Truman Capote And The Confessed Killer He Might Have Murdered
In some ways, Evangeline Crowell and Truman Capote were not so different. Both came from humble beginnings in small southern towns, she from Pittsburg, Kansas, he from Monroeville, Alabama. Both had childhoods rocked by divorce, and both dreamed of a life more glamorous than the one laid before them. Both made their way to New York, and used their talents to wind into its exclusive elites who valued beauty, boldness, and wit, almost as much as old money. Crowell—refashioned as Ann Eden—was gorgeous and boldly flirtatious for a woman of the 1940s. Capote had a sharp tongue, and sharper wit that made him the sought after bestie to a fleet of elegant socialites he would lovingly refer to as his “swans.” But for all this in common, the pair became enemies. And a terrible decision by each would lead to death, and some say murder.
This is the story of the killer Ann Eden and her arguable executioner, Truman Capote.
Like Truman’s Holly GoLightly, Crowell changed her name, seeking a dreamy and luxurious re-invention. As Ann Eden, she was a vision on the New York scene, floating about with a body that drove men to diversion, and a dirty mouth that promised them much, much more. She found work as a model, and as an actress was voted “The Most Beautiful Girl in Radio” in 1940. But it was as a showgirl at the nightclub FeFe’s Monte Carlo that she met the heir to an immense cotton fortune, William Woodward Sr. Now, this senior was 39 years hers, but rumors have it that didn’t stop the pair from a brief affair. Still, Woodward was married, so Ann soon snagged a more available and age-appropriate suitor, his son William Woodward Jr, who was called “Billy.”
Billy’s mother Elsie was a grand dame of the NYC scene, and loathed that her son was being snared by a flashy girl of no standing. But by all accounts the couple was deeply in love, and so married in 1943. Theirs was a marriage of enviable passion. But as Ann became a mother of two sons, she felt pressured by her mother-in-law to play the lady and better fit into their circle of upper-crusty friends. With this, Billy soured on his once wild wife. They began having public fights so violent people wondered what went on behind closed doors. And then on the night of October 30th 1955, the cops were called to their spacious Oyster Bay estate, where they found Ann huddled over the corpse of her husband, who was dead from two shot gun blasts to the chest. She was covered in his blood, and howling in grief and regret.
Ann never denied that she shot her husband. But she always said it was an accident. A prowler had been breaking into houses in the neighborhoods, so she and Billy had each taken a loaded weapon to bed—in their separate bedrooms—that night. Ann claimed she’d awoken to the sound of someone breaking in, and shot up from her bed with the shotgun at the ready. Billy had raced from his room to investigate the noise, and when she saw him, she panicked, firing once, twice, and just like that ‘til death did they part.
Life magazine called the incident the “Shooting of the Century,” and the case was at the center of macabre gossip of New York’s high society and lowest browed rabble alike. Elsie wanted no further scandal to touch the Woodward name, so Ann’s boys were sent off to boarding school in Switzerland, and publicly, she stood by the “self-made widow,” as dark corners of snarking debutantes would call her daughter-in-law. Privately, it’s said Elsie loathed Ann, and believed the “mistaken identity” story was bunk.
In stranger-than-fiction turn of events, the prowler from Ann’s confession was caught, and fully supported her account. Paul Wirths admitted he had broken into the home late that night, but as he slipped through a window he tripped on a curtain, making a terrible racket. He then heard two gunshots, and skedaddled, so scared he leapt out the second-story window to get away. Thanks to this testimony, the grand jury determined no crime had been committed, and Ann was never charged with Billy’s murder. While she would not go to prison, she was far from free.
Though some say her mother-in-law paid off Wirths to save Ann’s skin (and the family from further scorn), Elsie saw to it that Ann was ostracized from New York’s polite society. With her boys in boarding school, Ann took off to Europe, hoping to start again. But friends say she was living a hell. Whether she intended to kill her husband is still a matter of debate, but all agree that she regretted that horrible night. She loved Billy. She missed him. And everywhere she went, she was shadowed by his death and plagued by whispers of her guilt. By all accounts, Ann was living an isolated life, cast off from her former friends, ignored by her in-laws, and a shell of her former party girl glory.
Enter Truman Capote.
Capote never liked Ann Eden. He saw her desperately trying to fit in with Elsie and her ilk, and he despised Ann for what he saw as phoniness. But perhaps he also envied her, for she didn’t need his renowned wit to get into New York’s most coveted circles, because she had a body to which a blue blood beau couldn’t say no. No direct conflict has been established between the two, and yet Truman decided to mercilessly skewer her in Esquire in 1975.
20 years after the death of Billy Woodward, Truman sold a short story called “La Côte Basque 1965,” which is not-so-loosely inspired by Ann and a gaggle of his swans. It was intended to be a chapter in Answered Prayers, a memoir/novel Capote had been talking about since 1958. In this first published excerpt, Truman writes of “Ann Hopkins,” a Virginia redhead who’d gone from call girl to gangster’s moll to gold digging trophy wife, to black widow, killing her husband for daring to threaten divorce once he’s discovered she’s a philandering bigamist. It was a none-too-subtle hit piece that would spark a new wave of rumors about Ann Eden, many—like the call girl and bigamy accusations—would take decades and Susan Braudy’s non-fiction book This Crazy Thing Called Love to disprove. But Ann would not live to see any of it. On October 10, 1975, she killed herself by taking a cyanide pill. And the story goes that Truman was to blame.
It’s said that someone—whether to warn her or wound her—sent Ann an advance copy of Truman’s sordid story ahead of its publication. It’s believed she could not stand to see it published, and witness her and her beloved husband’s names dragged through the mud once more. So, she ended it, seeming to close this grim chapter on NYC’s high society. Or, as Elsie Woodward reportedly said of Ann’s suicide, “‘Well, that’s that. She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her, and so now I suppose we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
But Truman Capote would pay.
Truman believed Answered Prayers would be his masterpiece, even more adored than Breakfast at Tiffany’s, even more acclaimed than In Cold Blood. He teased it to People, saying, “There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet. And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen—wham!” Yet for all this violent bravado, he greatly misjudged how New York’s upper class would react to his airing of their dirty laundry for the sake of literature.
See, Ann Eden Woodward was not the only socialite wounded by Truman’s pen. “La Côte Basque 1965” also dished dirt on his friends, including Gloria Vanderbilt, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, and Mona Williams. He offered anecdotes that made these women—each given a thinly veiled alias—seem like fools, sluts, or doormats. Vanity Fair’s retrospective on the short story offers many of the dishy details, but suffice to say Truman thought he could spill the beans like so much mistress menstrual blood on silk sheets, and no one would get mad.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” Gerald Clarke recalls in the Vanity Fair piece. “I read ‘La Côte Basque’ one summer day in Gloria Vanderbilt’s swimming pool in the Hamptons when Gloria and her husband, Wyatt Cooper, were away. I was reading it while Truman was floating in the pool on a raft. I said, ‘People aren’t going to be happy with this, Truman.’ He said, ‘Nah, they’re too dumb. They won’t know who they are.’ He could not have been more wrong.”
Truman was immediately and utterly frozen out of New York’s social scene, and was absolutely astonished, telling his friend Joanne Carson (wife of Johnny Carson), “But they know I’m a writer. I don’t understand it.” He tried to use his wit and charm to wheedle back into the good graces of the swans whose trust he betrayed, but it was to no avail. Truman’s volatile pen had backfired.
Cast out of the very society that once championed him, he grew bitter, spitting invectives about the fickleness of the wealthy, like “In the long run, the rich run together, no matter what. They will cling, until they feel it’s safe to be disloyal, then no one can be more so.”
His circle of friends grew smaller, and his appetite for drink swelled, drowning his talents and leading to an early death at age 59. He never did finish Answered Prayers, even after pushing its deadline back and back and back. And when he died in 1984, his publishers enlisted his remaining friends on a dogged hunt for its pages, desperate to get some return on investment for years of advances. Nothing was found.
Ultimately, Ann and Truman’s lives mirrored each other’s from cradle to the grave. Neither would be formally charged with murder, and neither faced the criminal justice system for their reckless mistakes. A dark punishment befell both nonetheless. Lovely Ann Eden did not serve jail time, protected by a respected family name and heaps of money. Capote would never be officially implicated in Ann’s death. But the society that once embraced them cast out both, pushing each into long, torturous paths of self-sabotage, and ultimately suicide through substance abuse. Here was a form of justice so cynical and poetic, it seems well-suited to a Truman Capote novel.
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