her relatives were out to get her money. And it turned out she was right.
DEDMANThe relatives got $35 million in the settlement. Some side deal may boost it up to $37 million out of a little more than 300, but that doesn't mean that they proved their case. It means you have to pay somebody to go away when you settle a case.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Mallory, who said, "Did Huguette Clark spend time living in Washington while her father was in office? I read the guest's book, and wanted to know more about that period."
DEDMANNo. She was in Paris. Remember, Huguette was born in 1906, in the summer of '06. Her father served in the Senate from '01 to '07. Huguette's mother, who was much younger than the senator, 39 years younger, was over in Paris studying the harp. She and the senator had one child. And then announced a post-dated marriage, announced that, "We had -- we did get married and we already have a two-year old girl." John Edwards has nothing on the Clarks.
DEDMANAnd then the second child was born. And that was right near the end of the senator's term. So he's -- by steamship and train, he's traveling to his businesses in the West, to Paris, to New York where his great house is being built. And Huguette didn't come to this country until 1910, with her older sister and her mother. And then after a period they moved into the house in New York.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Bill Dedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, currently an investigative reporter with NBC News. He is co-author of the book, "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune." Bill Dedman, thank you very much for joining us.
DEDMANThank you. A pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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