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His story is a gift that keeps on giving, and in Montana you don’t hear that said often about William Andrews Clark.

The notoriously rich copper king, politician and industrialist who died in 1925 was endlessly complicated and fascinating, as was his youngest daughter Huguette.

As historians try to untangle the former, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Bill Dedman ran across Huguette’s story when she was 103.

The result was “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune,” the best-seller Dedman co-authored with Huguette’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell Jr., in 2013.

Dedman’s first foray to Missoula that same year as a presenter at the Montana Festival of the Book was foiled by travel snafus.

He’s trying again, with a slideshow and lecture Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Masquer Theater on the University of Montana campus.

The theater is within a few steps in the PAR/TV building of the Meloy Gallery and the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s exhibit of the William A. Clark Collection, eight rare paintings among hundreds collected by Clark with the fortune he amassed after arriving all but penniless in the mining camp of Bannack in 1863.

The MMAC exhibit opened in October and runs through June 15. Dedman is the second Clark expert to speak in conjunction with it. Biographer Keith Edgerton of MSU-Billings presented a lecture in November. 

Dedman’s investigations into the Clark legacy “paint a rich, often curious, and sometimes tragic backdrop for our current exhibition at the MMAC,” museum director Rafael Chacon said in an email. “The remarkable works by European masters from Clark’s estate, now in our permanent collection, reflect not just the Senator’s taste and philanthropic largesse, but also patterns of collecting in a tumultuous time in American history.”

In a telephone interview Monday, Dedman previewed his Missoula program as a photo tour with a special twist. Newell, his late co-author, recorded the voice of Huguette in many of their phone conversations starting in the 1990s.

“I’ll show a lot of pictures and play some audio of her voice,” Dedman said. “Through that I’m going to tell the story, focusing attention on the questions of legacy and generosity.”

The Tennessee native whose reporting credits include the Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News and Newsday knows those are questions that have long troubled Montanans.

“It seems to be an article of faith in Montana that the copper kings were outsiders who came in, raped the land, took out the resources and left an environmental wasteland, then took their wealth back East and frittered it away,” Dedman said. “I’m not really coming there to argue against that perspective, but I do think we can leaven that view somewhat.”

Huguette Clark died in May 2011, weeks before her 105th birthday and a couple of years before “Empty Mansions” was published. The book title refers to the fabulous homes on both coasts that she wholly owned after her mother died in 1963 but never visited. Those she employed to keep them up, and most of her support group of attorneys, accountants, doctors, etc., never met her.

Huguette, who married once briefly in the late 1920s, was a philanthropist who gave away millions to people and charities in which she was interested. The $300 million fortune Huguette left resulted in an epic and prolonged legal struggle among 19 relatives (not including Newell) and others that took more than two years to sort out.

Dedman said her estate planning was “clearly an example of what not to do.”

But he has come away with a deep respect for the woman, in part from listening to Newell's phone recordings.

“The tapes made a compelling case for her competence,” Dedman said. “She comes off as quite kind and appropriate and thoughtful with an excellent, excellent memory.”

Among other things, Huguette Clark was an “artist of talent and training.” Her father was 67 when she was born, and married to his second wife, 28-year-old Anna Eugenia La Chapelle.

By then, besides making money enough to rate him among the world’s richest, Clark was in the midst of a hard-won six-year term as U.S. senator from Montana. He’d built the storied Columbia Gardens in Butte. Construction was under way not only on his incredibly ostentatious Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City, but a power dam on the Clark Fork River in Montana that would electrify Missoula and harbor a century's worth of mining contamination. 

Huguette grew up surrounded by one of the world’s best collections of art, including some of the pieces secured for MMAC's permanent collection after the closure in 2014 of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., their home for 90 years. 

“Clark collected widely and not unwisely, the curators say," Dedman said. "He didn’t seem to be the sort to just hoover up all the treasures of the world without learning about them. There was at least a veneer of education and selection in his choices. He was better educated and more widely traveled than most of the other mining millionaires, and he enjoyed giving tours of the five art galleries in his home in New York.”

Clark’s tastes in art ran not only to “Old Masters,” Dedman added, but also to porcelain and “some of the finest rugs in the world.”

“Huguette and her mother collected the new Impressionists and musical instruments, including many by Stradivarius. All good investments. The family also enjoyed music. Anna played the harp, and Huguette the violin. And Anna sponsored a well-known quartet. So it was a family steeped in art and music.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian