The strange story of the murder of Barbara Baekeland by her own son
Murders can happen anywhere but Cadogan Square in Chelsea is not somewhere you’d first think of one so strange occurring. In 1972, however, just such a thing happened when the great grandson of the inventor of Bakelite killed his socialite mother in their penthouse home.
By all accounts Antony (Tony) Baekeland – 25 at the time – was a troubled man. He had had a privileged yet turbulent childhood at the hands of two reckless parents, Brooks and Barbara Baekeland, whose focus was on socialising and hedonism instead of creating a happy home. His “arrogant” father, for example, is said to have liked telling those he met:
“Thanks to my grandfather, I have what James Clavell has called ‘fuck-you money’. Therefore I need not please or seek to please; astonish, astound, dazzle or be approved of by anyone”.
Here, indeed, was a couple who “flitted gypsy-like” between London, New York and Paris and holidayed in such resorts as Zermatt and the Hamptons. They spent lavishly and lauded their son in public as a “genius” but neglected him in private. Antony Baekeland, in fact, was simply another plaything for two selfish Gatsby-like individuals who counted Salvador Dali, Dylan Thomas and Tennessee Williams amongst their entourage.
The young Baekeland had a “marked stammer” and was variously described as having been the kind of child that “enjoyed pulling the wings off butterflies” and one obsessed with the collar of his deceased Pekingese dog. At school this schizophrenic is said to have had his first homosexual experience at the age of eight and then when his father, Brooks Baekeland, left his mother for a “nubile female classmate that Tony brought home from school for a weekend visit”, this car crash of a child plainly tipped over the edge.
Mother and son were said to have become “neurotically clingy, dancing a minuet of codependency” in the coming years but the main problem for Barbara Baekeland was that her son’s sexual preference was for men. To “cure him”, a prostitute was hired and when that did not work, it is alleged that Mrs Baekeland took it upon herself to sleep with her child herself. Some, such as one of her former lovers, Sam Green, later argued that this was just the “self-indulgent ramblings of a mad international wastrel” and that Barbara Baekeland was someone who just reveled in notoriety, but it is for this that the case joined the ranks of notoriety. The 2007 film Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne and Hugh Dancy, that was based on the story made great play of this. Legal action brought by Sam Green in relation to a scene in which he is said to have had a threesome with Antony and Barbara Baekeland remained unresolved at the time of Green’s death in 2011.
Antony Baekeland’s descent into what his father described as the “personification of evil” was the inevitable result and incidents that followed included his being put into a private psychiatric clinic after attacks upon his mother with pens, knives and walking sticks. By August 1972, he was “often in catatonic trances, clutching himself and swaying to and fro” and he unsuccessfully attempted to throw his mother under a passing car in Cadogan Square at around this time. Though arrested, Barbara Baekeland refused to press charges and after a brief stay in The Priory, her son was free to strike again.
By October things Antony Baekeland’s condition had worsened and in desperation, his mother arranged for him to see Dr W. Lindsay Jacobs. The psychiatrist later lamented:
“I saw Antony Baekeland for the first time on 30th October 1972 – eighteen days before the crime – and afterward I told his mother, ‘Your son is going to kill you’. She replied, ‘He’s been murdering me since he was born – whether for him or his father, I don’t know. I’m used to murder’. ‘This isn’t a metaphor’, I told her. ‘This isn’t an analyst’s game. I think you’re at grave risk’. And she said, ‘I don’t’.”
On 17th November 1972, the situation came to a head when Antony Baekeland stabbed his mother with a kitchen knife in their penthouse at 81 Cadogan Square. When the police arrived, they found Barbara Baekeland dead and her son ordering Chinese food over the telephone. Antony Bakeleand told the officers who arrested him that he was “not responsible for the crime” and later wrote to his grandmother to tell her “a great weight has been removed from my shoulders”.
Baekeland was defended at his trial by John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, and found guilty of manslaughter through diminished responsibility. He was subsequently institutionalised at Broadmoor Hospital prison but after a group of “well meaning” friends campaigned for his release, he was released in July 1980 on the condition he left England for good.
On the plane to New York, after leaving prison, Antony Baekeland is said to have explained to his escort, Cecelia Brebner, about what had happened on the day of the murder. His alleged words sum up the ultimately destructive interdependency of the mother-son relationship. In her account, Brebner stated that after stabbing his mother, Baekeland told her that:
“‘Mummy was dying. I knelt down and turned her face toward me and asked: ‘What is your name? Who are you?’ … But it [didn’t] matter… Mummy and I are one. It really doesn’t matter at all.”
A week later, Antony Baekeland attempted to stab his own grandmother to death. Miraculously, she survived and of why he did it, he told a psychiatrist:
“All this happened because I was denied physical contact with my grandmother and homosexual relations with anybody else”.
Sent for assessment at Rikers Island prison, Baekeland remained there for eight months. He expected he would be bailed at a court hearing on the 20th March 1981 but because of a delay in the transfer of his medical records in England, the case was adjourned and he was returned to his cell. Thirty minutes later, Antony Baekeland was dead. He had suffocated himself with a plastic bag and in doing so ended the Baekeland dynasty.
The notes on this most curious case remain closed until 2047 at the National Archives at Kew on the justification of there being “commercial and personal information supplied in confidence”. When they are opened, goodness knows what else will be revealed about the son of a woman who once commented: “You’re manacled to Mummy now”.
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