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A slaying in high society: A socialite shoots her husband, and the killing is called a case of mistaken identity

William Woodward Jr. and his wife, Ann, arrive

William Woodward Jr. and his wife, Ann, arrive at the 1955 Belmont Ball on June 10, 1955. Credit: Newsday/Tom Maguire

This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.

The night began for the Woodwards with a glittering party in honor of the duchess of Windsor. It ended with a blaze of gunfire - an act of violence that would fascinate the nation for weeks and inspire two best-selling novels.

William Woodward Jr., 35, was the handsome, dark-haired owner of the top-rated racehorse Nashua and a member of a renowned racing family that had saddled three Kentucky Derby winners. His wife, Ann, four years his elder, was a beautiful blond former actress and model who had transformed herself from a Kansas farm girl into a sophisticated socialite.

Woodward's mother, Elsie Ogden Cryder Woodward, was regarded as the reigning figure in New York society. So it hardly seemed surprising that William and Ann Woodward would be among the 58 guests invited to the party honoring the duchess on Oct. 30, 1955, at the Locust Valley estate of Edith Baker, widow of a wealthy banker. One subject of discussion at the party was a wave of burglaries sweeping North Shore mansions.

Guests at the party would say later that the Woodwards seemed in good spirits. William Woodward had only a few drinks. His wife, a teetotaler, drank nothing. They left about 1 a.m.

After driving to their 43-acre Oyster Bay Cove estate, they retired to separate bedrooms across a corridor on the first floor of their mansion. Because of the recent outbreak of burglaries, they had taken to sleeping with weapons beside their beds. William Woodward had a revolver; his wife had a double-barrel, 12-gauge shotgun.

About 3 a.m., Ann Woodward said, she was awakened by the barking of her dog and what she took to be the sound of a prowler. She would give this account of the ensuing events:

Hearing the noise, she turned on a night light, grabbed the shotgun and ran to the door of her room. She threw open the door and spotted a figure in the doorway of her husband's room. Without a word, she fired the shotgun across the corridor - cutting loose two blasts almost simultaneously. And then, too late, it dawned on her that the figure in the doorway was not a prowler.

"Almost immediately, I realized it was my husband," Ann Woodward told police. "I ran to him and fell on the floor beside him."

She picked up a telephone and shrieked for help. A telephone operator could not make out what she was saying, but called the police.

When officers arrived, they found Woodward dead near the doorway to his room. He was nude. Woodward had been struck in the head and face by one blast of No. 7 shotgun pellets, ordinarily used for duck hunting. The other blast had struck the bedroom door.

Ann Woodward told police her husband must have heard the same noise that roused her and must have arisen to investigate. But the officers discovered he had not taken his revolver. They found the gun in a table near his bed. The Woodwards' children - William 3rd, 11, and James, 7 - had slept through the gunfire. They were taken to their paternal grandparents' home. Ann Woodward went to Doctors Hospital in Manhattan, where she was described as unable to answer further questions.

The news media jumped on the Woodward story like white on rice. It had all the elements: glamorous, socially prominent people with headline names. Wealth. Power. Violent death. And, above all, mystery. Had Woodward's shooting really been an accident? Or was it murder?

If it was murder, a possible motive soon surfaced - adding the titillating element of sex to the brew. A private detective, hired by Ann Woodward to shadow her husband periodically for seven years to see if he was cheating on her, went to the police. He said she provided him with the names of a dozen women she suspected of trying to wreck her marriage. Police began tracking down the women.

Concurrently, society figures circulated reports that William Woodward's relatives had opposed his marriage to Ann. Those reports were bolstered when the family hired a private detective to conduct his own investigation of the shooting. Conflicting stories surfaced on how much money Ann Woodward would receive from her husband's fortune, but the family lawyer said she would get millions.

When Ann Woodward emerged from the hospital, after missing her husband's funeral, she was questioned by detectives and told she would be called before a grand jury. While she was waiting to testify, police came upon a witness who supported her prowler story - a burglar who reported being in the Woodward mansion at the time of the shooting and hearing the shotgun blasts.

"His name was Paul Wirths," says Edward Curran, then a Nassau detective and now president of the state retired police officers' association. "He'd been driving us crazy. We knew his M.O., we knew what crimes he was committing, but we just couldn't catch him."

Wirths was arrested in a Suffolk case. "The police out there turned him over to us," Curran says. "We wanted to talk to him, as well as other burglars, about the Woodward case. We took him to the Woodward house. He told us: I was in the house. I heard the shots.' " Wirths said he immediately fled and took refuge in a barn.

Police were skeptical at first, but Wirths told them he had broken a tree limb while climbing into a mansion window and had hidden briefly in a closet containing a safe. "We checked and found the broken tree limb, the closet and the safe," Curran says. "You couldn't do much better than that."

Ann Woodward appeared before the grand jury three weeks after the shooting. She testified for only 25 minutes, and the grand jury quickly cleared her. Some said she received preferred treatment because of her station, but others contended Wirths' story assured she would walk.

After a suitable mourning period, she resumed her participation in the social whirl. Years later, her story provided the underlying themes for two novels - Dominick Dunne's "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and Truman Capote's "Answered Prayers."

The questions about her husband's death never faded. In 1975, friends say, she was shown an advance copy of Esquire magazine excerpts from Capote's forthcoming book. In Capote's version of the story, the character based on Ann Woodward was guilty of murder.

Not long afterward, the same year, some say because of anguish over Capote's account, Ann Woodward killed herself in her Park Avenue home. She took with her the answers to any lingering questions about just what happened at her North Shore mansion on the night of that glittering party honoring the duchess of Windsor.

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