Swine, Swans, and What They Wore

So the long awaited (by me anyway) second season of “Feud” is coming out on the 31st on FX. This time around it’s based upon the book Capote’s Women, which I have not read (yet, but I might do so before the premiere) and the story of Truman Capote and his fall from grace socially after the publication in Esquire magazine of his short story “La Côte Basque, 1965”.

Now considering the readership of this blog I am sure that you people not only know the story but will be right there watching as I did with “Feud: Bette and Joan” and noting all the things that were incorrect, which in “Feud” were myriad. From the previews we can see that it will be gorgeous, and from the actresses chosen, well played.

Capote burst onto the literary scene in the late 40’s as a short story writer, achieving fame with his book “Other Voices, Other Rooms” in 1948. The book was noted by modern readers as a tale of a youth coming of age to accept his homosexuality, and the jacket cover was much commented upon for what some people saw as the “come hither” look the young Capote was supposedly giving the reader.

Capote later wrote what was arguably his most famous story, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1958, which was filmed (with a sanitized screenplay with a sanitized Audrey Hepburn) by Blake Edwards in 1961. Capote wasn’t fond of the casting: he wrote Holly Golightly with Marilyn Monroe in mind; while Audrey in Givenchy delicately munching a Croissant at 6am perusing the windows of Tiffany & Co. on her way home from an evening out is an indelible cinematic image (and Hepburn is wonderful in the role) we can’t really buy that she is really Lulamae Barnes, late of Texas and abandoned husband “Doc” Golightly and “American Geisha” to wealthy men.

Babe Paley

In 1966 Capote again rocked the literary world back on it’s heels by writing In Cold Blood, creating the genre of what he called the “nonfiction novel” and cementing his place as both a literary force and a style icon: he was a master of the talk show circuit and of PR. It was at this time that he held his famous Black and White Ball at The Plaza, ostensibly in honor or Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, the idea for which he stole from friend Dominick Dunne. The Dunne and his wife had had a ball of their own at their Beverly Hills home two years before to which Truman was invited. Truman somehow neglected to invite Dunne and his wife to the ball at the Plaza.

The problem with riding the crest of the wave is that eventually the wave breaks and you have to catch another one to keep surfing. Truman kept surfing by keeping promising his new book, Answered Prayers, would further cement his reputation and rock the iterary world back again, as had In Cold Blood.

If he could get the damned thing down on paper.

He hemmed, he hawed, he received extensions after extensions on his advance and attempted to silence those who said that he’d never finish this one my publishing two chapters in Esquire: “Mojave” was well received and “”La Côte Basque, 1965” which went over in his circle of friends like the Hindenburg at Lakehurst.

“Slim” Keith, when she was married to Howard Hawks

Truman had, during his time as bon vivante, darling of the literary circles and talk show circuit ingratiated himself with a group of ladies referred to (by him? I don’t remember) as his “Swans”: ladies of not only pedigree, wealth, and social standing but their own blinding éclat. Ladies like “Slim” Keith and “Babe” Paley, the former who had discovered Lauren Bacall for her then husband Hollywood producer Howard Hawks before becoming Lady Keith of Castleacre while the latter was noted for not only her beauty and breeding (as one of the Boston Cushings) but intelligence and wit making her almost eclipse her husband, the president of CBS, Or Lee Radziwill, the Princess and sister of Jackie O. They enjoyed his wit and basked in his adoration, perhaps because he gave them something that most men don’t give their wives, no matter how engaging they are: their full attention.

Truman in his later years

But he couldn’t resist writing down what they said, and publishing it. Some of it was just mean-spirited swipes at the subjects looks (Jackie O is taken down by name) and some of it is really quite outré, and changing the names doesn’t fool anyone (Happy Rockefeller is described as a bovine, stupid racist with bad teeth.) Ann Woodward committed suicide after being publicly named as the cold-blooded murderer of her husband, an act that she was conspicuously not indicted for when she shot at a “prowler” in their Long Island home in 1955 and killed her husband Billy. Bill Paley doesn’t murder anyone, but there’s blood involved in his story and a slight name change doesn’t fool anyone as to who the players are. While Mrs. Paley is blameless in the tale, it’s not exactly a Hallmark Moment and not I am sure one that she was pleased to see on the pages of Esquire available at every streetcorner magazine vendor. The only person who may have been please might have been Ann’s Mother-in-Law Elsie Woodward, who was quoted as saying “Well, that’s that; she shot my son and Truman has just murdered her, and so now I suppose we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

Elsie, by all accounts went on to a rollicking, enjoyable old age.

So, Truman’s “Swans” turned tail and swam gracefully away from him, then froze him out of New York society. He ended up dying at the home of Johnny Carson’s second wife Joanne (Johnny had moved onto Joanna by then) who was one of the few who stuck by him.

Ann Woodward in a portrait by Dali she hated so much she refused to pay for it.

Well, after all that long winded blather, I am looking forward to watching the series (I even signed up for Hulu to get it) not only for the show, but for the production. I will admit that I am kind of wanting to get a gander (get the bird reference?) at the dressing tables of the “Swans” to see what perfumes I can see. Dominick Dunne, who fictionalized the story of Ann and Billy Woodward in his The Two Mrs. Grenvilles wrote of his Ann Grenville as wearing Fracas, which would fit with what Truman would describe as a “jazzy little carrot-topped killer.” Babe Paley might go for something a little more formal as befitting the wife of the head of the “Tiffany” network while “Slim” Keith might have been a bit more adventurous. Who knows?

Are you looking forward to seeing this? A fan of Capote? Let us know in the comments.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons and Pexels

  • Musette says:

    Darling- as usual your writing is more beguiling than the subject matter (for me) – these people inhabit a world I can’t even imagine – and I have a vivid imagination.
    Capote made the same fatal error that ‘strivers’ often do – he thought he was considered ‘one of them’ …

    … they didn’t. They never do.
    And I read ICB when I was a young’un… and it both terrified me and broke my heart (esp the description of LE finding Kenyon’s glasses – it’s been 50 years (or more) since I read that and it still … well

    but I, too, am curious to see what’s on those dressing tables!

    • Tom says:

      The sad truth about those groups is that 98% of them are “strivers” and just striving to stay there and terrified of being found out. The other 2% are completely nuts (if charmingly so) like Big and Little Edie who were perfectly secure in their social position in their heads even as they stood hip-deep in empty cat food cans and garbage. They were the Beales of Grey Gardens and that was just that.

      ICB was a very sad and terrifying book. It made monsters almost human. It also started me on true crime books and bios of rich weirdos like the Baekelands.

  • March says:

    This is weird, I thought I left a comment! I must have hallucinated it … I’m familiar with the general outlines of the story and his social suicide. He seems like a brilliant writer and a not-so-great human being. I wasn’t that interested in this series until I saw the trailers and realized the stellar cast they assembled to play the swans! Demi Moore, Diane Lane, Naomi Watts, Chloe Sevigney, Molly Ringwald (!) and I’m forgetting someone … the actor playing Truman Capote looks good too.

    • Tom says:

      You forgot Calista Flockhart who is supposed to be really good. And in a cameo as Capote’s mother, Jessica Lange.

      When I worked at Rizzoli in BH they made us put that awful book “The Rules” right up front by the register. I had a vivacious conversation with Molly Ringwald about it being the worst book ever and how it must be destroyed. She was really smart and funny, taller than I expected and really lovely in person.

      • March says:

        That doesn’t surprise me about Molly Ringwald, who I had a girl-crush on. She seems like she’d be smart and funny and a good friend.

  • Dina C. says:

    I haven’t seen the show and don’t really have an interest in this kind of tawdry biographical drama. I did read “In Cold Blood” many years ago, and it was gripping and chilling. I always remember that Capote was childhood friends with Harper Lee who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

  • rosarita says:

    This is a fascinating read, thanks Tom. I first read Breakfast at Tiffany’s after seeing the film, then In Cold Blood before watching the film. I can’t remember the name but wasn’t there a biographical movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote? Is can’t recall if I even liked it.
    I didn’t know Feud existed, I’ll have to check it out, for the gorgeous sets.

    • Tom says:

      There were two- “Capote” with Phillip Seymour Hoffman based on the 1988 bio and “Infamous” with Toby Keith based upon George Plimpton’s 1997 book. Both are very good.

      • Sue says:

        I think you mean Toby Jones. Toby Keith is a country western singer.

        • Tom says:

          Yes, you are correct! And I’ve even seen the movie. I’ve never seen Toby Keith.

          I was surprised by PSH in “Capote” just because I thought his physicality would be at odds with the character. But he was brilliant.

  • alityke says:

    I have a big hole in my reading where Capote probably should be. I’ve tried but shrugs.
    I admit to enjoying gossipy sniping so I should enjoy his stuff, I just don’t.
    Now those dressers, playing spot the bottle, yes please!

    • Tom says:

      He can be iffy. He’s brilliant, you can see that. He isn’t t good at masking when he’s tossing it off and can sometimes be really maudlin. “La Côte Basque” is tossed off and just seems to come to a dead halt. It’s only interesting because he’s committing literary seppuku.

      But I’m a sucker for a good set design.

      • Sue says:

        Because of this program, a recent documentary was released about these women. Surprisingly, they were not all blue-bloods by far. Most weren’t at all, which made them especially angry about his writing. They had married “up” and did not want to be revealed otherwise. The poor woman who committed suicide drank cyanide. Horrible way to go.

        • Tom says:

          No, a lot of them were only blue bloods via marriage or PR. But really, most “blue bloods” especially in America were only a generation or two from rum-runners or shopkeepers or something. Even those DAR types really were just people that the King asked to go off to the New World and get the heck out of his hair.

  • cinnamon says:

    Capote is not one of mine. Tried reading BaT after seeing the film and tried In Cold Blood. Didn’t get far. Sort of did like Hepburn — part alluring/part annoying. Ah, well, can’t win ’em all.

  • Maya says:

    I first became familiar with Capote when I read In Cold Blood. It left a lasting impression on me. And oddly enough, I recently read something blaming Capote for Ann Woodward’s suicide. The article was mostly about her not him. When I look at pictures of Capote, whether posed or not, I always get a feeling of sadness coming from him and surrounding him.
    I love the image of old dressing tables with glorious perfume bottles on them! All the perfume fresh with no restrictions. All treasures to us now.

    • Tom says:

      Reading about his life there was a lot of sadness there, not a small part of his own doing. But he was a brilliant writer.

  • Portia says:

    Tom, I inhaled The Two Mrs. Grenvilles like it was air and I was suffocating, then turned around not very long after and read it again.
    Now that’s my kind of trashy nonfiction fiction.
    I still haven’t watched Feud 1. Sorry.
    Portia xx

    • Tom says:

      Dunne did several of those that are a lot of fun.

      There’s also a non-fiction book called “Crazy Thing Called Love” which goes far more into the Woodward story. But the real corker (and the major icks) is “Savage Grace” which is about the Baekeland family who invented plastic. That story was filmed in the 2000s with Julianne Moore and a very young Eddie Redmayne. The Wikipedia entry is waaaaay sanitized.