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Private Life, Public Death

Relatives of reclusive millionaire heiress, Huguette Clark, allege improper influence by attorney and accountant

Huguette Marcelle Clark, daughter of copper tycoon William Andrews Clark, died on May 24, 2011 at the age of 104, after having spent the last 20 years of her life voluntarily sequestered in New York hospitals, often under a pseudonym to hide her identity. Clark’s life was one filled with suspicion and distrust of others, a paranoia that caused her to withdraw from the public eye almost entirely since her 30s. It was also, however, a life of childlike whimsy, lived in the company of her collection of fine dolls and extravagant dollhouses, surrounded by artwork by Baroque and Impressionist masters. She’s likely to be remembered as a kind-hearted and charitable, yet enigmatic recluse, whose life, from an outsider’s perspective, was simultaneously a fascinating mystery and a sad tale of solitude, purportedly fraught with misdeeds on the part of her few trusted advisors.

Clark was born in Paris, France on June 9, 1906, the youngest of seven children of William Andrews Clark, whose fortune, at the time of Clark’s birth, was estimated to be approximately $150 million (approximately $3.5 billion in 2011 dollars), making him one of the wealthiest men, if not the wealthiest, in the United States at the time. Her only full sibling, Andrée Clark, died of meningitis in 1919, when Clark was 13 years old. Clark later donated $50,000 ($646,500 in 2011 dollars) to build the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge in Santa Barbara, California, in her memory.

Lonely Life
Clark moved to New York as a young child, settling into an opulent 121-room mansion at 962 Fifth Avenue built by her father, and, later, became a member of New York’s high society. After her father’s death in 1925, she and her mother, Anne La Chapelle, moved a few blocks downtown to 907 Fifth Avenue, where she ultimately purchased the entire eighth floor. When she reached age 21, she inherited one-fifth of her father’s estate, (her share is estimated to have been worth $60 million, or $767 million in 2011 dollars).
Clark was briefly married to William Gower, but the couple divorced after less than two years in 1930, having had no children. It was around that time that Clark began to withdraw from society, spending her days with her mother in the confines of her mother's Fifth Avenue apartment, where her mother later died in 1963. After her mother’s death, Clark remained in the apartment, purposefully hidden from the outside world, until the late 1980s, when she took up residence at New York’s Doctors Hospital. When Doctors Hospital was closed, Clark moved to Beth Israel Medical Center, where she spent the last seven years of her life.
The only friend known to visit Clark from time to time was fellow Parisian Suzanne Pierre, the wife of Clark's doctor. Pierre, who acted as Clark's social secretary for many years, died of Alzheimer's disease in February 2011. In an interview with MSNBC in late 2010, Pierre couldn’t recall the last time that she had seen Clark.

Undue Influence Alleged
Other than Pierre, Clark’s only regular contacts in the outside world appear to have been her attorney, Wallace “Wally” Bock, and her accountant, Irving Kamsler, both of whom are suspected by certain of Clark's relatives to have exerted undue influence on Clark in her later years. In fact, it has been reported that Clark’s relatives were so suspicious that in September 2010, they filed a petition in the Supreme Court, New York County, for the appointment of a guardian over the property and person of Clark.
The petition alleged improper influence on the part of Bock and Kamsler, their ongoing attempts to limit the relatives’ access to Clark and specific acts of mismanagement of her property and dishonesty, including directly soliciting funds from Clark and Bock’s drafting a will containing a bequest to himself. Despite these allegations, the court declined to appoint a guardian. Bock and Kamsler, however, aren’t yet out of the woods, as shortly before the filing of the above action, the Manhattan district attorney began investigating their management of Clark's finances. That investigation remains pending, and no charges have yet been filed.

The Will
On June 22, 2011, Clark’s last will and testament dated April 19, 2005 was filed with the New York County Surrogate’s Court. The will named Bock and Kamsler, not only as beneficiaries of a $500,000 cash bequest each, but also to act as executors of the estate, for which they will receive sizeable commissions. As to the other beneficiaries of Clark’s will, she left $1 million to Beth Israel Medical Center, her home for the last seven years, though she gave the majority of her $400 million dollar estate to a foundation (of which Bock and Kamsler are directors, along with Clark's California attorney), to which Clark gifted her oceanfront estate in Santa Barbara and all of her artwork except for a 1907 original from Monet’s Water Lilies series, which she left to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In addition, a substantial portion of Clark's estate goes to her nurse of 20 years, Hadassah Peri, who, among other things, will inherit Clark’s expansive doll collection.
As of the date of this writing, it’s too early to know whether there will be a challenge to Clark’ will, perhaps by the same relatives who alleged undue influence on the part of Bock and Kamsler in 2010 and who were left nothing under the will. Given the publicity and outcome of similar allegations with respect to Brooke Astor's estate a few years ago, however, it’s almost guaranteed that Clark’s lifelong wish to remain out of the limelight isn’t one that will continue to be carried out now that she’s gone.

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