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Death of a socialite: the Barbara Baekeland case

Barbara Baekeland, allegedly seduced her own son, Tony, to 'cure' him of being gay

Barbara Daly Baekeland was only 52 when she was stabbed to death in her luxurious Chelsea apartment in London on November 17th 1972. The brutal murder was the violent climax to an emotional rollercoaster ride for the beautiful socialite who was linked by marriage to the Bakelite empire – the world’s first plastic. 

Just before Barbara’s death she had been dining with a friend in London and enthusing about her extravagant, fun-filled life that she shared with her much-adored son, Anthony.  It was her tall, thin 25-year-old son ‘Tony’, the only child of Barbara and Bakelite heir Brooks Baekeland who hours after she returned home to their exclusive Cadogan Square apartment viciously murdered her in the kitchen.  One ferocious stab with a domestic knife ended what had been a turbulent and at times combative mother-son relationship. It was revealed to be far from the idyllic loving relationship Barbara boasted about and in reality was tainted by a toxic combination of possessiveness, mental illness and alleged incest between mother and son. 

When the grisly scene was uncovered by the police finding Barbara dead on her back, Tony appeared to be in denial of the seriousness of his actions and was somewhat bizarrely in the throes of ordering a Chinese takeaway on the phone.  

Sensationalistic revelations

In a year that saw the legalisation of cannabis in Holland, computer company Atari launching the first generation of video games and controversy over the continuing Vietnam war, the murder of a rich American socialite associated with one of the US’s richest and most powerful dynasties captured world headlines. 

In the shocking aftermath of the murder sordid details soon unfolded about how Barbara and Tony really lived in what some friends described a volcanic atmosphere of arguments. The source of such conflicts was due to Barbara having arranged and encouraged her son to sleep with female prostitutes in the hope of ‘curing’ his homosexuality. But worse ...that she had also purposely instigated a sexual relationship between herself and Tony as a twisted reaction to control a gay son she couldn’t bear to lose. 

Over a short period of time where arguments had turned physical and Tony was witnessed trying to harm or kill his mother on numerous occasions – by pushing her in front of vehicles – an irreversible atmosphere of tension, suppressed anger and grievances would finally explode into the fatal stabbing of a mother who doted too passionately on her only son. It was the kind of suffocating devotion borne out of possessiveness and controlling behaviour that may have led to such tragic events and ruining several lives of one of the most privileged wealthy American families. 

Troubled rich minds

Barbara Baekeland was born in 1922, Boston, Massachusetts and considered one of New York’s ‘ten’ most beautiful girls. It was nature’s gifts that blessed Barbara with the advantages of finding work as a model with some of the top magazines of the day from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar. But her beauty hid a history of mental health problems that were to plague her entire life and see her employing the services of expensive therapists and psychiatrists.

It wasn’t long after the power couple’s marriage in California... that the relationship started to show cracks. 

The young socialite’s introduction to the dashing Brook Baekeland, a trainee pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, cemented the status of a celebrity couple bestowed with looks, money and in Brook’s case, a lineage linked to the Bakelite empire, as he was the grandson of Leo Baekeland who invented what was the world’s first plastic. But it wasn’t long after the power couple’s marriage in California and their eventual move to a luxurious apartment in New York’s Upper East Side that the relationship started to show cracks and run into trouble. 

Multiple suicide attempts

Anthony, an only child, was born in August 1946 and by the time the boy was ten years of age his parent’s led a nomadic life around the world with an apartment in Paris where matrimonial problems, exacerbated by emotional issues and affairs on both sides, led to various suicide attempts by Barbara. By 1967 the family resided in Switzerland and it is at this time that the twenty-year-old Tony embarked on an intimate relationship with a bisexual Australian man while visiting Morocco which infuriated Barbara and saw her travelling by car to Spain in order to bring her son home. 

Whether an incestuous relationship between mother and son actually happened is debatable

This dramatic episode was possibly the beginning of a stormy mother-son relationship that culminated both in Barbara’s extreme behaviour to ‘cure’ her gay son and also brought about her own divorce from Brook who, tired of his wife’s emotional problems, had begun an affair with a young Spanish girl. On learning about the affair Barbara attempted suicide after which Brooks remarried and had a child. 

From this moment both Barbara and Tony were ruthlessly ejected from Brooks’ new family life back in America. The twenty-one year old Tony, like his like his mother was now of no interest to his father who lived with a new partner (3rd marriage) and a young child. Whether Brooks had ever taken to Tony in the past he now thought of his first son, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, as strange and peculiar. 

Damaged personalities

Barbara’s controlling behaviour was cited as being a major contributing factor in regards to her son’s increasingly unstable mental health. Still connected to one of the most rich and powerful American dynasties Barbara lived a privileged life where its material trappings of great wealth hid from the outside world the reality of her dealing with an increasingly out of control son who had threatened her life with knives, choking and even trying to push her in front of vehicles outside of the London family penthouse apartment. 

Whether an incestuous relationship between mother and son actually happened is debatable as some close friends believed that Barbara simply enjoyed shocking people with such admissions that may have been fuelled by fantasy and pathological attention seeking. 

Violent arguments

On the night of Barbara’s murder, Tony himself admitted that he and mother argued over a friend who Tony had invited over but his mother didn’t want to see. The argument became heated and turned violent with Tony hitting his mother before she ran into the kitchen. During his confession, Tony said ‘My mind was slightly wacky and I was very much under my mother’s influence. I felt she was controlling my mind’.

Whether this admission came from a place more to do with Tony’s unstable mind than actual behaviour by his mother is unknown but the fact is minutes after a frightened Barbara ran into the kitchen Tony followed and picking up a knife stabbed her without hesitation.

Broadmoor

Despite admitting the brutal slaying of his mother Tony showed little grasp of reality. While in custody at Brixton prison he would even ask visitors how his mother was as if she was still alive. At the Old Bailey Tony was defended by the legendary John Mortimer (author of Rumpole of the Bailey books) who attempted to get Tony extradited back to the US for treatment. Instead, Tony was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to Broadmoor, one of the UK’s top security hospital’s where he was visited by the rich and famous, possibly due to his mother’s celebrity status and association with the Baekland dynasty.

Trusting grandmother

Tony’s paternal grandmother Nini Daly took a more compassionate view of her grandson’s troubles and was instrumental in garnering powerful family allies such as Hugo Money-Coutts (connected to the famous bank family) to help steer a campaign to get Tony repatriated back to the US. Nini loved her grandson and believed that under her supervision he could lead a normal happy life. But Tony’s father Brooks was against such moves and thought his son should have been found guilty of first-degree murder. He believed psychiatrists were a waste of time and described his son as ‘evil’ particularly after Tony had sent his young stepbrother in the US macabre gifts he had made himself while at Broadmoor.

Repatriation

In 1980, wealth, money and connections involving Coutts bank, the American Embassy and contacts in Washington finally did the job securing Tony’s release on the proviso he was to be entrusted under the duty of care to his 87-year-old grandmother Nini in New York. It was a decision that enraged Tony’s father Brooks who had made attempts to get his son’s release reversed as he believed Tony was capable of killing again. Inadequate provisions had been made for the young man’s release with it seems no one in both the UK and the US understanding how unstable Tony was. The thirty-three-year-old former Broadmoor inmate was accompanied on the plane to the US solely by a stranger, the daughter of one of his grandmother’s ‘friends’ who just happened to live near Broadmoor.

Macabre shrine to Mother

A combination of misguided trust by his grandmother Nini and a lack of responsibility by authorities on both sides of the Atlantic saw the disturbed, schizophrenic Tony now living with the elderly woman in New York’s Upper East Side. Back in Britain Tony’s Broadmoor consultant admitted his patient’s release was a ‘faux pas’ and was perhaps only too aware that a lack of appropriate psychiatric care and supervision would lead to disaster. His concerns were to be proven correct.

Increasingly erratic and bizarre behaviour by Tony was inadequately dealt with by an ageing grandmother.

During the few days after Tony had arrived in New York and was staying in his grandmother Nini’s apartment, he built a macabre shrine to his dead mother and mumbled satanic masses over her ashes. Increasingly erratic and bizarre behaviour by Tony was inadequately dealt with by an ageing grandmother and family psychiatrist and it appeared that the path to violence was now inevitable.

Attempted murder

Just six days after he had left Broadmoor Tony got into a heated argument with his grandmother over a telephone call he wanted to make to England. Nini refused him permission enraging her disturbed grandson. Within minutes the out of control Tony stabbed her eight times. When the police arrived at the apartment to discover the carnage Tony complained to the officers that ‘she won’t die’ despite the multiple stabs wounds and broken bones he had inflicted on the frail still alive screaming woman. It transpired that in his mind after injuring Nini he had thought it ‘kinder’ to kill her while also admitting in a confession that he wanted to have sex with his 87 year old grandmother. Miraculously Nini survived.

Ironic death

This time there was no rich influential people in the US defending Tony’s right to freedom and he was incarcerated for life at Rikers Island, New York’s main prison where his access to family money provided a merry-go-round of sexual partners, protectors and possible enemies in the top security prison. However, eight months after psychiatric assessments of the now thirty-three-year-old Tony attempts to grant him bail were delayed by a decision to wait for his medical records from Broadmoor back in the UK. On that day, on March 20th, 1981 Tony went back to his cell. At 3.30pm he was found dead with a plastic bag wrapped tightly around his head. In a somewhat sinister act of unintentional irony, his shocking and sad end had been brought about by the very synthetic material that had made his family rich decades before. Tony Baekeland’s violent death has not been verified as either suicide or murder and is still a mystery.

By Richard Bevan

Thursday, 3 January, 2019 :30