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Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson (Morrow: $17.95; 492 pp., illustrated.)

December 08, 1985|Mark I. Pinsky | Pinsky is a Times staff writer

A book like this, coming on the heels of the innocent verdict in the Claus von Bulow murder trial, does a good deal for the notion of healthy class hatred. The odd thing about class consciousness among Americans of meager-to-modest means, at least in Southern California, is how frequently it is expressed in the form of morbid curiosity and simple envy toward the wealthy, rather than by the more primitive "eat the rich" sentiments that surfaced during the 1960s. The reason it's odd, as "Savage Grace" makes clear, is that in real life the contempt flows so freely in the other direction-- "Dynasty," "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest" notwithstanding.

This contemptuous attitude is clearly articulated in the lengthy patchwork of interviews, correspondence and reports that make up this account, and it is voiced by as unpleasant and vacuous a collection of people as one would ever dread to meet. In the process, we have yet another interminable account of social-climbers, name-dropping arrivistes, minor royalty and various hangers-on periodically cutting each other dead--often figuratively and once literally--in the great capitals and crumbling resorts of Europe, the entire account seasoned with genteel racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.

Brooks Baekland, the gifted wastrel grandson of Belgian-born Leo Hendrik Baekland--inventor of Bakelite and the "Father of Plastics"--stands amid the self-made wreckage of his family and moons about an older, better generation, "made before socialism destroyed the American family and proper upbringing." In fact, "socialism" notwithstanding, the younger Baekland inherited wealth, intelligence and good looks and managed to squander or dissipate all of it, corrupting or compromising almost everyone they touched.

Brooks hated his father and suggests that the feeling was mutual. He also disliked his son, Tony, who subsequently murdered his mother, attempted to kill his grandmother and then suffocated himself with a plastic bag. It is alleged in this account--alleged repeatedly--that Brooks ran off with the only woman his son, otherwise a homosexual, was ever interested in. After Brooks ran off with her (she later left him) , his ex-wife, Barbara Baekland, is alleged--again repetitively--to have engaged in an incestuous relationship with Tony as her last-ditch effort to save him from homosexuality.

The Baekland saga is described in "Savage Grace" as, variously, the stuff of Greek tragedy, a Scott Fitzgerald novel and living surrealism. Barbara's murder by Tony is said by William Styron to have "some very large, metaphorical meaning," while Brooks dismisses it as a "grotesque, inartistic accident." Another friend may be closer to the mark in saying it was "so absurd it was almost funny."

The most acute observation in the entire book is offered by Dr. Thomas Maguire, staff psychiatrist at Britain's Broadmoor Special Hospital, where Tony Baekland was sent for eight years after stabbing his mother to death in their London duplex. "There was a deep sickness in the family," Maguire says, "and a lack of discipline that too much money will often create." Maguire encountered the power of the Baekland money when Baekland's friends brought sufficient pressure on the British and American governments to force the young man's premature release from Broadmoor in 1980. Within days of his return to the United States, Tony nearly bludgeoned his frail grandmother to death in her Upper East Side apartment, and six months later--though allegedly under a suicide watch--he killed himself in a Rikers Island jail cell.

"Savage Grace" mimics some of the same failings it attempts to describe, including in the book, for example, the observations of people who add nothing to the story but the recognition factor of their names. Much of the conversation is banal. Sadly, we also have the specter of literary cannibalism. Before the murder of Barbara Baekland by Tony, both James Jones (her longtime friend) and Cecil Beaton made the family subjects of their novels, in Beaton's case unpublished. Days after the murder, Baekland family friend Francine du Plessix Gray ran into Peter Matthiessen at Styron's home and, according to Gray, "almost simultaneously we said--'Are you ever going to use it? Are you ever going to use it?' Use it in a book, you know. And we both said no."

It is possible, given the apparently insatiable appetite of the reading public for details of socialite antics like those outlined in "At Mother's Request," "Nutcracker," "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and whatever effluvia the von Bulow affair may yet discharge, that a tightly written narrative account of the Baeklands, perhaps half the length of "Savage Grace," might be worth half the time and money. But I doubt it.

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