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The Wills Of Heiress Huguette Clark Makes For Best Newspaper Read Of The Day

September 15, 2013

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Copper magnate and Corcoran Gallery of Art benefactor William Clark with daughters Andree, 15, left, and Huguette, 11, circa 1917 in Butte, Mont. Huguette, who died in 2011 at age104, bequeathed a $25 million Monet to the Corcoran in a will, which is being contested. (Montanta Historical Society Research Center)

This story makes the estate dealings for my dad, Royce Humphrey, seem like a walk in the woods.

Apart from all the other news stories in the Sunday papers comes one that is just glitzy and gossipy enough to make for the best read of the day.

Now, that very privacy has been exploded by a court case brought by 20 of Mrs. Clark’s grandnephews, grandnieces, great-grandnephews and great-grandnieces, including Mrs. Friedman. They are challenging the disposition of her estate, which has been estimated at more than $300 million.       

In 2005, Mrs. Clark executed two wills, just six weeks apart. The first, signed in March, would have given virtually all of her fortune, including possession of her Santa Barbara, Calif., oceanfront estate, Bellosguardo, to members of her family. The second, signed in April, cut them out with a nasty Dickensian flourish: “I intentionally make no provision in this my Last Will Testament for any members of my family, whether on my paternal or maternal side, having had minimal contacts with them over the years. The persons and institution named herein as beneficiaries of my Estate are the true objects of my bounty.”

If settlement talks fail and the case goes to trial — jury selection is scheduled to begin Sept. 17 — it will touch on issues that many families face. How is wealth transferred in later generations? What does an elderly person owe relatives who hardly knew her and did not take care of her in her dotage, as opposed to the hired help who did? Do family ties still bind between people who have never even met?       

But what sets this story apart is the sheer size of Mrs. Clark’s fortune, and the singularity in which she ended her days: living at Beth Israel and paying her own way, as though it were a long-stay hotel. For much of that time, many of her relatives did not know where she was.       

Mrs. Clark belonged to an American kind of royalty. There are indications that she reveled in her social stature as the youngest daughter of William Andrews Clark, a copper magnate who bought himself a United States Senate seat from Montana in the 1890s. She put herself in a league beyond the Town & Country set, according to a deposition. She preferred a French magazine chronicling the exploits of royals around the world, Point de Vue.       

She grew up in California, France and in her father’s gilded 121-room mansion at East 77th Street and Fifth Avenue, since demolished, which had art galleries, a theater and a swimming pool.       

She was married in Santa Barbara in August 1928 and obtained a Reno divorce in August 1930, charging desertion. She had no children. Her only sister, Andrée, died at 16. All of her would-be heirs are her half-relatives, the descendants of her father and his first wife.

In pretrial proceedings, huge amounts of energy have been spent establishing whether each of the 19 living relatives contesting the second will had ever met or spoken to Mrs. Clark, and if so, when and for how long.

The answers are sometimes comical. Clifford R. Berry III, known as Kip, a veterinarian in Florida and a scion of a horse-breeding family who is in his 50s, never met Mrs. Clark. Others say they saw her in 1945, 1954 or 1957. The last time any of them remembers having seen her in public seems to be in March 1968, at the funeral of Mrs. Friedman’s grandmother at St. Thomas Church, on Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Clark greeted her bereaved half-sister, Mrs. Friedman’s great-grandmother, and other elderly relatives, then left.

By many accounts, Mrs. Clark was a real-life Miss Havisham, a virtual spinster, alienated from most of her family, isolated in one candlelit room of her grand apartment on Fifth Avenue at 72nd Street, until she became so sick and emaciated that she was forced to go to the hospital.       

Mrs. Clark arrived at the hospital in 1991 with skin cancer of her face that was so bad she could not hold food in her mouth, and that had carved “large deep ‘rodent’ type ulcers” where her lower right eyelid should be, according to notes by Dr. Singman. “She resembled an advanced leper patient,” he wrote.       

It is unclear from the record how long she had been sick, and whether her disfigurement had anything to do with her reclusiveness.       

Mr. Morken, the family lawyer, has suggested that Mrs. Clark’s refusal to go home once she had been treated showed that she needed psychiatric evaluation.       

Harvey Corn, a lawyer for Mrs. Peri, told the judge that Mrs. Clark stayed at Beth Israel because she felt taken care of. “She loved her doctors and wanted them to be at her beck and call for the rest of her life,” he said.       

Dr. Singman was left $100,000 in her will. But there was more. During a vacation in Italy, Dr. Singman fell down the stairs in his hotel and fractured his right hip. He flew home via Learjet. Mrs. Clark reimbursed him for the $65,000 fare. When his beach house needed painting, she gave him $20,000 to do it. He called her his “fairy godmother.”       

Dr. Singman’s lawyer, Harold Lee Schwab, said Mrs. Clark had good reason to feel grateful to his client. “There’s no doubt he was instrumental in her survival until the ripe old age” of almost 105, Mr. Schwab said. “That’s pretty good.”       

The potential heir who may have had the closest contact with Mrs. Clark was André Baeyens, a grandnephew and a retired French diplomat, now about 83, who wrote a book about Senator Clark, “Le Sénateur Qui Aimait La France.” He never met her but kept in touch by phone for long stretches from 1977 to 2003, out of a genteel sense of comme il faut, according to his deposition.       

He left French fashion magazines with her doorman at 72nd Street, and she would call to thank him. He invited her confidante, Suzanne Pierre, the widow of Mrs. Clark’s former doctor, to events at the French consulate, where Mr. Baeyens was consul general, and she would report back to Mrs. Clark, who would then call to chat.       

Beginning in 2002, Mr. Baeyens said, their calls became more “perfunctory.” Mrs. Clark could not hear, and she had trouble forming full sentences. “Her telephone conversations consisted of a few polite words,” he said.       

After that, he no longer tried to talk to her directly, though he continued calling Mrs. Pierre to check on her.       

In the hospital, Mrs. Clark’s caretakers became her surrogate family. Christopher Sattler, her personal assistant, got $500,000 in her will. His job included picking up her mail and delivering business correspondence to her lawyer.

At Mrs. Clark’s direction, Mr. Sattler would set up her dolls — vintage Barbies that he said came from Au Nain Bleu in Paris, or Jumeaux, which are expensive bisque dolls — and photograph them in her apartment. Then he would bring the pictures to her in the hospital. “She liked to look at them,” he said.

She was not infantile, he said. “It is an inference that somehow that because she liked these Barbie dolls that there was something wrong with her,” Mr. Sattler said, “and if you could have spoken to her you wouldn’t think that.”       

He disputed the family’s contention that she was being kept a virtual prisoner. “The time in the hospital actually resocialized Mrs. Clark — she became less of a recluse,” Mr. Sattler said. “Not by much, but she enjoyed the traffic of humanity for the first time in 50 years.”

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