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- February 16, 1987
- Vol. 27
- No. 7
Could They Get Away with Murder?
Quite Possibly. for Once, in the Two Mrs. Grenvilles, Television Underplays the True Story of Two Powerful, Feuding Society Women
Fog enveloped the stately homes of Long Island's Gold Coast in the early morning hours of Oct. 30,1955. At 2 o'clock the phone rang in the tiny police station that served the village of Oyster Bay. A man spoke in a frightened voice: "Please come quickly. Something's wrong here." Within minutes three patrol cars barreled up to the main house on the Woodward estate. "I heard two shots," the caretaker explained breathlessly. "Then I heard screams." Later he told a reporter that he didn't hear the screams until at least 20 minutes after he heard the shots. The police could still hear them when one of the officers broke a window and entered the house. There, on the floor, just inside a bedroom, they came upon a horrifying scene. A naked man, the side and back of his head shredded by shotgun pellets, lay dead in a puddle of blood, and a blond woman, with blood all over her face, hands and nightgown, sat cradling the corpse and shrieking hysterically, "Speak to me! Speak to me!" Assuming that both the man and the woman had been shot by an intruder, police drew their guns and searched the house for the killer. They found no one. A doctor arrived and heavily sedated the wailing woman. Six hours passed before police learned what had happened. "I shot him," she gasped. "I thought he was the prowler."
Black headlines decorated the morning tabloids: SHOWGIRL WIFE KILLS HEIR WITH SHOTGUN BLAST. LIFE'S phrase was echoed in the staid New York Times: "Not in this century have circumstances combined to produce so sensational a shooting—a tragedy involving people of great wealth, the meteoric career of a poor girl carried to the heights of fame, and elements of mystery ..."
The dead man was William Woodward Jr., 35, only son of the late chairman of New York's giant Central Hanover Bank and Trust Company and of Elsie Woodward, the supreme matriarch of New York society. Heir to a huge fortune and master of the celebrated Belair Stud—a racing stable that during the '30s produced two Triple Crown winners (Gallant Fox and Omaha) and then Nashua, the wonder horse of the '50s—Billy Woodward was the transatlantic counterpart of the Prince of Wales. His wife, Ann, was a dazzling adventuress with an earthy charm, a violent temper, a lurid past and a robber baron's gift of grab.
As for the mystery, after a timid investigation by the Nassau County police, a grand jury found no evidence of criminal homicide—a decision that left troubling questions: Was it true that Billy and Ann had quarreled in public a few hours before the shooting? What was Ann up to during the 20-odd minutes that elapsed between the shots and the screams? Were witnesses paid to shut up? Did high officials order police to limit their inquiries? Was there a cover-up that permitted Ann Woodward to get away with murder?
She had gotten away with plenty in the course of her hectic life. Angeline Luceil Crowell was born in 1915 on a farm near Pittsburg, Kans. Mother Ethel, an ambitious hysteric, divorced father Jesse, a kindly yokel, when Angeline was 8. Ethel then married the branch manager of the phone company and made his life miserable. When her husband demanded a divorce, Dunne reports, "she followed him through the streets...screaming abuse and attempting to tear his clothes." Arrested, she lost her teaching job and later worked as a taxi dispatcher.
Ethel doted on her spunky daughter. "Angeline got the feeling early," said one observer, "that she could have anything she wanted." She wanted show business stardom. So at 22 she moved to Manhattan, changed her name to Ann Eden and quickly advanced from the Copacabana chorus to bit parts on Broadway. But she gave her best performances after the curtain rang down. "She was always the one," says another actress, "with the most guys waiting at the stage door."
And it wasn't just her follow-me figure that summoned the swarms. The lady had jackhammer energy, raucous wit and a searchlight smile. She was the life of every party, and some of them were wall busters. One night at a wingding in the Waldorf, feeling no pain, she ripped off her clothes and cavorted in the altogether. "She was totally wild," one of her lovers reported. "She would do anything. But if you finished [during sex] and she didn't—look out! Her anger was frightening."
To plump up audience sympathy for Ann-Margret, who plays Ann, the producers of the miniseries have whitewashed Ann's bawdy background and failed to present Billy (played by Stephen Collins) as the limp wimp he really was. Outwardly, he was an Anglo-Saxon Adonis with manners as smooth as fine brandy. Inwardly, he was a glob of Jell-O who had been clamped in an iron mold of conformity by a harrumphing father, a suavely dominant mother and a succession of upper-class institutions: Buckley, Groton, Harvard. World War II encased him in the officer corps of the U.S. Navy. At 22, he was possibly still a virgin and definitely not sure if he was straight or gay.
All doubt vanished the instant he laid eyes on Ann Eden. She had the fierce vitality he needed; he had the status, the sawbucks and the style she longed to acquire. They rushed at each other like magnets of opposite charge.
Billy's father—who is already dead when the TV movie begins but in reality lived until 1953—took a shine to Ann. Billy's mother, Elsie (played by Claudette Colbert), instantly feared and distrusted her. Did she feel a chemical aversion, as many women did, in the presence of Ann's muskily erotic aura? In any case, as the miniseries shows, Elsie made her feelings clear when Billy announced his engagement. Billy and Ann married anyway—on March 14, 1943. Both said they were 24; in fact, Billy was 22 and Ann was 27. Billy's father attended the ceremony; his mother did not. (Ann's mother had died two years earlier.) While Billy was away at war, Ann gave birth to a son, William ("Woody") Woodward III. During her lying-in period, her meals were delivered from a chic New York restaurant, the Colony.
Being rich was fun. Being a mother was not. Ann never paid much attention to her children, who for the most part were raised by servants, and after the war she was less interested in her banker husband than she was in becoming a social success. She hired an arbiter of elegance named Count Lanfranco Rasponi to refine her manners, took speech lessons to perfect an upper-class accent and even retained a handwriting teacher to upscale her penmanship—no more tiny circles over her i's.
Ann's social climbing irritated Billy, as the miniseries accurately indicates, but it took two to wreck the marriage. In Don't Forget: Ann Woodward, a nonfiction book about the Woodward tragedy due within a year, author Susan Braudy describes the couple's relationship as "an instance of folie à deux." When Billy sulked, says Braudy, Ann threw a tantrum—and both got something: release for her, stimulation for him. When Ann, looking for social approval, flirted shamelessly at parties, Billy became furious—and lusty. So Ann flirted some more.
The real trouble began when the flirtations escalated into affairs. She had a fling with Prince Aly Khan, with the Marques Alfonso de Portago and with any number of European noblemen—titles turned her on. She became a notorious husband borrower, and women understandably froze her out of their circles. "You can't succeed in society if women don't like you," says Dunne. "She never learned that."
Disenchanted, Billy left her and asked for a divorce in 1949. On the advice of a lawyer named Sol Rosenblatt, Ann demanded a huge settlement, and Billy meekly came home. But he soon began seeing other women, among them Princess Marina Torlonia, a spectacularly beautiful Italian. Ann got wind of the affair and after that regularly flew into jealous rages. At a ball in Biarritz, she assaulted a woman doing a rumba with Billy and ripped off her pearls. Another outburst made international headlines. When Salvador Dali unveiled a portrait of Ann that Billy had commissioned, she screeched foul language at the mustachioed master. Then she tore up Billy's check and strode out of the studio. Never averse to publicity, Dali sued for $7,000, and the Woodward name (to Elsie's horror) was dragged through the gutter press until the suit was settled—in the artist's favor.
Part of Ann's problem was probably hormonal; she was angriest during her period. Another part was certainly chemical; she had found a Park Avenue M.D. who supplied her with an avalanche of uppers and downers. She spent the last five years of her marriage on a psychotropic roller coaster.
Violence, promiscuity, addiction: None of Ann's symptoms of emotional malaise are dramatized in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. And there are drastic omissions and distortions in the scenes that take place on the night of the shooting.
Billy and Ann arrived at their Oyster Bay estate late Friday night, Oct. 28, about 27 hours before the shooting, and were told that there had been a prowler on the premises. A window had been broken in the main house and a sandwich stolen from the fridge in the cabana. In a spiraling excitement, Billy and Ann plotted to shoot the intruder if he broke into the house. Both had a passion for guns and kept a rack of them in the basement. They had shot big game in Africa and India; Ann had bagged the biggest tiger ever shot by a woman, but oil magnate Russell Havenstrite said she was "the most dangerous woman with a gun I ever saw. She shot without looking."
On Saturday evening, leaving their children—Woody was 11 at the time and Jimmy was 8—in the care of the cook, the Woodwards drove to a dinner party in honor of the Duchess of Windsor. A guest told Dunne that "Ann was obsessed with the prowler that night. She talked about him so much it was suspicious—was she setting up an excuse for the shooting?" Other members of the Woodward set confirmed a rumor that during the evening Ann and her husband had quarreled openly. On TV, Ann flies into a snit when she catches Billy cooing into the phone.
Ann and Billy left the party at about 1 a.m. When they were next seen, Billy lay dead and Ann was wailing over his corpse. What happened after that is mysterious, and very little of the mystery is explored in the show. Word of the tragedy, Dunne says, soon reached Elsie Woodward, and Elsie moved swiftly. Billy Bancroft, the 20-year-old son of Billy Woodward's sister Edith, arrived to identify the body and to report what was going on. About the time Bancroft showed up, a local doctor appeared, along with a nurse. Dunne is convinced that Ann's lawyer, Sol Rosenblatt, came to the Oyster Bay house and discreetly shaped events. What's more, Elsie's chauffeur drove out from Manhattan before 10 a.m. with a large envelope. Years later, Elsie told a friend that it contained $50,000—ten packets of bills, $5,000 in each packet. Nobody knows who got the money. A member of Elsie's staff told Dunne: "Several people were very well taken care of."
By mid-morning on Oct. 30, Ann's New York physician, Dr. John Prutting, had asked Nassau police to let Ann be moved to a Manhattan hospital. Dunne finds it surprising that, having questioned her only briefly, they agreed to let her leave their jurisdiction. An ambulance was called. The attending nurse told Dunne that Ann asked her to pack the pills on her bedside table, and that the pill collection filled three small grocery bags. She also asked for her jewels. She never once asked about her children.
The ambulance drove Ann to Doctors Hospital, where a patrolman was stationed at her door. Bars were installed on her windows to prevent a suicide leap. Two days later 900 people attended Billy's funeral, among them Woody and Jimmy. Ann was not there, but during the service a blanket of white chrysanthemums dotted with red carnations, the colors of the Belair Stud, was laid on the coffin. A ribbon bore the inscription: "To Dunk from Monk"—Ann's and Billy's pet names.
Forty hours after the tragedy Nassau County officials interviewed Ann for about 45 minutes. After that they were told she was too disturbed to speak with them. Yet the morning after the interrogation a well-known model saw her arrive at 7 a.m. at a chichi Manhattan hair salon. Why was she there? Dunne notes that after the killing there were persistent reports that Ann's hair had turned white overnight.
Reinterrogated on Nov. 22, Ann told police that when she and Billy got home from the party they went down to the gun room together. She loaded her gun, slipped some extra shells in her bra, returned to her room and laid the gun on a chair beside her bed. Billy went to his own room, separated from Ann's by a narrow corridor. Ann put on a flimsy blue nightgown and doused the lights.
A little later, she said, she heard footsteps on the roof above her bedroom. Then the family dog began to bark. (Nobody else heard the dog bark, but Ann insisted it did.) Suspecting a break-in, she grabbed the shotgun and hurried toward her bedroom door. Peering into the gloom, she saw a figure on the other side of the hall. In a panic, she fired two shots. Terrified, she put on the light—and saw with horror that she had killed her husband.
At that point Ann did a very strange thing. Leaving her husband's body, she ran all the way down to the gun room, removed the extra shotgun shells from her bra and flung them into the gun cabinet. Why? "I wanted to get away from guns and shells," she said. Then she went back to Billy's bedroom and, falling on his corpse, began to scream.
Dunne finds this tale, which is never presented in the miniseries, weirdly improbable. He also suspects (as the miniseries does suggest) that the footsteps on the roof were a fiction. And he surmises that the man who turned himself in as the prowler, a 23-year-old drifter named Paul Wirths, had been bribed to say he was on the estate when the shots were fired. However, a grand jury heard Ann's story and found her blameless. On TV, the ferocious questioning of Ann-Margret and her brave self-defense are pure malarkey.
What really happened that night? Dunne thinks Ann shot her husband in a fit of fury. Dunne began to lean toward that conclusion when he discovered that she had her period on the night of the shooting; the police found a used tampon in her toilet, and she told them she had taken pills for cramps. The author then visited the Oyster Bay house and reconstructed the crime. Holding a broomstick instead of a shotgun, he repeated Ann's movements in darkness. An aide wearing dark clothing stepped through the doorway of Billy's bedroom. "I could see him clearly," Dunne says. "No way could Ann have mistaken Billy for a prowler. She shot him on purpose."
But why? Dunne's scenario, and that of the teleplay, is that Billy had again been badgering Ann for a divorce—without success. Then one day, while poring through old issues of the Pittsburg paper, Dunne discovered to his amazement that Billy had bought an airplane in Pittsburg, Kans. only a week before Ann shot him. While he was there, had somebody told him something he could use to force Ann's hand? Suddenly Dunne remembered the words of a woman who had worked with Ann as a model before she left Kansas City. "Ann was married in those days," she had said. "She told me so." What if Ann had failed to get a divorce before marrying Billy? Faced with the loss of name and rank, might she have committed murder? "I'm convinced," says Dunne, "that Billy found something in Pittsburg that drove Ann off the deep end."
Dunne is also convinced that during those 20-odd unexplained minutes, Ann was talking with at least one and possibly two lawyers. He believes she spoke to Sol Rosenblatt. Dunne has evidence that she also reached a well-known counselor to the wealthy named Abe Bienstock (a woman who spent that night in Bienstock's home informed Dunne that her host got a call from Ann in the early hours of the morning). Why didn't Nassau County detectives find out about this call? Checking phone records is routine police procedure. Dunne feels that "powerful influence was brought to bear."
It was brought to bear because Elsie Woodward seized the levers of power. Why did she risk criminal charges to save a woman she had always loathed and now believed to be her son's killer? The show accepts Dunne's idea that Elsie set out to rescue the family from a scandal and Billy's children from the shame of having a murderess for a mother. But it may be well to remember that in protecting the family name she also saved her own face and preserved her hard-won preeminence.
Like Ann, Elsie Cryder was born poor—though genteel—and had found in the Woodward name a passport to power. Unlike Ann, Elsie knew how to handle power when she got it. She was plain and she was resolutely dowdy, but there was a fire inside her that lit people up like candles and made a room glow. After losing husband and son, Elsie emerged from the cocoon of exclusivity to become the most daring and influential hostess of her day. After her son's death, she sold her grand mansion on Fifth Avenue and in her Waldorf Towers apartment created a salon that leavened the lumpish Eisenhower era with hybrid vigor. Within her walls Warhol and Taft, Sinatra and Niebuhr, Rayburn and Cocteau met and mingled. She was a social genius, but she failed to rescue her grandchildren.
She offered Ann a deal: Give me the children and I'll give you back your social position. Ann refused to let the children go—they were her insurance that the Woodwards would not abandon her—but she agreed to go abroad until the scandal abated and to let her mother-in-law select the children's schools. Superficially, both parties lived up to the deal. Ann went to live in Europe and entered the two boys, at Elsie's suggestion, in Switzerland's Le Rosey, one of the world's most exclusive prep schools. Whenever Ann visited New York, Elsie dutifully trotted her out on family occasions. But in private the grande dame gave her friends to understand that she tolerated that murderess only for the sake of the children. Elsie was acclaimed as a saint, and Ann was confirmed as a monster.
Ann's antics supported the judgment, but don't expect to see on TV what really happened. With Billy scarcely cold in his grave, his widow oiled her guns and tootled off to Spain to blow a few birds out of the sky. She also found plenty of two-footed game, but her lovers soon took off, frightened by her rages. As she aged, she became an erotic desperado. She was asked to leave the Villa Taylor in Marrakech for luring Moroccan boys over the wall. And she never let her children interfere with her fun. By the time he was 20, Jimmy had had enough: He jumped out of an upper-story window in Manhattan's Mayfair-Regent Hotel. Woody, now in his early 40s, has survived to inherit most of the Woodward money. He ran unsuccessfully for New York's City Council in 1981, and in 1985 married a young woman he met at a homecoming weekend at Le Rosey.
Wherever Ann went, the memory of that night pursued her. Once in St. Moritz she ran into author Truman Capote, a friend of Elsie's, and made the mistake of calling him a fag. In reply he called her Bang-Bang, and the sobriquet stuck. She drifted from country to country, bed to bed. "She'd had too many face-lifts," said one of her few old friends, "and the lines kept coming." The men stopped looking. The pills stopped working.
Then one day she was given an advance copy of La Cote Basque, 1965, a vicious excerpt from Capote's unfinished last novel, Answered Prayers, that was about to appear in Esquire. Ann's name was changed, but her story was there in grisly detail, and the piece openly called her a murderess. "The article was just the last straw," says a European nobleman who saw her on the last day of her life. On Oct. 12, 1975, 18 days before the anniversary of Billy's death, she swallowed a fistful of Seconal tablets. Obituaries gave her age as 52, but she was nearly 60.
True to her deal, Elsie supervised the funeral arrangements and buried her daughter-in-law beside Billy in the Woodward family plot. Elsie survived until 1981, when she died at 98.
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