Monday, June 8, 2015

Spring read - Empty Mansions

For the last decade or so I have considered myself lucky to live in an age where journalists get to write history.  The '80s and 90's seemed to peak the rising tide of junior historians playing a kind of intellectual capture-the-flag - only rather than finding a specialty to grind away at for the rest of their careers, they were looking for a previously unexploited period of not-quite-recent history to reevaluate through their filter, whether that was gender, educational opportunity, climate or biological limitation.  

Journalists, on the other hand, express a near surgical precision when distilling events into facts, then rebuild them in the context of the culture in which they occurred.  The highly trained skill of evoking 'human interest' often translates into a clear, honest and refreshingly non-judgmental story of lives from another time.  

The writers of Empty Mansions have two big advantages over the average historian writing about a family and time out of place - one being that Huguette Clark existed both in the last century and this, dying in May 2011 at 104; the other being that one of the authors is a distant relative.  Distant enough not to have a stake in her estate after her passing, close enough to share her personal memories of the family and colourful figures who made those empty mansions home.

From W.A. Clark's youth as a prospector to her years of isolation the authors offer us a glimpse into a world of hard-won privilege, one not immune from emotional losses that all the money in the world cannot heal.  Huguette's life is told, in part, through the context of her family's lavish homes.  It is a life of extraordinary wealth, privilege and grandeur, a life that included incredible highs and devastating lows, including the loss of her beloved sister.

It's the kind of life story that's full of spoilers, depending on who tells it: a fairy tale where the princess hides herself in her castle, living in self-imposed isolation as an urban Lady of Shalott - shadows of the world reflected in her extensive grants for museums and music halls, gifts for friends and strangers alike, her anonymous support for a beautiful world she no longer enjoyed.  

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