Money. Madness. Matricide. String words like that together, only positive associations for me. I think, for example, of “Despair + Anger + Jealousy” the front-cover catchwords of Crimes of Passion (1975), whose exotic true-crime accounts—e.g., “The Peer in the Gravel Pit” (a philandering Scottish peer meets death at the hands of a wronged husband in 1940s Nairobi)—forever redefined for me the experience of a good bathtub read.
But Money, Madness, Matricide: this from a back-cover blurb that, along with an intriguing inside-cover sketch, convinced me to buy a dusty first edition of Savage Grace (1986) from a local consignment shop last summer. Savage Grace is the life story of Tony Baekeland, great-grandson of Leo Baekeland, inventor of Bakelite [conveniently also Time coverboy below]. With a helping hand from Brooks, his renegade intellectual father, and Barbara, his histrionic, social-climbing beauty of a mother, Tony plummeted shocking depths of Freudian dysfunction in a series of events that culminated in a 1972 murder and—really—only snowballed from there.
The narrative unfolds through journal entries, psychiatric evaluations, newspaper reports, and letters from Baekeland relatives, friends, dinner companions, and house guests ad nauseum. Every art gallery owner, high-stakes investor, and international shipping tycoon worth his or her weight in nouveau gold boozed it up with the Baekelands in 1950s/60s East Hampton, Paris, Ibiza, and Cadaques. Among the more respectable company Brooks and Barbara kept: Alastair Reid, Salvador Dalí, Jasper Johns, and William Styron.
Selections are also excerpted from May Sarton’s memoir, I Knew a Phoenix (1954), and James Jones’s The Merry Month of May (1971), wherein the Gallaghers, rich American expats living in Paris, serve as transparent stand-ins for the Baekelands.
Next month, Savage Grace will come to U.S. theaters in limited release, with Julianne Moore smartly starring as Barbara Baekeland. The word from Cannes isn’t exactly over the moon, but expect the media’s reintroduction to/regurgitation of this scandal of its day to blow the dust off the book, soon to be a trade paperback tie-in.
Also next month: the second season of Court TV’s Murder by the Book (to be confused neither with the 1951 Nero Wolfe mystery nor the exquisite 1971 Columbo episode of the same name), spotlighting the real-life crimes that have inspired some of today’s biggest crime writers (Sandra Brown and David Baldacci are the season openers).