One can almost imagine the pitch to producers: "It's like MTV's 'Cribs'... but with murder!" The newest weekly offering from the Investigation Discovery (I.D.) network — whose other shows bear such intriguing titles as "Cuff Me If You Can" and "Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?" — is "Behind Mansion Walls," a real-crime series that digs up dirt about how the mighty (and those nearest and dearest to them) have fallen down dead in some of the most tony abodes in the world. Tonight's premiere, "Death in Palm Beach," will air at 10 p.m., and promises to be rife with delightfully over-the-top reenactments and fake blood galore.
Brash bow-tie-wearing Brit Christopher Mason serves as the show's host. Self-described as a "journalist, author, performer of musical tributes and satirical songs, and a photographer" on his , Mason serves as a frequent contributor to various publications, including the New York Times, penning pieces on the luxurious lives of the rich and scandalous.
You might also recognize him as the author of "The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christie's Auction House Scandal," an examination of the price-fixing scandal that wracked up $512 million in civil fines for the preeminent auction houses and sent billionaire Sotheby's chairman A. Alfred Taubman to jail for 10 months. Now Mason has turned his incisive eye from shocking tales of the top auction houses to manslaughter in some of the world's finest houses. ARTINFO asked Mason about his latest foray into unmasking the corruption of moguls and millionaires, and how art figures into the murderous machinations of the wealthy.
Your work has mainly focused on the scandals of the rich and famous, perhaps most notably your book "The Art of the Steal" from 2004 about the price-fixing scandal at Sotheby's and Christie's. Why are the crimes of high society so fascinating to you?
The sins of high society have intrigued me since I was a kid. Posh crime — it's a fascination that has baffled my parents, who are perfectly nice, normal, and middle-class. When I moved to New York in the mid-80s my first job was working for a fund-raising genius named George Trescher, who knew where all the bodies were buried in New York society. George was an intimate friend of Brooke Astor, Jacqueline Onassis, and Liz Smith, and he entranced me with wondrous tales of intrigue and backstabbing, carried out with finesse. He could be devastatingly funny, and accurate, in his assessments of the paragons, fabulists, and charlatans dominating the social landscape in the mid-80s. It was a crash course in the ways that power is wielded — socially, politically, financially, and philanthropically. It was a fascinating world, and I was hooked.
Are there connections between murders in mansions and auction house swindling?
Murders in mansions and auction house swindling, when dispatched with aplomb, require stealth and cunning. Unraveling the machinations of the criminal mind is endlessly fascinating.
What's the story behind the show? How did it come about?
Ten years ago the late, great Dominick Dunne, invited me to appear on his Court TV series, "Power, Privilege and Justice," to talk about posh crimes I'd covered as a journalist. Years later, when Henry Schleiff, the ingenious producer of that series, launched Investigation Discovery — now America's leading investigation network — he came up with the brilliant idea of creating the "Behind Mansion Walls" series, and suggested I audition as host. And to my surprise and delight, I was hired.
Did any of the people featured on the show have fabulous art collections? Did anyone kill for art? Any blood splattered on the family Picasso?
A raging desire to steal, or control, a fabulous art collection sounds like a splendid motive for a murder mystery. So far I don't know of blood splattered on anyone's Picasso, but I live in hope. Maybe a crazed gunman will oblige before we begin shooting season two. An upcoming episode of "Behind Mansion Walls" shows Glensheen, the famous estate in Deluth, Minnesota, built by Chester Adgate Congdon, the lawyer and capitalist who assembled a collection of works by American artists, including Childe Hassam, Charles Warren Eaton, and Henry Farrer. Congdon's collection adorned the walls of Glensheen in the mid-1970s when his adopted granddaughter, Marjorie Congdon, allegedly added a toxic dose of medication to her mom's morning marmalade, hoping to speed up her own inheritance. After that failed to do the trick, Marjorie's husband, Roger Caldwell, crept into the house and smothered his mother-in-law to death with a pillow and bludgeoned her nurse with a candlestick. History does not relate whether any of the carnage damaged the art collection.
The first episode, "Deadly Divorce," features a nouveau-riche real estate mogul from Palm Beach suspected of killing his ex-wife. Is this sort of story different from your work covering British royalty or New York socialites for publications like The New York Times? How?
I've covered all kinds of stories, from crooked antique dealers allegedly bilking billionaires to the dispersal of the chattels of Jerry Zipkin, the legendary walker, including his monogrammed "JZ" boxer shorts and vintage porn magazines, still in their original envelopes addressed to Mr. Jerome Zipkin on Park Avenue, which were being sold at the 26th Street flea market by a woman wearing psychedelic ski pants and yak boots. That was quite a scoop. A common theme is how power and privilege are wielded, and abused.
The show's promo touts that, "Some people have everything... except a conscience." It seems you've had a career's worth of experience proving that true. Does extreme wealth inevitably lead to scandal?
Not necessarily. I've met quite a few congenial billionaires who manage to remain exemplary members of society — philanthropic, honorable, and genuinely kind... most of the time. But extreme wealth delivers many temptations.
The focus on murder in "Behind Mansion Walls" seems more sinister than your other projects thus far. What about murder in glamorous houses intrigues you?
The murders themselves are grim but utterly compelling. Pam Deutsch, "Behind Mansion Walls"'s terrific executive producer, and Andrew Farrell, the marvelous Sydney-based producer on the show, encouraged me to insert my own commentary — and lend a raised eyebrow — to the foibles of the rich and powerful. If you watch the series, you'll see why some of the more outrageous stories provoke plenty of raised eyebrows!
Can you give us any teasers from the upcoming season of "Behind Mansion Walls?" Any particularly juicy stories?
Sure! Viewers who tune into episodes of "Behind Mansion Walls," Mondays at 10 p.m. on Investigation Discovery will discover juicy stories galore. "Behind Mansion Walls" presents stories of murders and mystery on a grand scale, where the victims and suspects range from real estate moguls to the heiresses of family dynasties, to the strange case of a cross-dressing Wall Street tycoon, Joe Pikul, who strangled and butchered his wife in Amagansett after she found a videotape of him reading the Wall Street Journal while wearing a wedding dress, masturbating to the tune of "Here Comes the Bride." As a new TV host, I've discovered that it's not easy to deliver certain stories to camera when the details inspire gasps of astonishment, and muffled shrieks, from the crew.
Another startling tale concerns Cullen Davis, an heir an oil fortune, who was one of the richest men in Texas when a divorce-court judge ordered him to relinquish his Fort Worth dream house to his flamboyant platinum-haired wife, Priscilla Davis. On August 2, 1976, hours after the judge instructed him to pay his estranged wife's legal bills and $5,000 monthly expenses, an intruder dressed in black and wearing a woman's black wig, entered the mansion on Mockingbird Lane. Finding Priscilla's 12-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Andrea, alone in the house, he shot her in the head and stashed her corpse in a basement closet, then waited for Priscilla to return home with her boyfriend, Stan Farr. The gunman killed Farr before firing a bullet into Priscilla's chest. Astonishingly, the curvaceous beauty survived, prompting speculation that recent breast enhancement surgery had saved her life.
During the murderous rampage, a young couple ambled up to the house. The gunman heard them whispering and shot Gus "Bubba" Gavrel, leaving him permanently paralyzed. Wounded, Priscilla ran half a mile to the nearest neighbor, screaming "Cullen is up there killing my children. He's killing everyone!" Davis, seemingly an excellent candidate for the electric chair, hired legendary Houston lawyer Richard "Racehorse" Haynes. A master of courtroom theatrics, Haynes convinced a Texas jury that Priscilla's extra-marital escapades and her fondness for painkillers made her an unreliable witness. He also persuaded them to overlook the testimony of Bubba Gavrel, the paralyzed victim who also identified Cullen Davis as the gunman. Davis, the wealthiest man who have ever been accused of murder, was acquitted. At a jubilant victory party afterward, a female juror explained the swift verdict. "Rich men like Cullen don't kill their wives," she said. "They hire people to do it for them."
To see the promo for "Behind Mansion Walls," click on the video below: