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W. Woodward; Scion of Rich Family Plagued by Tragedy

May 08, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one really knew their misery, only misery's tragic ends.

William Woodward III, the reclusive scion of a banking fortune, leaped from his 14th-floor Manhattan apartment a week ago Sunday, his life ending in the same bleak trajectory that had claimed the rest of his ill-fated family.

It began in the early hours of Oct. 30, 1955, when his mother, Ann, shot what she thought was a prowler in the hallway of the family's Long Island estate. The man turned out to be her husband, William B. Woodward Jr., heir to the Hanover banking fortune.

Although a grand jury quickly ruled the shotgun death accidental, gossip-mongers called it the shooting of the century and kept the suspicion of murder alive for years. In 1975, just as a serialized version of Truman Capote's unflattering novel about the case, "Answered Prayers," was about to be published, Ann Woodward poisoned herself with a capsule of cyanide.

A year later, Jimmy, the younger of the two Woodward sons, jumped to his death from the upper floor of a Central Park hotel. Four years earlier, he had spent time in a psychiatric hospital after stripping off his clothes and leaping through the fourth-floor window of a friend's apartment. He abused drugs and suffered hallucinations that people were spying on him through television sets.

Unlike Jimmy, William Woodward III seemed to have a good life.

He worked briefly as a reporter for the New York Post, then founded a journalism review called More. He twice ran for public office, first for the City Council and later for the state Senate. Although he lost both times, he eventually became a deputy superintendent of banks under then-Gov. Hugh Carey.

But, as a chronicler of the family once noted, the Woodward name was famous for the wrong reason, with the father's tragic demise a dark cloud that could not be chased away.

The shooting was recapitulated as fiction twice, first by Capote in 1975 and later by Dominick Dunne, whose "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" was published in 1985 and made into a TV miniseries.

Capote, who knew Ann Woodward socially, called her "Ann Hopkins," "a jazzy little carrot-top killer." In Dunne's version, she killed her husband after a nasty argument.

An ex-showgirl who was never accepted by the blueblood Woodward clan, the real Ann gave her social peers much fodder for malicious gossip. Both Woodwards were said to have had extramarital dalliances and dueling private investigators. She was ostracized socially after shooting her husband and called a murderess by former friends.

Capote had supplied a motive in his novel: that the senior Woodward had discovered his wife was a bigamist who never divorced a first husband. That fictional motive was disputed two decades later in a third book, this one nonfiction, by journalist Susan Braudy. She concluded in "This Crazy Thing Called Love: The Golden World and Fatal Marriage of Ann and Billy Woodward" that Ann Woodward's shooting of her husband was probably accidental.

Braudy, who briefly dated the Woodwards' eldest son when she worked at his journalism review in the 1970s, blamed the shooting for destroying what remained of the family after that October night nearly half a century ago.

"They were too famous for the wrong reason," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. "It was a paranoid world they lived in. Everywhere they went, people knew something about them, or thought they did."

William Woodward III was 11 when his father died, Jimmy was only 9. Immediately afterward, they were sent away to an exclusive Swiss boarding school, Le Rosey, but news of the scandal followed them even there.

After graduation, Jimmy volunteered to fight in Vietnam along with his best friend from Le Rosey. The friend died in battle. When Jimmy returned from duty, he began writing letters to his mother, accusing her of being a cold-blooded killer.

Before his death last week, William Woodward was reported to be in the throes of a difficult divorce from his wife, Lisa, and upset about not being able to see his daughter Elizabeth.

This week, Dunne remembered the last Woodward son as "a gentleman, an incredibly nice man." He said he was heartbroken at the news of his death, calling it "the end of the road" for a doomed family.

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