Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Money, Health, but Little Wealth

Have you heard? Harriet Chase died yesterday.

Yup - she was 104.

Of course, her real name was Huguette Clark, but... like most people, I had no clue who she was until I read her obituary today in the New York Times. It's one of the day's most popular articles on the Times' website, as a matter of fact.

But not because she was such a socially-connected person.

What Can't Money Buy?

Mrs. Chase - er, Clark! - died at the place she called home for a number of years: Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

Yes, it's a hospital. Quite a good one, in fact.

Apparently, late in the 1980's, she checked herself into another posh private hospital in Manhattan and spent the rest of her life as a paying patient - whether she was sick or not.  She employed her own personal nurses and decorated her sterile environs with collectible dolls as homey accessories.  Last year, financial analysts at MSNBC estimated her wealth at about half a billion dollars, the remains of a copper fortune built by her father, William Andrews Clark, whose name is on the family's acclaimed art collection at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC.

At one time, the Clark family was worth the equivalent of $3 billion. So to be left with but a sixth of that inheritance makes one wonder where the rest of it went. She had been married once, but never had children. No immediate family seems to exist. Decades ago, Huguette withdrew from New York's elite society and holed herself up, first in a sprawling 42-room Fifth Avenue apartment, and then in at least two prominent Manhattan hospitals. She never traveled or entertained, spending her days playing the harp, watching television, and collecting heirloom dolls.

Mrs. Clark, as she liked to be called (even though she was divorced), also owned and maintained an oceanfront estate in California, plus a country manor in Connecticut that, after she purchased, she never visited. Her closest friends appear to have been her lawyer and accountant, both of whom MSNBC suspects of having wielded enormous - and perhaps self-serving -influence over her financial decisions.

Solitude and Care

What is most striking about Mrs. Clark, however, isn't the money she left, or even the trophy properties she rejected for hospital suites. Although, considering her impressive age at death, she certainly seems to have gotten her money's worth from intentionally living in hospitals. As some of her more distant relatives have put it, Mrs. Clark ultimately seems to have been driven by a "dual desire for exquisite solitude and exquisite care."

Some of this narcissism may have been due simply to the rarefied world of luxury into which she was born and raised. Some of it may have come from the death at age 16 of her beloved sister, or her divorce, or even her marriage which her ex-husband claimed was never consummated. Her father appears to have been a vile man, and her mother - her father's second wife and child bride, a melancholy soul herself.

Judging by her spurts of philanthropy, the youngest Mrs. Clark wasn't a scrooge or particularly mean-spirited. She donated to charity and treated her staff well. Yet when it came to functioning in society - either the wealthy New York kind or our more generic culture - she saw something that didn't suit her, and so she dropped out.

Fortunately for her, she had the money to live a life of privileged seclusion. Her uptown apartment alone has been rumored to be worth upwards of $100 million. And as she aged, setting up residence in the some of the world's best hospitals afforded her uncompromised medical attention whether she needed it or not.  Nice work if you can get it, right?

Stop the World and Let Me Get Off

Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but many's the time I've longed for living separately from the world. Regular readers of my blog know that I don't fit in here very well. My thought patterns and proclivities don't jive with the status quo, I find pop culture boring, and even my own efforts at relating to other people seem contrived and superfluous. During one of the summers I spent in Maine years ago, I fantasized about a little waterfront cottage just far enough away from everybody else so that I would only have to interact with other people when I chose to.

But, for better or worse, I couldn't come close to affording it - either then or now. Mrs. Clark didn't have my problem, although I suspect she shared my desire for seclusion to a great degree.

Believers in Christ aren't called to be cut off from community, though, are we? Either in the church, or outside of it. We shouldn't give up meeting together, and although we aren't to be part of the world, we're still to be in it. Christ went into the desert for 40 days, but He came out again to continue His ministry.

Yet I'm not talking about a sabbatical - which Christ's wilderness experience certainly wasn't, since the Devil thought he really could tempt Jesus. I'm talking about letting the rest of the world run with abandon to the cliff and topple over it, like the herd of pigs when Christ sent the demons into them. Yeah, just go jump off the cliff, you idiots! That's my attitude lots of times.

Then I'm reminded that just as I have difficulties relating to other people, they likely have difficulties relating to me. Oh sure - some people give up trying to befriend me right after meeting me. But others do try and make and effort, even when I don't reward their work. So if I feel like a misfit, how much of that feeling is my own fault? The result of my own lack of investment in community?

Maybe one of the reasons God has not blessed me with great wealth is to remove the temptation for me to purchase just the right seaside cottage in coastal Maine and blend into the rocks and pine trees. Or a 21-room Fifth Avenue apartment, high above the city, with stunning views of Central Park from every window and a wrap-around balcony for whatever fresh air I can gasp.

Ahh - these sound like heavenly places to me, but in reality, as a child of God, my Heaven is only going to come after I die. Until then, I'm afraid you're stuck with me down here.

Although it's intriguing, the life Mrs. Clark led in parallel to the rest of us boasted lots of money but little wealth. Do you see what I mean? It may sound trite, but God designed His people to invest in relationships. With Him, and with each other.

MSNBC may have been concerned about her missing money, but Mrs. Clark was more impoverished than her balance sheet let on.

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