Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Closing ranks

Palm Beach. A shuttered window closed for the season.
Closing ranks
By Augustus Mayhew


Country houses, mansions and penthouses are as familiar settings for Architectural Digest photo shoots as they are fabled tableaux for mysteries, cliffhangers and melodramas. Beaux-Arts facades and Louis-Louis interiors morph into shadowy surreal deChirico landscapes, when say, Tuxedo Park meets Tobacco Road or The Palm Beach Story fades into Murder, She Wrote.

Here is a look at two halcyon cloud nines, a North Florida plantation and a South End Palm Beach mansion, where High Society types became tabloid headlines, characters at ease in Lillian Hellman drawing rooms and Noel Coward house parties that became tangled in Agatha Christie plots. More than sixty years after Grenville Kane Baker’s puzzling death at Horseshoe Plantation, it still remains an unexplained cold case, something more akin to Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street than the New York banking family’s dynasty. In Palm Beach, after Nancy “Trink” Deere Wiman Wakeman Gardiner shot her husband in their South End mansion, she survived a series of incredible only-in-Palm Beach episodes. Both cases made for a juggle of facts and circumstances, some of which were kept apparently below the public’s radar and above the law.

Plantation getaway
Once owned by the George F. Baker banking family, Horseshoe Plantation is a renowned hunting preserve set amidst Florida’s Red Hills between Thomasville and Tallahassee. Designed by Palm Beach architect John Volk, the horseshoe-shaped main house is set atop one of the plantation’s highest points, sheltered by towering moss-filled oaks and magnolia trees.
In 1901 Clement A. Griscom, a Philadelphia shipping magnate, bought Horseshoe Plantation, converting it from a working plantation into a quail hunting preserve. By 1911, there were 80 tenant farmers on the plantation. Following Mr. Griscom’s death, his family kept a portion of the plantation, selling the original main house, pictured above, and surrounding 12,000 acres in October 1916 to George F. Baker Jr. for $170,000. The plantation house was destroyed by fire in January 1938 while Edith Kane Baker was reportedly entertaining Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Field. The previous year, her husband George F. Baker had died, leaving a personal estate in excess of $25 million. Photos Library of Congress.
After the fire, Edith Baker commissioned Palm Beach architect John Volk to design a new statelier manor at Horseshoe Plantation, keeping much the same footprint as the frame original but inspired by traditional Irish Georgian country houses. In 1940 Arnold Gottscho photographed the house for the Bakers; the images are part of the Library of Congress collection.
The living room retains much the same configuration as seen in these 1940s images when Volk designed it. Photos Library of Congress.
Annual visitors during Horseshoe Plantation’s hunting season, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, pictured above, usually encamped for 5-10 days of Edith Baker’s Old South hospitality before proceeding on to Palm Beach. Mrs. Baker’s plantation eggs were of special note. In 1955, the Windsors were guests at Edith Baker’s North Shore estate, along with Ann and Bill Woodward, the night Mrs. Woodward mistook her husband for a prowler and shot him twice, killing him instantly. Photo Library of Congress.
When I mentioned to Anthony Kane Baker I was researching an NYSD feature on Thomasville and Tallahassee plantations, he kindly arranged for me to photograph what was once the Baker family’s main house at Horseshoe Plantation designed by Palm Beach architect John Volk. Also, he offered to send some early snaps from the family’s photo collection upon his return to Long Island.

Unfortunately, Anthony lost his life while testing a new airplane, another star-crossed chapter for the Bakers already beset with its share of setbacks — the loss of Anthony’s brother in another plane crash and the sudden deaths of both his father and his uncle at Horseshoe Plantation. For months after, I kept anthony’s e-mail messages, thinking I might still hear from him. I went ahead with the plantation features, omitting Horseshoe Plantation.

Then, in February 2009, a bizarre accident happened near the Baker’s plantation that sparked my curiosity about the unanswered questions surrounding Grenville Baker’s homicide in 1949. On a private airfield at the Phipps family’s Ayavalla Plantation, two people were killed, including the CEO of Phipps Ventures. A Piper Cub, a jeep and a motorcycle were racing down the field on a Super Bowl Sunday when the Piper’s left wing struck the jeep, causing it to veer off the runway striking a tree. There was no press at the crash site.
Eighteen months later, no criminal charges or civil cases have ever been filed. After the Leon County Sheriff's Office found there was “a lack of any negligence by the pilot,” it turned the case over to the NTSB. In November, the NTSB determined the probable cause was “The pilot's decision to initiate takeoff in close proximity to other vehicles which were operating on the runway resulting in collision with a vehicle during takeoff.” Since then, nothing has ever been reported about the incident. Amazingly, the case was closed.

Similarly, in the 1949 Grenville Baker case, authorities never learned whether a suicide, homicide or an accident occurred on the night Mrs. Baker might have been well served had Hercule Poirot been one of her house guests. First published reports described an accidental late-night overturned jeep mishap. Hours later, the coroner found a bullet in Baker’s head, overlooked by sheriff’s deputies; stories speculated about a possible suicide. Then, the FBI conducted testing before announcing “not a suicide,” and “all clues futile.” The case was closed. The funeral was held in New York; the will was read. After pouring through numerous contemporaneous reports, I began to think maybe someone did shoot Grenville Baker.
Named for his maternal grandfather, Tuxedo Park pioneer Grenville Kane, a descendant of John Jacob Astor, Grenville Baker attended St. Paul’s and Harvard. When his father died in 1937, his trust was reportedly worth $8.3 million. Despite his family’s objections, he married Alicia Grajales Corral in 1943, described in the press as a “Mexico City girl.” In a will dated one month before he was killed, Grenville Baker had reduced her cut to a cash settlement and one-half of his personal estate, leaving the remainder to his mother Edith Kane Baker.
L to R: Thelma Griffin with Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Whiddon. Mr. Whiddon was a convicted bootlegger, according to reports.
Arriving from Nassau at Tallahassee airport around 10 pm on a January night in 1949, Grenville Baker engaged in a “a tour of roadhouses” before inviting Thelma Griffin, a divorced tavern waitress, and Floyd “Shorty” Whiddon and his wife, tavern owners, to join him at Horseshoe Plantation, perhaps for a nightcap. Afterwards, according to Griffin, the Whiddons and the official sheriff’s report, Baker offered to lead them back to the main road with Griffin and Baker in the jeep and the Whiddons following. What happened next appears to make no sense.

Apparently, Baker lost the Whiddons, firing a shot in the air to let them know their location. At that point, Ms. Griffin said the jeep flipped over, rendering her unconscious until she awakened to find Baker dead. She went out to the main road and brought the Whiddons back. Later, a tenant farmer said he heard three shots but his account was dismissed by the sheriff as “backfires.” The coroner found one bullet had hit Baker, ruling he was shot by “a party or parties unknown.”
Although I am not a professional sleuth, I have driven the same red clay road that Baker took that night leading from Thomasville Road to the main house. I would think no matter how dark or drunk, if one follows the deepest downhill easternmost rut in the road, one would have arrived back on the parkway.

If the Whiddons were following the jeep, however tanked, I don’t understand how they could have arrived at the main road before Baker and Griffin, as it is not possible to pass on the red clay road. How did the sheriff overlook a bullet in the head? Having recently done well with some Midwest oil deals and the legal separation from his wife more or less completed, no one ever explained why Grenville Baker would commit suicide.
I never had the chance to ask Anthony Baker about what he thought about that night. Knowing him to always be forthcoming about matters of the past, I somehow still sense he might have been aware of an account that might have been closer to what might have really happened to Grenville Baker. Here are some views of Horseshoe during my visit.
Architect John Volk’s late 1930's design followed the spirit of the house’s original U-shaped footprint.
The classic central pavilion is flanked by single-story wings opening onto verandahs, the dining room and service areas to the right with the bedrooms sweeping to the left.
Above a living room fireplace mantle, a classic field painting depicts the hunting season.
The formal living room looking east towards the front door.
Another view of the formal living room looking west towards the front entrance.
From the terrace at Horseshoe Plantation, a view looking north towards the lake.
The main house’s living room affords an idyllic view north towards the lake.
Off the hook in Palm Beach

Nancy Wakeman made headlines when she shot her second husband William Wakeman Jr. and again when her third husband, Winthrop Gardiner became among the first, if not the first, man awarded alimony from their wealthier Palm Beach wife. Mrs. Wakeman was the great-grand of John Deere, the Midwest farm machine manufacturer, and daughter of Broadway producer Dwight Deere Wiman (1895-1951), whose productions included On Borrowed Time and I Married an Angel.
Nancy and William Wakemans’ South End house was built in 1928 for renowned Long Island aviator David McCulloch and designed by Marion Sims Wyeth. When it was designated a local landmark in 1993, the consultant pointed out the unique Mephistophilean figure flanked by seahorses above the front door.
Nancy “Trink” Deere Wiman Wakeman Gardiner expresses her understated style, arriving on Worth Avenue at the wheel of her restored 1936 Auburn roadster. Photo Palm Beach Daily News archive.
In September 1967 shortly after midnight in the bedroom of a South End ocean block mansion a few blocks south of Worth Avenue, Nancy Wakeman shot her husband in the back with a .22 caliber revolver. Charged with aggravated assault, Mrs. Wakeman was arrested and posted $1,000 bond. She told the police there was a “domestic quarrel,” shooting her husband only after he had assaulted her, although some believe the Wakemans were embroiled in more complex family matters.
Nancy and William Wakeman photographed in 1963 at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Second marriages for both, the Wakemans were a popular Palm Beach-Greenwich couple, members of the Everglades Club and the Coral Beach Club. Politically active Republicans, the Wakemans attended the 1964 convention as Florida delegates. Two years earlier, Mr. Wakeman served as campaign manager for Emerson Rupert’s bid against Senator George Smathers, pulling an Airstream trailer around the state behind his Cadillac Sedan deVille. The Wakemans were known as generous hosts. Photo Palm Beach Daily News archive.
The Wakeman house was designed by architect Marion Sims Wyeth for the David McCullochs. Above, at the Everglades Club golf course in 1926, L to R. David McCulloch, Mrs. Marion Wyeth, and Marion Sims Wyeth. Before the Wakemans bought their Palm Beach house, it was owned by Charlton Yarnall, the Philadelphia financier. In 1962 the couple gave a dinner for Mrs. David McCulloch who had not been back to the house since she had sold it to the Yarnalls in 1940.
Fantastic stone figures enhance the front entrance.
At trial, her wheelchair-bound husband would not testify against his wife, taking the 5th amendment, making for a surreal interrogation.

The judge adjudicated guilt, sentencing her to a restrictive five-year probation, including mandatory 20 hours weekly for charitable work.

When police arrived at the Wakeman house the night of the shooting, Mrs. Wakeman was found in the bedroom holding her husband.
Paralyzed from the waist down, Mr. Wakeman lost his life in 1969 while undergoing surgery in Newark.

On appeal, the judge’s ruling was overturned when the state appeals court found Mrs. Wakeman’s confession inadmissible; her rights of self-incrimination were jeopardized. The state did not retry her because the evidence was compromised.

But rather it being the end of her nightmare, another chapter was beginning, keeping her on the front pages far from the society section where she was a familiar figure at Palm Beach and Greenwich A-list events.

In an unexpected twist, Mrs. Wakeman was called to testify during the impeachment trial of a state appeal court judge for whom she had written a check for his campaign and who was instrumental in throwing out the case against her.

And when she said she did it on her attorney’s advice, her attorney sued her for millions for defamation of character. And, so it went for several years, seemingly more time in court than committees.
L. to r.: Nancy Wakeman, Mrs. Victor Farris, and Mrs. Atwater Kent, a meeting of third-grade mothers in 1970. Photo Palm Beach Daily News archive.
A supporter of the arts and numerous philanthropic endeavors, Nancy Wakeman pauses for a moment standing in front of her portrait at Gemini Gallery. In her husband’s memory, Mrs. Wakeman generously gave millions for neurological research.
Nancy Wakeman in Palm Beach. After marrying Winthrop Gardiner in East Hampton in 1975, her third, his sixth (possibly), they encamped to the Bahamas, making it more difficult for process servers to find her. When Mr. Gardiner sued her for divorce, he asked for alimony. The judge granted him support, though much less than what he’d asked. Mr. Gardiner died before their divorce was finalized. Photo Palm Beach Daily News archive.
As Mrs. Winthrop Gardiner, she continued to make headlines as Nancy Wakeman.
Palm Beach legend, Nancy “Trink” Deere Wiman Wakeman Gardiner died in 1996. Photo Palm Beach Daily News archive.
In a 1955 LIFE magazine article about the Ann Woodward-mistakes-her-husband-for-a-prowler shooting in Long Island, Cleveland Amory recounts the cursed fate of several social pillars, Zach Reynolds, John Fell, Sir Harry Oakes, and Bill Woodward’s best friend, Grenville Baker. That night, the Woodwards were among Edith Baker’s guests at her Locust Valley estate for a reception honoring the Windsors.

“Incredible as the Woodward tragedy was, it is hardly more incredible as the society which produced it,” wrote Cleveland Amory.

Archival photographs courtesy of the Palm Beach Daily News archive.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.
 

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