A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity just happened in Santa Barbara. That mysterious empty mansion, Bellosguardo, on 23 acres just above East Beach and across from the Bird Refuge, was opened up for the first time in more than 60 years for the party of the century. Five hundred guests dressed in formal Great Gatsby attire – feathers, furs, and sequins – could view the entire first floor interior and take pictures to their hearts content. There were a thousand more people on the waiting list for this inaugural gala. WOW!
The mansion has been empty since the early 1950s, with just a caretaker and small staff to maintain the place. Their orders were not to move anything. One did leave a note, saying, “I moved this stool (on a certain date) for safety reasons.” Otherwise, everything is the same as when Huguette last visited.
The house was built by Anna Clark, widow of copper king Senator William Andrews Clark in 1937, and then cared for by their daughter Huguette until she died at 104. It is now bequeathed to the Bellosguardo Foundation and will be a place for art and culture in Santa Barbara. Weddings and events will be held there sometime in the future when the restoration is complete. By the way, the Bird Refuge is named after Andree Clark, Huguette’s sister, who died of a disease when quite young.
The estate has been frozen in time but was opened in a blaze of glory at the soirée. As guests arrived in the motor court, there were two of Huguette’s cars, a 1933 Cadillac limo and a 1933 Chrysler Roadster. The day before at a Santa Barbara Club luncheon, the daughter of the caretaker of 50 years Barbara Doran told us stories of growing up on the estate when Anna and Huguette were still alive. One was of being picked up from school by the chauffeur in full uniform in the limo and how embarrassing it was. After that, the less conspicuous roadster was requested.
That night, we entered into a foyer with a docent to tell us a little history and proceeded down the hall to the formal living room and the stunning dining room. There were portraits of the family members down the hall, including some painted by Huguette, who was quite the fine artist. Barbara had described the house and grounds as magical, like a fairytale. She used to have tea with the Anna and Huguette.
There was a music room with a grand piano for Huguette and a harp for her mother. The caretaker’s daughter, Barbara, also played the piano. Huguette wanted to give her a Steinway but Barbara’s mom said, “It won’t fit in our house.” Huguette went all over New York trying to find a spinet as good as the Steinway. Barbara still has it with her wherever she lives, including Hawaii. She learned to drive on the lawn and can remember when there were black swans swimming at the Bird Refuge.
Then it was time to exit and walk by the orange trees and the reflecting pond to the site of the fête. What a sight to behold! Merryl Brown Events and Revelry Event Designers had woven their magic with an art deco scene straight from the Great Gatsby era. It was all in black and white – black tablecloths, huge globes of white orchids and roses, glass tables, large white sofas, and fabulous crystal chandeliers over the bar. All the help were dressed in black and white.
At one end was a light supper buffet you could pick up at any time, all catered by the Biltmore. The band was playing and there was a dance floor laid out on the grass. There were opportunities to bid on having 30 guests to the Carriage House turned into a Speakeasy, or an evening with Kenny Loggins at the beach house, or a candlelit dinner in the dining room. The monies garnered from the auction will go to the foundation, somewhere around half a million for the evening.
The event co-chairs were Josh Conviser and Sandi Nicholson, while the president is Jeremy Linderman. Dick Wolf is chair of the board of directors and he and his wife, Noelle, were presenting sponsors. The platinum sponsors were Geri and Jerry Bidwell, Ronna Hitchcock Huffman, Betsy and John Moller, Sharon and David Bradford, Folded Hills Winery/Kim and Andy Busch, Michael Hammer/Armand Hammer Foundation, Lucille and Richard Janssen, Sandi and Bill Nicholson, Leslie Ridley–Tree, and Susanne and Gary Tobey.
If you want to learn all the fascinating details of Huguette’s life, read Empty Mansions, The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bill Dedman and Huguette’s cousin co-author, Paul Newell.
Tempting tidbits include: Huguette had a ticket on the Titanic for the return trip. As she said, “We’ll have to take another boat.” She lived her last 20 years in a hospital room; she wasn’t sick but said she felt safe there. She didn’t want to come back to Bellosguardo after her mother passed away because she had built it and it made Huguette sad. She also had a doll collection of 5,000 and dollhouses valued from $30,000 to $80,000. When she died, there was a court battle over her $300 million estate. While her father was in the Senate, he was known to have some paternity suits against him. What’s new?
And so our enchanted evening came to an end, but it will be long remembered by all of us lucky enough to have attended the historical soirée.
I think I’ll read the book again. I’ll also keep looking for Barbara Doran’s book, Inside the Gates of Bellosguardo – My Enchanted Childhood, due out soon. There is a Restoration Society, which will be vital to the revival of this historic mansion. Among other benefits, you will receive early access to purchase tickets to all public events at Bellosguardo through October 2019. Tiers are from $500 to $5,000. More info on their website, www.bellosguardo.org.