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That gold-coloured handbag in the box still had stuffing in it

She had all the trappings of wealth and more. Nonetheless, over the last 20 years of her life, she lived in an unadorned room of a hospital in New York without being ill. It is where she passed unceremoniously in 2011 at the age of 104. She was lively and lucid to the end.

During those 20 years, she kept contact with the world outside via telephone, but no one had any inkling where she was calling from. They assumed she was phoning from one of her opulent dwellings in New York, Connecticut and California.

Her life story is likely to be made into a movie. There are currently two biographies, and likely to be more, to feed the world's growing fascination both with the unfolding story of her material existence - the gilded possessions - and with her enigmatic eccentricity.

Huguette Clark was born in 1906, the second child of an American copper baron and a senator, William A Clark, 67, and his 28-year-old second wife. Their marriage was a short-lived summer romance.

William A Clark was said to be the second-richest man in America after John D Rockefeller. Huguette inherited one-fifth of his estate, worth some $3.4 billion in today's money. By the time of his death at the age of 86, he must have had told his daughter (then 19) umpteen times that no one would ever love her for who she was, but only for her money.

It is hard to gauge the extent of injury his admonitions did to her soul. The only childhood nightmare known to have haunted her to the end stemmed from the time her family had to flee penniless from their immense mansion outside Paris as the Germans invaded France in 1914. In her twilight years, she still mentioned her fear of revolution. The Lindbergh kidnapping purportedly made her worry she might be a target. But to date, nothing in her life indicates she was a psychologically broken individual similar to the likes of Howard Hughes.

The profligate excess of her family's wealth was forlornly displayed in the demolition of William A Clark's New York Upper East side mansion not long after it was built. The reason? It was too plush to attract buyers.

Huguette herself maintained three enormous residences to the end. Her mansion in Connecticut, Le Beau Chateau, sits in 51 acres and features 22 rooms. Clark never set foot in this "home" after buying and renovating it in 1951. Her three huge upper-Fifth Avenue apartments in New York sprawl more than 15,000 square feet. The walls of her Manhattan apartments were festooned with priceless paintings, furniture and objects d'art worth millions. Her magnificent summer estate, Bellosguardo, was built in the '40s in Santa Barbara and sits on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. She spent some time there with her mother, but never returned after she died in 1953.

Clark spent an enormous amount of money maintaining all her properties in tip-top condition. She instructed her staff at Bellosguardo to be ready for a visit at 48 hours' notice.

Clark married down, to the son of her father's accountant. It was a short union. She studied painting and took a keen interest in Japanese art. She was an avid collector, especially of dolls, which she acquired obsessively until she owned more than 1,200. She commissioned haute couture designers such as Dior to dress them, and spent an enormous sum building dollhouses that are more like miniature chateaux, with hand-carved furnishings and landscaped surrounds. Clark would also take her dolls to social events as her "companions."

When she finally moved into rooms at the hospital, nursing staff found her more than generous. She gave one of her nurses $31 million. She bought them houses and apartments, cars, rides in chartered jets, and lavished them with cash gifts.

Predictably, her passing prompted a fight over her money between relatives and lawyers, accountants, nurses and even the hospital. Her priceless possessions are set to be sold or auctioned off - all except her dolls. They are going to the Santa Barbara mansion, which will be turned into an art museum in line with her wishes.

Clark's routine at the hospital was watching television - "The Flintstones" was her favourite - and playing solitaire into the wee hours. One month before she died, the nurse to whom she gave the $31 million visited her. They sang and told jokes. According to one of the two biographies, Clark was "all there" right up until she slipped into a coma and passed away. After years of being trapped in her "gilded cage" and many attempts to break free, she finally succeeded.

When her family and auctioneers went through her belongings, they found all were almost untouched and in perfect condition. Typical among them and a telling illustration of her life was a gold-coloured handbag - still in its box, with stuffing intact.

If there is a simple message here for all the other Clarks who still roam the earth, it is of the impermanence of life, power and possessions. The quarrelling, the sense of entitlement, the envy, the grudges, the hatred and the love, the vanity, the hubris, the suffering, and even the happiness, are merely illusory and fleeting.

From ashes to ashes, dust to dust, is the fate of every one who lives. And there's not much in between really worth mentioning - except that some of us can make the choice to leave the world a better place than we find it.






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