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Video: Where is mystery heiress?

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    MATT LAUER, co-host: We're back now at 8:20 with a mansion mystery. Where's the owner of a $100 million California estate that's been lovingly cared for but empty for nearly half a century? Here's NBC's Bob Dotson .

    BOB DOTSON reporting: It's called Bellosguardo , Beautiful View , and you can see why. Perched over the Pacific in Santa Barbara , it looks like it's waiting for someone who has gone off for the weekend. Wow, these are pretty roses. But the owner hasn't been seen in Santa Barbara since Barbara Dorin was a kid.

    Ms. BARBARA DORIN: It's like " The Secret Garden " and " Nancy Drew " all rolled up into one.

    DOTSON: Dorin 's dad took care of the place for 50 years. Most of that time, caretakers were the only ones living on this 23-acre estate. If a six-year-old plays hide-and-seek in a place like this , she may never be found.

    Ms. DORIN: Unless she wants to be found.

    DOTSON: Same with the sole owner, 104-year-old Huguette Clark . This is the last known photo of one of the most secretive and wealthiest women in America . Her belongings fill 42 rooms in the largest apartment on New York 's prestigious Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park , but the staff has only seen her a few times in the past 30 years. She's not at her sprawling Connecticut estate either. Andre Baeyens , Huguette 's great-half-nephew, says she bought it back during the Cold War , but never moved in.

    Mr. ANDRE BAEYENS: Everything stopped for her when her mother died.

    DOTSON: Her life stopped, too.

    Mr. BAEYENS: She didn't want to go out, no, no, she just would be at home and play with her dolls.

    DOTSON: Huguette gave them as gifts to children of friends around the world. Once, she bought two first-class seats to Paris and sent her personal physician along to see that the doll arrived safely. One of Huguette 's companions figured the doll probably ended up in the overhead bin so the doctor could take his wife.

    The reclusive heiress had no children of her own, but: She would invite me over to have tea in the afternoon.

    Ms. DORIN: The little girl who hid in the garden, like her.

    DOTSON: I have a great picture that she took of me.

    Ms. DORIN: With a Polaroid camera , one of the world's first instant pictures. What was Huguette like?

    DOTSON: Very warm, very giving.

    Ms. DORIN: Why would someone so giving hide herself away? Perhaps she grew tired of living life in the headlines. Her father, Former Montana Senator William Clark , was 62 when Huguette was born. Her mother, Anna , 23. No record of their marriage was ever found. Society buzzed. But Clark was rich as Rockefeller , so he set them up in a Fifth Avenue mansion that cost three times more than the original Yankee Stadium . Huguette inherited a fortune in railroad cars, copper mines, cattle, timber and banks. Her dad also owned the land that would one day be known as Las Vegas . But it was here in Santa Barbara that she began backing away from all that, retreating from the world after a brief marriage. Her husband, William Gower , was a bank clerk making 30 bucks a week. She told her friends great wealth was a menace to happiness. So was Edward Fitzgerald , the Duke of Leinster , who told a British bankruptcy court he came to America looking for a rich wife .

    DOTSON: It's a sad thing, it's a sad thing. When I think about it, it's awful, awful.

    Mr. BAEYENS: The duke denied newspaper reports that Huguette and he were a couple, but she stepped into the shadows for good.

    DOTSON: She's still alive. She's still alive.

    Mr. BAEYENS: In New York City , he said. My colleague, Bill Dedman , MSNBC.com 's investigative reporter, tracked her to a hospital.

    DOTSON: It's drab. Patient names written on a -- on a board in the hallway. It couldn't be more ordinary.

    BILL DEDMAN reporting: She's doing fine, her attorney says, but wants to be left alone. So we will not reveal the hospital's location. Huguette 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. For TODAY, Bob Dotson , Santa Barbara , California.

    DOTSON: You know, it just goes -- you know, you can have everything and it's not enough.

    ANN CURRY, co-host:

By
TODAY contributor
updated 7/29/2010 3:38:20 PM ET 2010-07-29T19:38:20

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.”

More about Huguette Clark: Read the investigative report from msnbc.com, “Who is watching Huguette Clark's millions?”

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.

Nobody home
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:

Lotusland
lotusland.org
695 Ashley Road
Santa Barbara, CA
93108-1059
(805) 969-9990

The Biltmore
fourseasons.com/santabarbara
1260 Channel Drive
Santa Barbara, CA 93108
(805) 969-2261

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

Photos: Mystery heiress

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  1. Mystery heiress

    Taken in 1930, this is the last known photo of Huguette Clark. Her father, a senator and copper magnate, may have been as rich as John D. Rockefeller. But though her magnificent properties continue to be immaculately maintained, Huguette Clark herself has not been seen in decades. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A girl and her doll

    Huguette Clark with one of her prized dolls around 1910. Doll collecting became a lifelong passion for the reclusive heiress. (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Young and rich

    Huguette Clark in Montana circa 1923. Her father, Senator William A. Clark, made his fortune in Butte Copper Mining. (The Copper King Mansion.) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Magnificent mansion

    Huguette's father, William A. Clark, was as rich as Rockefeller, so he set her up in a Fifth Avenue mansion that cost three times more than Yankee Stadium. (New York Historical Society.) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. High tech, 1910 style

    Inside the childhood home of Huguette Clark. The Fifth Avenue mansion was a high-tech marvel for 1910, with electricity and central air conditioning. Powering it required seven tons of coal per day, brought in by the Clarks' private subway line. (The New York Times) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School days

    In this 1925 class portrait from Miss Spence's School, Huguette Clark is sitting second from left in the front row. She confided to friends that her great wealth was a "menace to happiness." (New York Historical Society) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. High society

    Huguette (far left) was a prominent New York socialite during the 1920s, often attending parties at the Pierre and Plaza Hotels. But after 1931, she disappeared from the society pages. (The Salt Lake Tribune) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Lavish lifestyle

    Huguette's great wealth drew attention to her from newspapers of the day. This 1928 cartoon portrays "A Day in the Life of Little Huguette Clark." (International Feature Service, Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Huguette's husband William M. Gower. Huguette paid William $30 a week. Her inherientance gave her $333 a day. They divorced within two years. Source: Selley G. Mudd Manuscript Library () Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Headline divorce

    Huguette Clark's divorce in 1930 was rich fodder for the tabloids. She was often referred to as the "Baby Copper Queen." (Hamilton Evening Journal) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Daredevil duke

    Rumored to be engaged to Huguette in 1931, Edward Fitzgerald, the Duke of Leinster, was well-known in society pages as the "Daredevil Duke." He enjoyed yachting and gambling. (The Corsicana Daily Sun) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dis-engaged

    In 1931, it was reported that Huguette Clark might be engaged to the Duke of Leinster. However, the duke denied the rumors, and the marriage never happened. (The Oelwein Daily Register) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wooing wealth

    The Duke of Leinster told a bankruptcy judge in 1936 that he came to America to woo a wealthy heiress. Huguette Clark, apparently, didn't take the bait. (Syracuse Herald) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A summer place

    Huguette Clark's Bellosguardo estate in Santa Barbara circa 1940. The property was built as a summer home for Huguette and her mother. (Santa Barbara Historical Society.) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Empty halls

    Huguette's Santa Barbara estate "Bellosguardo" as seen today. Though the property continues to be maintained by caretakers, the elusive heiress has not visited here since 1958. (Amanda Marshall. / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ocean view

    A current view of Huguette Clark's Bellosguardo estate, perched above Santa Barbara, Calif. (Amanda Marshall / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nobody home

    Huguette Clark's New York apartment today includes the entire 8th floor and half the 12th floor. She has not been seen here for over 20 years, but her belongings remain. (Amanda Marshall. / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Hugnette Clark Gower
    AP
    Above: Slideshow (17) Mystery heiress
  2. W.A. Clark Memorial Library
    Slideshow (48) The Clarks: an American story of wealth, scandal and mystery

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