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"Empty Mansions" Book Discussion and Lavender Earl Grey Cupcakes Themed Recipe

Updated on September 28, 2018
Amanda Leitch profile image

I wish to inspire readers, teachers, and book clubs to bake along with their reading and promote discussion about the books we've enjoyed.

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Huguette Clark was probably the wealthiest woman whom history forgot. Heir to a copper fortune and raised in a mansion on Fifth Avenue of 42 rooms, with only four family members, and a father old enough to be her grandfather, it seems she was more than bound to become a least slightly eccentric. This biography is a factual account of the life of Huguette Clark, which at times leaves readers with more perplexities than concrete answers. Why did she marry only once, and end it right after the honeymoon? Why did she own three mansions, but live out the last decades of her life in a tiny hospital room, when she could easily have been treated and sent back to any of her 3 mansions? Why did she spend a fortune on Japanese dolls and exact-replica dollhouses even into her last years? And most of all, why all these erratic behaviors when, according to all who knew her, she remained lucid until her last day at age 104? Huguette Clark, an incalculable heiress who remained “a shy ten-year-old throughout her life,” may be one of history’s most fascinating, baffling enigmas of all time, and this story of her Empty Mansions is a labyrinth of riddles.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What fears could drive anyone, even the most reclusive of people, to leave cancer of the face untreated so that it ate away part of her lower lip, right cheek, and right lower eyelid?

  2. What do you think of the Victorian practice of using arsenic to lighten the complexion? Why was a lighter complexion glorified in that era-as it still is in some Asian countries, such as India, now-and being tan is so popular in modern-day America?

  3. W.A. Clark had an astounding collection of art from multiple eras and locations around the world. Many pieces were priceless, and others hardly worth pennies. What did W. A. ‘s art collection reveal about him? How does that compare to Huguette’s obsession with Japanese art? There was a painting Anna had near her room that Huguette despised, and Anna later sold to buy Stradivarius musical instruments. do you think any of the other pieces of art were loathed by her as well growing up as a child in their museum of a home? Why?

  4. Even in school, Huguette wasn’t social with the other girls in her class. Some thought maybe she was too proud of her family, or embarrassed about her father’s wealth or failed political career. Could it have been a combination of those things, or all of them, or one not listed, such as the reclusive tendencies her mother was already exhibiting?

  5. The bedrooms in the Clark mansion were designed by Anna, Huguette’s mother, to be hidden behind a secret door, which led to its own hallway. Is this a premonition of Huguette’s potential paranoia?

  6. The parents of one of Huguette’s relatives,Jerry Gray, noted that “she has never been able to grow up,” and “It’s so sad that all she can do is play with dolls.” This statement was made when she was in her thirties. Did her parents limit her activities so that all she was allowed to do was play with dolls, or instruments, or paint? Could this have been a precautionary measure after the loss of their first daughter, who was more adventurous and outdoorsy?

  7. Huguette’s divorce was officially ascribed to her husband’s alleged desertion of her, thought they mutually separated not long after the honeymoon. Some tabloids claimed the marriage ended as a result of his lack of financial contribution to the union, others said it was simply that she was “interested in art, while he was interested in finance.” A biographer, and some of her family, claimed that really, “Huguette refused to consummate the marriage.” Could this be the real reason her marriage failed? And if so, was there a connection between this and her emotional maturity (or lack)? Also, why did she continue to write $3,000 checks to him until his death?

  8. It was rumored that Huguette was engaged at one time to Etienne de Villermont, a wealthy French noble who attended a party at Bellosguardo in 1941. After this party, all rumors of their engagement stopped, but why? Could it have been called off by her mother, who didn’t want to be “abandoned” by her daughter leaving? Was it because Huguette wouldn’t consummate their relationship-though she was rumored to have had a physical relationship with her painting mentor later? Would Etienne have ended an opportunity for such a wealthy match, especially considering the fondness their later letter show toward each other? What do you think happened at that weekend party?

  9. Why did Etienne and Huguette carry on affectionate letters their entire lives signed with phrases such as “the bond of love of half a life” or “in spite of our separate lives, my heart always beats with you,” even though Etienne married another woman, who also spoke kindly and affectionately of Huguette, rather than being jealous, like many other women would be?

  10. Why would Huguette not leave her house for so many years, except, in one rare instance in her fifties, for a Christian Dior fashion show for her dolls’ clothes? She spent millions on acquiring, dressing, and housing her dolls, even in late life. Why were these dolls so important to her?

  11. Huguette commissioned many dollhouses, and some story houses, including one of the story of Sleeping Beauty. She requested that the tale not continue after the kiss. What would she have against the rest of the story, and what does that say about her character, or perhaps reveal about some of her life choices?

  12. Felix Lorioux believed Huguette suffered from the fear of writing letters in the 1950s, before the anthrax scare could create a viable reason for this. How do you think she might have developed this? What other fears might she have suffered from? If you can, look up the works Huguette had commissioned from Lorioux, especially the one that the book mentions as an insect representation of her. How does it portray her? Does it seem fitting?

  13. Huguette was an inconceivably wealthy woman, yet once her family had all passed away, ate a meager breakfast and lunch daily, usually bananas and sardines with crackers. What explain could there be for this, when she had eaten so extravagantly before, even employing a French chef? Don’t most people who eat poorly in their youth, and who can afford to make their own dietary choices in adulthood, choose to eat higher-end foods?

  14. “A board-certified specialist...assured her that she could have round-the-clock nurses at home, and he could visit daily.” He had urged her to go home, but she preferred to “remain in the situation she was in,” and when one of the night nurses kept urging her to move back home, Huguette fired her. Why, when she could have the best medical care in the world in the comfort of her own home, would Huguette prefer to stay in the hospital-for 20 years, with not even a visit outside in a wheelchair?

  15. From 2007 to her death, Huguette had hallucinations several times a year. The doctors merely called them, and her night terrors, dehydration. What else could have caused these things for her (long periods of being alone, a trauma in her childhood)?

The Recipe:

The daughter of an estate manager recalls being invited to play dolls with Huguette at Bellosguardo. they were served “lemonade, tea, and lovely cakes and cookies made by a French chef…” Lavender is a very French ingredient, and grows in gorgeous rows in France. Also, the Clark family observed tea time in the afternoon, and one of the traditional teas served at this time is Earl Grey. The bergamot in Earl Grey complements the flavor of lavender, so a recipe for Lavender and Earl Grey Cupcakes seemed an obvious choice for the eccentric heiress. I used Tazo Earl Grey Black tea bags in this recipe, but any good quality Earl Grey will do. Also, you will need lavender extract or flavoring oil or a safe to consume essential oil (not a cheap drugstore or supermarket one) and purple food coloring, or Wilton Icing colors in Garden Tone.

Lavender and Earl Grey Cupcakes

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Ingredients:

  • 4 Tazo Earl Grey tea bags
  • ¾ cup heavy whipping cream, (divided, ½ cup for infusing tea and ¼ cup for later addition)
  • ¼ cup water, to brew tea
  • 3 egg whites, or whole eggs if you want a heavier, yellower cupcake
  • 2 tsp real vanilla extract, divided, 1 tsp for frosting, 1 for cupcakes
  • ¼ tsp, plus 1/8 tsp for frosting doTERRA lavender essential oil, or lavender extract
  • 2 ⅓ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 ½ cups granulated white sugar
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp Baking Powder
  • 1 stick salted butter, softened
  • 3 cups Powdered Sugar
  • 4 Tbsp milk
  • Wilton Icing Colors, Delphinium Blue and Aster Mauve, or purple food coloring

Instructions

  1. For the Cupcakes: Microwave ¼ cup of water for 1 minute in a microwave-safe coffee mug. Add two Tazo Earl Grey tea bags, and steep for 5 minutes.
  2. In another microwave safe mug, heat ½ cup heavy whipping cream for 1 minute and 40 seconds (heating in 30 second increments). Add two additional tea bags to the cream, and steep for five minutes. When the five minutes has passed, squeeze every drop of liquid you can from the tea bags into the mug. I typically place the tea bag in the concave fold of a tablespoon, then wrap the strings from the tea bag around it and use it as a press. Meanwhile, refrigerate the brewed tea from the previous step.
  3. Measure 2 ⅓ cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 tablespoon of baking powder and 1 ½ cups of white sugar. Sift together sugar, flour, salt and baking powder. Cut in ½ cup of salted butter with a pastry cutter or your clean fingers.
  4. Combine sifted dry ingredients and butter with liquids, including the tea and infused heavy whipping cream from steps 1 & 2 as well as 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, an additional ¼ cup of heavy whipping cream, and ¼ teaspoon of lavender essential oil or extract.
  5. Beat 3 eggs whites (for a lighter cake) together separately and combine with all liquid and dry ingredients noted above. Beat with a mixer on low speed for 1 minute. Increase speed to medium and beat for an additional minute. Scrape sides of the bowl. Beat an additional 1 minute on medium. Spoon into prepared cupcake liners. I use an overfilled ¼ cup ice cream scoop. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-22 minutes.
  6. Instructions for frosting: Beat 1 stick (1/2 cup) of softened salted butter together with 4 cups of powdered sugar, the lavender oil, and 4 tablespoons of milk to start. Beat on low speed for 1 minute and then on medium speed for an additional minute. Scrape sides of the bowl. Then beat on high for an additional two minutes.
  7. Use an eyelet dropper or a toothpick to put 8 drops of Wilton Delphinium blue gel and 3 drops of Wilton Aster Mauve (or you can just use purple food coloring, about 5 drops total) into the frosting to create the lavender color. Beat on medium speed for 1 minute, scrape sides, and beat for another minute. Repeat steps after each addition of color as needed to achieve desired color. Apply with a pastry bag and whatever frosting tip you would like, or smooth onto cupcakes with a butter knife.

Lavender and Earl Grey Cupcakes

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Rate my recipe:

4.3 stars from 4 ratings of Lavender and Earl Grey Cupcakes

Similar Reads

For more about Huguette Clark, you can read other biographies of her, such as The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark by Meryl Gordon or Huguette Clark:The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark by N. W. Grisham.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton contains three reclusive sisters with a dark past and a lifetime of secrets- some they share, and some are kept hidden even from each other, the last of their family line, in order to protect them.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is about a writer who made up autobiographies her entire life to reporters, but, nearing her death, she decides to tell the truth, and her darkest secret, to a young, aspiring female writer.

You could also read another biography of some of history’s most famous reclusive authors, such as Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, J. D. Salinger, and Harper Lee.

© 2015 Amanda Leitch

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