A spellbinding tale of money and madness, incest and matricide, Savage Grace is the saga of Brooks and Barbara Baekeland -- beautiful, rich, worldly -- and their handsome, gentle son, Tony. Alternately neglected and smothered by his parents, he was finally driven to destroy the whole family in a violent chain of events.
Savage Grace unfolds against a glamorous international background (New York, London, Paris, Italy, Spain); features a nonpareil cast of characters (including Salvador Dalí, James Jones, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, and European nobility); and tells the doomed Baekelands' story through remarkably candid interviews, private letters, and diaries, not to mention confidential hospital, State Department, and prison documents. A true-crime classic, it exposes the envied lives of the rich and beautiful, and brilliantly illuminates the darkest corners of the American Dream.
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Natalie Robins's books include Copeland's Cure, The Girl Who Died Twice, and Alien Ink. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Crime of Crimes
Friday, November 17, 1972, dawned hazy and cloudy, but by three o'clock the sun was shining with unaccustomed benevolence for London. The leaves in Cadogan Square had turned and were dropping in the gardens. All her life -- and she was only fifty when she died, a little later that afternoon -- Barbara Baekeland was partial to fall colors. Even in summer, when everyone would be wearing white, she persisted in dressing like an autumn leaf. The rust-colored skirts and bronze shoes she favored suited her beauty -- the bonfire of red hair, the milkmaid skin. A friend had once said of her that she had the quality of intelligent flamboyance.
Whether in Boston, where she was born to a family of modest means called Daly -- or Hollywood, where once upon a time she was given a screen test -- or New York and Paris, where she created salons for herself -- or such resorts as Long Island's East Hampton, Ansedonia on Italy's Argentario, and Cadaqués on Spain's Costa Brava, where she was forever taking houses in season and out -- or, finally, in London, where she had acquired a penthouse duplex in Chelsea -- Barbara Baekeland could be counted on to turn heads.
"London ends by giving one absolutely everything one asks," Henry James wrote in his preface to The Golden Bowl; the city was, in his opinion, "the most possible form of life."
"London with its six-times-breathed-over air seems such a dream," Barbara Baekeland wrote to a friend in New York that November Friday. "Had Le Tout London here last night My oeuvre has had a great success -- everybody loved what I've done to the flat."
The very first thing one saw on entering the apartment was the portrait of a beautiful boy holding a large beetle. The subject was Barbara Baekeland's son, Antony, who had sat for the fashionable portraitist Alejo Vidal-Quadras one afternoon in Paris when he was eleven or twelve. Tony was twenty-six now, and something of a painter himself.
He also liked to write. In Paris, the novelist James Jones had taken an interest in his work, and now he was being encouraged by the poet Robert Graves. Graves was a neighbor on the island of Mallorca, from which Tony had come back to London with his mother in September.
The Baekelands had always had the freedom to travel at will. Tony's great-grandfather, Leo Hendrik Baekeland, had invented the first totally successful plastic, Bakelite -- "the material of a thousand uses." Tony's father, Brooks Baekeland, liked to say, "Thanks to my grandfather, I have what James Clavell has called 'fuck-you money.' Therefore I need not please or seek to please -- astonish, astound, dazzle, or be approved of by -- anyone."
Brooks Baekeland had movie-star good looks. He also possessed what many of his peers considered to be one of the finest minds of his generation. A brilliant amateur land analyst, in the early 1960s he had conceived, planned, and executed a parachute jump into the Vilcabamba mountain fastness of Peru in search of a lost Inca city. He never found the city but his exploits filled most of an issue of National Geographic. Somebody had once described him as an intellectual Errol Flynn.
Tony's father was now living in France -- with, everyone said, Tony's girlfriend.
At one o'clock on Friday, November 17th -- "Fridays are always suspect, don't you think?" she had once said -- Barbara Baekeland called out goodbye to Tony, leaned down to stroke her Siamese cat, Worcester, affectionately called Mr. Wuss, and set out to keep a lunch date she had made at her party the night before with an old friend from Spain, Missie Harnden, who was also now living in London, in a rented house on nearby Chapel Street.
Barbara Baekeland arrived in a particularly extravagant mood and launched at once into a postmortem of her party. Missie Harnden's seventeen-year-old son Michael, whom everyone had always called Mishka, cooked the lunch -- filet mignon wrapped in bacon, green beans, and a tossed salad -- which he served with a Spanish red wine. They ate in the big kitchen-dining room, whose walls were covered with the black, blue, and green abstract paintings of Arshile Gorky, to whom the house's owner had once been married.
"Barbara's theme that day was Tony," Mishka Harnden recalls. "Her theme was persistently Tony -- how marvelous he was, how talented. Everything was always absolutely rosy and happy -- 'Tony adores London, Tony's mad about the flat.' "
At three-thirty, Barbara Baekeland got up to leave, thanking the Harndens for the "marvelous lunch" and mentioning that Tony was cooking dinner for her that evening.
At approximately seven o'clock the telephone rang in the house on Chapel Street. Missy Harnden answered. It was the Chelsea Police Station inquiring as to the time of Barbara Baekeland's arrival and departure that afternoon. They would not say why they wanted this information; all they would say was that something had happened. But a few seconds later Missy Harnden heard herself being asked: "How well did you know the deceased?" She was too shocked to answer, and handed the phone to Mishka, who had just come into the room.
At the end of the conversation the police requested that they both come down to the station to answer a few additional questions. Missy Harnden could not bring herself to go, so Mishka went alone. "It was very clean, very sterile," he remembers. "A quite natty English police station."
Once there, he would find out what had happened.
Detective Superintendent Kenneth Brett, Retired
I was called to the address of Antony Baekeland and his mother, but cannot remember how the call was made -- by the ambulance service or other agency. On arrival I was told that a maid, believed to be Spanish, had run from the house because of a quarrel between Antony Baekeland and his mother. The flat was not disordered. I saw in the kitchen the body of Mrs. Baekeland. She was dressed in normal clothing -- I seem to remember it was a dress. She was on her back. Very little blood was seen. There was a knife on an adjoining worktop or draining board. This was a kitchen knife and showed signs of blood.
There was a small wound visible in the victim's clothing in the region of the heart. I recollect that death was caused by a severed main artery. A doctor certified she was dead, and arrangements were made for the body to be removed to a mortuary after examination by a forensic officer. The only other sign of violence -- which was discovered at the postmortem -- was a bruise above the right ear, but this did not have any real significance as it could have been caused by the victim's fall to the ground.
Antony Baekeland was, on my arrival, in a bedroom, sitting on the bed, using the telephone to phone, I believe, a Chinese restaurant to order a meal. I cannot remember the exact conversation I had with him, but Antony Baekeland was intimating that he was not responsible for the crime. I have a vague recollection that he may have mentioned that his grandmother was responsible. He was completely unconcerned.
You know, he considered himself an artist, and we did find a rather large painting, said to have been done by him. It was the weirdest thing imaginable -- we just couldn't make out what it was.
I seem to remember that his father was not called immediately as we had to discover his whereabouts. Mr. Baekeland came either the next day or even later -- from France.
Antony Baekeland was taken to the Chelsea Police Station. He was interviewed, and much of what he said was incoherent, rambling. I cannot remember what his statement contained, except the opening sentence was so unusual that it has stuck in my mind. He said it all started when he was aged either three or five and he fell off his pogo stick.
I was the service tenant at 81 Cadogan Square, but I was not on the premises when he stabbed her. When I got home I saw the ambulance outside and I wondered what was going on. Then the ambulance men came down from the top floor and asked me if I knew Tony and I said I did. I used to pass the time of day with him -- you know, have a chat -- although his mother was always very protective of him. And they said would I talk to him on the telephone while they got the police. And I rang him from my phone and had a long conversation with him and he told me how he had been out for lunch with his grandmother. Well, I knew she was in New York. He was quite calm, quite lucid, and chatted to me -- he was always polite and nice, I never thought of him as a violent person -- and in the meantime the ambulance men on their phone in the ambulance got the police. Tony had called for the ambulance himself. And then the police came and that was that.
Tony told me his grandmother had stabbed Barbara. I loved Barbara's mother, Mrs. Daly. I remember her as a dear little old lady quite happily going up all those six flights of stairs! She used to come here and take over, like the head of the family.
Whenever Barbara rang me from the States, she'd say, "Hello, this is Barbara of MGM." She told me that she worked in public relations for MGM, but I don't know whether she really did or not. She would ring occasionally, mainly to tell me she was coming to England and would I get milk, etc., in for her. I also looked after all her plants, merely because I am extremely fond of house plants, and in fact I still have a weeping fig of hers.
She was a very beautiful, flamboyant woman. I particularly remember a black gown she wore, a very low-necked black gown. She wore it with a huge diamond crucifix dangling from a chain. She was magnificent, and she went out a lot. I suppose the most terrible memory I have is of the plain wooden box being brought down the stairs by the policemen, and opening the main doors for them to pass through. I understand that the next day was her wedding anniversary.
The night of the stabbing, I got concerned about Mr. Wuss -- you know, the cat. There was a policeman guarding the flat and I asked him if he had seen a cat. He told me, "There's no cat." But I kn...
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