Barbara Daly Baekeland and her son Antony in better times.
Everybody’s parents screw up. In Antony Baekeland’s case, it seems he never even had a chance against the completely off the scale fucked-up-edness of his parents and their raising of him. Savage Grace documents, through interviews, letters and remembrances, as well as medical and police reports, the long strange trip it was, growing up and becoming the poor little rich boy who murdered his mother.
Brooks and Barbara Baekeland were part of the smart set of mid-century America. They lived in New York, Paris and London and took holidays in Italy, Spain and France, with the elite jet-setters of the day. Brooks’ grandfather, Leo Baekeland had invented Bakelite plastic and set off a revolution in industrial product development. His family had profited greatly from his invention, and though Brooks imagined himself to be the intellectual equal of his grandfather, he suffered from a propensity toward laziness which prevented him from ever really accomplishing much of anything beyond participating in a few exploratory adventures in primitive locations and documenting his “work” there as an engineer. He also fancied himself a writer.
As a young socialite, Barbara Daly was declared to be one of the most attractive women in New York, and she once travelled to Hollywood for a screen test with Dana Andrews. She was being wooed by John Jacob Astor, many years her senior, when she met Brooks, who was young, vital and handsome, so she turned her attention to him, thinking him to be more wealthy than he actually was. They married quickly in California, and Antony was born in 1946.
Though they remained married for almost twenty years, the relationship was rocky from the start, as neither Brooks or Barbara seemed to have the wherewithal to manage life beyond the next party. From an early age Tony was shuttled from New York to Paris, Italy, coastal Spain and other exotic locations, always fully exposed to the activities, arguments and somewhat outré proclivities of his not quite stable parents. Brooks had affairs, and often lived separately from Barbara and Tony. Barbara drank, took prescription drugs and tried to commit suicide on a fairly regular basis. Her mental health was always fragile, at best.
Barbara and Brooks both believed Tony to be brilliant and often pressured him to perform for family and friends. He was a nervous baby and developed a stutter as a child. His personality was charming and yet odd to his parent’s friends and he sometimes said and did things that put people off. Much to his parents dismay, it became obvious, even from a young age, that Tony was a homosexual and he was probably engaging in sexual pick-ups with adults as early as 14 years old. When Tony was 17, his father left Barbara for a much younger woman, who was ostensibly Tony’s girlfriend. From there things got worse. Barbara tried again to commit suicide and nearly succeeded; Tony became a heavy drug user and began behaving more erratically and Brooks completely abdicated all responsibility. Several times in the book it is insinuated that Barbara admitted to sleeping with Tony to try and “cure” him of his homosexuality.
Robins and Aronson use a non-narrative style to tell Tony’s story. Unlike the film version, the story begins with Barbara’s murder in 1972 and works back through history. Each chapter begins with information detailing Tony’s trial in London and then his incarceration in Broadmoor, a psychiatric hospital, where Tony spent seven years as a guest of Her Majesty’s Government. Through misguided intervention by friends, he was released to the US to live with his 87 year old maternal grandmother, Nina Daly. Within six days of his release, he had tried to stab and kill her, but she survived. Tony was arrested and sent to Rikers Island. He committed suicide in his cell after a pre-trial hearing in which he was denied bail, even though his grandmother refused to press charges against him. He was completely off his meds and receiving no psychiatric support from the time he was released into US custody.
Savage Grace is a roller coaster of a book. I felt at turns fascinated and revolted by the Baekelands and their fabulous lifestyle. It’s never entirely clear if Tony was truly schizophrenic, or just the complete product of a psychopathic upbringing by an absent father and a lunatic mother. Robins and Aronson present a great deal of information, but there is a surprising lack of definitive evidence as to the true mind of Antony Baekeland. Even so, Savage Grace is an intriguing and though-provoking read.