By Jennifer PeltzNEW YORK -- She had wealth few could boast and used it to finance a life few would choose -- an heiress to the fortune of the founder of Las Vegas spending 20 years voluntarily in New York hospital rooms. Now Huguette Clark's reclusive existence is about to be scrutinized in a Manhattan courtroom, where jury selection is due to start Tuesday in a civil trial over her will. With an estimated $300 million at stake, the case broaches questions about aging, caregiving and the line between encouraging gratitude and extracting gifts. Clark's distant relatives say hospital executives, a nurse, a lawyer, an accountant and others in her small circle induced a dependent, fragile woman to give them millions of dollars during her lifetime and in her will. The beneficiaries say she was a sharp-minded, strong-willed, munificent person whose decisions were as deliberate as they were unusual. Signed when the childless Clark was 98, the disputed April 2005 will largely left her estate to arts charities, her nurse and a goddaughter. It provided nothing for her relatives, who were the main beneficiaries of a will she'd signed just six weeks earlier. "Fundamentally, however, this tragic story presents much more than just a question of whether a particular will is valid or not," the relatives' lawyer, John R. Morken, said in a court filing. The larger issue, he wrote, is whether there's an ethical limit to what caregivers and advisers can ask for or accept -- "and if there is, how can professionals and institutions be held accountable?" The beneficiaries say it's simply a case of bald-faced greed. And not on their part. Remote relations who barely knew Clark "claim she should have left her fortune to them, and not those who cared for her in the last years of her life," lawyer Brian Corrigan, who represents Clark's own attorney, said Friday. Clark's father, U.S. Sen. William A. Clark, made a Gilded Age fortune from Montana copper mines, a Utah-to-California railroad and sales of land around a whistle stop dubbed Las Vegas. Huguette Clark owned the biggest apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue, an oceanfront mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a 52-acre estate in New Canaan, Conn.
By the time she died in 2011 at age 104, she hadn't been to any of them for decades. Instead, she'd paid about $400,000 a year to live in Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center since 1991, according to hospital records filed in court. She stayed there long after being told she could leave following treatment for advanced skin cancer and malnutrition. Surrounded by dolls and childhood photos, the woman who liked to be called "madame" got assiduous care from physicians and private nurses. It became a lucrative arrangement. Clark's main nurse, Hadassah Peri, was lavished with about $30 million worth of presents, including multiple Manhattan apartments and a $1.2 million Stradivarius violin, according to court filings. Peri stands to get $30 million more if the disputed will is upheld. Clark gave primary physician Dr. Henry Singman $500,000 or more in cash as Christmas presents, covered some of his medical expenses and paid part of his granddaughter's college tuition. The contested will leaves him $100,000, which he plans to relinquish before testifying at the trial. Beth Israel got hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts, a multimillion-dollar painting by French pre-Impressionist Edouard Manet and a $1 million bequest. Hospital leaders aimed for more, emails and memos show. Within a few months of Clark's arrival, a fundraiser was visiting her room weekly. By the next year, she'd given $145,000, but a hospital staffer wrote in a memo, "Here's hoping we end up with even bigger bucks." The hospital's then-president and even his mother urged Clark to prepare a will, though he told her he wasn't trying to suggest a bequest. And as the hospital prepared to sell the building Clark was in and move her to another in 2004, executives told her she could stop the sale by giving $125 million. The hospital says its requests were appropriate. "Having provided life-saving and compassionate care to a person of Clark's wealth, it would have been surprising if Beth Israel had not approached her for donations," hospital lawyer Marvin Wexler wrote in court papers.
She had no trouble saying no, and her gifts to the hospital ended three years before the contested will, Wexler added. Clark's doctor, lawyer and accountant have all rebuffed the idea that she could be manipulated into doing anything. "The only persuasive power I had over her was to advise her to drink Ensure," the nutritional product, Singman said in a sworn statement. "She certainly was not a non-thinking, docile, unresponsive individual."