A Resonance for William Styron

Gabriele Annan

In 1972 a 26-year-old American schizophrenic, Anthony Baekeland, killed his mother Barbara with a kitchen knife. They had been sleeping together. It was her idea: she thought it would cure his homosexuality. An earlier cure by means of a French girl had not been completely successful; Tony’s father, Brooks Baekeland, had gone off with the girl he married after Barbara’s death. This occurred in Cadogan Square, so Tony was sent to Broadmoor. Eight years later he was released, extradited, and sent to live with his maternal grandmother in New York. He stabbed her with a kitchen knife. She survived and he was sent to the penitentiary on Rikers Island, where he killed himself by putting his head in a plastic bag. By this time it was 1981.

It is difficult to react to Savage Grace without sounding like either Savonarola or Lord Longford. Some kind of moral judgment seems to be called for. No aesthetic judgment is possible anyhow, because this is one of those un-books composed of letters and statements by friends, acquaintances and witnesses. Presumably the statements were taped and then edited. They all read fluently and they all read the same, except for one or two by inmates of Rikers Island which are dubbed into a kind of prison-movie vernacular.

Some of the respondents have sensibly chosen to have pseudonyms. The rest are listed at the back of the book with biographical notes presumably contributed by themselves (if alive) like the entries in Who’s Who. There are some known names: Cecil Beaton, Jasper Johns, James Jones, John Mortimer, Patricia Neal, William Styron, Andy Warhol. Among the rest are antique dealers, decorators, magazine editors, a ‘freelance music co-ordinator for fashion shows’, a princess ‘internationally concerned with matters of spiritual evolution’, an extraordinarily large proportion of people describing themselves as writers or painters, and several women whose occupation is ‘entertaining’ with two or three glossy addresses each in Europe and America.

Is there a point where a person interviewed for this kind of book loses the right to withdraw his statement or sue? There must be. Otherwise, how could some of the contributors have allowed their statements to stand in all their inanity, frivolity, narcissism and callousness? (This does not go so much for the professionals – nurses, lawyers, policemen, psychiatrists.) ‘Compulsive and shattering,’ says the blurb, ‘Savage Grace stands beside such classics as White Mischief and In Cold Blood.’ And what makes a classic in this genre? And why no mention of The Executioner’s Song and Mrs Trilling’s Mrs Harris?

Never mind. The aim seems to be a succès de scandale purified by some sort of message. But hardly less scandalous than the behaviour of the patently deranged principals are the attitudes and motives revealed by the people they knew.

I called Scotland Yard and I said: ‘I think I’d like to talk to you.’ So these two marvellous policemen came, and we were staying at this wonderful hotel, not Claridge’s, the other good one, the really good one – the Connaught. And there was a bar there – you know, all stocked – and they said, ‘We don’t drink as a rule but, you know, all right,’ so we gave them a couple of drinks and they were thrilled with us.

The witness is a woman. A mutual friend sent her Mrs Baekeland’s blood-stained Chanel dress:

It was the kind of dress you would wear to be stabbed in ... I was so freaked that I buried the dress. I actually dug a hole in the ground at the back of the hotel. That dress is buried in voodoo country, in Haiti behind the Oloffson Hotel.

Here are two more examples of the Baekelands’ friends’ reactions.

  The memorial service in New York was at St Vincent Ferrer, I think – on 66th and Lexington. And we weren’t invited. Anne and I weren’t even told where it was.

  As I went in I saw Daphne Hellman with a black hat on. It was such an awful service. Everybody was looking round to see who was there and hobnobbing. I was too.

On Mallorca Tony and Barbara both seem to have been infatuated with one of their house guests, who then moved on to Cecil Beaton in Wiltshire: ‘Cecil was dying to meet Barbara because I had such good stories to tell. They never did meet, but, based on what he heard about Barbara and Tony from me, he wrote a novella that telescoped them into the future – he had the son kill the mother at the end!’ The same man later wrote Tony a cheery letter:

So you’re in prison awaiting trial! Yet another adventure for you – but this one is taking so long. You must be bored rigid. Since you are the one with all the time on your hands, how about a letter from you describing what it is like to be in prison? ... In comparison with your confinement, I have been even more compulsive in my activeness. I spent December and January in India and Ceylon and can hardly wait to return to the former.

  I have a little house on the beach here to which no one comes. It is a cold gray windy rainy day, and I’m looking out over the water just so happy to be here and not at some chic Sunday brunch in NY.

The reader is probably meant to agree with William Styron, who also sees the classical side of the affair: ‘God, it’s a fascinating story, the horror of that kid is classic Greek. I do think that the terrible quality of the whole story has got some resonance about our period in some curious way. It has some very large metaphorical meaning.’

Heavy with contemporary relevance though Savage Grace is meant to be, the authors manage to get an old-fashioned slant on it with Victorian hints about family curses and Bad Blood. They go back to the diaries and letters of Tony’s great-grandfather, Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian scientist who emigrated to the States, invented the first plastic – bakelite – and became a millionaire. A page of photographs shows early bakelite objects, and the irony of Tony’s suicide was not lost upon his creepy father, who commented: ‘It was a beautiful ending – in plastic too!’

Leo Hendrik Baekeland is presented as a scientific genius. He was autocratic and austere. His son George was autocratic and a stick. His son Brooks is described as glamorous by some of the respondents and weird, remote and cruel by others. There is no doubt he was very good-looking. In the war he served in the Canadian Air Force. Afterwards he read science at Columbia but dropped out to become a writer. Almost everyone in this book seems to feel it incumbent on him or herself to be an artist of some kind or another. If it’s not writing, then it’s painting or at least decorating; sometimes all three. When Brooks met Barbara Daly she was writing poetry. He told her it was ‘marmalade’. A beautiful, pushy girl from a lace-curtain Irish background, she had the kind of mother who wants her child to marry a millionaire. She failed in Hollywood, almost made it with an Astor, but then settled for Brooks. Tony, their only child, was born in 1946.

There had been suicides in the Daly family, and Barbara herself was much given to violent, hysterical scenes. Her upward mobility was disarming in its shameless honesty and energy. Brooks sneered at her snobbery but he was just as bad. They soon outgrew what America had to offer and moved to Europe in pursuit of titled acquaintance, royal if possible. The respondents agree that Barbara was a great hostess and a great dresser (she always had one real Chanel and lots of copies). The Baekelands swung in perpetual motion between Paris, London, Gstaad, Antibes, Ansedonia, Cadaques, Mallorca and the Hamptons. Brooks eventually tired of the life but Barbara never did. Their rows got worse; he kept leaving her; she kept making suicide attempts.

Tony was a beautiful and appealing child. His parents ‘wanted the boy to be a genius’. They praised and circulated everything he drew or wrote. But schools were a problem and he kept dropping out. In his teens in Cadaques he fell in with a sinister bunch of beach boys. By the age of 17, his father said, he was ‘far gone in drugs and sodomy’. Still, in 1971 a New York psychiatrist told Barbara that his instability (by that time he had had to enter a clinic) was not ‘induced by drugs – but primary – that is to say, genetic’.

In 1968 Brooks finally left his wife, and Barbara and Tony went into a sort of folie à deux. They lost all sense of reality, all understanding of their lack of understanding, of their limitations of talent, position, money – the latter now severely rationed by Brooks. Barbara imagined she could live by buying, doing up and renting out plushy flats in New York, London and Paris; by writing a novel; by working for Andy Warhol. Tony veered between passionate affection for his mother and bouts of violence and religious mania. At times ‘the combined efforts of de Sade and Tennessee Williams couldn’t have done justice’ to the scene. Tony attacked Barbara (and her mother) several times before he killed her. Unfortunately fearlessness was her outstanding virtue.

The last act of the tragedy in New York would not have happened if Tony had been left in Broadmoor, where he does not seem to have been desperately unhappy (compared to Rikers Island, it sounds like a well-run kindergarten). A bunch of his mother’s friends agitated to get him out. They got no support from Brooks, who called them ‘the bleeding hearts club’. For once one sympathises with him. They guaranteed psychiatric care and sheltered environments, but when Tony landed at Kennedy Airport there was no one to field him but his chair-bound grandmother.

What is this book supposed to be telling us? That great riches are more likely to warp their possessor than to make him happy? A big yawn. That our society is sick? Another big yawn. That the Beautiful People are self-infatuated bores prepared to bang on interminably provided they get in on the act, whatever the act may be? ‘A son killing his mother,’ one of them says, ‘is Greek Tragedy, but this is worse – much much worse.’ Yes much much worse. As literature, that is – or perhaps one should say as reading matter.

Reviewing Peter Manso’s Mailer, Elizabeth Hardwick went into the question, moral and aesthetic, of the taped book. The genre, with Mayhew as its godfather, began with the best intentions. ‘The sequential interviewer is likely to reign over the text in the benevolent and more or less disinterested manner of the anthropologist or social worker ... Exploitation is to be circumvented by the general air of affirmation. The worth of the recorded person is what is being affirmed rather than the singularity of the voice, the words.’ Savage Grace does not feel benevolent at all. It’s more like a trap into which the respondents and letter lenders have walked: the whirr of the tape a flow of resin which has solidified into a nasty yellowish glob of amber with the flies and mosquitoes inside displayed in all their insect eagerness to tell and be there. Should one be sorry for them? No. Savonarola rules, OK? And here is the first volume for the bonfire.