Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, The Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century

With the grit and determination to overcome very similar hardscrabble backgrounds, Truman Capote and Ann Woodward both rose to pinnacles in New York’s glittering mid-century high society. But overcoming such comparable odds didn’t make them fast friends. Instead, Ann’s coarse description of Capote’s sexual orientation turned him into a virulent foe. Eventually, each would plummet, losing friends and their reputations.

Their paralleled rise and fall is chronicled in Roseanne Montillo’s Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, The Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century, a juicy true crime tome that takes us into the lives of headliners of the time such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lee Radziwill, Claus von Bulow (who would later be accused of attempting to murder his wife), and Babe Paley.

Ann and Billie. Photo source Wikipedia.

For Ann Eden, her romance with Billie started so well. She worked the midnight to 3:00 a.m. shift at Felipe’s, a popular Manhattan night club, performing in a white bathing suit, black fishnet stockings, and high heels. Admirers would invite the dancers to their tables for a cocktail and, possibly, negotiations. There were rumors that Ann was available for more than just drinks and Billie, the handsome heir to a banking fortune, was an attentive beau, who showered her with gifts. There was one drawback: He was married, and she was just a showgirl with a bad pedigree for those who keep score of such things.

But Ann’s beauty and moxie was such that she negotiated for more and ultimately landed one of the biggest matrimony catches when she and Billie wed. But this was no Cinderella marriage despite the expensive homes, extensive wardrobe of designer duds and fur coats, and invitations to soirees packed with a who’s who of upper crust New Yorkers. Ann often felt an overwhelming sadness which she treated with the use of tranquilizers. It wasn’t a good mix with the cocktails she and Billie also overly imbibed. The couple was known for their stupendous, alcohol-fueled rages.

The night Ann shot Billie had proceeded along those lines. Returning from an exquisite party where the candles were soaked in Chanel Number 5 and the table set with silver and the finest China, the two returned to their 43-acre estate and retreated into separate bedrooms. Waking up an hour or so later to the sound of a crash, Ann reached for the shotgun she kept nearby. A burglar had been breaking into houses in their rich neighborhood and Ann, as she would tell police, thought they were being robbed. She fired twice—and only then realized she had killed her husband.

Truman Capote in 1959

Was it a deadly mistake? Or had Ann purposefully fired, knowing it was Billie? After all, if he divorced her, she might lose everything. As his widow, she could maintain the wealthy lifestyle she had struggled so hard to achieve. Billie’s family and friends thought they knew.

As for Capote, he was still riding high on the success of In Cold Blood, which ironically is credited as being the first in the now burgeoning true crime genre. Ann was cleared of her husband’s murder, but Capote was on her trail now. It wasn’t going to be pretty.

“Both were vulnerable and mean,” writes Montillo in the prologue to her book. “Both were familiar with violence and the violence that caused the death of Billy Woodward would, as recounted by Truman Capote 1975, incite fresh violence that would ultimately destroy them both. What began with insults in Saint Moritz would end in death for one and ignominy for the other.”


CrimeReads: 10 New Books Coming Out This Week ‹ CrimeReads

CrimeReads: 10 New Books Coming Out This Week ‹ CrimeReads.

CrimeReads: Gone, But Not Forgotten: 12 Great Mystery Authors Readers Still Love

CrimeReads: Gone, But Not Forgotten: 12 Great Mystery Authors Readers Still Love.

Tune in Tomorrow to Hoosier History Live as I Discuss America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness

If you have time, tune in tomorrow Saturday, October 23rd when I talk to host Nelson Price of Hoosier History Live about my new book America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness. The show airs live from noon to 1 p.m. ET each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis. Or you can stream audio live from anywhere during the show.

Join us for a free event when Edelweiss Presents Mystery, Murder, and Mayhem on October 13 at 2 P.M. ET

Don’t miss Walter Mosley, Richard Osman, and more of your favorite mystery authors at a FREE virtual event tomorrow, October 13th! Starting at 11:00 AM ET, log in to the Mystery / Thriller Community Hub to access sessions, engage in Community Conversations, and explore the books being featured during the event.

Kicks of at 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM ET Award-winning authors Walter Mosley (Blood Grove)
and Kellye Garrett (Like a Sister) join moderator Gabino Iglesias (The Devil Takes You Home) for a ground-breaking conversation about crime, justice, and the search for truth.

Test your mystery knowledge at The Immersive Q&A Experience at 2:00 PM ET. Think you’ve got what it takes to make it through this interactive and immersive experience? Join your fellow mystery / thriller aficionados in an interactive guessing game for a chance to win prizes!
This event is FREE for members of the Edelweiss Mystery / Thriller Community.

Click here to become a member and access sessions on October 13th. 

John Grisham Returns to Mississippi in “A Time for Mercy”

            “A Time for Mercy” takes us back to Clanton, Mississippi where Jake Brigance, the hero of John Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” practices law. Though more than three decades have passed since Grisham introduced us to Brigance it’s been only five years Clanton-time and the attorney is facing hard times. And so, among the last thing he wants to do is take on a deeply unpopular case involving the death of a local deputy by a 16-year-old boy.

John Grisham

            But Brigance doesn’t have a choice, he’s been appointed by the judge to represent Drew Gamble who killed his mother’s abusive boyfriend after watching him almost kill her. Despite the circumstances, this is Clanton, Mississippi and the killing of a lawman, no matter how heinous his actions, brings about a cry for revenge. The town wants Drew Gamble to die in the gas chamber no matter that the murder victim deserved it or that the defendant is a sweet and timid kid who was trying to protect his mother and sister. It also was a time when kids could be sentenced to death.

            When Grisham wrote his first novel, he was somewhat like Jake—living in a small town, struggling as a lawyer, and hoping for a breakout case that would make his reputation.

            So what’s it like being back in Clanton, I asked.

“A big part of me never leaves Clanton,” he said. “That’s where I’m from, my little corner of the world. I know it well because I grew up there and practiced law there.  I know its history, people, culture, religion, food, routines, conflicts, past.  It is always exciting to find a story that will work in Clanton.”

            While we might be surprised at what Jake has been up to in those five years, surprises aren’t the way Grisham puts pen to paper. Characters don’t take on a life of their own as he writes, he alone is in charge of their destiny.

            “I plot the stories mentally for a long time, then outline them extensively before I write a word, so the surprises are rare,” said Grisham who has had 28 consecutive number one fiction best sellers several of which have been made into movies and adding to that sweet pot, he’s sold over 300 million books.  “Clanton has changed very little from 1985–the trial of Carl Lee Hailey in ‘A Time to Kill’ and ‘Sycamore Row’” set in 1987, and now “A Time For Mercy” in 1990.   Big changes are just around the corner with the digital age but looking back 1990 seems rather nostalgic.”

Now that we’ve come to expect all of Grisham’s books to be best sellers, it’s interesting to learn that “A Time to Kill” didn’t do well at all when it was released. Of the 5000 hardcover copies published, Grisham is quoted as saying they couldn’t give them away. That is until his next book, “The Firm” was published and then made into a film with rising star Tom Cruise.

            As with many of his intricately plotted, Grisham often is inspired by real life cases and so it is with this book which already is the number one novel on the Amazon Charts Most Sold Fiction list.

“About ten years ago I heard a noted lawyer talk about one of his most difficult criminal cases,” Grisham said. “His client was a 16 year old boy who’d pulled the trigger. The kid had been severely traumatized with a chaotic life.  His prosecution of his case was complicated and created many vexing issues.””

Complicated story themes are like a type of catnip for Grisham, who somehow juggles thorny, thought-provoking issues and successfully weaves them into the narrative without slowing down the action.

“It’s often difficult but also intriguing,” he said about achieving that fine line. “A heavy issue can weigh down a thriller when the pages are supposed to turn.  Too heavy on the politics and some readers are alienated.  Success is determined by careful preparation, a chapter by chapter outline that often takes longer than writing the book.”

When I asked, as my final question, is there’s anything else he’d like readers to know, Grisham replied, “I never miss an opportunity to thank the many people who have enjoyed my books over the years and kept me in business. I’m still having fun. I hope you are too. I’ll keep writing if you keep reading.

 I think he can count on that.

Note: It was just announced that It was just announced that Matthew McConaughey who attorney Jake Brigance in Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill, a film based on John Grisham’s novel of the same will be reprising his role in HBO’s A Time for Mercy.\

Note this article appeared previously in the Northwest Indiana Times.

“The Belle of Bedford Avenue: The Sensational Brooks-Burns Murder in Turn-of-the-Century New York”

The year was 1902 when Florence Burns, who craved excitement frequented dance halls, drank in roadhouses, and even smoked in public—a truly decadent act, discarded the standards of her well-to-do family to hang with the Bedford Avenue Gang.

Virginia McConnell

            A rich young woman running wild, her boyfriend left for dead in a low-rent hotel room and lurid headlines such as “Brooklyn is a Modern Sodom”  might seem like a contemporary made-for-television movie. But it’s all straight out of history in Virginia McConnell’s latest historic true crime book, “The Belle of Bedford Avenue: The Sensational Brooks-Burns Murder in Turn-of-the-Century New York” (Kent State University Press).

            The year was 1902 when Florence Burns, who craved excitement frequented dance halls, drank in roadhouses, and even smoked in public—a truly decadent act, discarded the standards of her well-to-do family to hang with the  Bedford Avenue Gang.

            Society was changing with the advent of public transportation in big cities like New York and young women like Florence didn’t have to wait to be introduced by a chaperone to “suitable” young men. Instead she chose gang member Walter Brooks who was found with a bullet in his head and died the next day.

            Ironically, though Florence loved the freedoms of the new century, she escaped punishment for Walter’s death because of old norms of an “Unwritten Law” that was frequently used to justify murder. That, says McConnell, kicked in when Walter refused to marry Florence after they’d had sexual relations—hence it was, though unspoken, retribution for his dishonoring her. Taking this into consideration, the prosecutor didn’t even bring charges against her.

            If only Florence had learned from this brush with the law but alas, she didn’t. And reading about her exploits is a fascinating true crime story as well as insight into a world so much different than ours.

McConnell, a college English instructor at Walla Walla Community College-Clarkston Campus in Washington, is the author of other historic true crime books including “The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age” which was a 2011 Gold Medal-Independent Publisher Book Award/True Crime Category.

            Drawing upon scandalous but long forgotten crimes, McConnell says that at first she didn’t think there would be enough material to write “The Belle of Bedford Avenue.

She had to go beyond what she could find in the New York Times to ferret out more about the case, reading through lots more newspapers, many that were only available on microfilm through Interlibrary Loan.

“But when I dug into it, there were a lot of interesting items – such as, the hotel’s being at Ground Zero and the teenagers hanging out at Coney Island and then I found the reference to her subsequent incarcerations,” she says, adding that she had to order the microfilm of one of the trial transcripts from the John Jay College, because the topic was so racy that the newspapers wouldn’t print it.

“There were times when I’ve expended a lot of energy on a case that interested me, only to have to abandon it because it simply didn’t have enough material for an entire book,” says McConnell, describing herself as lucky to have connected with the grand-nephews of Belle’s first husband, who had a lot of information on their great-uncle Tad. 

It was also lucky for those of us who like a well-written, intriguing true crime story.

How Quickly She Disappears

            Intrigued by the tales his grandparents told of living in Tanacross, a small Alaskan village back in the late 1930s, Indiana author Raymond Fleischmann has woven a mystery set in that time frame and location.

            “I grew up hearing their stories about Alaska, the cold, the isolation, the long days and the long nights,” says Fleischmann, the author of the just released How Quickly She Disappears.  “So, the setting is very real though my characters are fictional and not based on my grandparents at all who were very much in love and married for over 60 years.”

            That part is probably good as Fleischmann’s novel is about Elisabeth Pfautz who is living in Alaska with her husband and young daughter. The marriage is joyless, but her daughter is her delight and, more forebodingly, a reminder and connection with her twin sister, Jacqueline, who when she was eleven, disappeared. No one has seen or knows what happened to her since then.

              Haunted by her lost sister, experiencing reoccurring dreams of 1921 and the circumstances of the disappearance and saddened by the state of her marriage, Elisabeth is drawn to Alfred, a substitute mail pilot who lands in Tanacross. Elisabeth, who grew up a small German community in Pennsylvania, feels a kinship of sorts with Alfred, who is also of German heritage. But then things turn distinctly weird and terrifying. Albert murders another man, apparently in cold blood. But he also knows, he tells Elisabeth, what happened to her sister, something he will reveal to her at a cost.

            Fleischmann says he’s always been drawn to novels that are propelled by relatively simple, often violent acts, but do so in a way that’s careful, human, and deeply examined. From Alaska in 1941, Fleischmann takes us back to 1921 where we meet Jacqueline as well.

            “I thought it was important for people to know about her as well,” says Fleischmann, who earned an MFA from Ohio State University, “To me, at the time of her disappearance, Jacqueline is a lonely and somewhat stunted child who is having difficulty navigating the transition from adolescent to adult, just like many of us. So is Elisabeth and Jacqueline’s disappearance has left a big void in her life. As an adult she still feels very much alone without her sister and appears to suffer in many dysfunctional ways.”

            All this makes her vulnerable to Alfred’s cat and mouse game as does the voice she seems to hear, that of Jacqueline urging her to “come and find me.”

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