Then one day in 1991, the twain met at a hospital room in New York City, and thus was born the improbable story of a friendship between Huguette Clark, the childless heiress, and Hadassah Peri, the converted (to Judaism), caregiver immigrant nurse who devoted nearly 21 years of her life to her employer -- and almost made herself a multimillionaire a few times over.
Huguette Marcelle Clark was born in 1906 to Senator William Clark and Anna Eugenia La Chappelle, during the Gilded Age of the Third French Republic. William Andrews Clark was the copper mining king of Montana, one of the richest men in America at the time. In 1907 (when Huguette was born in Paris), her father’s fortune was estimated to be at $150 million. Huguette was the second daughter of Clark’s second marriage.
There was a huge age discrepancy between the young heiress’ parents -- William Clark was 67 and Anna was 28. Nonetheless, the Clark fortune was solid, which is why he could afford to rear his family in France in style. Besides the copper mines, Clark’s other interests included railroads, real estate, lumber, banking, cattle, sugar beets and gold. The $150 million estate in 1907 would be roughly $3 billion today.
In 1909, Clark moved the family to New York where he built the gaudiest, most over-the-top, gingerbread-type Beaux-Arts mansion that even rivaled Andrew Carnegie’s palatial digs.
Huguette grew up in a very sheltered, rich New Yorker’s life, attending Miss Spence’s School (now the Spence School) in Manhattan. The year following her father’s death in 1925, Huguette was introduced to society. By 1927, the huge mansion on 77th Street just proved too big for Huguette and her mother, so they moved to smaller quarters five blocks down on 72nd Street. (In future years, there were two other estates, one in Santa Barbara and another in Connecticut, which sat empty all the time until Huguette Clark’s passed in 2011.)
Huguette married once -- in 1928, at 22, to William MacDonald Gower, the son of a business associate of her father’s. The union lasted nine months, without issue. By 1930, Huguette and William were formally divorced; she henceforth chose to be known as Mrs. Huguette Clark. In her adulthood, Huguette dabbled in painting and playing the harp. By the late 1930s, Huguette had disappeared from the society pages. Childless, she lived with her mother at 907 Fifth Avenue, until the senior Mrs. Clark died there in 1963.
On the other hand, Hadassah Peri was born Gicela Tejada Oloroso in May 1950 to a fairly successful fishing family in Sapian, Capiz. Gicela got her nursing degree in the Philippines before she immigrated to the United States in 1972. Like most Filipinos, Gicela was born and baptized Roman Catholic. Sometime in 1980, she met Daniel Peri, a cab driver and himself an immigrant, from Israel. When they got married in 1982, Gicela converted to Orthodox Judaism, taking on the name Hadassah Peri. (“Hadassah” which means compassion in Hebrew and is also the name of the leading women’s charity in Israel.)
Hadassah bore Daniel three children (two boys and a girl in the 1980s) and still continued to work in private nursing until 1991 when she got assigned to Huguette who had since taken residence at Doctors Hospital in Manhattan’s ritzy Upper East Side. At that fateful time, the Peris owned and lived in a small home in the middle class neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn.
Almost as soon as Hadassah became Huguette’s primary daytime nurse and caregiver, she worked long hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week (even on Saturdays when working was prohibited by her new Jewish Orthodox faith), 52 weeks a year. Hadassah was out of the house in Brooklyn even before her children left for school and returned home close to bedtime. It would be several years before she took a day off.
However, she was paid well--$30 an hour, some $2,520 a week. So she grossed $131,040 a year, on average—almost as much as some lawyers doing well. Later, she described her self-sacrifice to Huguette, her employer, as extreme. "I give my life to Madame," Hadassah said.
When Huguette was forced to leave her Fifth Avenue apartment (for some superficial facial cancer matters), checked into Doctors Hospital in March 1991 and hired the nurse from the Philippines, it was the last time one of the richest, loneliest women on the planet saw her home. From that time on, until she passed away in May 2011, Clark spent 1,042 weeks (or 7,994 days) of self-imposed stay in two New York hospitals (there was one relocation), even though she was wealthy and healthy enough most of the time to have returned home to her lavish, spacious apartment and spend the rest of her days there.
For all the selfless service that Hadassah rendered to her lonely employer, Huguette was not unappreciative. She started showering her nurse with ultra-generous gifts almost immediately after she moved into Doctors Hospital; and these were above and beyond Hadassah’s basic pay.
The litany of Huguette's gifts to Hadassah and her family reads like a shopping list that the legendary world-class shopper, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, would have made in all her visits to New York and abroad:
Real estate (two homes in Brooklyn, two Manhattan condos; and one home on the Jersey Shore)
• Two years after she started working for Clark in September 1993, Hadassah related to Huguette that there was a flood in the basement of their small home in Brooklyn. Hadassah also happened to mention that her three children had asthma. The next day, Huguette suggested they move to a healthier (for the children) home and she would help them out generously. The Peris found a much larger house nearby and bought it, with Huguette giving Hadassah $450,000. They also kept their original home. That was just the beginning.
• In August 1999, Huguette bought the Peris a neighboring home to their newer, larger home in Brooklyn, for $149,589. Oldest son, Avi, now had his own house and moved into that one.
• In mid-2000, Huguette not only subsidized the breast cancer treatment of Hadassah's niece, but she also bought another $775,000 house in Brooklyn so Hadassah's brother and his family would have a place to stay when they visited. However, Hadassah’s brother, Ramon Oloroso, moved to California and the house has remained vacant ever since she bought it. It was worth about $1.7m in 2013.
• In December 2000, Clark paid $885,000 for a condo for Hadassah's children at the Gatsby on East 96th Street. And this also helped Hadassah logistically in that she didn’t have to schlep all the way to Brooklyn on nights when she worked late.
• In August 2001 (barely a month before 9/11), Huguette purchased a second, higher unit in the same prewar building for $1,475,097 for her nurse so that Hadassah “… would have a nicer view of Central Park.”
• The last real estate purchase/gift was a $599,000 house in August 2002, on the New Jersey Shore so the family could take holidays together and so they would have a refuge in case of a terrorist attack (so post-9/11 traumatic syndrome).
Educational trust funds, objects d’art, jewelry, rare musical instruments and miscellaneous items
• Clark set up trust funds for 20 years’ schooling for the three children, from preschool through high school at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, then through college and graduate school—in addition to their medical bills ($35,000 for oldest son Avi), piano, violin, Hebrew lessons, their basketball and summer camps in upstate New York.
• To Hadassah, she gave 84 pieces of personal jewelry appraised at $667,300, as well as two antique harpsichords, a clavichord and 15 antique dolls.
• To Hadassah's younger son, David, Huguette gave her third best violin, even though the boy had already lost interest in violin lessons. Huguette had played the violin for 21 years but never really liked it. She was optimistic that David would rediscover the joy of playing the violin again with a Stradivarius worth $1.2 million.
• Huguette first bought the Peris a used Dodge Caravan minivan. From various gift checks, the Peris bought a series of other new cars. When second son, David, was old enough to drive and got into an accident in the Dodge Caravan, Huguette bought him a brand-new $21,000 Isuzu.
The next vehicle purchases were twice as expensive as the last one:
1998 Lincoln Navigator luxury SUV for $48,000 in cash;
1999 Hummer for $91,000 in cash and, finally,
2001 Bentley (the Arnage Le Mans model, one of only 150 in the world), for $210,000 in cash. The former taxi driver, Daniel Peri, was now driving a Bentley as his personal car.
Later, Hadassah admitted the Bentley was a burden. The fastest four-door sedan in the world wasn't a practical car in Brooklyn. "To tell you the truth, we never enjoy this car. So expensive to repair. You are scared somebody going to steal it. I don't know why we buy this stupidity, you know." She preferred to drive the Lincoln.
• Cash gifts to the Peris at Christmas (a non-Jewish holiday) started: $40,000 for Hadassah and $40,000 for her husband.
• Huguette wrote some 300 checks to the Peris (and others) over the 20 years she was in the hospital.
• In 2003 alone, the Peris were recipients of nearly $1 million ($955,200 to be exact) in cash from Clark, with second son, David, making out like a bandit with $115,000 (in three installments) for that year alone. Since the children were minors, it is not certain whether these gifts had to be reported to the IRS.
• Huguette even paid for the Peris’ back taxes. When they were audited in 2004, Huguette paid the $300,000 bill for that, too!
Hadassah was likewise not ungrateful for her employer’s largesse. "Sometimes I would say: 'You gave me a check already today.' She would say: 'You have a lot of expense; you can use it.' I accepted the check because we have a lot of bills. Madame is very generous, and we don't force her to give us – we don't ask for it," said Hadassah. "That's how she is, very generous, not only me, thousands of people, a lot of people."
Turning down an original Paul Cezanne.
• Sometime in 1998/99, Clark wanted to give two of her French Impressionist canvases to two of the favorite people in her life at the time: her best friend, French-born Suzanne Pierre, widow of her longtime physician, Dr. Jules Pierre; and to Hadassah. She had earmarked Monet’s Les Trois Peupliers, Temps Gris (“Three Poplars in Grey Weather”) for Madame Pierre; and Pichet des gres (“Earthenware Jug”) by Paul Cezanne for Mrs. Peri.
But due to tax complications and the burden of liquidating the masterpieces for cold cash (which the debilitated Suzanne Pierre needed for her own health bills), and Hadassah outright rejecting the Cezanne (“What will I do with an old painting?” supposedly was Hadassah’s retort), the ever-munificent Huguette was forced to find other ways to manifest her generosity. Had she given the two paintings outright to her intended recipients, she would have had to pay an additional $28 million in taxes.
So Clark sold them at auction instead in 1999. The Monet fetched $10 million, which went to Madame Pierre’s round-the-clock care and covered that until the lady’s death in February 2011, two months before Huguette’s own death. The Cezanne sold for $15 million which, again because of gift tax considerations, Clark had to break up in three $5 million increments for Hadassah. She immediately wrote two $5 million checks to Hadassah and a third one, dated May 1, 2000 (see below), was held in reserve and would be cashable at a later date due when Clark had raised more cash in her bank account.
(In April 2011, “The Card Players” -- one of five Paul Cezanne painted -- sold for a record $274 million in a private sale. One wonders had the Peris accepted the Cezanne in 1999 instead of the $10 million cash, how much they could have sold it for, after the April 2011 sale of “The Card Players.” A guess of $120 million would’ve been a conservative estimate. After taxes, the Peris might still have netted $75 million. )
By the turn of the century in January 2000, Clark’s gifts to the Peri family had elevated the first-generation immigrant to America’s top one percent, having hit a lottery of their own. Counting all the gifts, Hadassah and her family received at least $31,906,074.81 in cash and property from Huguette while she was alive. Of course, one must keep that amount in perspective. With assets of more than $300 million, had Huguette continued to sell more property she could have afforded ten (10) Hadassahs.
Hadassah was asked, years later, whether she questioned the ethics of accepting large gifts from her patient. Hadassah showed no hint of embarrassment or doubt, only entitlement, saying she didn't know of any rules, and besides, she was an independent contractor, not a hospital employee. "I cannot recall any paper that I am not allowed to receive any such gift."
And what about the ethics of the nursing profession? "Never come to my mind" was her reply. (Of course, the gifts were in addition to the salary Hadassah was making, which was in the six figures. So high had the Peris’ tax bracket become when Clark bought them homes and cars that husband, Daniel, quit driving a cab and became a full-time houseparent to the three kids and did special errands for their generous fairy godmother.)
Huguette Clark finally died early on May 24, 2011, two weeks short of her 105th birthday. Hadassah was by her side at the end. Huguette had long said she wanted no funeral, no priests; but in her final hours in the middle of the night, Hadassah called for a priest who gave Huguette the last rites.
Initial reports following the death of the heiress worth some $300-$400 million, was that her faithful Filipina-Jewish nurse and caregiver would get an additional $30 million, including her prized Japanese doll collection per the April 2005 will. Had this will stood and the Peris inherited the additional $30 million, that would have pushed them into the top 0.5 percent bracket of the U.S. taxpayers.
However, no sooner was this word out than the vultures appeared and started circling. Nineteen of Huguette's closest relatives--her father W.A. Clark's great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, whom she hardly knew, saw or even received a visit from (even though she had no interest in meeting them late in her life)--went to court in 2012 to throw out their grand aunt’s last will and testament.
Surrogate court hearings occurred in August 2012. If the April 2005 will were overturned and the March 2005 version prevailed, Huguette’s relatives would inherit her entire fortune, more than $300 million.
At first everyone gave only a little ground. The family began negotiations by asking for 75 percent of the estate. Others at the table, even those ostensibly on the side of Hadassah, took the position that the nurse had received an unseemly amount already. If she would give up the $15 million or so that she would receive from the will after taxes, that money would go some distance toward a settlement offer to the family. Hadassah said no. Her resolve seemed to be stiffened by Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast in November 2012, and fairy godmother Huguette was no longer around to pay for damage to at least one of Hadassah’s homes and repair for the flooded, prized Bentley.
At Surrogate's Court, the challenge to Huguette's last will and testament was assigned to Surrogate Nora S. Anderson. But there would be no trial. A settlement was reached on September 24, 2013, which combined elements from Huguette Clark's two wills of 2005.
In essence, the main stipulations were:
• $34.5 million went to Clark's relatives even though many of them had never met the heiress (but many did send her cards and little notes over the years, which the great aunt never responded to and/or just kept). $11.5 million was thrown in to cover the relatives' legal fees;
•$0 for Hadassah (who had been in line for an additional $30 million). Peri also returned the uncashed $5 million check, renounced the claim on the Japanese antique dolls, which she had wanted for sentimental reasons, and some of the jewelry, which were Clark family heirlooms. But Hadassah would still be able to keep some $26 million worth of gifts, including the Bentley and the five properties in the tri-state area.
In effect, the $30 million originally promised Hadassah, the $500,000 bonus each promised to the estate’s errant accountant and main lawyer, plus a little more, went to the heiress’ blood relatives.
•$10 million was earmarked for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (a favorite cause of the entire Clark family going back to Huguette’s father).
• Finally, the Bellosguardo Foundation was created. It would be housed in the $85-million estate in Santa Barbara, California. Among the objects d’art it would start out with would be what was left of Clark's art collection, the $1.7 million-valued antique Japanese doll collection originally promised to Hadassah (about 150 dolls), and $4.5 million for initial funding.
In spring 2014, the last three New York apartments in Clark’s name sold for $54.8 million. The unoccupied Connecticut mansion sold for $14.3 million.
Why did Hadassah cave in so easily? The New York Attorney General’s office forced Hadassah’s side to settle and not go to trial with the threat of the “clawback” principle in probate law (recapturing funds misused or used with deceit earlier), which might have jeopardized the entire sum of gifts given to the Peris by Huguette in her lifetime.
In addition, there was the threat of bequeathed-gifts taxes from the IRS. For a non-generational $30 million lump sum, the Peris would have been hit with a 50 percent tax assessment bill (so $15 million), thereby cutting that sum in half.
In mock trials conducted in front of focus groups, Hadassah did not come off too favorably. In a line from Meryl Gordon’s The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, “…the public administrator’s petition was a reputation-killing document…and Hadassah was seen as Imelda Marcos in a nursing uniform.”
It was quite disturbing to Hadassah’s cause that the blue-collar mock jurors, with whom the Peris shared a similar background, were turned off by the overly generous amount of $30 million in addition to the already humongous gifts Clark had showered on the Peris while she was still alive; whereas it was the college-educated mock jurors who appreciated the pleasure of disinheriting distant relatives and understood rewarding loyal staffers. But since blue-collar jurors would potentially outnumber the college-educated in the jury pool, Hadassah’s lawyer did not want to risk this fatal inequity in a full-blown trial. To sweeten the deal for Hadassah to settle, the estate would cover her $1.5 million legal bill if she agreed. So once again, the specter of the flamboyant, high-flying Imelda Marcos appeared and poisoned the well for Hadassah Peri--or for any good-fortune folks like her who might come after.
One cannot help but contrast Hadassah’s incredible story, of a diligent immigrant making good in the flash and glitter of the world’s financial capital, with the excess and folly of Imelda, another Filipina from the same Visayas region, who also started out poor but shopped, lived it up and partied in New York like there was no tomorrow. And Mrs. Marcos’ 21-year party (almost as long as Hadassah’s service to Mrs. Clark) was all at the expense of her impoverished people.
Where one immigrant lass came upon her new riches via honest hard work, luck and devotion, the more notorious one, who should have held herself up to higher ethical and moral standards she often claimed adherence to, spent money that wasn’t hers like it was water from the faucet. But there is a moral here—that the good guys sometimes do finish first.
Hadassah and Huguette’s unlikely story has been optioned for the big screen. Boring, vapid, gag-me-with-a-spoon Gwyneth Paltrow has been mentioned as a possible Huguette. But who will play Hadassah Peri -- Lea Salonga? Lea Delaria? Ai Ai de las Alas? Jennifer Lopez? Ruthie Ann Miles? Or Karen David (who bears a passing, if more photogenic, resemblance to Peri)? Stay tuned.
Aside from the various news reports which broke the story, there are two very excellent books on the subject:
“Empty Mansions” by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Ballantine Books, New York, 2013. (Newell is a cousin of Huguette Clark but this book does not cover the settlement reached on the disposition of the Clark estate.)
“The Phantom of Fifth Avenue” by Meryl Gordon, Hachette Group, New York, 2014. (This edition goes into great detail on the final settlement and disposition of Huguette Clark’s fortune.)
Myles Garcia is a retired San Francisco Bay Area-based author/writer. His proudest work to date is the book "Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies" which begat the Plaridel Award-winning article (Honorable Mention), "Ten Best Kept-Secrets of Olympic Ceremonies" (this publication, January 15, 2014). Myles has also written for the Journal of the ISOH (International Society of Olympic Historians) of which he is also a member. Presently, Myles is also stretching his wings as a playwright, finishing a play, "Love, Art and Murder" which he would eventually like to see produced on Broadway.
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