Savage Grace

A well read friend of mine who has known me for many years, and consequently knows my taste in books, loaned me a copy of Savage Grace, a nonfiction book which tells the story of the Baekelands; Brooks Baekeland, heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune, his wife Barbara Daly Baekeland and their son Antony Baekeland. The family are notorious for a murder which scandalised high society in 1972, in which Tony stabbed his mother at their London home, killing her instantly.

The story of the Baekelands and the bizarre family dynamic that led to this turn of events is excellently told in this book, authored by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson. Brooks Baekeland was a handsome intellectually gifted man who abandoned a promising career in physics in order to write a novel which never materialised. Barbara Daly was an aspiring Hollywood starlet and a stunning beauty who saw in Brooks a chance to live the kind of life she dreamed of, one filled with wealth and gracious living, far removed from her frugal Irish American roots. Together they made a dazzling couple: socially prominent, jetsetting and glamorous. However things were not as perfect as they seemed; Barbara drank heavily and was prone to depression, and her husband was cold and distant.

Their son Tony had a peripatetic childhood, growing up in Cadaqués, Paris, New York and London. Tony and Barbara were closer than perhaps would be deemed natural or appropriate and many of their friends remarked on the unusual nature of their bond. It came to a head when Tony first showed signs of homosexuality at a young age and it is rumoured that his mother’s reaction to this was to seduce her own son, hoping to make him heterosexual and therefore more socially acceptable in her eyes. When Tony eventually did bring home a girlfriend, his father ended up stealing her away from him. It is no wonder that Tony ended up with a warped view of life and deep rooted psychiatric problems.

The book takes the form of an oral history through interviews, private letters, diaries and hospital and prison records. Given the circles that the Baekelands moved in, the list of interviewees is quite astounding and includes Cecil Beaton, Dominic Dunne, Sam Green, Jasper Johns, William Styron and Andy Warhol. Savage Grace was made into a film in 2007 starring the wonderful Julianne Moore as Barbara, Stephen Dillane as Brooks and Eddie Redmayne as Antony. It didn’t get amazing reviews but I thought it perfectly captured the excruciating tension and unhappiness in the Baekeland’s lives. Both highly recommended by moi!

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