Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, the Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century by Roseanne Montillo

This much is fact. In the early hours of Sunday, October 30, 1955, Ann Woodward killed her husband with a shotgun she kept by the side of her bed in their grand mansion on the North Shore of Long Island. The previous evening the couple had been at a party in honor of the Duchess of Windsor, and the talk had been peppered with stories about a recent clutch of break-ins in Oyster Bay Cove.

This much is gossip. Both Ann and her husband, Billy, drank too much and had affairs, and talk of divorce was very much in the air. Ann had been a showgirl who had caught the eye of the heir to a banking fortune, and very much enjoyed the monied life. She insisted she thought the man she heard in the dark hallway was an intruder (Ann and Billy slept in separate bedrooms), and a grand jury declined to indict her. Off to Europe she went, at her mother-in-law’s insistence, and the couple’s two young boys departed for Le Rosey boarding school, in Switzerland, all to evade the harsh glare of publicity.

Then, two decades later, along came Truman Capote. In 1975, Esquire published a short story of his called “La Côte Basque, 1965” in which a character named Lady Coolbirth lunches with Jonesy, Truman’s character, and the two gossip about the ladies they knew, all disguised as thinly as Kleenex. Babe Paley and Slim Keith (or “Lady Coolbirth”) never spoke to him again, and Capote sank deeper into depression and alcohol, never escaping from his social Alcatraz before his death, in 1984.

Woodward was the unluckiest of them all. She was depicted as Ann Hopkins, a “white-trash slut” who had killed her husband after he had asked for a divorce. Capote’s details were lurid, and someone had slipped an advance copy of his story to Woodward. In late October, just before the magazine came out, Woodward put on her favorite dress, applied her makeup, took a handful of Seconal, and went to bed. When informed of her daughter-in-law’s suicide, Billy’s mother said, “That’s that. She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her.”

Roseanne Montillo does a deft job retelling this well-known tale in Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, the Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century, observing that in many ways Woodward and Capote were cut from the same cloth, outsiders smitten with high society, and first-class re-inventors of their own lives. In destroying Woodward, Capote also destroyed the life he had so carefully cultivated for himself.

There were more lives to go terribly wrong: James, the younger Woodward son, killed himself less than a year after his mother, jumping from nine floors up and landing on the roof of Le Cirque. The older brother, Woody, seemed to be faring better, attending Harvard and trying his hand at journalism and running for public office. He turned out to be a pretty good investor of his inherited wealth, so he could afford to spend time on passions such as sailing. In 1985, he married a fellow graduate of Le Rosey more than a decade younger than himself, had a daughter, and split time among apartments in New York, Paris, and London, as well as homes in Newport and Gstaad.

Woody, alas, suffered from manic depression, and he began to blame himself for his brother’s death. Sometimes the medication helped, but at other times odd behaviors—sleeping in Central Park, dressing like Mickey Mouse, wearing three watches—took hold, according to a memorable profile of him in The New York Times written by the marvelous writer Chip Brown. His wife sued for divorce, he contested her allegations, and he grew deeper into depression, his main solace solving crossword puzzles.

On a Sunday morning in May 1999, he climbed outside the kitchen window of his 14th-floor Manhattan apartment and jumped. He was 54 years old and lies buried in a Bronx cemetery, as Brown noted, “beside his mother and father and brother: all the Woodwards, together again.”

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for Air Mail