Monday, 13 October 2014

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue


Good evening everyone.  How was your Monday?  It has been so dark and drizzly today, I had my fairy lights on for the first time this autumn, they really brighten up a room on a day like this. My lovely friend came round for a coffee and chat today, just what I needed after a very hectic weekend. Everyone could do with a friend like Helen, always positive and upbeat about life, she's a good listener and always sees the best in people. 

I also finished a book today so thought I would do a quick review as it gave me plenty to think about.  The Phantom of Fifth Avenue is a biography of Huguette Clark who was the daughter of a very wealthy copper magnate, Charles Clark.  She died in 2011 at the age of 104.  This in itself is an amazing feat, but what really makes Huguette's story remarkable is that she spent much of her life as a recluse, dying in a rather ordinary hospital room which she had lived for 20 years despite being a multi-millionaire and owning several beautiful mansions.  Her properties were kept in order by paid staff even though none of them had ever met their employer. 

I remember reading about Huguette's death when she died and was curious as to why she chose to live in such seclusion and ordinary-ness when she was wealthy beyond most people's wildest dreams, and could have lived a life of luxury and decadence. I am also interested in reclusive people, as I think I have a tendancy towards it and wonder why some people just cannot cope in society.

The first thing that struck me is how unhealthy it is to raise a child whilst being one of the richest families in America.  The family became obsessed with the idea that people will only be interested in their money, that most people are out to cheat them or manipulate them for financial gain (this was drummed into Huguette from a very young age - do not trust anyone!).  It was also difficult for her to have a normal childhood being over protected and neglected at the same time.  Her parents travelled a lot on business and to attend society functions, leaving the children with servants for months at a time.  They also became obsessed with hygiene after her sister died.  Visitors became few because of the fear of infection and the house needed to be constantly cleaned and disinfected (can you imagine keeping those huge mansions sterile?).  Huguette developed a lifelong fear of disease and death, which is why I think she chose to live her last 20 years in a hospital regardless of being relatively healthy.

Along with being unwilling to marry (she did marry but it was short lived) she was  unable to trust friends and family - fearing she would be taken advantage of. In her latter years it is certain she was taken advantage of  as she became more vulnerable and increasingly dependent on just a handful of people to help with her daily needs. How someone can work in the caring profession and take advantage of a vulnerable patient is beyond me.  Who needs money that badly that they would go to the lengths that her nurse did? To accept cheques worth millions of pounds, jewellery, property and cars?  And how much does one person need before they feel they have enough and no longer need to treat someone as a cash point?

This is an historically fascinating book, but also tells us a lot about human nature.  Huguette had a need to be cared for and loved above money and power, to have a healthy trust with the people she shared her life with and be taught a balanced view of risk vs pleasure.  If there is ever a tale that describes how money does not bring us happiness this has to be it.  Yes she lived to nearly 105 but for almost 80 of those years she lived behind closed doors, hyper-vigilant and anxious.  She lived her life through her doll and dolls house collection because the real world was just too scary for her.  It also spoke to me about human greed.  The people that were supposed to care for her were always after more and more...

Huguette was also a talented artist but was never really taken seriously possibly because of the 'rich girl' perception of her.  I wonder if she had been able to make a name for herself in her own right because of her own talent and merit, things would have been different. Her self worth may not have been determined by her net worth.

Painting by Huguette Clark

The book made me feel sad and I wish I had known her, I wish better people were looking out for her.  It also made me realise that I never want to be very rich as much as I never want to be very poor. It reminded me of the things children need most  money cannot buy and that I would rather live a short life to the full than a very long one shut up in a small hospital room.  RIP beautiful Huguette.


  1. I need to read this book, then, as I too have a great interest in history. Personally, I like the Tudor period as it is very interesting.

    1. I like Tudor history too. This biography writes about Huguettes experiences throughout the 20th Century and the global events of the time - very interesting.