By Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
I was excited when I heard that the second season of F.X.’s Feud: Capote vs. The Swans1 would focus on Truman Capote and the women he referred to as his swans. I loved Melanie Benjamin’s novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, which details Capote’s relationship with Babe Paley as well as several of the other swans, Slim Keith, Pamela Churchill, and C.Z. Guest. The cast sounded amazing: Naomi Watts as Babe Paley, Chloe Sevigny as C.Z. Guest, Diane Lane as Slim Keith, and Tom Hollander as Truman Capote. The series is based on Laurence Leamer’s book Capote’s Women, so I was surprised when I saw Demi Moore playing Ann Woodward because she’s barely mentioned in Leamer’s biography.
Ann Woodward wasn’t one of Truman’s swans, far from it. He didn’t know Ann Woodward personally, but he knew of her. Everyone did in 1955. Suppose you’ve read Dominick Dunne’s The Two Mrs. Grenvilles or watched the miniseries starring Ann Margaret and Claudette Colbert. In that case, you know a bit about the infamous murder of Billy Woodward by his wife. If not, I have a story to tell you! Before I start, I’m going to need a cocktail. A Chamomile Cosmo, to be exact. (I apologize in advance for the long post).
2 oz (1/4 cup) Chamomile-infused Vodka (or tequila/gin)
0.5 oz (1 Tbsp) Agave Syrup
1 oz (2 Tbsp) Lemon Juice
One spoonful of Raspberry Preserves
1 Egg White (optional)
Serve in a chilled Coupe!
The daughter of a farmer and a teacher who was one of the first women to earn a Master’s Degree from the University of Kansas, Ann was born Angeline Lucille Crowell in 1915. Her parents split up when she was a kid, and Angie and her mother moved eleven times over the years before settling in Kansas City. Unable to find work as a teacher during the Great Depression, her mother ended up owning a taxi cab company where the back door opened onto the men’s room of the nearby movie theatre.
Ann was smart, but there was no money for college, and Ann had other ambitions. She wanted to be an actress like her idol, Joan Crawford, another Kansas girl who made good. First, she needed to get the heck out of Kansas. 1937, Ann headed to New York to find work as a model and actress. She signed with the John Powers Roberts Modeling and changed her name to Ann Eden2. While she wasn’t beautiful, Ann was tall, blonde, and sexy. Most biographies dismiss Ann as just a showgirl, but she had a modicum of success as an actress. Ann landed roles as a radio actress and was voted “The Most Beautiful Girl in Radio” in 1940. She starred in a Noel Coward revue on Broadway entitled Set to Music and toured in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. For a brief time, she even dated Franchot Tone, Joan Crawford’s ex-husband.
By 1941, Ann was no closer to getting a movie contract, and time was running out. She was 26 years old. Ann had worked as a showgirl at Fefe’s Monte Carlo to pay her mother’s medical bills. At Fefe’s, she met William Woodward Sr., a wealthy banker from a prominent family who was the chairman of the Central Hanover Bank. Rumor has it that Ann was Woodward Sr.’s mistress before she moved on to Woodward Jr3. The story goes that Woodward Sr. asked Ann to take his son in hand, as it were, to help him become a man. Billy wasn’t interested in sports, nor had he shown much interest in girls, which wouldn’t do for the Woodward heir.
When Ann and Billy finally met, it was love or lust, whatever you want to call it, at first sight. The two were soon inseparable, and Billy couldn’t wait to introduce his girl to his parents. You can guess how well that went over. Both Elsie and William Woodward were appalled at the idea. The Woodwards were never part of Mrs. Astor’s 400 but they had a pedigree even older than the Vanderbilts or the Astors. Men of their class didn’t marry girls like Ann unless there was a bun in the oven, and even then, they would try to make the problem disappear. But Billy was determined; Ann was nothing like the debutantes his mother had been pressing on him since he was old enough to shave.
The couple married in 1943 in Tacoma, Washington, where Billy was stationed. By the time Billy came home from the war, he began to regret his youthful rebellion. Ann, to impress her in-laws, was no longer the fun-loving woman that Billy had married. She’d hired a tutor to teach her etiquette, how to throw a dinner party and speak French, but her actions pushed her husband further away. The birth of their two sons, the heir and the spare, did little to change things. Billy belittled her efforts at every opportunity. The couple would have violent fights, both in private and in public, exacerbated by booze and the pills that Ann became increasingly addicted to. The fights would lead to make-up sex. To Ann, the fighting meant that Billy still cared for her deep down. The Woodwards were that couple that couldn’t live together but couldn’t seem to live apart.
Ann and Billy briefly split up in 1947 over his affair with Princess Marina Torlonia.4 The couple eventually got back together, but unbeknownst to Ann, Billy had reduced the amount of money she would receive in his will. And Billy insisted that he be free to have affairs. Ann reluctantly agreed. She loved Billy, but more importantly, she loved her life as Mrs. William Woodward, Jr. The luxurious vacations, designer clothes (Charles James was a favorite), nightclubs, hobnobbing with royalty, and her name and photograph in all the newspapers and magazines. She wasn’t ready to give all that up and return to being a nobody. In the fall of 1955, Billy flew to Pittsburg, Kansas, to buy a plane. When a friend asked him why he had gone to Kansas, he replied, “To get dirt on Annie.” While he was there, he learned that far from being dead and a colonel, Ann’s father was alive and well and living in Detroit, where he worked as a streetcar conductor. Ann had lied to him. Ann’s excuse was that she lied because she wanted to impress his family.
For several months, a burglar had been breaking into the homes along the Gold Coast, stealing food and whatever money or small items he could find. Two days before Billy’s death, the burglar had broken into the garage at The Playhouse. Both were so nervous about the burglar that Billy brought a gun with him when they went out to dinner.
On the night of October 30, 1955, Ann and Billy made love for the last time before dressing to attend a party for the Duchess of Windsor. At dinner, Ann and Billy couldn’t stop talking about the burglar. When they returned home that night, the couple went to their separate bedrooms that evening with loaded shotguns. A few hours later, Ann heard a noise on the roof and went into a darkened hallway with her gun, where she saw a shadowy figure standing in front of Woodward’s bedroom door. Believing the figure to be a prowler, Ann fired the weapon, killing her husband. When the police arrived, they found Ann holding her husband’s body and sobbing. She immediately confessed that she had shot her husband because she thought he was the burglar.
Despite her belief that Ann had murdered her son in cold blood, outwardly, Elsie supported Ann’s version of events that it was an accident. She had already lived through one scandal when her uncle William Wetmore Cryder5 was indicted for perjury and embezzling $39,000 ($2 million dollars in today’s money) from the Manhattan Square Bank where he was President. She was not about to see her son or the Woodward name dragged through the mud with a public trial. She got her wish when, three weeks after the shooting occurred, the Nassau County grand jury cleared Ann of suspicion of murder. Unfortunately, Elsie couldn’t control the media. The murder was covered in all the major newspapers and magazines, including Life, which published a ten-page spread entitled ‘The Shooting of the Century.’ Most Americans at that time believed that Ann Woodward was guilty of murder. Even after the prowler, Paul Wirth, was arrested and confessed that he had been in the house that night, people believed Ann killed her husband in cold blood.
Ann was free, but the doors to New York society were now closed to her. While Elsie might have publicly supported Ann, the rest of her social circle did not. There were rumors that Ann made up the story about the burglar, that she and Billy fought at the dinner party, and that he received a phone call from one of his mistresses. Her sons were sent to boarding school in Switzerland to escape the scandal, but even in Europe, the story circulated.
Ann never got over what she had done. She spent the next twenty years traveling, wandering from resort to resort, man to man. None of them were Billy, and none of them were willing to become the second husband of a woman who had killed her first, accidental or otherwise. Her relationship with her youngest son, Jimmy, was contentious. He went to Vietnam and came back addicted to heroin. In and out of rehab, he would write angry letters, accusing his mother of murdering his father.
In 1975, Ann Woodward got wind that Esquire was publishing Truman Capote’s latest excerpt from his forthcoming novel Answered Prayers. The piece's title was ‘La Cote Basque 1965,’ with an unflattering portrait of Ann. Capote called her “Ann Hopkins,” “a jazzy little carrot-top killer.” After twenty years of living with what she’d done, the idea that it would all be stirred up again in a national magazine was too much for Ann. Dressed in her finest negligee and with a full face of make-up, Ann poisoned herself with a capsule of cyanide.
“Well, that’s that,” her mother-in-law Elsie Woodward said when she heard the news, “She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her, and so now I suppose we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
Was it murder or just an accident? I believe that Ann didn’t deliberately set out to kill Billy. He was worth more to her alive than dead. Despite everything, she loved him. I believe her judgement was impaired by the sleeping pills, not to mention the uppers and downers she was taking. She was frightened by a noise, took her gun and shot her husband. Did she know that it was Billy standing naked in the hallway (he liked to sleep in the nude)? Maybe. The years of abuse, most physical and emotional, might just have taken its toll on her, and she shot him. Her grief after his death was genuine. I think she regretted her actions for the rest of her life. We’ll never know for sure what happened that night, but there was more than one life destroyed. Both of Ann’s sons took their lives, Jimmy, a year after his mother, and Woody in 1999. Elsie Woodward outlived them all, she passed away in 1981 at 98.
Why did Truman do it? He and Ann didn’t know each other. She was not one of his Swans, although he was fascinated with the story of Billy Woodward’s death. He’d been dining out on the story of Billy Woodward’s murder for years, embellishing the story with rumors he’d picked up from various dinner parties. Truman considered Ann to be a phony, allegedly he overheard her call him a ‘fag,’ at a restaurant in St. Moritz. He nicknamed her “Mrs. Bang-Bang.” He never forgot the insult;’ La Cote Basque 1965’ was his revenge. But it ended up biting him in the ass. His other Swans, Babe Paley and Slim Keith, whose secrets were also spilled, froze him out.
If you are still interested in learning more about Ann and Billy Woodward after reading this very long post, I would suggest picking up a copy, if you can find it, of Susan Braudy’s 1992 book This Crazy Thing Called Love. Susan knew Ann and Billy’s sons and met Ann at least once before her death. This Crazy Thing Called Love is the most comprehensive look at the story. I much preferred it to Deliberate Cruelty by Rosemarie Montillo, published last year.
I won’t be recapping the season because it will just be a rant about what they got wrong. Drinks with Broads recaps the series, and they are fantastic. The recaps are behind a paywall, but the subscription is worth it.
For some reason, Ann’s father Jesse got it into his head that she had moved to Hollywood and broken into films as Eve Arden. It wasn’t until the news of Bill’s death that he learned that Woodward’s was not Eve Arden.
Ian Fleming met Billy and Ann in the 1950s. He dedicated his novel DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER to Billy.
The daughter of an Italian prince and an heiress from Connecticut, Princess Marina Torlonia’s granddaughter is the actress Brooke Shields.