How lonely was the Phantom of Fifth Avenue
July 8, 2017
Perhaps a guarded hospital room, with medical equipment and trained personnel nearby was the only place she felt truly safe from leeches and con artists.
In May of 2011 a 104-year-old woman died in a NYC hospital. In just two weeks she would have been 105. She had not been in her own home for over twenty years—in fact she had paid to live in a hospital since 1988 when she was taken by ambulance to Upper East Side’s Doctor’s Hospital—it was no emergency, just a method of transportation.
The extremely wealthy woman had several vast estates. One was in Santa Barbara, California one was in New Canaan, Connecticut. The estates were cared for by staff, but the furnished mansions sat empty. She had also bought the entire eighth floor of a Fifth Avenue apartment building that overlooked Central Park.
This seems to be her last real residence before she started living in a hospital. It is said that when she lived in the apartment she mainly “ate crackers and watched The Flintstones.” Her paid employees were her only real companions. She was not nuts. Suspicious? Yes. Nuts? No. No one could really be trusted and her existence was one of eerie emptiness.
When she moved from Doctor’s Hospital to another hospital because of a merger, she lived in her new room there under several different pseudonyms. The room had a fake number and it was always guarded. The lady was cared for by private-duty nurses.
Who was this woman? She was Huguette Marcelle Clark, born in 1906 to U. S. Senator William A. Clark. Mr. Clark was also an industrialist that left behind over three hundred million dollars—the famous Clark Copper Fortune.
Mr. Clark had a first wife and with her he had five children. These would be Huguette’s half-siblings. Huguette’s mother, Clark’s second wife, was Anna Eugenia La Chapelle. Anna’s father had made his own fortune in railroads and mining and was also a former senator.
Mr. Clark was somewhat flamboyant, but the people who knew Huguette and her mother vouched for the fact that they were reserved and exceptionally kind people. They were generous to various humanitarian causes. Huguette’s older sister, known as Andree, died of meningitis as a girl. The sisters were close.
Huguette was educated at Spence School in Manhattan, and was an accomplished musician (violin) and painter. When her father died in 1925, Huguette and her mother moved from the mansion the family had on Fifth Avenue to an apartment, also on Fifth Avenue. In 1928, in Santa Barbara, she married a Princeton grad, William MacDonald Gower. They separated in 1929 and divorced in Reno in 1930. In the meantime, in 1929, Huguette’s artwork was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
After Huguette had gone through several failed romances and all of her trusted family members were also gone, there she sat, heiress to millions of dollars. Because of her kind nature, people always tried to take advantage. Who could you trust? Most were after her money—a sad existence. Sometimes she spoke in French as a buffer to eavesdroppers. Perhaps a guarded hospital room, with medical equipment and trained personnel nearby was the only place she felt truly safe from leeches and con artists. It was some kind of system she had worked out—not foolproof, but doable.
To find out more about this mysterious lady, her mansions and their contents, please read, The Phantom of Fifth Avenue by Meryl Gordon, available in PB, HC and Kindle, 383 pp., or, Empty Mansions (large photo section) by Bill Dedman. Both books are well-reviewed.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious Indeed, a collection of true stories about the unknown and unexplained. Please click HERE to purchase your copy from Amazon.