Day 1028: Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Cover for Empty MansionsI’ve been sitting here trying to understand what makes Empty Mansions such an interesting book and what drew me to the topic in the first place. I’m still wondering about that, although the topic was interesting enough to make Bill Dedman’s NBC investigative series popular. (I did not see it.) Perhaps the fascination is with abundant wealth, perhaps one with eccentric personalities. Perhaps it is a sort of voyeurism.

Huguette Clark was the youngest daughter of W. A. Clark, the Copper King, a man who for Samuel Clemens, fairly or unfairly, represented the Gilded Age. Although W. A. Clark’s name is not familiar to us like that of John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, he was right up there in terms of wealth.

This book tells the story of his life along with that of his daughter, Huguette. An artistic woman but shy, she gradually removed herself from the public eye. Although she owned several beautiful and palatial homes and apartments, she first became almost a shut-away in her New York apartment and then lived in a small hospital room for the last years of her life. Of further interest is the charge that some of Huguette’s caregivers and employees took advantage of her dependence on them to drain her estate. Her estate is currently involved in a suit between the legatees of her will and 19 of her relatives.

The book, written by Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin who corresponded with Huguette, does a pretty good job of remaining impartial on this point. In any case, I found the story of Huguette’s unusual life to be fascinating.

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Day 1017: The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer

Cover for Midnight AssassinI lived in Austin, Texas, for more than 20 years (not anymore, yay!), so I already know that Austin had a serial killer before Jack the Ripper. That didn’t make this book any less interesting, though.

Journalist Skip Hollandsworth was very surprised when he learned about it. In fact, he says he didn’t at first believe that, starting in 1884, Austin suffered a series of brutal attacks on women that ultimately culminated in several murders.

At that time, serving women usually lived in little shacks at the backs of their employers’ homes. Most of the victims were dragged out of these homes—other occupants either hit over the head or merely threatened—and then brutally attacked somewhere nearby. Most of the first victims were black, so of course (it being Texas and the 19th century), the authorities looked to African-American men for the perpetrator. Then they decided it was a gang of them. The idea of a serial killer seemed inconceivable to them.

Hollandsworth’s strength in this book is in bringing 1880’s Austin to life. He does a great job of setting the stage. I also enjoyed all of the photos of Austin from that time. This is an interesting story, one that many Austinites are unaware of. Of course, it doesn’t have a solution as the killer was never caught. We may never know who this murderer was or why he stopped. Hollandsworth follows up some interesting leads, though.

If you are interested in this topic, Steven Saylor has written a fictional account of it, using O. Henry as a character. His solution is a bit far-fetched and easy to predict, though.

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Day 982: 84, Charing Cross Road

Cover for 84, Charing Cross RoadIt’s taken me some time to read 84, Charing Cross Road, but I’m glad I did. This very short book, a collection of letters, has been a classic for some time.

The books spans 20 years, beginning in 1949. Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York, writes a letter to Marks & Co., antiquarian booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road. She has become weary of the shoddy books she is able to afford in New York and asks the booksellers to send her inexpensive secondhand copies of several works. She is duly answered by Frank Doel.

This correspondence moves from formal to friendly. Hanff knows that England is still under postwar austerity measures, so she sends the store employees packages of eggs and meat and other goodies. Soon the correspondence is joined by letters from Frank’s wife and other store employees.

This is a delightful book about friendship between people who have never met. Many of the letters are funny, and the book is particularly appropriate for book lovers.

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Day 976: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Cover for The Wicked BoyDuring a scorching 1895 July in East London, Robert Coombes murdered his mother while she was sleeping. He and his younger brother Nattie continued to live in the house for ten days with their mother locked in her bedroom, decaying. They hocked items from the house for money and attended a cricket game and a play. They told neighbors and relatives their mother had gone to Liverpool to visit her sister. They invited a laborer named John Fox to live with them, and they all slept downstairs in the parlor. Their father was away at sea at the time.

When the boys’ Aunt Emily forced her way into the house and found the body, Robert told her that his mother had beaten Nattie and that Nattie had asked Robert to kill her when he gave the signal. This story later seemed to have been forgotten, and Nattie testified against Robert in trial.

This crime was shocking to the Victorians, and there were many theories about it, from the morally debilitating effects of the penny dreadfuls Robert loved to ideas about children’s innate base instincts that must be covered over by civilizing influences. No one really knows why Robert killed his mother, but journalist and writer Kate Summerscale has her ideas.

link to NetgalleySummerscale was able to follow Robert’s movements to Broadmoor Asylum after his committal and traced his career in World War I as an instrumentalist and stretcher bearer. At first I wondered where the epilogue was going but figured it was connected with the opening of the novel, about a fleeing boy.

I found this book very interesting. Although most of it focuses on the crime and trial, I found this story of a murderer’s redemption satisfying.

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Day 936: Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

Cover for Valiant AmbitionAlthough he has written on other subjects, Nathaniel Philbrick has made a specialty of writing about events and industries that affected New England, including the Revolutionary War. His latest book concentrates on the forces and personality flaws that resulted in Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of his country.

I haven’t read much about Benedict Arnold, only one novel, Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts. That novel painted him in surprisingly sympathetic colors, blaming his treachery largely on the rapacious demands for money of his wife Peggy. Philbrick’s view is more nuanced.

Certainly, at the beginning of the war you can sympathize with Washington and with Arnold. For his part, Washington was hamstrung by the ineffectiveness and bickering of the Continental Congress. He had very little power over such decisions as which of his officers would receive promotion, which lead to the initial difficulties with Arnold.

A key to the British strategy of cutting off New England from the rest of the country was the chain of lakes leading down from Canada to the Hudson. So, Fort Ticonderoga was an important target. Benedict Arnold and a rag-tag collection of boats prevented the British from approaching the fort in the fall of 1776, before the lakes could freeze up to keep the British out.

As the hero of this engagement and the senior Brigadier General in the Continental Army, Arnold expected a promotion. But the Congress devised an idiotic scheme that awarded the promotions not on merit but according to what state the person was from. Since Connecticut already had two Major Generals, Congress awarded the promotions to other Brigadier Generals who were junior to Arnold, some of whom were only mediocre in ability. Washington protested this decision, to no avail. Even after he got his promotion, Arnold was forced to defer to these men who were promoted before him.

link to NetgalleyIt was this kind of bickering about states’ rights and even local rights versus the rights of a national government that hampered the Congress. In addition, there were plenty of people out for what they could get. I was shocked to read that while no one was interested in supporting the Continental Army, to the point where they were starving and dressed in rags, the rest of the country was doing very well financially. Arnold joined into this self-enrichment when he was made military governor of Philadelphia after it was captured back from the British. He was actively engaged in all kinds of corruption.

Philbrick’s book is really interesting and sometimes quite exciting as it revisits key scenes from the war and leads up to Arnold’s big betrayal. His conclusions about the results of the betrayal are startling.

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Day 861: The Witches: Salem, 1692

Cover for The WitchesIn The Witches, Pulitzer-winning nonfiction writer Stacy Schiff takes another look at 1692 Salem and its witch hunt. She explores the climate of New England at the time, particularly its paranoia and excessive religiosity, and why it was open to such an over-reaction. The book also explores the ramifications for the region for years to come.

Schiff quickly points out that much of what is “known” about the witch trials is apocryphal. There was no black slave, for example, but an Indian servant. Schiff reconstructs the events from what she can find, many of the official documents having been destroyed at later times, and the accounts, even of the official note takers, varying considerably from one another and interjecting opinion and descriptive wording that should not have been permitted.

The incident began with one household, where some of the children were subject to screams and contortions. This household was that of Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village. The girls were a niece, daughters, and a servant, all teens or pre-teens. Schiff is fairly charitable in ascribing the state of these children to a condition that was later diagnosed as hysteria (a condition itself fraught with controversy), which generally affected young women leading restricted lives with little hope of change. Later, we hear of another householder who handled a similar condition severely and eliminated it. But Parris soon established it as witchcraft, and an even larger group of girls and other people who became afraid of being accused themselves were on their way to a lot of attention. As one of them put it (whose remark was ignored), “We must have some sport.”

They had their sport all right. By the end, 19 people and 2 dogs were hanged for witchcraft. Some of the girls would have gone on from there, but the colony finally declared there would be no more prosecutions and the behavior eventually stopped.

This is a fascinating book that explores such topics as permissible evidence, assumption of guilt, the treatment of people who protested their innocence versus that of those who admitted guilt, and the behavior of certain of the principal leaders of society. It finds parallels to other events much more recently in our past.

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Day 815: No Ordinary Time

Cover for No Ordinary TimeNo Ordinary Time tells of the contributions of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the conduct of the United States before and during its participation in World War II. The book relates how Franklin Roosevelt exercised his acute political awareness of public opinion to nudge the U.S. out of isolationism during the war, foreseeing as he did how the world would be changed if Germany succeeded and how assisting England against the Axis powers allowed the U.S. to ramp up for war. While Roosevelt was concentrating on the war, Eleanor remained his social conscience, attempting to hold on to the social advances of the New Deal, taking up the causes of women and their right to work and of African-Americans and their right to equal treatment.

The book also treats of the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor. Although they were always friends and companions, Eleanor had been devastated much earlier in their marriage to find out that Franklin had been having an affair with her own secretary, Lucy Mercer. This discovery ended certain aspects of their marital relationship. Eleanor’s relationship with her mother-in-law was difficult, too. In many ways, Eleanor was never at home in her own house. When she had to find a way to be of use as First Lady, since the traditional role of hostess didn’t suit her, she began to make a life for herself as Franklin’s eyes and ears around the country. So successful was she at this that when Franklin wanted to rekindle their relationship later in life and asked her to stay home more, she didn’t want to give up her active life.

These were two remarkable people, although they had their faults. At times, Eleanor’s zeal for a cause made her oblivious to Franklin’s need at the end of the day for relaxation. She found it difficult to unbend, always wanting to be active. Franklin, although charming and seemingly affectionate, was occasionally selfish and seemed sometimes to have no care for people who had given him unstinting care and friendship.

Reading this book made me feel as if I really knew these people, a feeling I seldom get from nonfiction. This is a fascinating story, sometimes thrilling, sometimes sad, about an important period in our history.

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