With my combination of films-to-books and true crime interest, I clicked on the film “Savage Grace” while it aired on a cable channel last year. Thinking I was “in the know” about infamous true crimes, somehow I missed this story of a wealthy socialite who was murdered by her son. The film wasn’t so great despite a talented cast; but I suspected that the story it was based upon would be more compelling. I underestimated.
The book is a collection of written narratives and letters by murder victim Barbara Daly Baekeland, her ex-husband Baekelite heir Brooks Baekeland, their troubled, deceased son Tony, and friends and other family members. The history behind the invention of Baekelite (plastic) is chronicled along with the lives of the wealthy dysfunctional family (to say the least). While this format is challenging to follow, the story still worked. Considering the complexities of these people, it’s obvious to me how a book or film would be challenged to tell this disturbing story.
After marriage and the birth of their son, the Baekelands begin what reads like a 25-year vacation that’s no honeymoon. Instead of establishing a residence, they indulge themselves on an American-European tour living in one place no more than a few months, or back-and-forth for a few years. With limited family structure, the values held by the adults, especially Barbara, are all about socializing, dragging their young son along, leaving him confused about his own sexuality, overwhelmed with loneliness, and mental illness that later leads to tragedy. What comes as no big surprise to the reader is the downward spiral of Barbara and Tony’s relationship after the departure of Brooks from the family. Between the decadence, laziness, reported incest, and murder, it understandably looks to some that this family has very few redeeming qualities.
But, dysfunctional family aside, can a reader get inspiration from this story? Answer: Yes, on a level. Part of what happens is that Barbara Baekeland had the incapacity to give herself to others in the way needed so badly in a family. She led her life by making demands of others, to the poor example for her son, and enabled by her emotionally bankrupt husband. Another point is the group that fought the hospital in London holding Tony after he murdered his mother, interfering with serious criminal issues, helped make it possible for Tony’s release to New York to attempt to murder his grandmother after a few days. Their shock (while on their own permanent tours) to his behavior following his release is the naive behavior of well-meaning wealthy friends. Tony’s tragic death and possible suicide is the end-result of a lifestyle that seems dreamlike in the eyes of most of us, but in the long run, not something to envy.
While we writers sit back and dream, the idea of being rich with no other agenda than traveling for the next resort or Fitzgerald-style cocktail party seems like a paradise. But not all is, as it seems. These tragic stories of indulgent people give us teachable moments.