Here’s a repost of a review I originally wrote for Epinions.com back in the spring of 2007. Of all of Kathryn Casey’s books, I think this one might be my favorite. Of course, it’s also very triggering, because Celeste Beard Johnson reminds me so much of Bill’s ex wife. Things have happily changed for Bill and me since I wrote this review.
Not long ago, I was watching the true crime show Snapped on the Oxygen network. Snapped is a half hour program that showcases murders committed by women who have “snapped”. It was while I was watching that show that first heard the name Celeste Beard Johnson, a woman who seemed to have everything and threw it away because of her greed. Needless to say, I was intrigued by her case and that’s what prompted me to purchase Kathryn Casey’s 2005 book, She Wanted It All: A True Story of Sex, Murder, and a Texas Millionaire. It took me the better part of a week to read this fascinating book. I don’t mind sharing that I had a nightmare the first night I started reading.
She Wanted It All is the complicated story of Celeste Beard Johnson, a sexy, money hungry, mentally ill mother of twin girls who changed husbands like she (hopefully) changed her underwear. Celeste grew up in California, one of four adopted children. Although Celeste’s adoptive mother claimed that her children enjoyed an idyllic life, the children claimed that their parents were weird and unhappy. Nevertheless, Celeste seemed to be a happy, precocious child who was the type of person who could sell ice to Eskimos. She could be so sweet, then suddenly turn psycho.
At age seventeen, Celeste married her first husband, Craig Bratcher. She was very pregnant with twins on her first wedding day. Three months after her wedding day, Celeste gave birth to twin daughters, Jennifer and Kristina Bratcher. Less than a year later, the marriage was on the skids. Celeste didn’t take to motherhood very well and was frequently distracted by other men. Eighteen months after their wedding day, Celeste and Craig got a divorce. Although Celeste was initially granted custody of her babies, she frequently dumped them with other people. At one point, the girls were in foster care. Craig and Celeste reconciled for awhile and Celeste became pregnant again. When she had a third baby girl in November 1986, she gave her up for adoption. That was probably the kindest thing she ever did in her life.
As the years passed, Celeste found herself with a series of different men. In December 1988, she married her second husband, Air Force mechanic Harald Wolf, who was wary of Celeste from the beginning. Like others in Celeste’s life, Harald described her as wonderful at times. Then, her behavior would become erratic and hateful. Harald wanted to get away from her, yet he missed her when they weren’t together. An overseas transfer to Iceland without Celeste turned out to be a lifesaver, but not before Celeste financially ruined him.
In August 1991, twenty-eight year old Celeste married for the third time, this time to Jimmy Martinez. Again, the marriage was not destined to last. Celeste continued living a wild life, leaving her twin daughters home alone. Her third husband had moved to Austin, Texas for a job and their apartment needed to be packed. Celeste ordered her eleven year old girls to finish packing while Celeste went out and partied.
Celeste made up wild stories about her past and even claimed to have suffered from cancer. She accused her father of molesting her. She alienated her daughters from their biological father, prompting them to tell him that they hated him. And when first ex husband Craig Bratcher took Celeste to court in a bid to take custody of their daughters, Celeste painted herself as a victim. It wasn’t long before her third husband, Jimmy Martinez, noticed that his credit was in the toilet. Soon, they were divorced and Celeste was courting husband number four, Steve Beard, an elderly, wealthy, lonely Austin television mogul whose beloved wife had just died. Though Steve was 38 years older than Celeste was, they married in February 1995. Craig Bratcher eventually became so broken that he committed suicide. At Celeste’s insistence, Steven Beard adopted the twin girls.
From the very beginning, Celeste wanted Steven Beard for just one thing– his money. While Steve Beard was looking for a loving companion and partner, Celeste was looking for someone to bankroll her extremely extravagant lifestyle. She would be loving to him in person, but in private she referred to him as an old fat f*ck. At night, she’d spike his food with sleeping pills and his vodka cocktails with Everclear, wait for him to pass out, then go out and party. She spent his money recklessly and lamented to friends that she was just waiting for him to die. At one point, Steve Beard grew tired of Celeste’s antics and suggested divorce, threatening Celeste’s source of cash. Celeste became so despondent over her plight that she threatened suicide. She ended up in a psychiatric hospital, where she would be diagnosed as having both Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorders.
The hospital is also where Celeste Beard met her lesbian lover, Tracey Tarlton. Tracey Tarlton fell head over heels for Celeste Beard and believed her when she claimed to be married to a monster. Like so many people before her, Tarlton fell into Celeste Beard’s trap, becoming so entangled that at Celeste’s behest, she ended up shooting Steven Beard while he slept, after the two women tried to poison him by growing botulism. The poor man lingered on the brink of death before he finally succumbed to a massive infection brought on by the gunshot wound and Celeste Beard’s deliberate attempts to cause the infection. She dressed his wounds with dirty bandages and didn’t wash her hands when she touched her husband; she also visited him when she was sick in an attempt to pass her germs to him.
And yes, once Steve was dead, Celeste Beard did eventually marry a fifth time. Husband number five was a young man named Spencer Cole Johnson; they wed right before Celeste went to prison for murdering her fourth husband. Oddly enough, the woman married five times and her last names came full circle (Celeste Johnson Bratcher Wolf Martinez Beard Johnson)
Does this story seem complicated? It is. I’ve just scratched the surface with the summary above. There’s a whole lot more to the story and Kathryn Casey has done a masterful job of keeping the details straight. She includes a photo section that shows several incarnations of Celeste. Like her contemporary, Ann Rule, Casey keeps her writing dignified and classy. There’s a minimum of gore, although the story is very scandalous and almost unbelievable. But unfortunately, I can believe this story. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that this book gave me nightmares. That’s because my husband’s first wife is in many ways a lot like a less money hungry version of Celeste Beard. As I read this book, I was blown away by the uncanny similarities between my husband’s plight and those of Celeste’s ex husbands. I can only hope that I don’t someday read a book about my husband’s ex.
This book hit really close to home for me, mainly because I’ve seen firsthand the lingering damage that can come from having a relationship with someone like Celeste Beard. My husband bears battle scars similar to those of Celeste’s ex husbands. He went through a period of financial ruin and his kids no longer speak to him. But I’d say despite that, my husband is a very lucky man. He still has his health, most of his family, and he’s recovering financially. Best of all, he’s alive and married to me. I am appreciated like I’ve never been appreciated by anyone; in turn, he is also appreciated for the wonderful man he is.
Obviously, as much as this book fascinated me, I will issue a caveat that it may cause nightmares. On the other hand, this book also inspires hope because it offers a glimpse of what it was like for Celeste’s children. My husband once enjoyed a close relationship with his children and now they apparently hate him. Celeste’s kids acted the same way with their bio father, but it later came out that they behaved that way because they were terrified of their mother and knew what she was capable of doing. It gives me hope that maybe someday, my husband’s kids will come around. I just hope no one has to die for that to happen.
For the most part, I think She Wanted It All is a very well-written, compelling book. While it is a true crime account, it’s also a fascinating case study of personality disorders, which may especially appeal to those with an interest in psychology.
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