2016: 6. The Phantom of Fifth Avenue

“Located just two blocks from the White House, the Corcoran Gallery of Art feels like it is off the beaten path in Washington, drawing just a fraction of the city’s tourist throngs.”

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, Meryl Gordon

This is the kind of book I like reading, a scandal of rich people doing crazy things.  Here, it is the story of Hugette Clark, daughter of a Gilded Age millionaire lived until on until 2011, a relic of an earlier era.  She was extraordinarily wealthy, and had everything her heart desired (including two enormous apartments overlooking the park on Fifth Avenue).  But she spent the last 40+ years as a recluse, seeing no one, and the last twenty living in tiny hospital room, though nothing was wrong with her.  So that’s a crazy story, and when you through in all the money she gave to her nurses, and doctors, and worse, her lawyer and accountant, you end up with a story of a poor little rich girl, a complicated will fight, and generally bonkers stuff.

The story is pretty interesting - I remember devouring articles about the situation in 2011, when she died, and the very notion that a person lived into the 2010’s who was descended from a real life robber baron is super interesting.  I was totally into the idea of this book, and dove into it.  But, despite the great premise, it does suffer from that classic this would be an amazing New Yorker article, but is it enough for a book problem.  It’s pretty good at Hugette’s background before she became a recluse, and very interesting on all the money stuff (look at all the houses she had that she never went to! Was she being taken advantage of? Do relatives she refused to see for thirty years really get to have a say in her estate?).  But it gets a bit draggy in the middle, largely because reading a story about a recluse is pretty boring.  Particularly a sort of boring recluse.  And she was a recluse for a long time. Pages of, oh she stopped letting us visit, and she stopped calling, and she had weird hobbies (doll collecting, watching subpar animation on tv).  So I don’t know that I can recommend it whole-heartedly.  You’d need to be really interested in weird rich people (which I sort of am) and in will battles.  Because Hugette herself, despite her odd story was sort of a boring person.  Having money doesn’t make you necessarily interesting, no matter how strange your life was, and this book is proof of that. 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017