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  • Writer's pictureVesper North

Crime Revisited: Ann Woodward — 'Don't Forget'

Updated: Feb 25

Taking another look at the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Billy Woodward—shot dead by his wife, Ann.

Ann Woodward dancing with Billy Woodward

Her laugh swept past you like a summer breeze drifting in off the shores of Brighton—some found it quite refreshing to see a genuine smile for a change amidst smirks that boarded on sneers in Café society. Though not everyone was enamoured with the girl who came from Kansas with nothing but her smile and big dreams. No, most viewed her as a rat that chewed its way into your pantry to steal away your shortbread and cakes. Any reasonable person wouldn’t fault a young, country girl for having aspirations—just so long as she didn’t achieve them.

Ann Eden possessed all the same attributes as other high society women and celebrity alike. Despite her golden blonde locks and picturesque figure, she never could quite win the favour of her peers. The proto mean girl himself, Truman Capote, thought her to be nothing but a fausse and chercheur d'or. Never the matter, Ann had everything she ever wanted: success as an actress and model, the company of royalty, a manor in Oyster Bay, two darling children, and the love of one William “Billy” Woodward, Jr.—that is until she shot him dead.

This piece of information isn’t up for contention; it’s cold, hard fact that Ann shot her husband—she admitted it. The truth, however, remains another story. Was it murder? That was the cause célèbre that rippled across New York’s elite. The gossip mill pumped out rumours like a sweat shop knitting knock-offs after fashion week. Information, as it always has been, was power and schadenfreude was always in vogue.

The Woodward name hit the headlines, breaking the cardinal rule of any well to do family: your name should only appear in the papers when you’re born, married, and when you die.

WIFE KILLS WOODWARD, Milton Brackenspecial titled his report of the incident.

The question is why.

That headline, pulled from the New York Times the day after Ann shot her husband, continues on: SAYS SHE SHOT THINKING HE WAS A PROWLER… Well, that changes everything, right?

In 1937, Ann ripped her downhome roots from the ground and headed for New York City where she was subsequently signed to the prestigious John Robert Powers agency. When she didn’t have a gig, Ann would grace the floors of FeFe’s Monte Carlo as a showgirl for the black-tie crowd—an alluring attraction who would flit between the playboys and gamblers. There wasn’t a part of her body she couldn’t dazzle you with. Men were drawn to her, whether by her wit or her lips, or because she was, in her own way, exotic.

Still, as it goes, you travel to India to ride the elephants but you don’t take them home.

Back in 1943, women of high standing performed sex under the strictest of circumstances, and never spoke of the act aloud. Such foul talk never trotted 'cross the tongue of a lady. Ann’s uninhibited nature seemed the likely reason behind why William Woodward would be drawn to her—both junior and senior.

Oh yes, each of the Woodward men took a liking to the country girl turned socialite. In fact, she met Woodward, Sr. first before catching the eye of the younger. A fan of the Homburg hat with a well-sculpted white moustache, Woodward, Sr. introduced himself to Ann at the Monte Carlo—in the presence of his son, no less. On one occasion, the banking magnate escorted Ann to his stables to view his prize-winning stallion—that’s not a playful euphemism; the Woodward men raised horses to compete in the Kentucky derby.

Only this particular rendezvous made it into the books. Beyond that, the rest is speculative. Did Billy’s father break in his future wife? Just another one of those elusive truths that surrounded the Woodward family.

That very year, Ann made a formal introduction to Billy, the most eligible man in New York. Harvard educated, a Navy war vet (with a Purple Heart to boot), and the sole male heir to the Hanover National Bank fortune, he could have just about any woman he desired—an idea not lost on his mother, but we’ll get to that.

The two fell head over heels for each other—such adoration could not be juxtaposed. The carnal rapture Ann evoked had Billy wrapped around her every waking moment. She took no issue in educating Billy on how to pleasure her, how to be with a woman. For a man of only twenty-three who spent most of his life surrounded by other men—going from boarding school to university to the military—words like “tramp” or “harlot” didn’t seem to occur to Billy.

No longer the passing fancy, the fantasy of true love enveloped Ann—she certainly looked the part of the ingénue and here came prince charming directing her to a happy ending.

¨ ¨ ¨

N.O.C.D. “Not our class, dear.” WASPs weren’t afraid to direct outsiders to return from whence they came. A place at their table could not be earned with a charming smile and sharp wit—no, darling, you had to crawl out of the womb with a golden ticket.

Elsie Ogden Cryder Woodward, Billy’s mother and one of the last grandes dames, greeted Ann like one would a virus. She thought her son’s paramour could only have one motive: money. This particularly irked Elise as her father was swindled by his business partner some odd years ago. And though she knew, as we all do, that you cannot help who you fall in love with, you absolutely have a choice in who you marry. A spouse spoke volumes of one’s character and had the ability to elevate, or tarnish, your social status. Elise feared the latter. Whether by ignorance or indifference, Elise’s objections didn’t derail Billy’s plans—he took the bullet train to matrimony, marrying Ann under the stone turrets of at St. Luke’s episcopal church in Tacoma, Washington, officially making her a Woodward.

Reality soon nestled into Ann’s mind: the more time she spent with Billy, the harder it was to ignore just how different their origins were. Desperate to be a fitting companion, she took great care to become indiscernible from the women Billy grew up around. This taxing endeavour brought Ann to adopt a different perspective on sex. When once a quickie in the foyer while his mother sat in the next room came as run of mill, Ann fully committed to a pattern of behaviour that could be best described as “Our class, darling.”

In the years that followed, Ann produced two sons, which further propelled the honeymoon to an end. Not to imply that the passion completely vacated their relationship. Even married, Billy was still the most eligible man around and he had no trouble picking up a mistress or seven. Suspicious, Ann hired a private investigator to keep an eye on her errant husband, later learning Billy indeed filled his bed with other women and men. The sheer scandal didn’t appear to bother Ann, no, the betrayal—that ate away at her.

As the years went on, their problems only intensified. On a particularly heated night, Billy would strike his dear wife in a drunken fit. And Ann, not having the decorum of a dowager, would call out Billy on his caddish behaviour over cocktails with friends. Though, no matter how many times he smacked her or she embarrassed him, they’d fall back into each other’s arm and return to back to one.

The Woodward's war of personality wasn’t the only thing disrupting their homelife; a prowler snuck into the neighbourhood. That’s right, Ann didn’t just concoct some story; they feared someone had been lurking around their home. It became the talk at dinner parties: “Have you heard about the prowler?”

Ann and Billy both went to bed with a gun—a shotgun and revolver respectively. On an investigative tour around the yard, they found used cans food littered in the grass. Beyond that, nothing they attributed value to had been taken.

The parties continued; the prowler didn't pose enough of a threat to cease social operations. On October 30, 1955, the young Woodwards attended a party in honour of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor then returned to their home in Oyster Bay—the one that had been visited by the prowler. They retired to separate beds in rooms some twenty-feet apart. Ann and Billy knocked back quite a few drinks as they were wont to do—she consumed an odd number of sleeping pills.

In the middle of the night, Ann awoke with a fright—disturbed by noises from within the house. She grabbed the shotgun and went to investigate. Ann stepped into the darkened hallway in her night dress, hands tightly gripping her gun. A shadowy figure stood opposite her—indiscernible. She fired off two shots. The first missed, the second was a killer. The figure fell. Ann closed the distance, to see the face of the person she shot down, the face of her husband.

Ann rang the police, and her lawyer. She confessed to shooting Billy—recounting the tale of the prowler. Press arrived at the house—words travels faster when you're famous.

Life magazine called it the "Shooting of the Century" and if someone didn't know the Woodward name, they did now. The mystery behind the event made it a marketable story: was it murder?

The night of the shooting, Ann was carried out of her home on a gurney—a towel covering her face so that photographers couldn't capture a shot of her face for the morning papers. She was hospitalised for shock and deemed too ill to be questioned by authorities. The widow barely ate, resulting her being fed intravenously. In the following weeks, she returned to a healthier emotional state.

Ann was investigated, indicted, and found not guilty by a grand jury. However, the grandes dame came to a different conclusion—Elise didn't buy into the idea that this was some accident. Still, as it was custom for her to do, she never publicly spoke ill of her daughter in law, only ever passive aggressively disparaging Ann in private. Elise tried to salvage what was left of the Woodward name after Ann obliterated it with birdshot. The grieving mother took in her grandchildren, even Ann for a period.

It's important to note that there was a prowler. Twenty-two year-old German refugee Paul Wirths was picked up by police days after the shooting. Initially, he had nothing to offer to aid in the Woodward investigation. Detectives kept prodding him. First, he said that he was a half-mile way from the Oyster Bay home. Later, he changed his story—claiming he'd been the house, having climbed in through the second story window. He heard the two shots, turned tail, and ran. The German Consulate encouraged Wirths to cooperate in the investigation, leading him to speaking at Ann's trial. His testimony supported her story; it exonerated her.

One could make a case that Ann knew it was Billy in the hall just as one could to assert her innocence. Maybe it's more complicated than that: a Freudian slip of the trigger finger perhaps. Nonetheless, the official record states "not guilty."

Like Elise, there were others who wouldn't let Ann off the hook. She was now infamous and café society wanted little to do with her now. Truman Capote, who vied with Elise as Ann's biggest critic, took her to the slaughter with his piece La Cote Basque.

To say that La Cote Basque is allegorical would imply there were any subtitles to it. Dropping an atom bomb on Manhattan would have been more subtle. Even the simplest of people could draw the line between Ann Woodward and Capote’s Ann Hopkins. And she wasn't his only victim; he tore down some of the most prominent members of his social circle, exposing secrets and scandals for the general public to consume.

Ann received an advance copy of La Cote Basque. Three weeks before its publication in Esquire, Ann committed suicide on October 10, 1975 in her bedroom by taking a cyanide pill.

When her body was found, so was her final words. A notepad sat near her bed—something one would use for lists or reminders. Under the heading “Don’t Forget” at the top of the pad were the words "Ann Woodward."

Photo of Ann Woodward

Did Ann mean to murder Billy? I don't think so. I won't say that Ann wasn't an opportunist, but I certainly don't think she was malicious. I leave room for the idea that the subconscious was at play—the years of physical and psychological abuse brought her to a tipping point, causing her to pull the trigger without a second thought. It was a moment of fight or flight and it seemed to be in Ann's character to never run form anything or anyone. It's a curious case.

What do you think?


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