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Huguette Clark dies at 104; reclusive heiress

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Huguette Clark, a copper tycoon's daughter with a taste for exquisite French dolls, baronial homes and solitude, has died. She was 104.

Clark, who preferred to be known as Madame Clark, died Tuesday at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. She had resided at the hospital for more than 20 years, leaving vacant but meticulously tended her grand homes in Santa Barbara, New Canaan, Conn., and New York City.

Increasingly reclusive as she grew older, she would summon an antiques dealer to her palatial Fifth Avenue apartment and bargain with him only through a closed door. As her long life drew to an end, her cherished dolls are reported to have been her constant companions.

Her New York attorney, Wallace Bock, is one of the few people with whom she is known to have had regular contact. However, New York prosecutors are investigating whether he and accountant Irving H. Kamsler exploited the frail Clark, whose estate is valued at $500 million.

Bock's spokesman issued a brief comment on her death: "Madame Clark's passing is a sad event for everyone who loved and respected her over the years. She died as she wanted, with dignity and privacy. We intend to continue to respect her wishes for privacy."

Born into opulence in Paris on June 9, 1906, Huguette Marcelle Clark was the daughter of William Andrews Clark, a mine owner and railroad baron whose fortune rivaled John D. Rockefeller's. Huguette's mother, Anna LaChappelle, was 17 and portraying Lady Liberty in a Fourth of July pageant when the 56-year-old Clark, later a U.S. senator from Montana, saw her and was smitten.

Clark's father — who built a whistle-stop called Las Vegas in what is now Clark County, Nev. — was unashamed to display his wealth. Huguette grew up in a 121-room Manhattan mansion so over-the-top that New Yorkers called it "Clark's Folly." It included Turkish baths, galleries for an extensive art collection and a railroad spur for coal cars.

Huguette Clark was educated at Miss Spence's School for Girls in New York and took extended vacations in France.

When she was a teenager, her father acquired a Santa Barbara estate called Bellosguardo, an elegant home perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean. A private rail car would deposit the family at Bellosguardo every winter and Huguette would return there over the years. By all accounts, she had not set foot on her 23-acre property for at least half a century before her death.

Barbara Hoelscher Doran, the manager of a Montecito interior design business, grew up at Bellosguardo, where her father supervised the staff. When invited from her family's cottage to the estate's main house, she would don surgical-style slippers to avoid marring the parquet floors. As a young girl she was fond of Huguette, who would ask her to tea and give her children's books in French.

"She was a wonderful, kind, giving lady," Doran said. "I feel really saddened that it's the end of an era."

While William Andrews Clark was open to a fault, bragging that as a politician he "never bought a man who wasn't for sale," Huguette shunned the spotlight. In Santa Barbara, she was little known. She donated land and money for a 42-acre bird refuge near her estate and named it after Andree Clark, a sister who died of meningitis in 1919.

In her younger days, Huguette Clark was mentioned in society columns but soon faded from public view. She became a public figure — unwillingly — at the age of 103.

It was then that reports by MSNBC.com raised questions about the handling of her estate.

Prompted by the news stories, three distant relatives told a New York judge that Clark's advisors had exerted "improper influence" over her. They pointed to a $1.5-million donation she made to an Israeli settlement in the disputed West Bank, where her attorney's daughter lived with her family. They also expressed concern over her accountant's guilty plea to charges that he had emailed pornography to teenage girls.

The judge denied their request for a guardian. Bock and Kamsler, who have not been charged with any crimes, denied any wrongdoing, including accusations that they tried to get themselves named in her will. In court papers, Bock cast the family members as opportunists.

None of the relatives, he said, had any contact with Huguette Clark until she was 95 — and that was only to seek funds for upkeep of a family mausoleum.

They were "officious interlopers," he wrote, "virtual strangers … with whom Ms. Clark has knowingly and assiduously avoided contact for decades."

Clark was married in 1928 to William MacDonald Gower, a son of one of her father's business associates. They divorced in 1930. She had no children and outlived her six brothers and sisters.

No funeral plans have been disclosed.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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