Manhattan’s Other Reclusive Heiress

For the past few years, I have found the Huguette Clark story quite fascinating, and we all owe a debt to journalist Bill Dedman. I reviewed his book, Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune over at Fine Books. Perhaps what struck me most about her seemingly unique story was that it wasn’t so unique at all. As archivists and historians can attest, it is not uncommon to find nineteenth- and twentieth-century women—wealthy women—who dwelled in obscurity and mystery, wearing threadbare gowns, eschewing society, and shutting themselves off in one floor or one room of a big house or hotel, e.g., Ida Wood of New York City, Clara Walworth of Saratoga Springs, New York, and Mary Elizabeth Rosencrantz of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey.

But the best example comes from Wendel Family papers in the university archives at Drew University, where I worked from 2001-2005. Ella Wendel, the abstemious last child of New York City real estate investor John Daniel Wendel, was the sole heiress of a fortune valued at $100 million when she died in 1931. Her death was also front-page news (a full front page in the New York World-Telegram), and much like the dispute over Clark’s bequests, more than two thousand claimants tried to get their hands on Wendel’s inheritance. There was even a book, much like Dedman’s, though slimmer and later: Forgery, Perjury, and an Enormous Fortune by Mervin Rosenman (1984). Ella’s mid-town mansion was a major media focus—it was dubbed ‘The House of Mystery’—personifying those ‘weird Wendels.’ Rumor had it that the only son of the eight Wendel children lorded it over his sisters and forbid them to marry; only one defied him. Though in the same financial league as the Astors (who were distant relatives) and the Vanderbilts, the Wendels had refused to move uptown with the times. The immense brick home that the patriarch had built on Fifth Avenue and 39th Street in 1856 remained their residence until all of the Wendels died, well after the area had become a fashionable place to live (Clark’s father, Senator William A. Clark, for example, built his Beaux Arts mansion in a more likely location on Fifth and East 77th).

The last Wendel lived alone in the house as big as a city block after the deaths of her parents and siblings, with few modern amenities, the first-floor windows shuttered against gawkers. She kept a series of small dogs, all of whom were named Toby. And like Clark, she kept a tight grip on her real estate, one that only death would shake. Fifth and 39th was prime commercial space—worth millions—and as one writer put it, “Real estate dealers can hardly look at that plot without tears coming to their eyes.” In Wendel’s will, she bequeathed the house to Drew Theological Seminary (later Drew University), which promptly leased the house and its adjacent vacant lot for a few years before demolishing it to make way for the S. H. Kress department store. But for a plaque honoring the former residents, the Wendels finally secured the privacy they so desired.

The literal contest of wills over Huguette Clark’s money and collections has finally reached its end. And once the last contract is signed and sealed, and the last lawyer is paid, she may finally rest in peace, as anonymous as Ella Wendel.