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"A Place in the Sun": The True Story of an American Tragedy

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Skarlet writes about famous (and infamous) people, business development, medicine, physical education, beauty, fashion, and crafts.

"A Place in the Sun," starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift

"A Place in the Sun," starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift

A Place in the Sun: A True Story

When A Place in the Sun was released in 1952, audiences were well aware that Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelly Winters were playing characters who were based on real people. The story was based on an enormous scandal of the early 20th century—a truly selfish murder committed by a man who simply did not want to own up to his responsibilities in life.

Chester Gillette

Chester Gillette

The true story of Chester Gillette (August 9, 1883–March 30, 1908) Harriet Benedict, and Grace Brown was a hot topic in the early part of the 20th century. Gillette murdered his pregnant girlfriend (Grace Brown) in 1906, and then he was tried, convicted and executed in 1908. The ghost of the victim, Grace Brown, is said to still haunt the house where she lived upstate New York.

Gillette grew up in Montana, but his deeply religious family traveled around the West Coast and Hawaii during his adolescence. Chester never took to the religious aspects of his upbringing and was sent to a prep school that his uncle paid for, but after only two years, he quit.

In 1903, after leaving school he had many different jobs until 1905 when he took a position at his uncle's skirt factory in Cortland New York.

Grace Brown

Grace Brown

Shortly after he began his work at factory he met Grace Brown, who also worked at the factory in a different department. Gillette and Brown began a courtship, though their relationship was essentially a secret one, other employees could see that they were often talking quietly. Brown believed the relationship to be a serious one, and that Gillette would eventually marry her, however, there were other women in Gillette's life, and this caused much turmoil between Brown and Gillette, with Brown's friends saying that Gillette's behavior with other girls was disgraceful.

In the spring of 1906, Brown revealed to Gillette that she was pregnant. She began to pressure Chester to marry her, writing him pleading letters that began friendly and gradually worked in her frustrations and desperation. Brown then returned to her parents' home for a while, but her pregnancy was known only to Chester and herself.

Harriet Benedict

Harriet Benedict

While staying with her parents she learned from her girlfriends at the factory that Gillette had been courting other girls, including in particular Miss Harriet Benedict, a wealthy, and popular girl who Brown did not even know, and she decided to return to Cortland.

As the spring and summer of 1906 progressed, others noticed an increasing frequency of Gillette's angry raised voice and Brown's tears at the factory. Brown continued to press Gillette for some kind of decision on what to do, while Gillette stalled for time with vague statements about their future and their going away on a trip sometime soon.

Making good on his word, Gillette made arrangements for a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. The couple stopped and spent the night in Utica, New York and then continued to Big Moose Lake. At a nearby hotel, Gillette registered under a false name, but used his own initials to match what was visible on his monogrammed suitcase. He was carrying one suitcase and a tennis racquet. It is believed that Grace Brown was expecting a proposal, or elopement ceremony at this time.

On the morning of July 11, Gillette and Brown approached Robert Morrison, a man who rented rowboats to tourists, about renting a rowboat. Morrison took a boat out from the bathhouse and let them have it for the day. Morrison recalled the couple very clearly later on because he found it strange that Gillette carried a suitcase and tennis racquet with him. The couple took their rowboat far out on Big Moose Lake. Many other boaters saw the couple rowing around the lake and stopping several times for a picnic. As it became dark the couple seemed to disappear quietly. Morrison did not worry when the boat did not return that evening, as it was quite common for couples to become tired or misjudge the size of the lake and check into another hotel across the lake. The next morning however, he began searching the lake and discovered an overturned boat. A rescue crew noticed that just beneath the boat was the grisly discovery of a young girl. The corpse was hauled off and the rescue team wondered if her companion were at the bottom of the lake. They soon discovered that the hotel had registered Carl Grahm and Grace Brown. Gillette's plan was not a clever one. In the days before gangster movies, true crime shows, and Alfred Hitchcock, the general public were very naïve about clues, murder, and police investigations.

Gillette had clubbed her with his tennis racquet and left her to drown. He then checked into Arrowhead Lodge Hotel nearby. Later, witnesses would say that Gillette seemed calm, collected and perfectly at ease; nothing seemed to be wrong. Brown's bruised and beaten body was examined, and it was clear that the tennis racquet was the blunt instrument used. Gillette had done such a poor job of planning the cover-up that he was quickly arrested at the hotel.

The trial quickly drew nationwide attention. Gillette's defense attorney claimed that his client was innocent. He stated that Brown had committed suicide—and that Gillette had witnessed the suicide and did not know what to do. The jury convicted Gillette of murder.

The New York court upheld the verdict and Governor Charles Evans Hughes refused to grant clemency. On March 30, 1908, Chester Gillette died in the electric chair.

Immortality in Books and Films

The story became a play at the turn of the century and several books were written about the murder such as Adirondack Tragedy, Murder in the Andirondacks, and the novel by Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy.

A movie with the same title, An American Tragedy, was released in 1931, but the best-remembered version was the one that was released 40 years after the incident, A Place in the Sun, with Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers (Harriet Benedict), Montgomery Clift as George Eastman (Chester Gillette) and Shelly Winters as Alice Tripp (Grace Brown).

Montgomery Clift and Shelly Winters

Montgomery Clift and Shelly Winters

The 1931 version of An American Tragedy is rare, and it actually follows the true story more closely than the 1951 version, A Place in the Sun.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor


OldWitchcraft from The Atmosphere on February 19, 2013:

I became a fan of Shelley Winters as a child when I first saw her in the ABC Movie of the Week production, "The Devil's Daughter," in which she starred with Jonathan Frid.

Skarlet (author) from California on February 19, 2013:

@ OldWitchcraft- Thank you.

I am in the same boat that you are in. I am not a real Elizabeth Taylor fan. I think she was beautiful, but pretty strange a lot of the time. I love Shelly Winders thought. I can appreciate her performances in many movies, such as, A Patch of Blue, Lolita and Poseidon Adventures.

Monty Clift was indeed well cast. I have read An American Tragedy and some of the real life story of Chester Gillette articles. Honestly, its kind of like reading GWTW, when one finds themselves seeing Gable. I always picture Clift. Even this photo of Gillette bears a resemblance to Clift.

Thank you so much for stopping by.

OldWitchcraft from The Atmosphere on February 19, 2013:

Wow! This is really interesting. I had no idea A Place in the Sun was based on a real event or real people. This is probably my favorite movie with Liz Taylor, of whom I'm not a really big fan. But, I love Shelley Winters - she's brilliant! And, after reading your article, I think Montgomery Clift was very well cast.

Accolades and a vote up!

Skarlet (author) from California on July 10, 2012:

Thank you ImKarn3.

I agree. I think it would make another great movie....

Karen Silverman on July 10, 2012:

Wow..Amazing research, Skarlet! Human nature never changes eh? Great information and great story! Would make a great movie - again! LOL!