Monday, August 18, 2014

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark by Meryl Gordon

Release Date: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Being the youngest child of a copper magnate and living to be over 100 years-old,
Huguette Clark grew up in a world surrounded by glitz, glamor, and everything else high society that the 20th century had to offer. Once century drew to a close, the once vivacious socialite had withdrawn from society and enshrined herself in memories with only the most trusted people surrounding her. Life continued this way until the other descendents called her life into question.

Following a reunion of William Andrews Clark's many descendents, relatives began to worry about Huguette and the way she was living. As they started looking into her world, secrets and scandals found their way from the depths they were buried. But what was the reason a promising, young artist full of life would turn away from the world and keep to herself?

I stumbled across this biography while looking through NetGalley's book listings. Curious about the lifestyles of the wealthy as the next person, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this book wasn't the usual privilege-filled story about Huguette Clark's life.The author used mountains of documents, personal interviews and Huguette's own words to form the biography. As I read through the pages, it was akin to getting to know a new friend rather than read a starched-stiff novel about someone who lived long ago. Seeing how debilitating immense wealth can become made me feel sad for Huguette.

Because she outlived a majority of her family, it was easy to forget that the names reflected people who actually lived and loved Huguette. They weren't complex characters in a story, moving at the whim of the author's pen. Each had a real life filled with all the difficulties and experiences that you or I might have to endure. That's not to say everyone was your everyday sort with a routine of work, family, home. There were lots of interesting, eccentric people in her family. Living through an entire century also ensured that Huguette had a front row seat to the vast changes that spanned the country and the globe. The living descendents of William Andrews Clark were, and are, as varied as their ancestors and continue to keep his legacy of art, culture and wealth alive.

The book started a little slow for me because it centered around the Clarks living today and the reasons how and why they became concerned about their Tante Huguette. However, the pace picked up rather quickly as revelations about the family and those who worked for them came to light. Once I reached the point where the history of the Clarks was explored, I was intrigued by the man who made something of himself and interested in what happened to those who came after him. With each turn of the page, I felt myself drawn more and more into Huguette's world, wondering just how many people cared for her rather than the bank she became in their eyes. It made me sad to see someone with a very generous heart who simply wanted to create while being loved be taken advantage of as Huguette was in the last decades of her life.

I would have to say that this biography was eye-opening for me in several ways. Often times inherited wealth is seen as something everyone dreams of and others feel entitled to have. Unfortunately, the traps of such wealth bring many dangerous, problems and perils with it. While there are always more than one side to a story, I thought this biography did a good job of laying out the history of the family while trying to explore the reasons behind Huguette's behavior in her later years. It's much more than simply the life and times of a wealthy, eccentric elderly woman. If you love reading about lives from long ago or curious about the unusually private life of one of the wealthiest women in the US, I would pick up a copy of this book!

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark by Meryl Gordon is currently available for purchase at several online retailers in hardcover, Kindle and audio-book forms. The link below will bring up the book's Amazon page.
The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark by Meryl Gordon

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