A Case Study for Why We Need a Stiff Estate Tax

Great wealth, the philosopher Philip Slater once noted, tends to make wealthy people instinctively suspicious because they can never be quite sure whether others love or admire them for their fortunes or themselves.

“If you gain fame, power, or wealth, you won’t have any trouble finding lovers,” Slated added, “but they will be people who love fame, power, or wealth.”

Exhibit A for Philip Slater’s wisdom: the long, sad life of Huguette Clark, the copper mining heiress who died this week at the age of 104.

Over a century ago, Clark’s father, the fearsome William Andrews Clark, abused mine workers and poisoned the environment on his way to one of the Gilded Age’s greatest fortunes. Mark Twain called Clark “as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag,” and the enormous wealth he left daughter Huguette in 1925 would define — and burden —the rest of her life.

Huguette Clark married in 1928, then divorced in 1930. She never had children and, after her mother’s 1963 death, lived as a recluse in a 42-room Manhattan Park Avenue apartment. She also owned — but hadn’t visited since the 1950s — a beach house in Santa Barbara.

At Clark’s third home, a country home in Connecticut now worth $23 million, the guard who had spent almost his entire adult life watching over the property never even knew the name of the estate’s owner until a reporter asked him about Clark the day after she died.

Clark did have some cousins, nephews, and nieces, but she refused to see them. Her closest friends, an acquaintance once told MSNBC, “have always been her dolls.” She used to pay servants to iron their clothes.

Clark’s father died before the stiff federal estate tax rates of the 1940s and 1950s — as high as 77 percent on estate value over $10 million — kicked in. Now estate tax rates are running back close to their 1920s-era levels, and Clark’s cousins, nieces, and nephews may eventually inherit most of the $500 million fortune Clark has apparently left behind.

Will congratulations be in order?

Sam Pizzigati, the co-editor of Inequality.Org, also edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.