TODAY

TODAY   |  July 30, 2010

Where is mystery heiress?

The estates of fabulously wealthy heiress Huguette Clark have been immaculately maintained — but empty — for decades. But at 104, she’s still alive — in a drab hospital room.

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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: