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I’m still thinking about the nail polish. Of all the details from Britney Spears’ explosive statement last month protesting the conservatorship that has controlled her life for the past 13 years, that’s the one I keep coming back to.
“I saw the maids in my home each week with their nails done different each time,” she told the judge. The 39-year-old singer had been told she couldn’t get acupuncture, massages, or hairstyling because of COVID-19 restrictions, and yet she could see that the people who came to clean her home were getting their nails done.
This level of vigilance—clocking the smallest changes in the behavior and appearance of those around you, scouring for clues to the world outside—shows how profound Spears’ isolation has been. As the public learned last month, a declaration of incompetence is a chillingly effective form of confinement.
Some in Hollywood have long weaponized these systems to seize control of the wealthy and vulnerable. I know, because I’ve spent the past decade retracing the dark saga of Harrison Post, a vulnerable, wealthy gay man who was taken captive and defrauded by his own family under the guise of “protection.” This was in the 1930s, and back then it was called a “guardianship,” but Spears’ testimony—an anguished plea delivered so fast that the judge kept asking her to slow down—was eerily familiar.
Harrison Post was a Hollywood socialite and the secret lover of my wealthy great-granduncle, William Andrews Clark Jr., or Will Clark. To say that Will was “wealthy” is a bit of an understatement: He was the son of Sen. W.A. Clark, who was one of the “Copper Kings” of Montana and who, at the dawn of the electrical age, owned nearly half the red ductile metal in the country. He’s the Clark in Clark County, Nevada, and the Clark who helped give us the 17th Amendment, because the mining tycoon so flagrantly bribed state legislators to appoint him to the Senate that the electoral system was changed to give the vote to the people instead of politicians.
Will, his son, founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He helped establish the Hollywood Bowl. He is buried in the largest mausoleum in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the one that’s surrounded by a small lake. (His second wife, Alice McManus Clark, is also buried there—she was my grandmother’s aunt and namesake, and that is my connection to the Clark empire.)
Despite his great wealth and his part in creating two of L.A.’s most enduring cultural institutions, Clark isn’t widely known today, unlike peers such as J. Paul Getty. And that’s partly because in his own time, Clark was extremely guarded. Unlike his father, who liked to give speeches, Will did not hunger for public acclaim. An amateur violinist and an ardent bibliophile, he was a reticent sort. He had secrets, and one of the biggest was his romance with Harrison Post. Their relationship and the way it transformed Harrison’s life—from shop clerk to socialite millionaire to exile—is the subject of my book, Twilight Man.
In 1919, the shy widower walked into a boutique in San Francisco that catered to wealthy customers, and there he met the dashing, dark-eyed clerk, Albert Weis Harrison. Within months, the young man left his position, joined Will in Los Angeles just in time for the debut of the L.A. Phil, and changed his name to Harrison Post. Next came servants; glamorous friends like Alla Nazimova, Carole Lombard, and Greta Garbo; a villa in West Adams; a beachfront mansion on the swanky Gold Coast, and a 13-acre estate in the Pacific Palisades.
When Harrison’s sister Gladys fatefully arrived from Chicago, there was room for her, too.
In newspapers, Harrison was identified as “clubman,” “art collector,” or “Hollywood millionaire.” There were other words that people used for Harrison, like degenerate, but those were whispered or written in anonymous letters. At that time, violating Section 286 of the California Penal Code, or engaging in sodomy, carried a penalty of five years in prison. Even a misdemeanor charge of “conspiracy to commit acts tending to lower the morals of the community” could result in a prison sentence, not to mention public ruin. Every so often Harrison was romantically linked in the press with a starlet, a tactic likely intended to counter the rumors that trailed him. When the neighbors complained about the risqué parties he held in his near-windowless villa, and the district attorney ordered that he vacate the property in West Adams, he and Clark decamped to Europe for several months. Their money gave them options that were unavailable to poorer men, but it also made them bigger targets.
In the world of wealth management, Harrison was an interloper. He didn’t ascend into that rarified sphere as a man did, through the accumulation and control of capital, but as a woman was expected to—through a relationship to such a man. His position in that inner sanctum was considered suspect by many. Harrison was also Jewish. He never acknowledged his heritage, but others did. “Small, dark, and with Semitic cast” was how Clark’s accountant and biographer, William D. Mangam, described the former clerk who infiltrated the Los Angeles Athletic Club and other bastions of elite whiteness. In an era of restrictive housing covenants prohibiting nonwhite people from owning property in Los Angeles, Harrison was awash with real estate holdings. That would change.
In March 1934, Harrison experienced some kind of collapse. The medical records are scant. In later years, Harrison mentioned having had a “nervous breakdown,” though he also told people he’d had a stroke. In one document, a doctor described him having “a lesion on his brain.” Whatever led to his illness, he was convalescing in a luxury sanitarium that June when Clark died suddenly of a heart attack. Within days, Harrison’s sister Gladys petitioned the court to have him declared incompetent, and she was subsequently appointed the guardian of his estate, which totaled well more than $200,000, or nearly $4.5 million today. By then, Gladys was married to a car salesman named Charles Crooks, a name I almost didn’t believe the first time I saw it.
Clark, mindful of his lover’s fragile health, had established a $100,000 trust for Harrison, and yet the Crookses claimed this was insufficient. Gladys wasted no time “economizing.” She moved her brother to a cheaper sanitarium where a patient had hanged herself with a stocking, then deemed that institution too expensive and brought him back to his estate in the Palisades. She replaced his longtime staff and installed a rotating squad of male nurses. Harrison would later claim he’d been medicated against his will, “held in complete physical restraint,” and recorded with Dictaphones to be sure he wasn’t conspiring to escape. The court required Gladys to submit expense reports, and the itemized details are often unsettling. One of her first purchases was barbed wire. The Crookses also installed a burglar alarm. More than once they repaired the front gate. Were they trying to keep people out—or keep someone in?
Gladys told the court she needed to raise funds to maintain Harrison’s care. She sold his Rolls-Royce, Plymouth Coupe, horses, antiques, silver, and art. She auctioned off his books to his friends and peers. At the public dismembering of Harrison’s beloved library, George Cukor bought nine volumes of William Pater, and J. Paul Getty, the most aggressive bidder, scooped up editions of Charles Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Arnold Zweig, and Goethe’s Faust. Later, Gladys would tell Harrison the books had been “misplaced.”
It wasn’t all deprivation and theft. She took Harrison to the circus and the movies. She bought a croquet set. She spent 51 cents on candy for “Mr. Post” and, with breathtaking pettiness, reimbursed herself for the expense.
Forced medication, surveillance, self-dealing—in Spears’ dramatic statement last month, I heard echoes of Harrison’s gothic ordeal. In both cases, the so-called incompetent was deemed vulnerable to influence and deception and therefore had to be protected against “designing or artful persons,” to quote Gladys’ petition. And in both cases, the court delivered the vulnerable person to that very fate. When Spears told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny that “my dad made me feel like I was dead,” I thought of Harrison’s case file, where the word deceased has been scratched out and replaced with incompetent. And then I discovered yet another echo when I read the name of the pop singer’s court-appointed attorney: Samuel D. Ingham III.
I know this name well, because the doctor who testified to the Superior Court of Los Angeles in 1934 that Harrison Post should be declared incompetent, because of the “lesion on his brain,” was a neurologist named Samuel D. Ingham. Ingham III, who resigned as Spears’ attorney after her statement to the court, confirmed to me in an email that Samuel D. Ingham was his grandfather. “I was aware that he did competency assessments for juvenile offenders, but was not familiar with the Post case,” he wrote.
Much of the information about Spears’ conservatorship is sealed from public view. Meanwhile, in the wake of the singer’s anguished statement, the case continues to unfold. Spears has now been approved to hire her own attorney and has pressed further to have her father removed from the conservatorship. She has not yet formally moved to end the arrangement, but she has said she does not want to submit to further evaluation to have her rights restored.
Few people in these arrangements are ever restored to competence. Harrison Post was. On March 9, 1936, the court declared, “Harrison Post is now sane and competent and capable of taking care of himself and his property.” By then, there was little of his property left. Gladys had dissolved and cashed out the trust Will Clark had established for her brother. With those funds in her possession, she didn’t need to bother with expense reports and attorneys.
At least Harrison was free. But this is where the plot swerves yet again. In the past, Harrison had found sanctuary with Clark in Europe, and that was where he turned in 1938. With a masseur named Oscar Tryggestad, one of the male nurses from his care, Harrison traveled to a small town on the Geiranger Fjord in Norway, an idyllic setting to recuperate from the horrific captivity he’d endured—and just in time for the Nazis to invade. “In 1934,” Harrison once wrote, “my life snapped,” and now it was going to snap again. But he had survived Gladys. And he—a gay Jewish man—would survive the Nazis.
By Liz Brown. Penguin Books.