The Lady and the Law

Prologue: The Storm

The storm moved up the Ohio River valley gathering strength as a warm air mass was caught above and between two rapidly moving cold fronts. The critical area of the weather intersection moved across Pennsylvania spawning heavy thunderstorms and a smattering of tornadoes, most of which remained at higher altitudes rather than touching down as the disturbance rolled over the mountains. As the mass crossed the flat plains of New Jersey, the storm strengthened and turned southeastward until it hit the Atlantic Ocean. At last it swung north, moving at almost fifty miles an hour and increasing in fury as it moved toward the Long Island and New England coast.

To the north and east of the storm the skies remained clear, the winds light. An hour before the storm arrived, there were barely any visible signs of the danger on the surface of the ocean. Small craft warnings had been posted, but many of the vessels at sea in the area were unaware of the monster unless tuned into radio stations that broadcast continuous weather information. Thus, a sailboat fifteen miles offshore, almost out of sight of land and moving at a speed of about ten knots was sure to be hard pressed to get back to shore unless it picked up early warnings of the approaching danger.

As it swirled above the warm ocean waters, the storm gathered strength and speed, generating waterspouts that started at the surface and spun high into the clouds. When it caught up with the craft that were offshore, even experienced sailors found themselves in difficult circumstances while trying to navigate their way back to a safe haven. Craft with less experienced crews discovered too late that they were in a dangerous, possibly even fatal environment.

The Lady

 At age twenty-eight Gwen Robinson Baldwin lived alone in an attractive American style home in the town of Katonah in northern Westchester County. Her dwelling had a pale gray stone exterior and a broad, brick and stone entranceway with round pillars on either side of the wide front door. An enclosed passageway connected the house and garage. Inside were four bedrooms, three and a half baths, a modern kitchen, living and dining rooms and a family room in the basement. The living areas were spacious, with a small room for an office and library off the foyer. While she was still married to Gregory Baldwin, Gwen had furnished the house generously, sparing no expense. Elegant without being ostentatious, her friends said. On the other hand, when Louisa Baldwin first visited her daughter-in-law’s home, she sniffed and said, “Oh well, it will do for now.” Gwen didn’t overhear the remark, but she might have, and would have learned nothing from it that she didn’t already know.

Gwen’s problem was that she had grown up on the wrong side of the city. It was not quite the same as being born on the wrong side of the tracks, but the analogy was valid. To the east of the city at the far end of the island lay Suffolk County, where spacious homes and mansions of the city’s elite, summer getaways and places for retreats from the hustle and bustle of the financial district were located. The area to the north of the city was more cosmopolitan, though the farther one got from the city, the more upscale it became. Gwen’s family lived in White Plains in the southern part of the county while she was growing up, and could have been called well to do at the very least. But for the Baldwin family, the Robinson clan just didn’t quite measure up—like the Baldwins, they had plenty of money, but it wasn’t old money.

To be sure, Gwendolyn Robinson possessed the personal qualities that would have appealed to even the most particular male. She was an attractive brunette, well-educated—a magna cum laude graduate of Columbia—and sophisticated enough to have attracted her future husband Gregory when they first met, and, more importantly, to pass muster with his family. They met at the wedding of a college friend of Gwen’s where Greg was a friend of the groom. During the reception he introduced himself, asked her to dance, and the romance was underway. The fact that they both worked in the city facilitated the growth of their relationship. She was an apprentice editor at a publishing house, and he worked on Wall Street as an investment banker. When things had progressed to the point where Greg felt it was time for her to meet his family, they met for dinner at one of the fancier restaurants not far from Greg’s office at Bering Clarke Investments on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan.

“Mother can be difficult,” Greg said as they strolled along on their way to dinner, having met in the lobby of her office building, “but don’t let it bother you. I’m sure she’ll grow to love you.”

Gwen smiled and squeezed his hand. “I’m looking forward to meeting her and your father.”

Her first meeting with her future in-laws went well enough. Carlton Baldwin was obviously charmed by Gwen, and when his wife Louisa persisted in questioning Gwen about what seemed like every detail of her existence, he would divert the conversation in some more friendly direction. Not that Louisa came across as overtly hostile—it was just that if this young woman had any thoughts about becoming her daughter-in-law, Louisa wanted to make absolutely sure she knew what she was getting in the bargain. Fair enough, Gwen thought. Greg was part of an old family with a lot of history, and much was expected of anyone who was invited to join it, regardless of how charming she might appear at first.

It took time for Gwen to get used to the probing of her mother-in-law, but because she had fallen in love with her future husband, she let it wash over her. It was only later, after the marriage had been consummated, that her mother-in-law upped the ante in terms of what she felt was the proper course for the newest member of the family. It became a challenge for Gwen to pick up the subtle meanings and hidden nuances of conversations around the Baldwin dinner table. When she first visited the family with her husband, once the excitement of the post-wedding period had settled in, she attempted to engage in the more pointed discussions with an edge, just to make the case that she had a right to challenge Louisa’s assumptions about the propriety of her pursuits, now that she officially belonged to the clan. She found, however, that her approach failed to be fruitful, so she backed off; if not playing dumb, she ignored the slights directed at “those sorts of people,” meaning, of course, those who came from the other side of the city, either west or north. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help defending herself from Louisa’s slights, however cleverly disguised they might seem.

Carlton Baldwin remained genuinely fond of Gwen and was unfailingly pleasant to her, but his wife Louisa found it impossible to warm to her daughter-in-law. “She’ll get used to you,” Greg said on more than one occasion, and Gwen vowed to make herself more agreeable, though she had no idea how to go about it. The best she could do was to ignore Louisa’s barbs and focus her conversation on Gregory, and she was gratified when he and his father seemed to take her side when she and Louisa got into verbal sparring matches. It might be politics, music, theater, or the latest movie or popular book, but if she allowed herself to offer an opinion on something in any of those categories, Louisa would raise her eyebrows and somehow manage to frown and smile at the same time.

Thus, it was that some sort of crisis between Gwen and Louisa was predictable, if not inevitable. When the blow came, it landed with fury. The Baldwin home was close to the Atlantic shore on the southern side of the island, and the family were all sailors. To hear them tell it, they had been a seagoing clan for generations. (In a glass case in a corner of the living room was a beautiful model of a sailing ship with square sails on three masts.) It seemed that the foulest weather—anything short of a hurricane at least—was not enough to keep them shore bound. Gwen was a good swimmer and had no fear of water, but she didn’t particularly like getting a face full of salt spray when the ocean was having a bad hair day. She was more than happy to help man the sails, but by the time she had been on half a dozen outings on the Baldwin sailboat, she let it be known that she would be just as happy to stay ashore until they returned. Louisa was not amused by Gwen’s refusal to go out to sea with them every time they set sail, but she went along: “Whatever you like, dear.”

The dark moment came almost a year after the wedding. Greg went out sailing with some friends, including Mark Nichols, his best man at the wedding. Gwen knew Mark well and liked him, but Greg’s other seagoing companions were work friends who saw themselves as masters of the universe; to them, instead of orbiting around the sun, the world they lived in circled around lower Manhattan. Greg’s parents were out of town, and Gwen was content to spend the afternoon browsing around in the Baldwin mansion. If Carlton had been there, he might have advised caution to the young men on that particular day because a storm front was approaching. It was the same system that had caused major damage as it moved up through the Ohio Valley, and though it was still hours away, it was picking up speed as it traveled eastward. The boat was not the Baldwin craft, but a large, sturdy yawl owned by the yacht club to which the family belonged. In most weather the wooden-hulled boat might have survived the storm, but alas, by the time this monster reached the Atlantic coast, it was in full fury. Small craft warnings had been posted hours before the young men set sail, but they were confident that they could get back in time.

For reasons that were never determined, the crew were apparently farther out on the ocean than was wise, given the approaching turbulence that was sure to make their return difficult. The storm was indeed fierce, with high winds, thunder and lightning and swirling waterspouts visible from the shore. As the yawl creaked and groaned under the strain, Greg managed to get out a mayday signal just before the boat capsized. A Coast Guard aircraft patrolling nearby picked up the signal and soon spotted the craft. Four crewmen were seen clinging to the hull, and another body was floating face down about fifty yards away. The aircraft summoned a helicopter, and with the help of divers, the crew were rescued. Four of them were alive, but Greg had not survived. According to the autopsy ordered by the Suffolk County Police Department, he had apparently been knocked unconscious by the boom as the boat went over and was tossed headfirst into the waves. The report indicated severe trauma to the rear of his skull, and water in his lungs. He had stopped breathing sometime after he hit the water.

The elder Baldwins were summoned home posthaste, and Gwen found herself in the midst of a family tragedy. When Mark tried to explain exactly what had happened, Louisa was unable to respond beyond staring at him with thinly veiled fury. Instead, Louisa railed at Gwen: “Why did you let him go? Weren’t you paying any attention to the weather?” It was not a fair question, and protests by Gwen would have been ignored. Greg and Mark were experienced sailors; they obviously felt they knew what they were doing. Unfortunately, the young men underestimated the ferocity of the storm that struck swiftly, albeit with sufficient warning—if they had only been paying sufficient attention. Like her mother-in-law, Gwen was devastated. Carlton helped her get through it, realizing that her sorrow was exacerbated by Louisa’s carping.

During the sad days between the accident and the funeral, Gwen listened as Louisa and Carlton queried officials from the yacht club, trying to get an explanation for why the young men had been allowed to go to sea under threatening conditions. Gwen heard only the Baldwin half of the phone calls, but she sensed that Greg’s parents were less than satisfied with the explanations. “Damn fools!” Louisa would mutter as she hung up the phone.

While preparations were underway for Gregory’s funeral, Louisa could not help directing the rage she felt at the loss of her son towards her daughter-in-law. Carlton did his best to mitigate his wife’s unfair and pointless criticism of the young woman whom she hoped would bear her grandchildren someday, and Gwen weathered the storm by telling herself that as much as she grieved for the loss of her husband, her grief paled in comparison with that of his mother. When they returned to the Baldwin home following the burial in the family plot, Louisa made one last attempt to get an explanation from Mark about what had happened to bring about the tragedy. It seemed to Gwen that he tried to answer as honestly as he could, but something didn’t ring true about his explanation that they had simply underestimated the conditions that awaited them offshore. After the funeral Gwen drew Mark aside for a fuller explanation, but all he could manage was, “Gwen, I just don’t want to talk about it.”

Before Gwen left to return home on the morning after the funeral, Louisa did offer a few words of apology. In Gwen’s ears, they rang hollow, but she gave her mother-in-law the benefit of the doubt. One thing stuck in Gwen’s craw, however. As Carlton was loading Gwen’s suitcase into the trunk of her car, Louisa drew her aside. “I hope you understand, dear, but I must ask. Were you and Gregory expecting?”

Still in something of a shock from the whole business, Gwen missed the point of Louisa’s question. “Expecting what?” she asked innocently.

Louisa’s face reddened and her eyes flashed. “A child, of course! Are you pregnant?”

Gwen was stunned; she took a deep breath and didn’t answer for a few moments. “No, Louisa. If I were, you would have been the first to know after Greg.”

“Well I guess that’s something to be thankful for—raising the child all alone would have been a terrible burden for you.”

Gwen didn’t answer. Carlton held the door for her and she got into her car. As she headed down the long driveway, she glanced into her rearview mirror and saw them watching her departure. When she went over the conversation again on her way home, it occurred to her that she might have answered that it would’ve been something to remember her husband by. What a pity that Louisa could not see the world in that way.

A few weeks later Gwen returned to collect a few things she had left at the Baldwin home and to return a few items of Greg’s that her mother wanted to keep as a remembrance. “I’ll be sure to see that you get them when I’m gone, dear,” she said. Gwen was relieved that Louisa’s demeanor had softened somewhat.


All that had happened about a year earlier, but Gwen had not been in touch with Greg’s family since Christmas. Her relationship with the elder Baldwins had remained strained. The home she had Gregory shared in northern Westchester County was a two- to three-hour drive from the Baldwin home on the island. Louisa had hoped they would settle down near them, but Greg was wise enough to realize that having a strong-willed mother-in-law only minutes away could be a burden for Gwen. Louisa asserted her will in the matter by insisting that they contribute heavily to the cost of the couple’s first home.

Gwen had other issues to contend with. When the subject of a prenuptial agreement was first raised, Gwen called on her father for guidance. Kenneth Robinson had been an attorney with a large national investment bank but had been dismayed by the excesses that helped lead to the financial crisis of 2008. Instead, he and a few colleagues who shared his sentiments left the bank and formed their own law partnership in White Plains. It was natural, then, that Gwen turned to her father when the legal preliminaries to the marriage had to be addressed. When her father looked over the proposed agreement put forth by the Baldwins’ attorney, he smiled and said, “I’ll give him a call. There’s no way you’re going to sign this thing.” The outcome of that conversation was part of the reason why Louisa did not warm to her daughter-in-law. The other result was that Greg and Gwen bought a house with help from both sets of parents that was less than half an hour from her parents’ home. Martha Robinson was not the sort to interfere with her daughter’s marriage in any way except to offer friendly advice on decorating, cooking and other routine wifely duties. And she doted on Greg, who quickly warmed to his mother-in-law.

In addition, thanks to her father’s intervention in the pre-marital sparring, the settlement of Greg’s affairs was fairly simple; she was sure Louisa had some regrets about that. In any case, according to Greg’s will, Gwen was now the sole owner of the handsome property and their investment portfolio. In addition, Greg’s life insurance policy had a double indemnity clause, which meant that she was well provided for. The only question before her was what to do with the rest of her life.