Socialite Nancy Wakeman Shoots Her Politician-Husband Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

William T. Wakeman, an influential Florida Republican Party politician, was shot by his socialite wife, Nancy Wakeman, reportedly because of his extramarital affairs. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and she got five years probation. After he died from complications of an operation in 1969, she married another millionaire.

Summary of Event

Nancy Wakeman was born an heir to the fortune of her grandfather, John Deere, who had invented the steel plow. Her father, Dwight Deere Wiman, was a successful producer of Broadway theater Broadway shows. Early in her life, she married an actor, but she soon divorced him. She cited his adultery with women, some of them unknown and identified only as Jane Doe. [kw]Wakeman Shoots Her Politician-Husband, Socialite Nancy (Sept. 5, 1967) Wakeman, Nancy Wakeman, William T. Marriage;Nancy Wakeman[Wakeman] [kw]Dodd Is Censured for Misappropriating Funds, Senator Thomas J. (June 23, 1967) Campaign contributions;illegal Dodd, Thomas J. Congress, U.S.;Thomas J. Dodd[Dodd] Washington Merry-Go-Round Wakeman, Nancy Wakeman, William T. Marriage;Nancy Wakeman[Wakeman] [g]United States;Sept. 5, 1967: Socialite Nancy Wakeman Shoots Her Politician-Husband[01270] [c]Murder and suicide;Sept. 5, 1967: Socialite Nancy Wakeman Shoots Her Politician-Husband[01270] [c]Sex;Sept. 5, 1967: Socialite Nancy Wakeman Shoots Her Politician-Husband[01270]

After she divorced, Nancy attracted the eye of William T. Wakeman, a former model who had grown rich in the oil industry. The two were luminaries in the Palm Beach, Florida, social scene, and they lived to be seen and to throw lavish parties. William also participated in the local political scene and was particularly active in the presidential Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Barry Goldwater[Goldwater] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1964 campaign of Republican senator Goldwater, Barry Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, an Arizona senator, was a right-wing politician whose platform depended heavily on abolishing social-service programs. He was easily defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson, who had come to office after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and made the most of his association with Kennedy. William was dispirited by his candidate’s defeat.

Both of the Wakemans were socially prominent. William had originally been a social fixture during his career as a model, but as he built his wealth, his social circle had shifted to the monied and socially prominent. This circle was one where Nancy was prominent—her family and fortune established her as one of Palm Beach’s notables. Similarly, both were prone to drinking and public fights, in which details of their love life were aired before friends and neighbors. At times the fights got physical to the point of pushing and shoving, but no one felt the handsome couple would ever really hurt each other. The certainty of their friends and neighbors would be shattered with a well-publicized act of violence and subsequent legal matters.

On September 5, 1967, during a fight at their mansion on El Brillo Way, a drunken Nancy accused William of having an affair with a model. Their tumultuous love life had been complicated for some time by William’s infidelities, and his habit of trolling for new lovers among his contacts in the fashion world infuriated Nancy. Although apparently guilty of the infidelity he was being accused of, William denied the claims. An angry Nancy took out a .22 revolver when she felt that he had moved to attack her. The gun, usually kept in a bedside night stand, was William’s, and was intended for emergencies. Equally angry as well as drunk, William sneeringly told his furious wife that she did not “have the guts” to shoot him. In the face of such a challenge, there was little else that the stubborn and strong-spirited Nancy could do. She proceeded to prove him wrong, shooting him once before putting the gun down and calling for emergency assistance.

When medical assistance and the police arrived on the scene of the crime, Nancy freely admitted to them what she had done and surrendered to them the gun that she had used to shoot her husband. The bloody and injured William was rushed to the emergency room for treatment while the apparently calm and unshaken Nancy was taken into police custody. Upon examination and treatment by medical personnel, it was discovered that the bullet Nancy had fired had injured William’s spine as it passed through him. The severe injury left him a paraplegic, and he was told that even after full recovery, he would be unable to move about without the assistance of a wheelchair. Nancy continued to freely admit to the police and media that she had shot him, but William steadfastly refused to testify against her, taking the Fifth Amendment whenever he was asked about her actions of the night of the shooting. Nancy was permitted to visit him daily in the hospital, and she did so, sitting by his bed for hours while a fascinated media struggled for glimpses of the socialite shooter.

In the course of the trial, Nancy was defended by Joseph D. Farish, Jr., a West Palm Beach lawyer who was no stranger to celebrity trials. He later served in the Herbert and Roxanne Pulitzer divorce. Farish struggled in vain to keep his client out of the public eye, but the heat of the scandal, coupled with Nancy’s patrician good looks and connections to Palm Beach’s wealthiest and most notable families, kept the media focus on the trial, making it one of the most high-profile cases of the year. In court, however, William continued to refuse to testify against his wife despite the obvious frustration of the prosecution.

Despite this refusal to testify to his wife’s guilt, William was despondent at the loss of his lower limbs and worried what his life as a disabled person would involve. When Michael DeBakey, a cardiologist and specialist in spinal injuries, offered William the chance to restore his mobility with a risky spinal operation, it took him only moments to make the choice—the benefits were worth the risk. The operation progressed normally, and all seemed well on the operating table. However, moments after the operation, William’s heart gave out, unable to cope with the trauma of the operation. He died that evening in his bed with Nancy beside him, holding his hand.

A six-person jury found Nancy guilty of aggravated assault and she was sentenced to five years of probation, a sentence that was light because she had no criminal record. Even though the sentence was relatively light, her conviction was reversed a few years later on appeal by Judge David McCain; she served no prison time at all. She returned to the Palm Beach social scene but steadfastly refused to speak of William or the manner in which he had died.

Nancy continued to act as a philanthropist and social leader. In 1972, she established the Wakeman Award for Research in the Neurosciences, presented biennially at Duke University and focused on research on spinal cord injuries. Other donations to medical institutions reflected her concern over the injuries suffered by her former husband, the one whose death she refused to discuss throughout her later years.

Impact

During the mid-1970’s, the upholding of Nancy’s appeal by Judge McCain would come into question when scandals boiled over surrounding the ways in which the justice had used his influence and power. Nancy had made a financial contribution of one thousand Campaign contributions dollars to McCain at the suggestion of her lawyer, Farish. Embroiled in turmoil and media attention, McCain ended up resigning.

Evidence of further corruption was uncovered when Nancy testified that in 1970 she had been approached by two men who identified themselves as top aides to Claude Kirk, the governor of Florida at the time. They told her that if she paid them thirty thousand dollars, they would ensure that her earlier court conviction would be overturned. Again, media attention erupted when Nancy attempted to drop out of sight to avoid controversy. She left for the Bahamas, but she was found by the media after a private investigator had tracked her there to serve notice of a ten-million-dollar lawsuit against her in a case involving her testimony against Governor Kirk and his aides.

Nancy’s legal troubles continued to surface from time to time. After William’s death, she married Winthrop J. Gardiner. Their later divorce would make headlines when Gardiner was one of the first divorced husband’s to ask for substantial alimony from a wealthy former wife. Wakeman, Nancy Wakeman, William T. Marriage;Nancy Wakeman[Wakeman]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kessler, Ronald. The Season: The Secret Life of Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society. New York: HarperTorch, 2000. Kessler’s book is an accurate depiction of the Palm Beach social scene that places Nancy Wakeman’s life there in context, although it mentions her only in passing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owen, Jack. Palm Beach Scandals: An Intimate Guide (The First One Hundred Years). Miami, Fla.: Rainbow Books, 1992. A compendium of brief overviews of the major scandals of the Palm Beach community.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiss, Murray, and Bill Hoffman. Palm Beach Babylon: Sins, Scams, and Scandals. New York: Carol, 1992. Devotes substantial time to an account of the Wakeman scandal and the subsequent trial.

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