It’s a story that begins with a bang. “TURFMAN KILLED BY WIFE IN DARK” read the cover of The New York Times on October 31, 1955. The turfman was Billy Woodward Jr., 35, owner of famed racehorse Nashua, international playboy and son of famed financier William Woodward Sr The wife was Ann Woodward, 40, a Kansas success story: She climbed the hoochie-coochie nightclub ranks straight into the lap of her Manhattan millionaire husband — and his father.
At around 2 a.m. on October 30, at their Oyster Bay mansion, Ann heard her miniature poodle Sloppy barking followed by a strange noise. Fearing the return of a serial burglar who was terrorizing the upscale community, she picked up the Churchill “Imperial” double-barreled ejector shotgun she kept by her bed, walked into the darkness, and drawn. At the end of the corridor, the naked body of her husband fell inert in a pool of blood.
Not since Harry Kendall Thaw murdered Stanford White because of Evelyn Nesbit has a corporate shooting been so outrageous. To many, especially her mother-in-law, Ann has always been a stain on the Woodward family name. Other women called her a gold digger. There were rumors that she had sex with men for money and gifts during her “bunny girl” days at Fefe’s Monte Carlo at 49 East 54th St. She did – it is where she first met Billy, after all.
Some knew that she had been the mistress of William Woodward Sr. before marrying Billy. Others knew that the Woodward family patriarch tricked her into taking Billy’s virginity to make up for rumors that he had a gay yen. Those who had hunted tigers with Ann in India knew she was dangerous with guns. Those who had lunch with her at La Cote Basque at 60 West 55th St. knew she was staring down the barrel of a volcanic divorce. They knew that Billy had a voracious sexual appetite and conducted his business (with women) in public. They knew that their relationship was often violent. She risked losing her children.
Nassau County authorities have ruled Billy Woodward’s death an accident. But to the talkative members of New York coffeehouse society, she was the de facto culprit. She had signed her lead divorce papers.
For 20 years, literary superstar and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” author Truman Capote has been sucking up scuttlebutt like his vodka-heavy screwdrivers. For just as long, Ann had tried to disappear – quietly oscillating between Europe and Manhattan. Then, in 1975, Capote regurgitated the whispers in an excerpt from his long-delayed book “Answered Prayers” with such venom that Ann killed herself in her apartment at 1133 Fifth Ave. before publication.
“Once a tramp, always a tramp,” says Lady Ina Coolbirth, Capotes’ replacement for the socialite Slim Keith, of a not at all veiled caricature of Ann in the chapter titled “The Basque Coast, 1965,” which appeared in Esquire. Keith, once one of Capote’s most beloved “swans,” never spoke to him again after publication.
The insults continue like machine gun fire. Billy was a naïve “anal-oriented Episcopalian” and “not at all into cafe society”. Ann is “a carrot-topped jazzy little killer” “raised slum-style” and “a call girl for a pimp who was bell captain at the Waldorf” who “saved his money and took singing lessons and dancing lessons and ended up being the favorite crush of one of Frankie Costello’s con artists.
“Of course it was no accident,” Lady Coolbirth continues. “She’s a murderer.”
The story – which threw punches below the belt in trashy, bassy prose at virtually everyone close to Capote (including socialites Babe Paley, CZ Guest, Slim Keith and Lee Radziwill) – was an act of destruction. casually done in cold blood. The spinoffs are legendary, and the unfinished novel would not be published until 1986, two years after Capote’s death.
In “Deliberate Cruelty” (out Nov. 11 from Atria Books), author Roseanne Montillo reflects on one of New York’s most memorable murders, its decades-long ripple effect, and the failure of the final literary project. of Capote.
While tons of analyzes of Ann’s pulpy affair have been offered over the years – it was the inspiration for Dominick Dunne’s “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” – Montillo takes a biographical route to answer a lingering question: What made Capote attack Ann – not to mention his closest friends – in “Answered Prayers”?
“It’s possible that Truman Capote hated socialite Ann Woodward because she reminded him so much of his mother,” she wrote. “But maybe he was also so cruel to her because Ann Woodward was too much like her too.”
Like Ann, Capote was born into poverty. Like Ann, Capote spent much of her formative years living in a rural American backwater with relatives. Like Ann, Capote and his mother, Lillie Mae, were fascinated by New York high society—and neither Ann nor Lillie Mae were above using wealthy men to get what they wanted. Their mothers both met tragic ends: Capote’s mother committed suicide, while Ann’s hard-lived mother died of a rare form of tuberculosis commonly found in cattle. . More importantly, they both had the skills and cunning to rise in a society that would never fully accept them.
“The People of Truman Streckfus [later Truman Capote] looked more like Ann Woodward than he cared to admit, and their lives ran on parallel tracks from start to finish,” she wrote.
But despite their similarities, Capote was never close to Ann Woodward. They were connected through friends of friends at best. When they met, according to Montillo, it was like dropping a pair of Siamese fighting fish into a glass of water.
In 1956, just a year after her husband’s death, Capote spotted Ann dining at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, and to his surprise she was barely a picture of the grieving widow. She dined comfortably with the famous playboy Claus von Bülow, a man with “a past as colorful as his, if not more”.
“The rumors surrounding him were grim: that he was a necrophiliac; that he had killed his mother and hid her body in the ice; that somehow he was still involved in espionage; that in his youth he had attended the wedding of Hermann Göring,” writes Montillo, noting that later in 1982 he would be found guilty of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny.
Intrigued by her audacity, Capote approaches Ann.
“When he arrived at the table, Ann immediately got up from her chair, angry at having been disturbed during her meal. A short conversation ensued, during which, apparently, Ann called Truman a ‘little fag’ , writes Montillo. “He returned the insult by waving his finger at her and calling her ‘Mrs. Bang Bang,’ a nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his life.
Truman chatted about the encounter for years afterwards. When Ann learned that Capote was talking about her, she called him “a little toad.”
What might have been a friendship forged in otherness was now a war of words – a war that Capote spent years building his arsenal for.
In 1979, several years after the fallout from the Esquire story and Ann’s subsequent death, a drug and alcohol-hardened Capote appeared on the “Stanley Siegel Show” in Manhattan and joked:
“I’ll tell you something about queers, especially southern queers. We are wicked. A southern queer is meaner than the meanest rattlesnake. . . . We just can’t keep our mouths shut.