On Oct 30, around 2 a.m. at their Oyster Bay mansion, Ann heard her miniature poodle Sloppy bark followed by a strange noise. Fearing the return of a serial burglar who had been terrorizing the upscale community, she picked up the double-barrel Churchill “Imperial” model side-lock ejector shotgun she kept by her bed, stepped into the darkness and fired. At the end of the hall, the naked body of her husband fell limp into a pool of blood.
Not since Harry Kendall Thaw murdered Stanford White over Evelyn Nesbit had a society shooting been so scandalous. For many, especially her mother-in-law, Ann was always a stain on the Woodward family name. Other women called her a gold digger. There were rumors that she had sex with men for money and gifts during her days as a “bunny girl” at Fefe’s Monte Carlo at 49 East 54th St. She did — it’s where she first met Billy, after all.
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Some knew she had been a mistress to William Woodward Sr. before marrying Billy. Others knew that the Woodward family patriarch had put her up to taking Billy’s virginity to offset rumors that he had a homosexual yen. Those who had hunted tigers with Ann in India knew that she was dangerous with guns. Those who had lunched with her at La Côte Basque at 60 West 55th St. knew that she was staring down the barrel of a volcanic divorce. They knew that Billy had a voracious sexual appetite and carried out his affairs (with women) in public. They knew that their relationship was often violent. She was in danger of losing her children.
Nassau County authorities ruled that Billy Woodward’s death an accident. But for the voluble members of New York’s cafe society, she was guilty de facto. She had signed her divorce papers in lead.
For 20 years, literary superstar and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” author Truman Capote slurped up the scuttlebutt like his vodka-heavy screwdrivers. For just as long, Ann had tried to disappear — quietly bopping between Europe and Manhattan. Then in 1975, Capote regurgitated the whisperings in an excerpt from his long-delayed book “Answered Prayers” with such venom that Ann took her own life at her apartment in 1133 Fifth Ave. ahead of publication.
“Once a tramp, always a tramp,” Lady Ina Coolbirth, Capotes’ stand-in for socialite Slim Keith, says of a not-at-all veiled caricature of Ann in the chapter titled “La Côte Basque, 1965,” which first appeared in Esquire. Keith, once one of Capote’s most beloved “swans,” never spoke to him again after publication.
The insults continue like machine-gun fire. Billy was a naive “anal-oriented Episcopalian” and “not at all café society.” Ann is “a jazzy little carrot-top killer” “brought up in some country-slum way” and “a call girl for a pimp who was a bell captain at the Waldorf” who “saved her money and took voice lessons and dance lessons and ended up as the favorite lay of one of Frankie Costello’s shysters.”
“Of course it wasn’t an accident,” Lady Coolbirth continues. “She’s a murderess.”
The story — which threw under-the-belt punches in trashy, low-brow prose at practically all of Capote’s nearest and dearest (including socialites Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Slim Keith and Lee Radziwill) — was a flippant act of destruction done in cold blood. The fallout was legendary and the unfinished novel would only be published in 1986, two years after Capote’s death.
In “Deliberate Cruelty” (out Nov. 11 with Atria Books), author Roseanne Montillo takes a fresh stab at one of New York’s best remembered killings, its decades-long ripple effect and Capote’s failed final literary project.
While reams of analysis of Ann’s pulpy affair have been offered over the years — it was the inspiration for “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” by Dominick Dunne — Montillo takes a biographical path to answering an enduring question: What drove Capote to attack Ann — not to mention his closest friends — in “Answered Prayers”?
“It is possible that Truman Capote loathed the socialite Ann Woodward because she reminded him so much of his mother,” she writes. “But he may also have been so cruel to her because Ann Woodward seemed too much like him as well.”
Like Ann, Capote was born into poverty. Like Ann, Capote spent much of his formative years living in a rural American backwater with relatives. Like Ann, Capote and his mother, Lillie Mae, were fascinated by New York high society — and neither Ann nor Lillie Mae were above using wealthy men to get what they wanted. Their mothers both met tragic ends: Capote’s mother committed suicide, while Ann’s hard-lived mother died from a rare form of TB usually found in cattle. Most importantly, they both had the skills and cunning to rise into a society that would never fully accept them.
“Truman Streckfus Persons [later Truman Capote] resembled Ann Woodward more than he cared to admit, and their lives ran on parallel tracks from beginning to end,” she writes.
But despite their similarities, Capote was never close with Ann Woodward. They were connected via friends of friends at best. When they did meet, according to Montillo, it was like dropping a pair of Siamese fighting fish in a water glass.
In 1956, just one year after the death of her husband, Capote spied Ann dining at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, and to his surprise she was hardly a picture of the widow in mourning. She was dining cozily with the well-known playboy Claus von Bülow, a man with “a past as colorful as her own, if not more so.”
“The rumors surrounding him were dark: that he was a necrophile; that he had killed his mother and stashed her body on ice; that somehow, he was still embroiled in espionage; that as a youth he had attended Hermann Göring’s wedding,” Montillo writes, noting that later in 1982, he would be convicted of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny.
Intrigued by her audacity, Capote approached Ann.
“As he arrived at the table, Ann immediately got up from her chair, angry that she should have been disturbed during her meal. A short conversation followed, during which, apparently, Ann called Truman ‘a little fag,’” Montillo writes. “He returned the slur by wagging his finger at her and calling her ‘Mrs. Bang Bang,’ a moniker that would stick to her for the rest of her days.”
Truman gossiped about the encounter for years afterward. When word got back to Ann that Capote was talking about her, she called him “a little toad.”
What may have been a friendship forged in otherness was now a war of words — one for which Capote spent years building his arsenal.
In 1979, several years after the fallout from the Esquire story and Ann’s consequent death, a drug- and alcohol-hardened Capote appeared on “The Stanley Siegel Show” in Manhattan and quipped:
“I’ll tell you something about fags, especially southern fags. We is mean. A southern fag is meaner than the meanest rattler. . . . We just can’t keep our mouth shut.”