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An Interview with Meryl Gordon, Author of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Death of Heiress, Huguette Clark

Just as the world thought they had seen the last of the great tabloid trials in 2009 when Brooke Astor’s son was found guilty of looting his philanthropist mother’s estate of millions, two years later another equally contentious case made its way into the New York Court System.

Just as the world thought they had seen the last of the great tabloid trials in 2009 when Brooke Astor’s son was found guilty of looting his philanthropist mother’s estate of millions, two years later another equally contentious case made its way into the New York Court System.

—by Sharon Hazard

In the fall of 2011 long-lost relatives of the reclusive heiress, Huguette Clark marched into Manhattan Surrogate’s Court on Chambers Street seeking a share of her millions and for the next two and a half years, author Meryl Gordon was there to witness it all. No stranger to the system, Gordon had covered the Brooke Astor circus and had written a book, Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach, based on her astute observations of the famous trial and the cast of characters involved.

According to Gordon, “When 104- year-old Huguette Clark’s obituary appeared on page one of the New York Times on May 25, 2011, her publisher, Grand Central called. Since my first book, had centered on the final years of another memorable Social Register centenarian, they thought of me for this project, which would come to be titled, The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Mysterious Death of Heiress Huguette Clark.”

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Three years later, after many interviews and a massive amount of research, Gordon had the manuscript ready, or so she thought. The author said, “I actually wrote two entirely different versions of the book.” The first one had the usual suspects, well-meaning relatives, loyal care-givers, a lawyer and accountant under investigation for mismanaging Huguette’s affairs and the star witness, Hadassah Peri, Clark’s long-time caregiver who was primed to inherit the bulk of the Clark Family fortune.

Then came a delectable dilemma that any investigative writer would find hard to pass up. More research became available to her. Seventy-six boxes chock full of archival material removed from Huguette Clark’s Fifth Avenue apartment filled-with tell-tale tidbits of information that would put a new spin on her story.

The litigators presenting the case recognized Gordon as a well-respected journalist and director of Magazine Writing at New York University and knew she would give a balanced account of the proceedings. After four sets of lawyers signed off, Gordon was allowed several days to go through mountains of new information revealing intimate details about the woman who for the last twenty years had chosen to hide from the world in a drab hospital room in New York City while still owning three sprawling apartments on Fifth Avenue, a 23-acre oceanfront compound in Santa Barbara, California, original artwork, rare antique furnishings and jewelry worth millions.

After sifting through each box and reading Clark’s personal diary, love letters, many of which were in French and seeing receipts dating back to the 1930s for jewelry purchased at Cartier’s, Gordon knew she had to begin revising her book about Huguette who hadn’t seen her relatives since 1968 nor stepped outside her hospital room since 1981. Now on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List, the Phantom of Fifth Avenue is both a biography and the story of the high-stakes fight over Huguette Clark’s $300 million fortune.

About writing the book, Gordon noted, “I was able to talk to virtually all the key players in this legal battle and I have tried to explain how Huguette’s unusual life-choices and complicated relationships led to this public drama.”

Gordon said, “Going into this project I knew very little other than what the tabloids were reporting about this mysterious millionairess, but as I got to know Huguette Clark, the woman born in Paris in 1906 and raised in a 121- room Beaux Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue through her own words, I found her to be a warm and talented person and I had affection for her at the end.”

What began as a courtroom tell-all ended up exposing a very private person as a personality worth far more than the millions left to her by her father, Senator William Andrews Clark. The copper magnate was the second richest man in America when he died in 1925.

Gordon said, “Huguette wanted to make everyone around her happy, even if it cost her a fortune.”

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