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Fortune and misfortune

Posted: December 1, 2011 11:02 a.m.
Updated: December 2, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Looking for a real-life story that will top any soap opera?

Then search no further than the strange saga of Huguette Clark, a fabulously wealthy New York City recluse who died earlier this year at age 104 and left two wills, drawn within six weeks of each other, the latter one cutting her family out of her half-a-billion dollar estate.

Family members now charge Clark’s lawyer and accountant, who’s a registered sex offender, with plundering her estate. “They took control of her life, isolated her from family and ultimately stripped her of her free will, as well as millions of dollars,” say court papers filed by Clark’s family members.

Hers is a strange story, indeed, filled with all the requisites of a movie thriller.

She was born in 1906, the daughter of mining magnate William Andrews Clark, described at the time as either the richest or second-richest American, a man whose wealth was so great that he could go toe to toe with John D. Rockefeller.

Clark was also a U.S. senator who fathered Huguette (pronounced hue-GET) at age 67 with his 28-year-old second wife.

Four years later, the family moved into a 121-room house on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Her father died in 1925 and she inherited one-fifth of his estate; her share was $700 million in today’s dollars.

She married once, quickly divorcing, and produced no children. Her life descended into a pit of secrecy and reclusiveness, and she spent her last decades holed up in hospital rooms despite the fact that she was in relatively good health.

The last known photo of her was taken 80 years ago, and one former attorney said he represented her for 20 years without ever meeting her face to face, instead talking to her through a closed door.

Bizarre, eh?

News reports indicate that in 2005, she signed a will leaving most of her wealth -- including a $100-million California oceanfront estate; a $20-million country home in Connecticut; three apartments in Manhattan worth $100 million; and priceless original art -- to 21 distant relatives.

But only six weeks later, she penned her signature in a firm hand to a new document in which her lawyer, Wally Bock of Queens, and her felon accountant, Irving Kamsler of the Bronx, stood to inherit millions in direct gifts and fees. She specifically left nothing to her relatives.

It wasn’t the first will change for Bock and Kamsler; they had earlier taken over an expensive apartment of another client who had changed his will six times during his last years.

Central to the case is a clause in the second will creating a charitable foundation, controlled by Bock and Kamsler, to set up an art museum in her California mansion. They could collect unlimited fees for running it.

Think that’s all?

Not quite.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has launched a criminal investigation of Bock and Kamsler, partly because of the enormous amount of money spent out of Clark’s accounts in the last years of her life.

A recent accounting shows Bock and Kamsler spent $126 million of Clark’s money in the last 15 years, with another $43 million transferred into her personal account to cover her own spending. That, the New York Times points out, amounts to $1 million a month for a woman who never left her hospital room.

So here we are, ready for a circus that will rival the recent trial of the son of socialite Brooke Astor; he was convicted last year of bilking her out of millions and mistreating her as she suffered from dementia.

A soap opera? You can call it that, but in this case, it wasn’t dreamed up by Hollywood producers.

Stay tuned.

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