Recluses: Private, Exploited, or Self-Destructive?

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Sometimes very private people wish to withdraw from the world, and they have that right. Yet some cases may be more than just personal choice. When there is a lot of money at stake and a very few people have access to an elderly recluse, the temptation to take complete control may be too much to resist. Still, the privacy issues surrounding such cases make investigations difficult.

A couple of weeks ago, the story of Sogen Kato hit the news. Kato was on record as turning 111 years old, which made him the oldest man in Tokyo. City officials went to congratulate him on the milestone, but were rebuffed by family members, who said the patriarch "doesn't want to see anybody." Welfare officials made several visits before police broke into the bedroom to see Kato. The man was found to be nothing but a mummified skeleton. Authorities estimate that he had been dead for as long as thirty years. Kato's relatives said he had locked himself away and refused to let anyone in. However, millions of yen in pension funds had been deposited into Kato's account and withdrawn by the family over the years.

An 1871 account related how an unnamed wealthy recluse shut himself away in a hotel and gave the power to deal with visitors to the hotel manager. Years later, officials forced their way into his room and found that the man had changed his mind about leaving the world behind years before, but the hotel manager had kept him locked away anyway.

Huguette Clark recently turned 104 years old. She is an heiress, the only surviving child of copper tycoon and Senator William Andrews Clark, who was once thought to be the second richest man in America. He was 67 years old when Huguette was born to his second wife, Anna. William Clark had other children from his first wife, and Huguette had an older full sister who died at a young age. Huguette Clark is estimated to be worth about $500 million. She owns several multi-million dollar estates which sit empty. She owns two floors of her New York City apartment building, where she and her mother lived for many years. The building is still listed as Clark's residence, but she has been living at a Manhattan hospital for the past 22 years. Yes, 22 years, because Clark feels comfortable and safe there, she doesn't have to socialize in order to have her health monitored, and she can pay for it.

Huguette Clark was married for a couple of years in the 1920s, but has otherwise stayed out of the spotlight her entire adult life. The last known photograph she ever allowed was taken in 1930. After her divorce, Clark lived in the New York apartment with her mother Anna until her death in 1963. Since then, she has spoken to very few people and has seen even fewer. Even business transactions took place through closed doors. Clark's longtime friends and caretakers have all died with the exception of 89-year-old Suzanne Pierre, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

Clark's money is looked after by her accountant, Irving Kamsler, and her lawyer, Wallace Bock. Both men became the beneficiaries of another elderly client upon his death, inheriting $100,000 each and an apartment in New York after his will was changed several times in short order. Bock recently arranged for the sale of some of Clark's possessions. After the recent stories of Clark's life and finances were published, Adult Protective Services in New York opened a case to determine if Clark is being properly cared for and whether she is being exploited. Distant relatives have requested that a guardian be appointed to watch after Clark's interests. She reportedly gave one of her longtime nurses nearly $2 million just this past week.

The Bouvier family was fabulously wealthy until the Great Depression. Some of the younger generation recovered pretty well: Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy and then Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, and her sister Caroline Lee married a publishing executive and then a Polish prince, Stanis?aw Albrecht Radziwi??. Jacqueline's aunt, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale didn't fare as well. The aspiring singer was left relatively little of her father's wealth and cut off from her husband's fortune after their divorce, but she received a 28-room mansion in East Hampton called Grey Gardens. She lived there with her daughter, who was also named Edith. "Little Edie", as the daughter was known, had been a model and aspiring actress when her mother asked her to come home and care for her in 1952. For decades, Big Edie and Little Edie kept to themselves, feeding off each other's eccentricity. The two women were rarely seen outside of Grey Gardens until inspectors from the local Health Department came to the mansion in 1971. They found the two Ediths living in squalor, with most of the dilapidated mansion's rooms shut off and their living quarters piled high with garbage and inhabited by cats. fleas, opossums, and raccoons. The women refused to cooperate with health authorities, and the story became a public scandal. The extended family was shocked and embarrassed; they had apparently assumed that Little Edie was taking care of Big Edie. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis paid for a professional cleanup project in 1972.

At the same time, Lee Radziwill was in discussions with David and Albert Maysles about producing a documentary film on the Bouviers, meaning Lee and Jackie. The Maysles passed on that idea, but were interested in filming Big Edie and Little Edie. The result was the 1976 documentary Grey Gardens. The mother and daughter enjoyed their opportunity to be seen on the silver screen, although the film crew had to wear flea collars on their legs while filming at Grey Gardens. The movie became a cult hit, which spawned a Broadway musical and a 2009 HBO movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

After Big Edie died in 1977, Edith Bouvier Beale II resumed a regular life. She gave away the cats, cleaned up the mansion, and made appearances at New York nightclubs. After selling Grey Gardens, she retired to Florida where she lived a normal, relatively subdued life until her death in 2002.

Howard Hughes was a filmmaker, aviator, businessman, and the most notorious recluse of all. He built his fortune in the 1920s and '30s, married twice but had no children, and bought his privacy in a most public way. In 1947, Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder took over his when he locked himself in his screening room for four months, insisting that none of his aides look at him or speak to him. He sat naked and watched movies day after day. Afterward he withdrew from the world, conducting business through his close associates, only emerging briefly in 1972 to expose a biography by Clifford Irving as a hoax. Hughes lived in hotels, which he bought one after another, to ensure his privacy. In his later years, Hughes surrounded himself with Mormons because he trusted them, although he was not a member of the faith.

During this time, Hughes kept doctors on staff, but did not follow their advice. He received no psychiatric help. He was so wealthy and powerful that no one dared cross him, even for his own health and safety. Hughes second wife, Jean Peters, divorced him 1971 -she had not seen her husband for years. He died in 1976 of what was determined to be kidney failure. Hughes weighed 90 pounds and had hypodermic needles embedded in his arm, as he had been addicted to morphine for years, prescribed for injuries suffered in plane crashes. His appearance had changed so much since he appeared in public that his fingerprints were taken for identification. Hughes' estate of $2.5 billion was claimed by many people, and was eventually distributed to 22 cousins after years of litigation.

The desire to be left alone can work against a person's best interests, but who is to say when the line is crossed, especially for those who have no close relatives? Sometimes it is hard to tell whether a person's self-destruction is a lifestyle choice or is aided and abetted by those who stand to gain.

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September 7, 2010 - 5:18am
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