It's called Bellosguardo: “Beautiful view.” But driving by, you can barely see it: It hides behind high walls, bookending the southern tip of Santa Barbara, Calif. A $100 million mansion perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, immaculately maintained, as if waiting for someone who has gone off for the weekend.
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But the owner hasn't been seen here since Barbara Doran lived on the estate as a child. “It’s like ‘The Secret Garden,’ ” said Doran, now 65. “ ‘The Secret Garden’ and Nancy Drew, all rolled up into one.”
Doran’s dad was manager of two of the owners’ properties for 50 years. Barbara lived in the manager’s cottage, and explored the 23-acre estate with a child’s curiosity.
“I loved to play in Andrée's cottage,” she said, referring to a children's playhouse on the estate. “It had a little settee and tea service. The roof was made of thatch. Sometimes my friends and I would sneak into the empty mansion, put on little white booties—”
“Why?” I interrupted.
“Because of the parquet floors! Nobody walked on those parquet floors in the mansion; they were pristine, fabulous. There was also a fantastic music room, two stories high, that looked out over the ocean.”
“How many people did it take to keep the mansion in order?” I wondered.
“You had to have painters constantly painting. It’s like the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Barbara showed me a picture of herself, taken when she was 6.
“If a 6-year-old plays hide-and-seek up there,” I laughed, referring to the 23 acres of manicured gardens, “she’ll never be found.”
“Not unless she wants to found!” Barbara giggled.
And the same goes for the mansion’s owner, Huguette Clark. Her belongings fill 42 rooms in the largest apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue, but the staff has only seen her a few times in the past 30 years.
She’s not at her Connecticut estate, either. André Baeyens, Huguette’s great-half-nephew, says she bought it back during the Cold War, but never moved in. “Everything stopped for her when her mother died.”
Mother and daughter were constant companions. “Very close!” Barbara recalled. “Best friends.”
Huguette’s mother, Anna E., was 39 years younger than Huguette’s father, Montana Sen. William Clark: He was 67 and Anna E. was 28 when Huguette was born. No record of the supposed marriage five years earlier was ever found. Society buzzed, but Clark was as rich as Rockefeller, so he set her up in a Fifth Avenue mansion that cost three times more than Yankee Stadium. It was a high-tech marvel for 1910: Central air and electricity, powered by coal: Seven tons a day, brought in on Clark’s own personal subway line.
Huguette inherited a fortune in railroads, copper mines, cattle, timber and banks. Her father also owned the land that would one day become Las Vegas. But it was here in Santa Barbara that she began to turn her back on all that, retreating from the world after a brief marriage.
Poor little rich girl
Like her mother’s before her, Huguette’s wedding sold a lot of newspapers. Her husband, William Gower, was a bank clerk making 30 bucks a week; Huguette spent 11 times that much every day. She confided to friends that her great wealth was a “menace to happiness,” yet she hung out with rich daredevils who drove fast cars and flew rickety planes. Her marriage lasted two years.
Huguette was later linked with Edward Fitzgerald, the Duke of Leinster, who subsequently told a British bankruptcy court he had come to America looking for a rich wife. The duke denied being engaged to Huguette, but again her life was reduced to cartoons in newspapers.
She stepped into the shadows for good. Huguette never remarried; had no children. But she struck up a friendship with the little girl who hid in the garden ... like her.
“I have a great picture that she took of me,” Barbara Doran said, pulling out an old Polaroid snapshot.
“What was Huguette like?” I asked.
“Very warm. Very giving.”
Indeed, during the Great Depression, Huguette and her mother tore down their Santa Barbara mansion and rebuilt it, just to give people jobs. Their bankers objected; too extravagant. They did it anyway.
“Society wasn’t very kind to Senator Clark,” Barbara sighed. “Huguette was going to go a different path with her life.”
A doll’s house
She had enough money to bring the world to her. Huguette paid the head of the harp department at Juilliard to teach her the instrument her mother loved. She spent her days playing and painting landscapes — the beauty she saw behind her walls.
“She didn’t want to go out,” Andre Baeyens insisted. “She didn’t want to have beautiful things, no, no. She just wanted to be home and play with her dolls.”
Huguette sent dolls as surprises to children of friends around the world. Once she bought two first-class seats to Paris: one for a doll, and one for her personal physician to go along and see that it arrived safely. (Housekeepers figured the doll probably ended up in the overhead bin so the doctor could take his wife.)
Almost everyone who worked for Huguette had a job until they died. She sent her chauffeur out to pick up an elderly maid every day. Now she is quite old herself; she turned 104 in June.
“She’s still alive,” Andre Baeyens said. “She knows where she is. She’s not very interested in her friends, but she’s still alive.”
In New York, he said. My colleague, Bill Dedman, msnbc.com’s investigative reporter, tracked her to a hospital.
“I had imagined she’s in a three-room suite, a room for her caretaker, and it’s elegant,” Dedman recalled. “I found that part of the hospital. They looked her up in the computer and they said, ‘No, she’s not here. She’s down in another section.’
“I went there and it’s drab, patient names written on a board in the hallway. It couldn’t be more ordinary.”
Friends say she checked herself in to be more comfortable. “She wasn’t sick,” Dedman said. “She was reclusive. She made Howard Hughes seem outgoing.” To keep her safe, we will not reveal the hospital’s location.
Huguette Clark was born to great wealth in a gilded age. She’s lived her long life in a gilded cage. There are no heirs to her vast fortune. What will happen to it is a mystery — like the life she lives.
The TODAY show would like to thank the caretakers of two other legendary Santa Barbara locations for their help in filming this story:
695 Ashley Road
Santa Barbara, CA
1260 Channel Drive
Santa Barbara, CA 93108
Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .
All our reports on Huguette Clark are collected here.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints