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The invisible heiress and the half-blood princess

A year after the reclusive eccentric’s death, the fight for the estate of Huguette Clark continues to generate headlines — and it’s all thanks to Las Vegas

A massive fortune made in Clark County is slowly being scattered to the four winds, in accordance with what is surely among the most hotly disputed wills of the 21st century. Reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, daughter of the man who literally sold Las Vegas, died on May 24, 2011, a fortnight shy of her 105th birthday. She left an estate worth $400 million. A year later, it remains a treasure over which distant relatives continue to battle with Mme. Clark’s business associates amid mounting rancor.

When the will was opened on June 22, 2011, it was discovered that the Francophonic lady had left nary a franc to any of the other descendants of her father, Sen. William Andrews Clark (1839-1925). Instead, most of the lucre will go to establish a charitable foundation and museum, headquartered in her seaside Santa Barbara mansion, Bellosguardo. Bellosguardo’s walls will be adorned with most of her collection of paintings, including works of John Singer Sargent and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

To help underwrite Bellosguardo, Mme. Clark’s trifecta of Manhattan apartments, all at 907 Fifth Avenue, have been placed on the market. So has a 52-acre estate in Connecticut, complete with mansion. The largest and most expensive of the New York apartments offers the palatial splendor of “intricately carved plaster ceilings, dark wood paneling and ancient wood-framed windows, flecked with bits of stained glass, that look out onto the entire expanse of Central Park,” according to the New York Times. Rotary-dial telephones still identify the exchange number as “Butterfield 8.”

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GirlA battle of wills

Clark’s funeral, attended only by mortuary employees and from which relatives were barred by the elderly heiress’ lawyer, Wallace Bock, was a harbinger of the will’s revelations. Childless and having outlived everyone on her mother’s side of the Clark family, Huguette Clark’s only blood relations were 21 descendants from William Clark’s first marriage, half-great-nephews and such.

If they thought being kept out of the funeral was a shock, it was nothing compared to the subsequent opening of the will. Clark’s goddaughter, Wanda Styka, received $12 million. Private nurse Hadassah Peri stood to inherit more than $30 million, along with Clark’s legendary collection of French dolls, which Clark treated as family members, often holding conversations with them. Another $1 million legacy went to Bock and his co-executor, accountant Irving Kamsler, two superannuated vassals whom family members have painted as shady characters. (It’s not difficult in the case of Kamsler, once known in AOL chatrooms as “IRV1040” and now a registered sex offender.) For that reason alone, a nasty fight in probate court is a certainty — as will the fact that Bock and Kamsler constitute two-thirds of the newly formed Bellosguardo Foundation, placing them in control of its endowment, thereby generating “unending fees and salaries,” according to reports by MSNBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman.

The will was signed in April 2005 — a year after Clark, under the alias “Harriet Chase,” entered Beth Israel Medical Center, never to leave again — at least alive. Prior to that, Clark had taken refuge in Manhattan’s Doctors Hospital, possibly as early as 1988 (news accounts vary), where Peri was assigned to her in 1991. As Clark chronicler Dedman once said, “She made Howard Hughes seem outgoing.” The causes for her long confinements were “many mysterious and imagined ailments,” wrote New York Observer reporter Kim Velsey.

During discovery proceedings, it was learned that Clark had filed another will, six weeks earlier, one that bequeathed all her wealth to family members, save for a $5 million legacy to Peri. Bock and Kamsler, as executors, stood to collect an $8 million commission each — but no cash outright. (If both wills are tossed, family members get everything.) Even if the later will is upheld, things are not looking good for the controversial twosome: Just before Christmas, a Manhattan Surrogate Court suspended Bock and Kamsler as executors, after New York County Public Administrator Ethel Griffin accused them of “dishonesty, improvidence, waste and want of understanding,” as well as tax fraud. Griffin may also attempt a “clawback” of millions that Peri received prior to Huguette Clark’s death.

Although the will itself is still tied up in probate, Griffin’s office is moving swiftly to liquidate the late dowager’s assets. An April auction was slated for Clark’s jewels, including Cartier diamonds worth millions apiece. They fetched $18 million, far more than expected.

Train

The man who sold Las Vegas

Huguette Clark and Las Vegas were born soon after one another, and had the same father: William A. Clark, arguably the gaudiest robber baron of the Gilded Age. Although he never lived here, Clark County took its name from Sen. Clark, who presided over a mining empire headquartered in Butte, Montana.

In order to deliver his minerals to Los Angeles, Clark and brother J. Ross laid track southward into Nevada. The Clarks finished their route through Jean and what would become Las Vegas by purchasing a half-interest in the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad.

The Clark brothers also formed the Las Vegas Land & Water Co. In 1905 it sold the 2,000 acres from which Las Vegas would spring that year. William A. Clark had originally bought the site as a maintenance yard and depot. When the Clarks put what is now downtown Vegas on the market, they intended to sell at fair prices — first come, first served. But the brothers were forced to auction the land by partner W.H. Bancroft, doling out acreage at 500 percent markups — money that would eventually enable Huguette Clark to live a life of luxury.

A Confederate veteran of the Civil War, W.A. Clark had worked his way west to Montana to mine gold. A couple of years’ labor led him to the astute conclusion that he should diversify by marketing goods to his fellow miners and engaging in moneylending.

In addition to peddling an eggnog called Tom & Jerry, Clark made a mint by selling eggs to miners for $3 per dozen in an era when $4 was a good day’s pay. As his fortune grew, Clark bought politicians themselves, not just influence, becoming synonymous with bribery. Clark even held office himself, serving in the U.S. Senate from 1901 to 1907.

Sen. Clark’s political career was undistinguished, characterized by broken campaign promises and failed ideas. He opposed the Panama Canal in favor of a Nicaraguan route because he would financially benefit from the latter. Referring to Clark’s prominent beard, detractors said, “If you took away the whiskers and the scandal, there would be nothing left.”

A Nevada newsman called Mark Twain had even less use for the senator. He called him “as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag,” adding that he belonged in “a penitentiary with a ball and chain on his leg.”

 

The sins of the father

Shortly after his famous Vegas land auction, Sen. Clark relocated to Manhattan, where he built a gargantuan, much-ridiculed mansion in Manhattan and continued to court notoriety. Widowed in 1893, the senator announced in 1904 that he had a wife in Paris: ward Anna Eugenia La Chappelle, though Clark never produced proof of their alleged 1901 nuptials. The second of their two daughters, Huguette, was born in 1906, when Sen. Clark was 67 and Anna Eugenia was 28.

Before his death, Sen. Clark divided his $300 million estate evenly among his children and, in 1927, Huguette Clark came into a $50 million nest egg that would eventually hatch that $400 million fortune. But wealth did not bring happiness. The next year she married a law student, William Gower, a union that was not only fruitless but supposedly unconsummated. Both it and the ensuing scandal would scar Clark for life.

Following her 1930 Reno divorce, the heiress — who had shown promise as a painter — slipped from public view, dividing her time between Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Bellosguardo in Santa Barbara. After her mother died in 1963, Huguette Clark forsook Santa Barbara permanently, although Bellosguardo is still lovingly maintained at her behest. Seeking a potential refuge from World War III, she purchased a mansion in Connecticut in which she never set foot.

Utterly reclusive, Huguette Clark turned her energies to maintaining “Mommy’s” two-story, 42-room apartments, collecting and playing with her dolls (one of which was flown from France as a first-class passenger), having complete episodes of “The Flintstones” transcribed, and subsisting on sardines, bananas and ice cream. She communicated with her antiques dealer and an attorney only through a closed door.

 

Pillagers or protectors?

Such eccentricities would hardly generate headlines on MSNBC.com — whose Dedman is now co-writing a book on the convoluted Clark saga, “Empty Mansions” — or coverage by NBC’s “Today” were it not for the vast wealth nominally under Huguette’s control. The quiet disposition of $29 million in assets during the past decade began to raise questions about the management of her fortune by Bock and Kamsler. For instance, Bock solicited a $1.5 million donation to a West Bank settlement from his client, flying in the face of New York State legal ethics.

When a Stradivarius violin changed hands, as did a Renoir painting, it appeared that the cat was well and truly among the pigeons, sending Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s office into action. Bock and Kamsler remain under investigation by the Manhattan D.A.’s Elder Abuse unit. But the W.A. Clark descendants lack of proof of their alleged manipulations — acts that would be difficult to substantiate, since Clark ceased communicating with her relatives in 2005, at the time her will was signed.

Mme. Clark hadn’t been dead a week before the New York Times reported that “many eyes have zeroed in on the sumptuous suite of apartments,” with real estate agents jostling for a piece of the action. (Other residents of the building include Martha Stewart.) The vast Fifth Avenue spaces are expected to bring $55 million total, but most of that money is already pledged against estate taxes. Clark’s Connecticut castle-cum-bomb-shelter has long been on the market and is currently listing for $20 million, steeply discounted from $34 million. While it was a Clark clan real estate sale that birthed Las Vegas, the fruits of that transaction have created a saga worthy of Hollywood. 

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