Essay: The Heiress

At a hospital in New York she was in a third-floor room that had its number changed to make it harder for people to find her. On the door of this room was a plaque bearing the name Harriet Chase – an alias and a lame one at that – a female name with the same initials.

Hugette Clark’s 5th Avenue apartment covered the entirety of the eighth floor and contained 42 rooms. She also owned a castle in Connecticut on 52 acres of land and a house in California that overlooked the Pacific. For decades, she lived cut off from most of the outside world in her New York apartment with these other homes remaining empty, though well-maintained.

By the time she was thirty, Clark was already worth half a billion dollars. That wealth had been inherited from her father, a copper mining and railway tycoon. He had other children with his first wife and remarried in his 60s, siring Hugette when he was 67 and half deaf. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these half-siblings were the reasons for her hospital-room anonymity – they were all after her money.

In 1930, Hugette Clark posed for a photograph, wearing a mink coat. Her hands are partially folded in front of her, one grasping a jewel-studded bracelet. She’s wearing a rounded hat that women wore in those days, a silken flower sewn into one side. Her lips, darkened by lipstick, are closed into a gentle smile while her eyes are gazing up in a posed fashion. Soon after the picture was taken, she cut herself off from much of her family and friends and no longer went out in public. There were only a few photographs of her to survive, this was her last, her death mask – a parting gesture for the curious.

She wasn’t a total recluse though, having a few close friends who remained at her side. Among them was her secretary, Suzanne, who claimed that Hugette’s closest friends were actually her dolls. The heiress had a collection of antique dolls that she fussed over, with her servants washing and ironing the little doll clothes. These, her surrogate children, were at her hospital bedside.

Hugette Clark died in May 2011 at the age of 104. She didn’t write any books, nor was she an actor or politician. With only one photo of her left, she hasn’t given the world much of herself. Yet, since her death, stories about her fill a peripheral space in the internet, generating a kind of celebrity that Clark herself would have shunned.  Her legacy has been her lifestyle – her living in isolation, her eccentricity and above all else, her wealth. The size and value of her properties, the cost of her furnishings, jewellery and her dolls speak to our envy and avarice. If she were equally isolated and eccentric, but poor, she probably would have passed without our notice.

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