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Savage Grace: The Shocking Story of Fatal Relations in a Rich and Famous American Family
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Savage Grace: The Shocking Story of Fatal Relations in a Rich and Famous American Family

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by Steven M.L Aronson, Natalie Robins

A spellbinding tale of money and madness, incest and matricide, Savage Grace is the saga of Brooks Baekeland, heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune; his beautiful wife, Barbara; and their handsome, gentle son, Tony, who destroyed the whole family in a violent chain of events.

Savage Grace unfolds against a glamorous international background (New


A spellbinding tale of money and madness, incest and matricide, Savage Grace is the saga of Brooks Baekeland, heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune; his beautiful wife, Barbara; and their handsome, gentle son, Tony, who destroyed 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 and 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A classic...a chilling wedding of Mommie Dearest and Long Day's Journey into Night." — The Washington Post

"An American fable of enduring resonance...a macabre piece of Americana." —Newsweek

"Jet-set expatriates in a murder case — how fast we turn the pages. Savage Grace has to be the best oral history to come out since Edie." — Norman Mailer

"Fascinating...A family saga with plot twists worthy of Dynasty or perhaps just Tennessee Williams — it has a mythic quality that echoes Greek tragedy." — The New York Times

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
Media Tie-In
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt




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-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. Missie 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 Missie 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. Missie 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.

Pamela Turner

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 knew Mr. Wuss had to be somewhere, so I went in and looked under the bed, and there he was! After the stabbing, Mr. Baekeland came to see about the belongings. I found him very businesslike and hard. He put all the contents of the flat into auction with Sotheby's. And I asked him, I said, "Well, what should we do about the cat?" And he said, "Oh, destroy it." Well, I gulped, and I asked if I could take the cat, if I could find a home for it. And Mr. Wuss is still alive. When last I heard, he was leading a good life. Of course, Barbara was very wrong to bring him into the country as she did, ignoring quarantine rules.

Brooks Baekeland

I was upset by what I saw — the dent of Barbara's head still on the pillow of her bed from the night before, her gold slippers beside the bed. I was filled with anger with Tony. I rebuffed any efforts on ¬anybody's part to talk to me. For myself, I recovered only the Japanese screen that had been given to my grandfather by Emperor Taisho of Japan — that, and a portrait of Barbara.

Elizabeth Weicker Fondaras

Poor Barbara. The last time I saw her was at an art opening in New York and she had a look of old furs and feathers — like a Jean Rhys character.

Letter from Barbara Baekeland to Sam Green, May 4, 1970

Read Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight, which profoundly depressed me. She is so much of my skin that I am alarmed — like suddenly seeing oneself in a harsh unlovely light — all those many flaws and her despair honed by that extraordinary sensibility — I hope I am saved.

Dr. W. Lindsay Jacobs

I saw Antony Baekeland for the first time on October 30, 1972 — eighteen days before the crime — and afterward I told his mother, "Your son is going to kill you." She replied, "He's been murdering me since he was born — whether for him or his father, I don't know. I'm used to murder." "This isn't a metaphor," I told her. "This isn't an analyst's game. I think you're at grave risk." And she said, "I don't."

David Mead

When I heard Tony had killed his mother, I felt like I'd been at the murder. The year before, out in East Hampton, Barbara all of a sudden raised her voice at me — you know, just over nothing — and Tony came flying in. He was absolutely furious, I couldn't believe how mad he was. And then instantly it was between the two of them, and I no longer mattered. And they started getting madder and madder at each other, and it got uglier and uglier, and finally the knife point came. He got a knife. I managed to wrestle it out of his hand, but you know what I'm saying — this was the dress rehearsal.

From a Psychiatric Report on Antony Baekeland ordered by the British Courts, January 5, 1973

He is a well-built, physically healthy young man with an occasional marked stammer. He appeared normally anxious and depressed for a man in his situation but denied feeling depressed or ever having contemplated suicide. He gave his account with some natural confusion about times and places. On the day of the offence he had a conversation on the telephone in which he heard some reference to his having fallen down a lift shaft; and later began to wonder if this had occurred. After a minor argument with his mother she started to write a letter. He could not read it but knew the meaning and this produced a degree of rage which he had never experienced before. She did not say or do anything to resist his assaults.

Rosemary Rodd Baldwin

Barbara wrote to me in Turkey just before he killed her and said, "Rosie, you have such a wonderful influence over Tony, a sort of Nini influence." Nini, of course, is Barbara's mother, Tony's grandmother. She said, "Will you come to London and live in the flat with him for the winter?" I got the letter on the Wednesday and I was making up my mind. On Thursday one of my daughters, Mandy, who'd had dinner with them the night before, sent me a telegram saying, "Mummy, be careful. Things are very difficult in Cadogan Square." And on Friday he killed her. So.

And I'll tell you the other thing. He had a little Pekingese he adored that got lost in the mountains somewhere in Italy when he was a child. He was a child for a long time with us, you see. And this dog got lost and they were desperate, and finally they found it. And after it died, years later, he kept its collar, like Jinty, my eldest daughter, did with her favorite dog. And Barbara took this collar and threw it out of the window into Cadogan Square, and that was what I understood was the thing that was the end.

Letter from Antony Baekeland to Cornelia Baekeland Hallowell, December 30, 1972

Dear Grandmother,

I just got your letter. I will try to explain as best I can what happened. You know I loved and still love and adore my mother more than anyone in the world. During the time preceding what happened a lot of rather strange things were happening. I think my mind was slightly wacky and I was very much under my mother's powerful influence. I felt as though she were controlling my mind. Anyway that afternoon my mother was out and I had a strange telephone call from a friend of ours who lives in Wales. She told me that I had fallen down an elevator shaft. I thought this rather strange and yet it had a profound effect on me. She asked me if she could come around for a drink that evening. I told her yes, that we would be glad to see her. Mummy came back a little later and told me that she was annoyed that I had asked our friend to come so early. I can't remember exactly what started the fight but it began in her bedroom. Then she went into the dining room where the maid was ironing and began to write something on a piece of paper. I can't remember what it was she wrote but it infuriated me and I tore it out of her hand and tore it up. Then she ran into the bedroom where I hit her, then she ran into the kitchen. I ran after her and stabbed her with the kitchen knife that was lying on the table. As I ran to call the ambulance I saw the maid just leaving the flat. The ambulance took hours to come and by the time it came my mother was dead. It was horrible — I held her hand and she would not look or speak to me. Then she died. The ambulance men arrived and I was taken away in a dreadful state. For several days I didn't know where I was. Past memories kept flooding into my mind and I felt that I was reenacting parts of my former life.

Nevertheless I feel better now and even feel that a great weight has been removed from my shoulders. An odd thing is that she told me that I would kill her this summer several times. I thought this the most unlikely thing in the world.

I wish I could remember what it was she wrote on that piece of paper.


Helen Rolo

I remember the knives, I do remember the knives. I rented that apartment from Barbara Baekeland for a couple of weeks in 1972. It was within a few months of when she was killed. I didn't even know her particularly well. I thought she was attractive and charming and that she lived a very happy kind of life — I mean, to have an apartment in New York and a house in Spain and also an apartment in London. A happy-from-the-outside-looking-in life, that is — because I remember when I called to discuss the details of renting the place she suddenly had to hang up. She said, "I'll call you back — I'm having a problem with my son."

It was a rather grisly apartment. You had to walk and walk and walk to get up there, you just went up vertically at a ninety-degree angle, up and up and up, at least four flights. I knew it wasn't an elevator apartment but I certainly hadn't expected to walk up that far. And when you finally got to the landing and opened the door, having walked all that way — opened the door to the apartment gasping — you really had to have a strong heart! — and a strong hand to carry your luggage — you walked in and collapsed when you saw that there was another bunch of steps to go up — it was a duplex!

And it was spooky because in the foyer, straight on in front of you, was a portrait of her son with a light on it. I don't know how old he was in the picture. He was fairly young, I'd say not even a teenager. I'd never met him, I'd never even seen him. But there was his portrait to greet me right inside the apartment.

Directly to the left of the foyer was a doorway to the kitchen. I remember there were pretty cut-crystal glasses — sort of little scotch-and-water glasses. And later of course, I remembered those knives. I had used those knives — long ones, short ones.

To the right of the foyer was a bedroom. It was the only bedroom that I can think of. It was the only room that seemed a little bit cozy. There was another room off the foyer and that was a room that I never even walked into except twice, I think. Once I walked in and said, Oh, I never want to go in there again, and then I think I went in there again to see whether I didn't want to go there again. I kept the door shut. That was the spookiest room of all. I assumed it was the dining room because there was a dining table. I don't know why but there was a lot of small tight grillwork around — it reminded me of what you might see in Morocco, but without the sun. It was ice-cold in there. There was a small cot, somewhere on the side. Maybe that's where the son slept. It was a hard room, that's the only way I can describe it.

Oh, and the color of it — oh, a horrible horrible...I'm looking at a bottle of Montclair mineral water with a dark blue top, a mean blue, and the whole room was a mean sinister blue, very gloomy and dark.

The living room was the whole top floor of the house. You put the light on and the first thing you saw was a decapitated bull's head with horns. There were a couple of Louis Quinze chairs of sorts, and a couple of floppy leather beanbags. The carpeting was brown, the room gave the impression of a lot of brown. And then there was a bench, a park bench, one of those old metal or steel benches from the seventeenth century — with a cold seat if you sat down on it. I'm beginning to visualize things that I'm sure weren't there, like a street lamp. I don't know, that just came into my mind. Because of the park bench, I guess. It might have been there, too.

It was a room without much natural light. The windows were slightly below waist-level, I guess because it was the top of the building. And not such a nice view of the gardens, either.

In a funny way it was a rather glamorous room. I gave a small cocktail party there, as I recall. I hardly ever used it — it wasn't a room you wanted to sit in.

But most of all I remember the knives. I wouldn't have remembered them particularly, except after I heard they'd been used for purposes other than those they were usually used for, I did remember. There was nothing unusual about any of the knives. I remember a bread knife — a long bread knife, with a wooden handle. There weren't that many knives. It was a very minimally outfitted kitchen, so certain things you remember, I guess.

They were knives I was handling, for Christ's sake! I used to cut lemon peel for martinis with them. The idea that I had used the knife or even touched the knife that had killed somebody made me sick. I've never even killed a little insect. I can't even do that very well. It was a terrifying awful feeling to think that I'd touched a weapon.

Miwa Svinka-Zielinski

A son killing a mother is Greek tragedy but this is much worse — much much worse. I think that she killed him.

Samuel Parkman Shaw

That's a real question — who killed who. It was a real dance, a minuet. Copyright © by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson

Meet the Author

Steven M. L. Aronson is the author of HYPE. A former book editor and publisher, he lives in New York City.

Natalie Robins's books include Copeland's Cure, The Girl Who Died Twice, and Alien Ink. She lives in New York City.

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Savage Grace: The Shocking Story of Fatal Relations in a Rich and Famous American Family 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is not a book for someone looking for the glitz and glamour of the rich and famous. Told primarily through the opinions and observations of those surrounding the Baekelands, the book reveals that not all dysfunctional families are among those without the financial means for medical intervention. Even in those families who can afford such medical care and are also surround by people who are either directly working in medical and scientific professions or writers with uncanny gifts for great insights into the behavior of humans can completely miss the obvious. Unfortunately, by the time this tale became a headliner only one member of the family of three is still living, Brooks Baekeland, a poster boy for the emotionally unavailable. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wonders either what it would be like to live with those in need of psychiatric intervention or are wondering if someone in their family could benefit from psychiatry.