June 5, 2023
A woman accidentally killed her wealthy husband in the 1950s. A new book reveals what came next.

A woman accidentally killed her wealthy husband in the 1950s. A new book reveals what came next.

Montillo’s skills as a historian are most evident when she focuses on Woodward, particularly her story in Pittsburgh, Kansas.

It focuses on Woodward’s mother, Ethel Crowell, a transgressive figure who may have inspired her daughter’s ambition. Crowell earned a degree in sociology in the 1920s and became a teacher and high school principal at a time when married women were not allowed to teach. She was charismatic and passionate, lectured on Kansas history at her local church, divorced her husband, and started a taxi business in the midst of the Depression.

But she always struggled to make ends meet. Her daughter Ann, Montillo suggests, didn’t want to know about her independent mother’s struggles. She took off for New York as a model, then became a club showgirl, radio actress and “the prettiest girl on the radio” before meeting William Woodward.

Deliberate cruelty is told with the omniscient voice of Montillo, and his interpretations are presented as facts. This isn’t much of a problem in the explanatory chapters, but it becomes more limiting as the book delves into the more mysterious aspects of the Woodwards marriage from 1943.

For example, she brings out what appear to be unsubstantiated rumors that William, known as Billy, a racehorse enthusiast, was gay and that his father arranged his first meeting with Ann. No source is cited; how does she know that? Was it true or is this guess drawn from the kind of gossip that only emerged after the public became hungry for scandal after the shooting?

Depending on one’s taste, the prose is either readable or insipidly effective, but there’s little dialogue, so the story never quite comes to life. Take Montillo’s description of that encounter: “She knew very well the power she had over men, and she knew how to use it.” Bill looked at “her breasts spilling out of a bra that was too small, and her legs in those black stockings that drove men crazy.”

None of the quotes or descriptions are quote-related, and it’s very difficult to discern what’s fact and what’s fictionalized. The book is based on press accounts and police reports, but they are simply rehashed, rather than analyzed or questioned.

Like the couple’s contemporaries, the book tells that the marriage was in crisis. House staff witnessed violent quarrels which are described as mutually abusive, as if the two had equal power: “Ann threw bottles, shoes, ashtrays at Billy, and Billy retaliated by slapping her”, writes Montillo. After having two children, Billy became violent and filed for divorce in 1948. Montillo suggests that Ann had begun to lose power over her husband because “the towers in her bedroom began to look dated, while he was meeting and engaging with younger people who were even more interesting to him than a former backing vocalist from Kansas.

The story often feels more like a retrospective projection on historical caricatures than a real reconsideration establishing new connections that accumulate in an original narrative. A deeper revisit could tackle more explicitly how speculation about Ann might have been classist and misogynistic, first offered in the couple’s circles and then in the press.

Instead, Montillo relies on his criticism of the cruelty of Capote’s novel.

In the 70s, Capote was hungry for content after the massive success of In cold blood. According to Montillo, before leaving for Kansas to investigate the Clutter family murder for his 1966 bestseller, he originally wanted to write about Woodward’s story, intrigued by titles like “Showgirl Wife Kills Heir with Shotgun Blast”.

Montillo shows how Capote, like Woodward, grew up with an ambitious mother who dumped her first husband, remarried and reinvented herself. And Woodward was like a real life version of Capote Breakfast at Tiffany’s protagonist Holly Golightly, desperately trying to put her past behind her.

By then, Capote had moved beyond his role as the gay pet of upper-class women like Babe Paley and Lee Radziwill and wanted to show that there was nothing to envy of the upper classes. Answered prayershis last work – unfinished and only published posthumously – was supposed to be a critique of the mores of this echelon, told by a bisexual hustler, PB Jones.

In the first published clip, Jones meets Lady Ina Coolbirth (later assumed to be based on Paley), who gets drunk and tells him all about Ann Hopkins (widely assumed to be based on Woodward). In the Coolbirth tale, Hopkins was a ‘jazzy little carrot killer’ who ‘looked more like a malicious Betty Grable’ and was known to the men of the French Riviera as ‘Madame Marmalade’ ‘ for an oral trick performed with jam. She had killed her husband on purpose because otherwise she would find herself with nothing in the next divorce.

Arguably, this romantic portrayal was actually a critique of this kind of slut-shaming, but Montillo doesn’t bring up that possibility. Instead, she plays how Capote supposedly and deliberately wanted to hurt Woodward through the portrayal. She recreates a scene between Capote and Woodward – again, based on Capote’s notoriously fabulistic account – where she supposedly called him an anti-gay slur and he called her “Mrs. bang bang.”

She hints that he just spent years waiting for a way to get revenge on her, and the opportunity arose with Answered prayers. “It’s possible that Truman Capote hated socialite Ann Woodward because she reminded him so much of his mother,” she wrote. “But maybe he was also so cruel to her because Ann Woodward was too much like her too.”

Speculation extends to Woodward’s death by suicide three days before an excerpt from the novel was published in Squire. Montillo presents no evidence that Woodward knew the particular excerpt would focus on her. There’s no doubt that a revival of a scandal may have been the last straw for a woman who had supposedly been kicked out of her old social circle and was trying to put her past behind her. But no suicide note was found.

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