As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? A journalist, always. Well, at least since age 16, when I started as a copy boy, or clerk, at my hometown newspaper in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Being where the news of the world came into town, smelling the ink – I was hooked.
What other jobs have you had? That’s the only job. Within journalism I’ve reported and edited. By far the reporters have it best, because they get out into the world. This is my first book, a challenging experience even with the help of a co-author, a member of the Clark family, Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
What was the best thing about writing this book? I liked the excuse it gave me to learn a bit about the Gilded Age, about railroads, the hazards of copper mining, pipe organs, labor history, frontier days in the old West in the United States, the Civil War draft, art, architecture, kidnapping, estate planning. One small example: The Clarks had an expensive pipe organ installed in Huguette Clark’s childhood home, the 121-room Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York. In about 1910 it cost $120,000, or roughly $3 million today. Well, if I hadn’t found a book all about the company that made the organ, I wouldn’t have learned how it was eventually sold, when the Clark mansion was demolished in 1927, for the price of one good cigar. That’s just two pages in ‘Empty Mansions’, just one of the remarkable stories we stumbled upon. It pays to check down every street to see where it leads.
What were the milestones when researching for this book? The most important addition to our research was Paul Newell’s conversations with his cousin Huguette. They spoke over a period of nine years. As she describes to Paul having tickets for a ship that didn’t sail, on the return trip of the Titanic on its maiden voyage, Huguette says matter-of-factly, ‘It was never able to get to New York, because it sank before it got here. So we took another boat’. (And she remembered the name of that boat.) Book clubs have found it worthwhile to have one at least one member get the audio, to play snippets at a meeting. See http://www.emptymansionsbook.com/buy/.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? The biggest surprise was the character of Huguette Clark. When one hears of a recluse who lived the last twenty years of her life in a hospital room, one doesn’t think of a lively person with a good sense of humor, a maintainer of relationships who corresponds with friends over decades, a generous spirit who gives to friends and strangers, a lucid but shy artist who was not a victim but who got whatever she wanted. That was the biggest surprise.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? Readers got a fair understanding of Huguette, I hope. And there’s no doubt that the book influenced the negotiations over the settlement of Huguette’s estate, leading to her home in California being preserved as she had asked. It will go to a foundation for the arts, the Bellosguardo Foundation, and may someday be opened up for public tours.
When you reprint the next edition will you include the court decisions regarding the will? Yes, that’s been done. A summary of the settlement of the Clark estate has been added to our book in all of its four flavors. Details:Paperback: All copies of the paperback include the update. The paperback also includes a reader’s discussion guide, and an interview with the authors; those two items are also available online from Random House. See http://www.emptymansionsbook.com/book-clubs/. Hardcover: The updates were added to printings starting with the 11th. That should be the version of hardcover available now through the online booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, because they sold out of previous printings. (How do you tell which printing you have? Look at the copyright page, the one after the title page, and the smallest number appearing at the bottom is the printing.) You can tell if you have the latest text if the section on pages 348-350 is titled ‘Payout’ instead of ‘The Pink Diamond’. You can read that update in a PDF file at http://powerreporting.com/files/update/. Audiobook: The updates were added to the narration in the audiobook. Note that the audiobook contains about 20 minutes of audio of Huguette in conversation with her cousin Paul Newell, co-author of ‘Empty Mansions’. E-books: If you read an electronic version of the book, here are instructions for getting the update on the three most popular platforms. iBooks: If you downloaded the e-book from Apple before the new version was available, you should see a badge on the iBooks app indicating updates are available. Similar to updates in the app store, you can go in and download new versions. Once the reader approves the update, it will download and overwrite the older version. All of my updates from NBC News are collected at http://nbcnews.com/clark/.
Are the artworks and artifacts from Huguette’s estate on public view anywhere? No public viewing now, after the recent sales at Christie’s in New York, but photos are on our website, http://emptymansionsbook.com/.
What else would you like to write a book about? I’m looking for another person to profile, that might lead to a biography. Not a celebrity but someone of importance with a depth of character to explore.
What are you working on next? I’m back to work at NBC News, doing a story now on health care, and always looking for interesting documents that lead to stories.
Read my review of ‘Empty Mansions’ here.