Monday, May 15, 2017

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue - Meryl Gordon

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette ClarkThere's something about high-society scandal that's just so intriguing.  It's why I like the Luxe series even though it's actually pretty much terrible.  It's why shows like Gossip Girl have so many fans, why the Kardashians are so popular.  And The Phantom of Fifth Avenue promised to be that, but true: the biography of an heiress who vanished from the public eye and then died in the midst of a scandal.  Well, it was really only one of those things, and scandal wasn't really involved.

The heiress in question was Huguette Clark, the daughter of a copper baron and his second, much-younger wife.  William Andrews Clark might have been the subject of some scandal in his attempts to earn money and social climb--there were certainly fishy happenings involved in his race for the Senate at one point--but the most scandal Huguette was involved in was probably being born to Anna Clark, who was a much-younger "ward" of sorts of Williams Andrew Clark years after the death of his first wife.  Huguette really lived a quiet life, traveling with her mother and sister, practicing violin, painting, and collecting dolls.  She got married and divorced once; I guess that could be a scandal, in those times, but it's nothing to write home about for a modern audience.  But what did happen with her is that, decades after she disappeared from the public eye and her relatives last heard from her--her relatives being the children and sometimes grandchildren of her half-siblings from her father's first marriage, the half-siblings who always looked down on Huguette and her mother and who, consequently, Huguette didn't want much to do with--those same relatives decided that Huguette was clearly being manipulated and abused, despite not having heard from her, and decided to see what happened to her.  That she was over a hundred years old and worth $300 million dollars with a questionably legal will of course had nothing to do with the matter.

Gordon definitely did research for this, quoting newspapers, letters, and even conducting interviews with those involved in the story who had known Huguette, or known the people who knew her.  She even got to tell one of the people that they had inherited a decent sum of money from Huguette's estate, having clearly been following the story even more closely than some of those directly involved.  But ultimately, Gordon does the same thing that many of the papers did and tries to make a mountain out of a molehill.  Most of the book is basically Huguette's biography, which is mildly interesting at best, though slightly envy-inspiring.  Seeing her evolving psychology from socialite to recluse was interesting, and I think Gordon did a good job in her analysis on that aspect, but as for the rest... Meh.  Huguette didn't die under mysterious circumstances and the only "scandalous" aspect of her death was that she left a significant portion of her $300 million estate to her longtime nurse.  A lot of people had a problem with this and threw a fit and the whole thing got dragged into court, as is wont to happen when large amounts of money are up for grabs.  Did Huguette's family really want the money for themselves?  Maybe  they were already individually wealthy, but that's not to say they didn't want more.  There certainly seems to be less at the end of the book to indicate that Huguette was being manipulated or abused than Gordon made there out to be at the beginning.

The writing here was fine, but not particularly engaging.  After a while of reading, I began to wonder what the point of my reading really was since most of the book was very repetitive.  Huguette travels.  She paints.  She flirts a bit.  As she gets older she gives away money in increasingly-large denominations.  But honestly I didn't find any of this particularly suspicious or even unbelievable.  It doesn't seem worth a 300+ page book, certainly.  Overall, this was a book that promised more than it delivered, and wasn't what it promised at all.

2 stars out of 5.

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