Reclusive US heiress dies, leaving fortune, mystery

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Huguette Clark, the mysterious American heiress who collected French dolls and hid for decades from public view, has died, aged 104, leaving behind empty mansions and a dispute over her fortune.

Her lawyer, Wallace Bock, confirmed Clark's death a few days shy of her 105th birthday, while giving few details about the end on Tuesday of the lifelong enigma and survivor of a vanished age.

"Madame Clark's passing is a sad event for everyone who loved and respected her over the years," Bock's spokesman Michael McKeon told AFP Wednesday.

"She died as she wanted, with dignity and privacy. We intend to continue to respect her wishes for privacy."

Clark inherited the fortune made by her father, a 19th century copper mining tycoon and US senator.

Born in 1906 in Paris, she grew up there, in California and in a Manhattan house of legendary opulence, with 121 rooms.

But from such prominent and public beginnings, Clark became increasingly reclusive.

She refused to be photographed and, according to The New York Times, spent nearly quarter of a century at a Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan, alone except for her growing doll collection, playing the harp, eating sardines, and watching Flintstones cartoons.

In the last 22 years of her life she lived entirely in New York hospital rooms, despite having no apparent illness.

She died in hospital where she was living under an assumed name, according to MSNBC television, which has made a series of investigative reports about her life.

Clark's retreat into anonymity appears to have been triggered by her childless, brief marriage at the age of 22 to a law student named William Gower.

After they divorced, she went to live with her mother in Manhattan, seeing no one but a few friends.

The last known photograph of Clark dates to the day her divorce came through, August 11, 1930. She appears with pearls around her neck, two bracelets, a fur coat and clutching a purse.

MSNBC reported that Clark left behind not less than three fabulous homes, all of them well maintained, but unoccupied since her disappearance into hospital two decades ago.

One home is on the Pacific coast in Santa Barbara, California and is worth $100 million. She last visited in the 1950s.

Another, worth about the same, is the 42-room apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York, where her collection of dolls is kept, and the third is a country house in Connecticut, currently on the market for $23 million.

The real estate agent's web listing on the Connecticut property shows a magnificent white house of enormous, eerily empty rooms.

What will now happen to the fortune, estimated by The New York Times at half a billion dollars, is yet another mystery. Although anti-social, Clark reportedly was generous, giving away large sums to charities and friends.

But relatives and Clark's lawyer, Bock, have crossed swords in a row echoing the court battle for control of the finances of another Manhattan heiress, Brooke Astor, whose son and lawyer were convicted in 2009 on fraud charges.

Last year, Clark family members asked a court to appoint a guardian, saying that Bock and her accountant were manipulating her and blocking them access.

She risked "personal and financial harm" while in Bock's care, they said in court papers.

Bock responded that he only fulfilled her wishes for total privacy and isolation, and denied suggestions that he was trying to get himself made the beneficiary of Clark's will.

"Neither I, nor anyone else of whom I am aware, is attempting to get her to sign a new Will," he wrote in his own court filing.

"Ms Clark," he wrote, "has always been a strong-willed individual with firm convictions about how her life should be led and who should be privy to her affairs."

© 2011 AFP

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