Do you remember the first line Mr. McGuire utters to Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin) in “The Graduate?” “I just want to say one word to you, one word….Plastics.” If there was ever a family that knew a thing or two about the lucrative living to be made by plastics it had to be the Baekeland family. Their entire financial empire was built on the world’s first commercially made plastic called Bakelite. However, all of this family’s money couldn’t tempt me to join this clan. Plagued by incest, drug use, homosexuality and murder/suicide, this elite group were a spectacular recipe for disaster.
The Bizarre Baekelands|
Antony Baekeland was a sinewy, indulged young man who hid a murderous rage for his mother, a gorgeous ex-film starlet and model, with flaming red hair and porcelain skin, Barbara Daly Baekeland, for several years until November 17, 1972, when he stabbed her to death with a knife. She was the wife of Brooks Baekeland. Baekeland was the wealthy grandson of the man who invented Bakelite, the world’s first plastic. The first time Baekeland set eyes on the beautiful Barbara, he was smitten and within months they were married. However during their marriage, Barbara’s mental instability became obvious. She was known for her unstable personality, rude outbursts and bouts of severe depression. She drank heavily and, like her husband, engaged in many casual sexual encounters. Brooks finally left her for a younger woman, Sylvie, Antony’s first girlfriend. A very sharing family, I should think. When Antony was 21, his parents divorced, leading Barbara into a severe depression and a suicide attempt. It was her friend Gloria Jones who saved her. In all, Barbara had made four suicide attempts to keep Brooks from leaving her. Finally, she failed.
This wasn’t a happy family for young Baekland to grow up in but he lived the hand he was dealt. He himself displayed signs of schizophrenia with paranoid tendencies. It was painfully clear that the young man needed psychiatric help. His erratic behavior caused concern among family friends, and over the years, Baekeland and his mother had several threatening arguments involving knives. However Brooks refused to allow his son to be treated by psychiatrists, stating they were “professionally amoral” (unlike Brooks, who was personally amoral).
Barbara insisted that Baekeland live with her in their penthouse in London, England. His father didn’t care. After all, he was shacked up with his son’s former girlfriend. Awkward. There was a problem with that living arrangement. Barbara and her son shared a co-dependent relationship. She burdened her son with her marital and mental woes. He tried to help his mother, but at his young age, was unable. Further, Barbara suspected her young son had a problem of his own; she believed correctly that he was a homosexual. That isn’t a big deal today but in 1972 homosexuality was listed in the DSM III as a Mental Disorder. The following year, in 1973, that classification would shift to one of Sexual Orientation Disturbance. The latter suggested that the “choice” of homosexuality was either a mental disorder, or merely a sexual variant. Either way, to Barbara Baekeland, homosexuality was socially unacceptable and she was having none of it in her family.
Her idea of resolving the issue of her son’s homosexuality was equally alarming to everyone but her: she insisted her son have sex with a variance of prostitutes. When this didn’t have an effect on Baekeland, she began an incestuous relationship with her son to “cure” him of his homosexuality. What? Naturally Baekeland wasn’t happy with this arrangement but seeing as his mother held the purse strings and he was determined to acquire his inheritance, he acquiesced to her demands. Baekeland however, was filled with fury. He first tried to kill his mother by dragging her into the street and trying to throw her under a moving car. A psychiatrist told Barbara that her son would eventually kill her, but she refused to believe him. That was a decision she would come to regret.
At 3 p.m.,. Barbara who was now 50 yet looked 20 years younger, left for lunch with Russian Princess Missie Harnden, who lived nearby in the exclusive neighbourhood of Chelsea. They gossiped about the cocktail party Barbara held the previous night, and sat down to filet mignon wrapped in bacon, green beans and a tossed salad, accompanied by a Spanish red wine. You know, your ordinary weekday luncheon. The night before Barbara’s death, at that last cocktail party, Harnden noticed the 26-year-old Baekeland staring into space in a “strange, bright-eyed way“. She intended to mention this during lunch, but as usual Barbara talked endlessly about “Tony” and how wonderful he was, how much he loved London, how everything in their lives was happy. It was well known that Barbara and Baekeland argued almost daily and that Baekeland regularly threatened to stab her to death. Still, Harnden couldn’t bring herself to say anything. It was clear to Harnden that Barbara’s frenetic conversation about her son was more to convince herself than Harnden. The two parted half an hour later and Barbara returned home.
When she entered the house, Barbara and Baekeland argued yet again. She ran into the kitchen after he hit her. He followed with that glazed look in his eyes then without a word, he rushed at his shocked mother and stabbed her once in the chest. With a choking gasp, she fell to the floor dead. He called an ambulance and insisted it took them hours to attend the scene. “I think my mind was slightly wacky and I was very much under my mother’s powerful influence,” he later told police. “I felt as though she were controlling my mind. It was horrible – I held her hand and she would not look at me or speak to me. Then she died.”
The knife had severed a main artery in Barbara’s heart. As for Baekeland, when paramedics and police arrived, he was on the phone in his bedroom, ordering a Chinese takeaway. He appeared completely unconcerned. Mr Wuss, the cat, was hiding under the bed. As Baekeland was taken to Chelsea police station, he maintained that Barbara had been stabbed by her mother Nini Daly, who was in her 80s and thousands of miles away at her home in New York. He also remarked to the detective who arrested him that “it all started when I was three or five and I fell off my pogo stick”.
It was a crime that made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. A member of one of the U.S.’s richest and most powerful dynasties had been murdered in the heart of one of London’s most expensive neighbourhoods. Somehow it made it into print that when friends visited him in Brixton prison, he asked: “How is my mother? Is she well?” Later, feeling “clearer in the nog” and accepting that his mother was dead, Baekeland spoke of feeling that “a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders”.
Baekeland was found guilty of manslaughter with diminished responsibility and sent to Broadmoor for an indefinite period. He seemed happy there, working in the handicrafts shop, having clandestine relationships with other male inmates and welcoming visitors including the actress Patricia Neal, taken along by one of the Baekelands’ friends who was painting her portrait at the time. Another of those who came to see him was his grandmother, Nini Daly.
“She still seems less disturbed by her daughter’s death than by the fact that her dear little Tony is in trouble,” said a note in his file. “She seems just as mad as the rest of the family.” I agree with that summary. Nini’s refusal to believe that Baekeland could do anything wrong would eventually rebound on her terribly, quite like her daughter, but she was not alone in her belief that her grandson was being unfairly detained. Baekland might have remained in Broadmoor had it not been for a misguided group of supporters who believed that he would never again become violent after he killed his mother.
Baekeland’s father opposed the move to secure his son’s release. He had a new son, born shortly after Baekeland was sent to Broadmoor, and, on learning of the arrival of his half brother, Baekeland made a series of toys for him so grotesque and macabre that Brooks had to throw them away as soon as they arrived. Brooks also received abusive letters from Baekeland, some threatening to murder his new wife Sylvie. Brooks dismissed the idea that his son had been suffering diminished responsibility, maintaining that he was inherently evil.
Baekland was released from Broadmoor and allowed to travel from England to the U.S. where he resided in New York in a tiny apartment with his grandmother. At the time, New York was experiencing an extreme heatwave, but Baekeland spent most of the days in his grandmother’s sweltering flat, playing morbid music and mumbling satanic masses in front of a shrine to his dead mother. He’d created the shrined by placing candles and photos of her on top of a chest of drawers with her ashes as a centre piece. Apparently this didn’t disturb Grandma.
At 9am on Sunday, July 27, only six days after Baekeland’s release from Broadmoor, Nini Daly’s nurse Lena Richards arrived at the apartment to begin her day’s shift. Baekeland answered the door wearing only a pair of shorts. “Lena, quick, get the ambulance,’ he shouted. ‘I’ve just stabbed my grandmother.”
Richards ran to a nearby phone box and called the police. As they entered the apartment, they heard Nini Daly shrieking with terror and saw Baekeland rushing out of her bedroom towards them. “She won’t die, the knife won’t go in! And she keeps screaming! I can’t understand it,” he shouted as they grabbed him. “I hate it when this happens.” Doesn’t everyone?Miraculously, every blow had struck bone and his grandmother survived.
The police found his grandmother lying against the wall in a corner of her bedroom with blood soaking through her satin nightgown. She had been stabbed eight times and had multiple other injuries including a fractured collar bone and ribs. While they waited for an ambulance to arrive, Baekeland was taken to the local police station. He later explained that he wanted to have sex with his grandmother-just as he had with his mother.
This time the courts didn’t fool around and Baekeland was imprisoned on Riker’s Island. I doubt Nini visited him. By then he had come into his trust fund and the other prisoners quickly began preying on him for money. Within a few months he had given away almost £20,000-some of it as protection money and some as gifts to those with whom he began having relationships, including, it was said, one of the male guards and an inmate who had raped and decapitated a young boy. Just as he had in Broadmoor, Baekeland appeared to find a perverted kind of peace on Rikers Island, but his time there was about to come to an abrupt end.
On March 20, 1981, he was taken to court for a preliminary hearing and learned that his trial would not take place for another month because his medical records had still not arrived from Britain. He hoped to be granted bail until then, but his application was refused. Little more than half an hour after returning to his cell at 3.30pm that day, he was found dead in his bed, suffocated by a carrier bag placed over his head. Brooks Baekeland believed his son had been murdered, perhaps because he had threatened to reveal his relationship with the guard or refused to hand over money to one of the more dangerous and violent inmates.
Others were convinced it was suicide, but whether Tony was killed or brought about his death himself, one thing was certain. What ended his life was a bag made of plastic-the material behind the fortune which had made the Baekelands’ one of the U.S.’s most envied families, but also one of its most tragic.
A 2007 movie was made about the Baekeland murder starring Julianne Moore as Barbara Baekeland, entitled Savage Grace, A scene in the movie depicted Moore in bed with Baekeland’s lover Sam Green and her son, Baekeland. Green, a cause celebre in his own right, and the curator for Andy Warhol’s famous ICA 1965 exhibit insisted this never happened.
“She [Barbara Baekeland] later took me to her castle in Majorca where I met [her son] Tony, then 23. She had spoken of him as a sort of messiah, the greatest child there ever was, but I found him very disappointing. He was a poor little rich kid who couldn’t decide if he wanted to be a poet or a musician or simply sit on the beach smoking pot all day… One night at dinner, Tony suddenly got up, walked around the table and yanked Barbara backwards off her chair by her hair, dragging her towards the door. She remained entirely passive… Later in the evening, both behaved as if nothing had happened.
I arranged to send myself a telegram saying I was urgently needed elsewhere and made my escape. My sexual relationship with Barbara had lasted for no more than four weeks. As far as I was concerned it was a fling, a holiday romance. But Barbara placed more significance on our relationship… She bombarded me with letters and calls… These days I think you would call her a stalker. Then she started telling people she had had an incestuous relationship with her son as a way of ‘curing’ him of homosexuality. One of her friends said: ‘Sons and lovers – nobody knows the difference anymore.'”
Certainly not in the Baekeland family.