Huguette Clark grew up surrounded by famous works of art in her father’s vast 121-room Fifth Avenue mansion in Manhattan. Her father William Andrews Clark, a copper mining mogul and former Montana Senator, bought out the auction houses of Paris, London and New York, amassing more than 200 paintings by masters such as Corot and Gainsborough and sculptures by Rodin. But while collecting art was her father’s passion, Huguette’s passion became creating it.
As a teenager, she began taking painting lessons from well-known Polish portrait painter Tade Styka, whose painting of Teddy Roosevelt now hangs in the White House. She was ferried by chauffeur to his studio along with a chaperone. Tade became fond of the sheltered but artistically inclined girl. She was a quick study, painting flowers, self-portraits and the view of Central Park from the window of her apartment. Their lessons were suspended when Tade returned to Paris.
In 1928, Huguette married William Gower, a Princeton graduate whose father had worked for William Andrews Clark. She gave him $1 million as a wedding gift but the couple separated after nine months. While waiting in a Reno hotel for her divorce, Huguette wrote to Tade, who had just returned to New York, to say, “I would like to seriously work with you this winter.”
From then on, she not only took lessons with Tade several days a week, but was also frequently his date in the evening, attending the theater or going out dancing. Each summer, Huguette would spend several months at her family’s estate in Santa Barbara, while Tade would return to Europe.
In 1933, Tade Styka began work on a haunting portrait of Huguette that shows her seated in front of the easel, intent on her artwork. He was painting her to amuse himself; this was not a commission. Wearing lace-up leather shoes, a skirt well below the knee and a blouse and jacket, she is totally focused on her work, with her brush on the canvas as she tries to capture an image. The back of the canvas faces the viewer so that one cannot see what she is painting. But off to the right is a well-proportioned naked male model, posing with his back to Huguette.
Explaining his efforts to psychoanalyze his subjects, Tade once told a journalist, “I do not paint the mask, I paint the character beneath.” This painting is simultaneously serious and humorous as Tade reveals Huguette’s earnest school-girl determination to appear blase against the backdrop of the glorious sexuality of the male model. Tade understood Huguette’s quirky mixture of shyness and adventurousness in a way that no one else ever had or would.
Those hours at Tade’s studio on Central Park West were what Huguette lived for—the fulfillment of her own creativity plus the chance to bask in the teasing and supportive friendship of her teacher. They had an ongoing game: making silly bets for a dime. Tade saved a drawerful of Huguette’s dimes as an amusing symbol of how often he won. Tade was still resolutely single and Huguette fantasized that one day the relationship could turn to requited love. For her, it already was love.
One day in 1933, a visitor arrived at Tade’s studio during Huguette’s lesson, a young woman who had heard about the famous Polish artist and wanted to see his work. A 21-year-old model with high cheekbones, porcelain skin and long wavy brunette hair, Doris Ford had posed for magazine fashion spreads and illustrations. A New Jersey native, her father was a Naval architect and her mother was a pianist and painter. An art student herself, Doris had called Tade in advance to ask permission to visit and he invited her to come by at 1 p.m. Huguette took morning lessons and was usually gone by then, but today she was caught up in her work and her art teacher and lingered on.
When the elevator door opened and Doris walked into the room, she and Tade took one look at another—and it was a coup de foudre. Huguette saw the way they reacted to each other and she knew at that moment that the spinning globe of her life had just tilted off its axis. She put down her brush, politely excused herself and left for the day. Tade then invited Doris to show her technique by taking a brush to his current work-in-progress, his portrait of Huguette at her easel. Doris was nervous but began to touch up his version of the heiress. It was a symbolic moment that Doris never forgot. “She was so astounded that he would do that,” says Wanda Styka, the couple’s daughter, who heard the courtship tale from her parents. “She was so beautiful and he enjoyed it.” When Huguette decided to buy the completed painting several years later, Doris was dismayed to lose the artwork that held so much meaning for her too.
Now Huguette had a rival for the painter’s affections. She and Doris would circle around each other in the coming years, the blonde heiress and the younger brunette fashion model, waiting for this cosmopolitan older European artist to make up his mind.
MERYL GORDON is the author of The Phantom of Fifth Avenue, as well as the author of Mrs Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of A Family Beyond Approach. She is an award-winning journalist and a regular contributor to Vanity Fair. She is on the graduate journalism faculty at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She is considered an expert on “elder abuse” and has appeared on NPR, CNN and other outlets whenever there is a high-profile case.
Excerpted from the book The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark by Meryl Gordon. Copyright © 2014 by Meryl Gordon. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.