All of Truman Capote’s “swans” were glamorous and damaged, but no one more so than the beautiful, tragic Ann Woodward.
1. She Went From Glamour To Grime
Ann Woodward was supposed to get a fairy tale ending. Going from working in seedy clubs to marrying America’s most eligible bachelor and swanning about with Truman Capote, the beginning of her story was pure Cinderella fantasy. But one sudden—and mysterious—twist sent the socialite down a dark path. One that ended in blood, betrayal, and her own ghastly death.
Ann Woodward’s story reveals just what lies beneath those painted smiles of New York high society.
2. She Wanted To Be Someone
From the beginning, all Ann Woodward wanted to be was important. Although born Evangeline Crowell in 1915 in small-town Kansas, by the time she was 23 she’d moved to New York City, changed her name to “Ann Eden,” and was trading in her already gorgeous looks to work as a model with the influential John Robert Powers agency.
It could have been the beginning of an age-old Hollywood success story. It almost was.
3. She Was Famously Beautiful
By the late 1930s, Ann had become a sought-after radio actress, and even had a role in Noel Coward’s Set to Music. With her glossy hair, big eyes, and plump lips, her beauty was enough for listeners to give her the somewhat paradoxical title of “The Most Beautiful Girl In Radio”. But she was about to discover that there would always be a grim side to her glittering dreams.
4. She Couldn’t Quite Make It
Although Ann saw some success in her early years in New York, it was also a grind to keep any of that success going. In her mid-20s, she was mostly working as a showgirl for FeFe’s Monte Carlo, a nightclub that serviced the rich and powerful men of the city. Then again, Ann knew just what to do with rich and powerful men, as she’d soon prove.
5. She Met A Much Older Man
While working at FeFe’s one day, Ann had a date with destiny. The wealthy banker William Woodward Sr walked in, and the whole room likely went a-titter. Woodward wasn’t just rich; he came from an old money family that demanded respect everywhere they went. According to some accounts, Ann jumped at the opportunity and became his mistress.
If that’s true though, it makes her next move downright shameless.
6. She Was “Gifted” Away
Perhaps because of her, er, “connections” with William Woodward Senior, Ann soon met his only son and heir, the 22-year-old William "Billy" Woodward Junior. And if you believe the most depraved rumors, it was the Woodward patriarch who, after some test runs, passed Ann onto his son like a deranged gift. Either way, it was a disaster from the start.
7. People Thought The Worst Of Her
As the only son, Billy was the pride and joy of his family, and especially of his domineering, immaculate mother Elizabeth Cryder. When Ann met him, the young Billy was valiantly serving in the Navy and had earned a Purple Heart for his bravery in WWII—so almost no one thought she was good enough for him. His mother wasted no time labeling Ann as a gold-digger, and urged her son to dump her.
And you know? Maybe Ann was a gold digger. But her relationship had much worse problems.
8. Society Snubbed Her
Driven on by the excitement of his mother’s disapproval, Billy married Ann in the early 1940s. It had immediate and sharp consequences. New York high society was notoriously unfriendly to anyone it didn’t already know, and poor Ann got completely shunned from the best parties and invites from the moment she said “I do”. But Ann hadn’t come this far to give up.
9. She Clawed Her Way To The Top
If New York society thought they could break the new Mrs Woodward, they soon realized how wrong they were. Ann waited them out, all the while learning the manners, fashions, and references she needed to circulate even the chilliest rooms. It also helped that she gave Billy two sons and heirs—William III (“Woody”) and James (“Jimmy”)—in quick succession.
Before long, Ann got into “in crowd” of New York City. She was also in a pit of rattlesnakes.
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10. She Had Fierce Competition
Ann’s late 1940s New York was a who’s who of socialites, and the top among them were the “Swans”—a term the writer Truman Capote, himself a fashionable figure, used to describe his leggy, coifed inner circle of It Girls like Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, and Slim Keith, among others.
These women graced the sidewalks like they were catwalks, and now Ann Woodward was walking among them. Yet it was so easy to trip and fall.
11. Her Marriage Was Falling Apart
By the end of the 1940s, Ann’s life was rotting from the inside out. While she and Billy had begun passionate and defiant, by now their relationship had devolved into petty fighting. Most embarrassingly, many of these fights happened in public, in full view of the other well-to-do guests. Still, what Ann and Billy were hiding was much worse.
12. She Strayed From Her Husband
Behind closed doors, Ann Woodward and Billy were very rarely with each other. They were, however, with a series of other people. Indeed, most of their marriage was marked by a string of affairs on either side, which only served to stoke their jealousies and insecurities and make them fight even more. Eventually, Billy felt he only had one choice.
13. She Couldn’t Let Go
In truth, despite their many galas and society events, the Woodwards didn’t even make it out of the 1940s before Billy told Ann he wanted a divorce. Her reply was stone cold. Even with the private pains of her marriage, Ann didn’t think she could face the end of her reign of New York, nor give up her social status. She refused his request.
She paid an unbearably high price for this luxury.
14. She Had A Secret Problem
Ann may have clung to her prestigious husband, but that didn’t mean it was good for her. Between the constant arguments, cheating, and utter loneliness, it was ultimately too much to handle. Soon, she was drowning her sorrows not just in well-made martinis but also prescriptions pills.
But if she wanted to separate herself from reality now, she hadn’t experienced anything yet.
15. They Were Friends With Royalty
Near Halloween in 1955, Ann and Billy were still limping along in their marriage and were about to attend a party hosted by their close personal friends, the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson—just two other elite consolation prizes for Ann’s loveless relationship. But that night, their broken fairy tale went full-on slasher film.
16. They Were Anxious
While at dinner, guests overheard the couple say something prophetic. The pair of them kept discussing the string of burglaries that had been in their residential area, and were anxiously proclaiming that if the thief thought he was going to get his hands on their assets, he had another think coming. Then they revealed the most chilling part.
17. They Protected Themselves
In the midst of their worrying over the burglar, Billy confessed that he kept a weapon nearby his bedside table. Then, as if that weren’t enough, Ann—who had long been sleeping in a separate room from Billy—had her own right beside her bed. And yes, this became extremely tragic foreshadowing.
18. She Woke Up In Terror
After heading back from the Duke of Windsor’s place, Ann and Billy retired to their respective rooms. Ann woke up in horror. Her dog, Sloppy, was barking up a storm, and she simply knew what it meant: The burglar was in their house. A moment later, she claimed she heard a noise on the roof. Then she witnessed the most heart-stopping sight of all.
19. She Fired On A Stranger
Alarmed, Ann grabbed the shotgun that was by her bed and walked around the house in search of the intruder she was sure was there. Then, she saw him—and he was right in front of Billy’s door. Without wasting a moment, Ann held up the weapon and shot, sure she was saving her broken family. The truth haunted her for the rest of her life.
20. She Killed Her Husband
At 2:35 am, the authorities arrived at the house, unsure what they were going to see upon entering. The image was bloody and tragic. Ann was cradling her husband’s lifeless body, sobbing and crying, “I did it”. The man in front of the door was no burglar; it was Billy himself. Suddenly, Ann’s whole life unspooled.
21. She Made A Suspicious Call
Whatever Ann claimed her reasons were, the cold, hard truth was that she had offed her husband. But in the swirling, heady hours after the apparent accident, an unsettling sign pointed in another direction. After calling the authorities and the ambulance, Ann then had the wherewithal to call her high-powered lawyer, Sol Rosenblatt.
Even if officers wanted to question her, they soon couldn’t.
22. She Lost Her Mind
In the wake of the shooting, Ann was utterly beside herself, and kept muttering things like “I thought it was the man who has been around here”. At her lawyer Rosenblatt’s urging, the authorities took her to a hospital in Manhattan, where medics had to sedate her in order to calm her down in the slightest. When she woke up, the damage had been done.
23. The Press Attacked
In the end, officers only formally questioned Ann a full 48 hours after Billy’s demise. When the press found out, it went wild. This clearly biased treatment of one of the shining stars of Manhattan wasn’t just infuriating to them, it seemed clear evidence of her true guilt. Life magazine immediately dubbed it “The Shooting Of The Century”.
A few days later, though, shocking new evidence appeared in the case.
24. There Was A Third Man
Right around the time officers questioned Ann, they collared a man named Paul Wirths—a man who not only had a history of burglary, but who also claimed that he had been trying to break into the Woodward house just as the shots rang out. For some onlookers, it seemed to exonerate Ann. For someone very close to home, it made it much worse.
25. Her Mother-In-Law Knew The “Truth”
Ann’s mother-in-law Elizabeth had never liked her for her beloved son, and the grieving woman now utterly blamed her for Billy’s violent end. It didn’t matter who came forward, Elizabeth knew Ann had done it. Perhaps more than that—at least in the hardened socialite’s eyes—Elizabeth despised Ann for bringing such embarrassment to the Woodward family and having their business splashed all over the papers.
But this was just the beginning of Ann’s demise.
26. She Went On Trial
Soon enough, Ann was facing a grand jury trial on charges of her own husband’s murder. In the Nassau County court house, a pitiful-looking Ann testified to her innocence, asserting again that she had only thought Billy was a burglar—besides, hadn’t they found the real burglar?
All the same, the prosecution brought up her marital issues and, no doubt, the hefty inheritance she might get if Billy wasn’t around. When the verdict came back, tongues wagged.
27. She Got Off
After just 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury brought back its controversial choice. They acquitted Ann Woodward of all charges by determining that she had only acted in self defense, and the courtroom likely went wild. In someone else’s story, this happy ending might have led to Ann’s renaissance. Instead, it only meant her downfall.
28. She Didn’t Escape Her Doom
Even though the official court proceedings had wrapped up, Ann wasn’t exactly scot-free. It wasn’t just that people didn’t believe her innocence, they also believed Ann’s mother-in-law Elizabeth had rigged the case, paying $400,000 to get Ann off the hook and even bribing Paul Wirths to make his confession about being the burglar.
After all, Elizabeth might have been sure Ann did it, but she also wasn’t going to expose her family to further ridicule in a drawn-out case. Besides, Elizabeth got her own kind of revenge.
29. New York Shunned Her
Almost as soon as Ann was out of the courthouse, her mother-in-law handed down a cruel command. Get the heck out of New York, you’re not welcome here anymore. Sure enough, all of Ann’s hard-earned friends turned their backs on her once more, and she fled to the continent to sip away her sorrows in Venice and elsewhere.
Friends, however, weren’t the only thing she lost.
30. She Lost Her Boys
Throughout all of this, Ann still had two young boys, Woody and Jimmy, she was supposed to take care of. Only, her mother-in-law also made sure that was foreclosed to her too. After the shooting, Grandma Elizabeth packed the boys off to boarding school in Switzerland. As one commenter noted, “There were no explanations”.
This would have dire consequences on the boys. But scandal was hardly done with Ann, either.
31. She Took Up Boy Toys
Although Ann was now living a rootless life over in continental Europe, she also made sure to enjoy the fact she was single—by whatever means possible. People often saw her in the arms of younger men, including the male socialite Claus von Bulow, who was over a decade her junior. And it was during one night with him that she ran headlong into her worst fate yet.
32. She Met An Old “Friend”
In 1956, just a year after Billy’s passing, Ann Woodward had taken up residence in the posh Saint Moritz, Switzerland with her new friend Claus. While out dining she ran into an old acquaintance: None other than the writer Truman Capote, who had so ruled New York with his swans during Ann’s heyday. But Capote turned out to be no friend to Ann.
33. They Wouldn’t Stop Talking About Her
Capote, who spent most of his New York career gossiping about women inside and around his circle, was very aware of Ann’s fall from grace. Just a few months before spotting her in Saint Moritz, he’d written to a friend noting, “Ann Woodward continues to occupy the front pages”. Seeing Ann out in the wild, then, only intrigued Capote more.
So he made a fatal error—well, they both did.
34. She Dealt A Cruel Insult
Mischievous, haughty, and with a high opinion of himself, Capote reportedly loped over to Ann’s table and interrupted her little tête-á-tête with her younger man. Ann’s response was vicious, and it would ruin the rest of her life. According to at least one version of events, an annoyed Ann called Capote a rude name for a gay man.
But Capote—who was gay—bit back harder.
35. She Earned A Terrible Nickname
Capote clearly had a way with words, and had once described himself as “about as tall as a shotgun, and just as nasty”. Accordingly, he spared no niceties for the already socially disgraced Ann. In that moment, perhaps deciding she was guilty of her husband’s offing after all, Capote reportedly called Ann “Mrs Bang-Bang”.
The nickname would stick. So would Capote’s grudge.
36. She Made A Lifelong Enemy
To be fair, this report of Ann’s meeting with Capote in Saint Moritz is one-sided. That’s because we know it primarily through Capote himself, who subsequently delighted in regaling everyone, in his usual exaggerated and vicious style, with the tale of how he put “Mrs Bang Bang” in her place. One thing’s for sure, though: He never got over it. And he would reap a greater revenge years later.
37. She Tried To Claw Her Way Back
Over the next years, Ann tried to push herself back into New York high society just as she had done right after her marriage to Billy. This time, no one was buying it. She may have had the money now, but she had none of the power—and her looks were fading. Instead, she had to settle for the outskirts of influence even after she dared to move back to the city.
The ongoing tragedy proved too much for one of the most important people in her life.
38. Her Children Were Distant
Although Ann’s sons Woody and Jimmy had been living mostly apart from her, first in boarding school and then living with her hated mother-in-law Elizabeth, they still meant the world to her. But while Woody seemed to be thriving from the outside, going to Harvard and then working as a journalist, Jimmy had already gone down a much darker path.
39. Her Son Suffered
After serving in Vietnam, Ann’s youngest son came back a different person, and a wrecked man. Jimmy became addicted to very hard substances and was barely making it through life. Then one day, Ann got gut-wrenching news. In 1972, Jimmy had made an attempt on his own life by jumping from the 10th floor of his friend’s apartment.
Although he survived, he broke 10 bones in process. Ann had nowhere to turn, and there was nowhere to go but down.
40. Capote Got His Revenge
In 1975, Ann Woodward was still picking up the pieces of her life and family when another complete bombshell hit. She got wind that her old acquaintance-turned-enemy Truman Capote was writing a thinly-veiled exposé of the New York socialite world, and that the worst night of her life and the ensuing trial would appear in it—no doubt with very little empathy from Capote.
She was shocked, but it was worse than she could have ever imagined.
41. She Was A Target
“La Cote Basque” was a chapter from Capote’s full book, Answered Prayers, and proved itself beyond vicious when it appeared in the November 1975 issue of Esquire. In the excerpt, a woman relates to a Capote stand-in all about “Ann Hopkins” (aka Ann Woodward), who was a “jazzy little carrot-top killer” and a “malicious Betty Grable” who had offed her husband to make sure she got his money.
Capote didn’t stop there, however.
42. She Kept Dirty Secrets
In “La Cote Basque,” Capote was essentially confirming to everyone that Ann was guilty of Billy’s death, and made sure to deal her a few choice insults on top of that. He also gave away a bedroom secret. According to “La Cote Basque,” this fictional Ann also earned the name “Lady Marmalade” because of a little “trick” she’d learned to do with jam.
Whether this had any truth in Ann Woodward’s life or not, we’ll never know. But Capote did get his comeuppance.
43. Her Enemy Had A Downfall
Before “La Cote Basque,” Truman Capote was still in touch with his swans. Afterward, he all but ruined his professional and social career. One of the most influential swans, Babe Paley, completely cut Capote out of her life as a result of the publication and led the charge in completely ostracizing him from “good” society, just as Ann had experienced.
But poor Ann’s reaction wasn’t revenge, it was destruction.
44. She Took Her Own Life
In truth, Ann never actually got to see the publication of “La Cote Basque” in Esquire. By then, she had already surrendered to her tragic fate. It appears that upcoming publication of Capote’s second-hand dirty laundry was too much for her to handle, and in October 1975 she took a single cyanide pill and ended her life.
Yet, as so often happened with Ann, her own tragedy rippled outward.
45. Her Mother-In-Law Was Pitiless
In death, Ann got little redemption, even after Truman Capote’s disgrace. Upon hearing of Ann’s desperate actions, her mother-in-law Elizabeth merely stated, "she shot my son, and Truman just murdered her, and so now I suppose we don't have to worry about that anymore”. Sadly, there were still things to worry about, and they sealed off Ann’s legacy.
46. Her Youngest Son Faltered
Ann’s son Jimmy had been troubled ever since his return from Vietnam, and the violent passing of his mother after his father seemed to break him completely. In September 1978, less than three years after Ann went, Jimmy leapt from the Mayfair Hotel in Manhattan and joined his mother at just 30 years old. He wasn’t the last to be touched by the family curse.
47. Her Heir Took Up The Mantle
Throughout all this, Ann’s eldest son Woody had seemed remarkably normal and upstanding. The well-groomed young man took up politics around the 1980s and married Lisa Schreiber in 1985 in a no doubt luxurious ceremony in Paris. It looked as though he was going to follow his paternal family into New York respectability. If only.
48. Her Line Was Poisoned
Ann was gone, but her memory and curse lived on. In 1994, her son Woody began to experience serious mental illness, with his wife Lisa filing court papers that stated he would often sleep on park benches and speak in tongues. “I don’t want to use the word crazy,” Lisa’s lawyer said at the time, “but there were episodes”.
There was also other, all-too familiar behavior.
49. Her Eldest Re-Lived Her Marriage
In addition to Woody’s mental health “episodes,” he also turned into a “compulsive philanderer,” much like both of his parents. In a cruel twist, he also reportedly taunted his wife Lisa by leaving love notes from his various affair partners—and sometimes even leaving evidence around that he’d been with someone else.
Then came the nail in the coffin.
50. She Lived A Tragedy
In 1999, the final act in Ann Woodward’s tragedy came at last. That year, her eldest son William Woodward III also took his own life, bringing the illustrious and doomed family line to an end. Ann Woodward was a lost “swan,” and her American dream transformed into a nightmare all too fast—and then continued long after her own passing.