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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Savage Grace

Several weeks ago while up late not being able to sleep (for whatever reason) I ran across a movie starring Julianne Moore called "Savage Grace". It was such a strange and unbelievable story that I had to immediately purchase the book upon which the movie is based. The book (by the same name) was riveting. It is written in a documentary style which is rather difficult to read at first, but it is such an intriguing story that I simply couldn't put it down! After I caught onto the rhythm of the style, it was quite pleasant reading actually.

It is the story of Brooks, Barbara and Antony Baekeland. Brooks grandfather (Leo) invented plastic (Brooks himself invented a parachute but that is the extent of his contribution to society).

Barbara was a stunningly beautiful, highly violent and manically energetic woman who decided she needed to have sex with her son (Antony) in order to "cure" him of his homosexual tendencies. Barbara came from a long line of mentally unstable people. Her mother had a severe mental breakdown before Barbara was born. Her father committed suicide. Her only sibling, a brother, also committed suicide.

Antony was a very attractive and artistic young man who didn't have a dogs chance of surviving in the world into which he was born and eventually died while in prison.

The book is filled to the brim with interviews with such luminaries as Dominick Dunne, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Jim Jones, Sam Green, Patricia Neal (the actress), Sir Cecil Beaton, Georges Bernier, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, Peter Gimble, plus assorted Guinnesses, Vanderbilts, Astors and titled Europeans.

Brooks says in the book that because of his grandfather, Brooks was able to live his life with "fuck you money". They never owned a house. They traveled like gypsies around the globe renting one place after another in whatever country they decided to land for anywhere from a month to a year at a time. Antony was raised with adults and was taught from early childhood to speak and react as an adult. Brooks was insistent that instead of Antony learning to recognize a butterfly (as an example) he was instead taught to recognize it as a Papilio (the Latin term). He wanted to make sure that Antony learned the scientific terms for all things rather than what Brooks considered to be the "slang" terms for them.

As a matter of fact, throughout Antony's short life (he was around 30 at the time of his death) he was treated as a pet more so than a child. At dinner parties (one in particular), he was offered up to read a chapter from "Lady Chatterley's Lover" to the guests in attendance. I believe he was 10 at the time?

I think the book enthralls me so much because it is such an example of the idle rich and their skewed moral courage (or lack thereof). Had anything similar to this occurred in an inner city family, it would not have been made into a movie starring Julienne Moore. It would undoubtedly not even have made the nightly news.

I think because of their vast sums of money, we expect more from these types of people. We expect them to have just a little more common sense, intelligence and morality than the common ghetto dweller. However, as this book shows, very often, they certainly do not.

Brooks Baekeland was a self proclaimed author who never published a book. He however, did invent a specialized parachute for high altitude jumping that is used by every military authority in the world for this purpose.

During such a long life as he enjoyed with all the financial resources at his disposal, one would expect so much more from him. Especially if he truly were nearly as smart and creative as he proclaimed himself to be.

Whenever he spoke of Barbara's painting talent, he says he stood behind her when she painted and instructed her. When he talks of her writing ability, he states he instructed her and edited her words. No one on earth was anywhere near the intelligence level as Brooks, or at least in his own mind.

Barbara was an entertaining genius by all accounts. It was said repeatedly that if she felt a dinner party was "going south", she would come up with ingenious ways to liven it up. Thus making her parties the must attend functions in many countries.

Their lives were the fodder of at least 2 successful novels. One of them entitled "The Merry Month of May" 1971 by James Jones who also authored "From Here to Eternity" among others, was reviewed by the New York Times.

The reviewer for Time magazine noted in his review, his feeling that the book's characters were not very believable. The Saturday Review (John W. Aldridge) notes in his review, "Even with all due allowance for his evident faith in human credulity, Jones cannot really expect us to believe any of this." Little did they know, that the main characters in the book (the Gallagher family) were indeed the Baekelands and everything in the book was factual. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

I think the reason this is the subject of my post, is because when I googled Antony Baekeland, I got scores of articles about Barbara or Leo but absolutely nothing about Antony. This movie, this book, this horrific story is NOT about Brooks, or Leo or even Barbara so much as it is about Antony. Yet he is treated as an afterthought, he is treated as a minor player in the whole thing. Had it not been for Brooks and Barbara and their miserable failings as parents and human beings, there would be no book or movie and perhaps Barbara would be alive today. Although Barbara was indeed murdered, Antony is the real victim in this saga.

As I see it, Antony's (and Barbara's) deaths were due in large part to three situations.

1) His mother. Barbara was not only having sex with him from the time he was a teenager until he murdered her, but she was cruelly manipulative and very often violent with him. He had no one to shelter him from this treatment and as this was all he had ever known, he felt he had no escape from it. Much like a "Battered woman syndrome" situation.

The few times that he did move away from his mother, she allowed him to stay for a few months and then would pull him back with threats of cutting off his money.

I think his state of mind where Barbara is concerned, could best be shown in the following. At one point, Sam Green had lunch with Tony. Sam had been Barbara's lover for a short time and some sources state, he was sexually active with Tony as well although after the book and movie came out, he denied ever having been intimate with Tony.

Tony was desperate to talk with someone, anyone, about what his mother was doing to him sexually and manipulatively. Sam advised him to get away from her and stay away from her. Tony's response was utter shock, "Where will I go? What will I do?"

Sam's response was, "Do what people all over the world do.....get a job!" Tony was stunned. No one in his immediate family worked, or had ever really worked. He didn't really know anyone besides the domestic help that worked. His overly pompous, braggart of a father certainly had not set an example of this to him, nor had his status seeking, party girl of a mother.

2) His father, Brooks. Brooks throughout the book, brags incessantly about how rich he is, how super intelligent he is, how he succeeds at every little thing he attempts. He scorns Antony at every turn. He offered no assistance, when it became clear that Antony had mental issues. Severe mental issues. As an example, there was the times Tony tried to kill his mother even going so far as to drag her by her hair into traffic in the hopes of throwing her beneath an oncoming car, leaving her partially bald, bruised and with numerous broken bones in her hand as a result of him repeatedly slamming the gate on her hand as she held on for dear life. Brooks steadfastly refused to pay for a stay in a hospital or for psychiatric treatment touting psychiatrists as charlatans. It should be noted here that his brother, Dr. Fred Baekeland was a rather prominent psychiatrist at the time.

Even when Antony was writing and calling his father literally begging him for help, Brooks ignored the letters and calls or would berate him on the few occasions that he actually accepted the calls. Brooks in essence abandoned his son leaving him to fend for himself knowing Tony lacked the proper mental equipment to do so.

Brooks literally sentenced Barbara and Nina (the maternal grandmother who was the last of Antony's victims to be stabbed) to their fates. He also assured Tony of his fate as well. Tony should never have been incarcerated at Riker's Island Prison.

For that matter, he should never have been released from Broadmoor without supervision. He should have remained in a mental health facility until he died or at the very least, he should have been sent to a halfway house with constant appropriate supervision.

However, that's not what happened.

3) There were a group of Barbara's friends who visited Tony regularly during the nearly 8 years that he was in Broadmoor. They felt that he was changed. They felt that killing Barbara was the only thing he could think to do in order to stop the torture both sexually and emotionally that she had inflicted upon him during his life. They felt that he was no threat to anyone else.

So they campaigned relentlessly to get his release. Even to the point of getting the American Consulate involved in the saga.

Eventually, they won his release. However, when the British Courts demanded that someone be made responsible for him upon his release, NONE of them stepped up to the plate and volunteered. Thus, he was sent to live with Barbara's elderly mother in New York and was given absolutely NO conditions of supervision or continued mental health care. Again, Brooks flatly refused to finance medical treatment for Tony.

Without the medicines which had kept him on a somewhat even keel while in Broadmoor, within a week of his stay with Nina Daly, he decided that she was nagging him too much about the noise he would make during the night as he stayed up all night playing his music.

He also had erected a shrine of sorts to Barbara in Nina's tiny living room (which was where he slept as she lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment). He would, according to Nina, conduct occult type ceremonies to Barbara there.

Nina had fallen and broken her hip not long before Tony was released and she was slowly on the mend from that. One morning nearly a week after he came there, he threw a phone at Nina causing her to fall to the floor, fearing he might has re-fractured her hip again, he decided to kill her to put her out of her misery.

In his mind, he thought that to be the most humane and decent thing he could do for her. He went into the kitchen and grabbed a knife and began stabbing her repeatedly but the blade kept hitting bone and she didn't die. Furious because he couldn't kill her, he finally called for an ambulance to come get her. He remarked to the police when they arrived that he hated it when they just wouldn't die!!

This was the crime that eventually led to him being sent to Riker's Island Prison where they found him with a plastic bag over his head dead one afternoon shortly after he had returned from a court hearing in which his bail was again denied.

All of these "friends" of Barbara's knew what she was doing to Tony for years! They admit in interviews that either Barbara or Tony and sometimes both, had admitted to them that they were having sex. They knew that Barbara was violent and erratic and mentally ill herself. They knew that Brooks had deserted both of them. Yet not one of them ever admits to coming forward and telling Barbara that she should stop treating Tony that way or volunteering to take Tony or in any other way, trying to help Tony.

Only when he finally gets to a place (Broadmoor) in which he can get the help he needs and is doing well, do they decide to form a committee to "help" him.

I honestly don't know how they sleep at night. I don't know how Brooks could live with himself.

What a complete and utter waste of space Brooks and Barbara Baekeland were. Utter waste of air.

But that's just me.


Anonymous said...

As someone who was intimately familiar with the Baekelands, I take extreme offense at the simplicity with which you write on this matter. Brooks Baekeland was most certainly not a pompous overly self exalted individual. He left Barbara and Antony because he knew there was nothing he could do to prevent Antony and Barbara's inevitable self destruction. One can not blame the man for protecting his very life. Absolute dribble, in my opinion.

Fiona D. said...

You have a thirst for the gore don't you my friend. Have you thought about writing children's novels? Consider what you could do. It is an untapped market. :-)

Anonymous said...

Having been directed to this blog by an acquaintance, I was positively floored at the callousness of your treatment of Brooks. A more developed brain has yet to grace this world and for you to belittle him as you do, is just beyond my comprehension! You know nothing of which you write. You have taken the events and twisted them in a fit of jealousy and envy. Brooks did what he thought was right. It was not an easy decision to cut off Antony's money but Barbara wanted to be "independent" and had he continued supporting Anthony, she would never have learned the value of a dollar. How could Brooks ever have foreseen Antony's reaction.

Anonymous said...

I lived on Cape Cod in the 50s. Antony Baekland was my 2nd cousin. They would come up from NYC to visit. We would go out to the back side of the cape between Provincetown and Truro. We would make a huge fire and have a cook out. We would roast marshmellows and hot dogs. I remember Antony pretending to be a butterfly. Running around with a beach towel. He also would eat orange peelings and made himself vomit. I knew that he was not well. It's too bad he did not get the help he needed.I put the blame on the parents. I saw Savage Grace. I was living in NYC when Tony committed suicide at Rikers Island.

Ernie said...

Thanks for the comment Anonymous! He was your 2nd cousin? Antony's life was a horror movie in the making. He had the most narcissistic parents ever and as a result, his life was hell. Antony was a victim of a lot of grown ups keeping their mouths shut when they should have intervened. There were scads of grown ups during his childhood who saw the way this child was being raised and was treated, and they did nothing. Nowadays, I believe someone would have stepped in but back in those days, it just wasn't done - it just wasn't socially correct to do so and many children have suffered because of that socially correct behavior. I have always felt so sad for Antony. I truly wish his story had a happier ending. Thanks again for the comment.