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New book tells story of Clark County namesake’s daughter

The namesake of Clark County forged an empire out of mines and railroads, and then used his fortune to build America’s most extraordinary mansion and buy a seat in the U.S. Senate.

But William A. Clark’s daughter, Huguette, had no such public aspirations.

The heiress, whose name was pronounced “oo-GET,” collected dolls and lived in such secrecy that decades passed without the world seeing so much as a new photograph of her. She grew up in the largest home in New York City and also owned mansions in California and Connecticut, but for 20 years she chose to live in simple hospital rooms, despite being in excellent health.

Her death in 2011 at age 104 touched off a fight over her $300 million estate and a will that sent most of it to arts charities, her nurse and a goddaughter, leaving nothing for her relatives.

The best-selling book “Empty Mansions” chronicles the eccentric life of Huguette Clark and tells the story of the Montana family that launched Las Vegas.

The Nevada State Museum at the Springs Preserve will host a presentation and book signing from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday with the book’s authors, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr., a cousin of Huguette who spoke with her regularly.

The event will serve as the opening for a temporary exhibit of several dozen photographs from the book.

“It covers a fascinating era, sort of the bridge between Nevada’s beginnings and modern time,” said Tom Dyer, exhibits manager for the museum.

At first, Dyer wondered why a museum in Nevada would be interested in the family of a railroad baron and senator from Montana whose connection to the Silver State seemed “very slim.”

But even the family’s brief intersections with Nevada history left enormous marks, from the creation of the original Las Vegas town site for the Clark-owned San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad to the naming of what is now the state’s most populous county and its economic engine.

Huguette Clark had even less of a connection with Nevada, though she did briefly live in Reno in the 1930s so she could make use of the state’s liberal divorce laws.

In 2003, she sold a Renoir painting called “In the Roses” for $23.5 million, reportedly to Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn. Until the sale, the portrait had not been seen publicly for more than 65 years.

Dyer said his favorite photos from the exhibit show the insides of the mansions the Clark fortune built. These images, like the book, offer glimpses into a world “common folks like us” rarely see, he said.

The fact that these meticulously maintained estates stood empty for decades while Huguette lived in far more humble surroundings only adds to the intrigue.

Saturday’s presentation is free with admission to the Springs Preserve on Valley View Boulevard just south of U.S. Highway 95. The photo exhibit is expected to last through the end of the year.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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