The Reclusive, Doll-Collecting Copper Queen of Fifth Avenue

Copper heiress Huguette Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104 after half a century of living as a recluse, the last twenty years in a hospital by choice. The possessions she left behind give us a glimpse into her privileged, private, and mysterious life. She enjoyed painting and photography, and was an avid doll collector. She also had a fascination with Japanese artifacts. After Clark’s enormous estate was sorted out, which involved lawsuits between distant relatives, the executors who drew up her last two wills, and Clark’s personal nurse, many of her possessions went to auction. Meryl Gordon, who wrote the biography The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark, talked to Collectors Weekly about the Huguette Clark collections.

Do you think Huguette got the collecting bug from her parents?

It’s true that Huguette’s parents wanted the best of everything, and that her father toured Europe buying vast quantities of artwork. His collection is pretty fascinating, because plenty of his paintings turned out to be forgeries, while other pieces of art were nearly priceless—one of his oriental rugs just sold for $30 million at Christie’s. The senator was pretty stubborn and defensive about his taste. Meanwhile, her mother collected antique fans and, as a talented harpist, was responsible for an impressive musical instrument collection. But I think Huguette was more influenced by her father’s perfectionism than his collecting. The 121-room mansion he completed for his family in 1911 was micromanaged down to the very last tile. He imported an entire sitting room from Japan, furniture and all, and bought up granite and bronze foundries in Maine and upstate New York to source his materials. When you look at Huguette’s own collection of miniature Japanese castles and dollhouses depicting scenes from fairy tales, it’s clear that she’d taken her father’s perfectionism and enacted it on a miniature scale. She grew up watching her father demand nothing but the best, and she took enormous pleasure from commissioning these dollhouses and making every single design decision down to the last inch.

So you don’t trace her strange behavior back to childhood trauma, or some sort of stunting in her development?

Going into this project, I definitely wondered if Huguette might have been troubled in some way. But when I got to go through her documents and read the letters she wrote to her father as a child, I could really see her sense of humor. I think she had a very outgoing life until the early 1940s, when things became more difficult for her. She managed to avoid the tabloids after her messy divorce, and the last public photograph of her was actually snapped by the Associated Press on her honeymoon in Hawaii. The picture is unflattering. She looks old and uncomfortable in her furs and jewels. But throughout the ’30s she continued to go out, often with Styka, to plays and concerts. Oddly, her breakdown in 1942 was very much connected to one of her collections. She was in love with Japanese culture, and suddenly, Japan was the enemy. She bounced back eventually, but I think she was always a more vulnerable person after Pearl Harbor.

Read about Huguette Clark’s life and the fabulous things she left behind, at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: the estate of Huguette Clark)

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