The Real History Behind ‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’ | History

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At the height of his fame, Truman Capote was a fixture in New York City’s elite social circles, capitalizing on the success of classics like In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s to ingratiate himself with the wealthy, perfectly coiffed women who dominated that scene: the so-called Swans.

These socialites’ allure went beyond beauty, style and poise. They were “clever, cunning even,” writes Laurence Leamer in Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal and a Swan Song for an Era. “[They] knew that while looks could capture a man’s attention, it took intelligence and wiles to keep it. And keep it [they] would, at all costs.”

The Swans viewed Capote as a trusted confidant, sharing every detail of their extramarital affairs, their illicit drug use and their petty fights with him. Little did they know that the writer was squirreling away all of this information for his next novel, Answered Prayers. When Esquire published a preview of the book in its November 1975 issue, the Swans recognized Capote’s characters as loosely disguised caricatures of themselves. Titled “La Côte Basque, 1965,” the 11,000-word essay laid bare the women’s deepest secrets, from a husband’s dalliance with the governor’s wife to a fatal accident the author reframed as a murder.

FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans | Official Trailer 2 – Naomi Watts, Chloë Sevigny, Demi Moore | FX

Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” a new mini-series slated to debut on FX on January 31, dramatizes the fallout of the Esquire excerpt’s publication, showing how the socialites turned on their friend after his stunning betrayal. “It did shake the world,” gossip columnist R. Couri Hay, who was once acquainted with Capote and some of the Swans, tells Town & Country. “Truman’s story showed you the innermost secrets of a group of people who were idolized. It wasn’t reality TV, it was reality. … After it was published, there was no question that certain doors were slammed shut to Truman.”

The making of “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans”

Based on Leamer’s 2021 book, the eight-episode series serves as the second installment in Ryan Murphy’s “Feud” anthology, which examines famous long-simmering hostilities. The first installment, released in 2017, centered on the rivalry between screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who clashed while filming the 1962 black comedy What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

“Capote vs. the Swans” stars Tom Hollander as the eponymous writer. Magazine editor Barbara “Babe” Paley (played by Naomi Watts) leads the coterie of Swans, whose ranks include Nancy “Slim” Keith (Diane Lane), a thrice-married socialite known for her fashion sense; Lucy Douglas “C.Z.” Guest (Chloë Sevigny), a writer, gardener and horsewoman; Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy; Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), a radio actress and model who became a figure of notoriety after accidentally shooting her husband in 1955; and Joanne Carson (Molly Ringwald), the second wife of talk show host Johnny Carson.

L to R: Diane Lane as Slim Keith, Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest, Callista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill, Molly Ringwald as Joanne Carson, Naomi Watts as Babe Paley and Demi Moore as Ann Woodward in "Feud: Capote vs. the Swans"

L to R: Diane Lane as Slim Keith, Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest, Callista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill, Molly Ringwald as Joanne Carson, Naomi Watts as Babe Paley and Demi Moore as Ann Woodward in “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans”

FX

In a trailer for the show, Paley describes Capote as “our great protector and our best friend. We tell him everything, even the awful things we’ve all done to each other.” Capote, in turn, says he writes about the women “because they are beautiful and predatory.” Asked why he would want to hurt his friends, Capote declares, “This is what a writer does. This is bloody and true and real.”

Executive producer Jon Robin Baitz tells Vanity Fair that he was “able to directly relate to all the parties’ pain and wrote it from that perspective: pain for Truman, pain for those women, pain for the squandering of friendships, for wasting yourself on the wrong things.” A central question of the series is why Capote betrayed his friends’ trust and whether he realized just how poorly his work would be received. As biographer Gerald Clarke told Vanity Fair in 2012, he had cautioned Capote against moving forward with the project, saying, “People aren’t going to be happy with this, Truman.” But the author dismissed these concerns, replying, “Nah, they’re too dumb. They won’t know who they are.”

Naomi Watts as Babe Paley and Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in "Feud: Capote vs. the Swans"

Naomi Watts as Babe Paley and Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans”

FX

The real Truman Capote

Born in New Orleans in 1924, Capote was raised by relatives following his parents’ divorce. He discovered his passion for writing as a child and began his literary career at age 17, when he was hired by the New Yorker. Capote published his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in 1948, at age 23. The New York Times praised the semi-autobiographical novel, which features a gay protagonist, as “positive proof of the arrival of a new writer of substantial talent,” placing a particular emphasis on Capote’s “eloquent and reverberating prose.”

The success of Other Voices, Other Rooms catapulted Capote to fame, allowing him to rub shoulders with the upper echelons of American society. “He knew the socialites, he knew the politicians, he knew the artists,” Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, author of the 2018 novel Swan Song, told Penguin Random House in 2021. “He was dear friends with Marilyn Monroe, with Jackie Kennedy.” Living as an openly gay man at a time when homosexuality was still criminalized in much of the United States, Capote became known as much for his writing as his larger-than-life persona. “His talent was his friend,” novelist Norman Mailer told New York magazine in 1984. “His achievement was his social life.”

Truman Capote in 1960 or 1961

Truman Capote in 1960 or 1961

Barbara Niggl Radloff via Wikimedia Commons

Capote started working on Answered Prayers in 1958, the same year he published the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He took a lengthy detour while researching In Cold Blood, a nonfiction novel about the murder of the Clutter family in 1959, but returned to Answered Prayers in the late 1960s. Capote described the book as his magnum opus, a roman à clef populated by “a cast of thousands,” including “every sort of person I’ve ever had any dealings with.” But he repeatedly failed to meet his publisher’s deadlines, and it was only in 1975 that the world got a glimpse of Capote’s pet project. That June, Esquire published “Mojave,” an excerpt intended to serve as Answered Prayers’ first chapter, to widespread acclaim. Though its central couple was a “pretty transparent portrait” of Paley and her second husband, CBS executive William “Bill” Paley, the Swans didn’t object to their friend’s apparent borrowing from life, according to Greenberg-Jephcott. The second chapter, however, was a different story entirely.

“La Côte Basque, 1965”

Named after a French restaurant frequented by Manhattan socialites, “La Côte Basque, 1965” opens with Lady Ina Coolbirth, “a big breezy peppy broad, born and raised on a ranch in Montana,” sitting down for lunch with the narrator, a writer named J.P. Jones. Coolbirth unleashes a steady flow of gossip, namechecking celebrities like Cole Porter, Gloria Vanderbilt and Princess Margaret alongside thinly veiled fictionalizations of the Swans.

At one point, Coolbirth accuses Ann Hopkins of shooting her husband “with malice aforethought,” then covering up the murder by claiming she’d mistaken him for an intruder. “None of Ann’s story was true,” Coolbirth breathlessly tells Jones. “God knows what she expected people to believe; but she just, after they reached home and David had stripped to take a shower, followed him there with a gun and shot him through the shower door.”

L to R: Gloria Guinness, Truman Capote and Babe Paley, circa 1957

L to R: Gloria Guinness, Truman Capote and Babe Paley, circa 1957

ullstein bild via Getty Images

Ann Woodward in a 1940 publicity photo

Ann Woodward in a 1940 publicity photo

CBS via Getty Images

In another memorable passage, Coolbirth recounts how the husband of Cleo Dillon, “the most beautiful creature alive,” cheated on her with the governor’s wife, “a swollen muscular baby with a freckled Bahamas-burnt face and squinty-mean eyes.” The woman left “the sheets bloodied with stains the size of Brazil.”

To readers with even passing knowledge of the Swans, the characters’ identities were clear. Coolbirth was Keith, a native of the American West whose third husband was a British aristocrat. Hopkins was Woodward, who’d accidentally shot her husband, and Cleo was Paley, a woman Capote once said “had only one fault: She was perfect.”

Paley, who was suffering from terminal lung cancer at the time, “was appalled by ‘La Côte Basque,’” art historian John Richardson told Vanity Fair in 2012. “People used to talk about Bill as a philanderer, but his affairs weren’t the talk of the town until Truman’s story came out.” Though Capote viewed his tale as a form of revenge, “holding up to ridicule the man who had caused her so much hurt,” wrote biographer Clarke, Paley found the experience humiliating. She cut all ties with Capote, never speaking to him again.

Babe Paley and her second husband, William Paley, at Dwight D. Eisenhower's Inaugural Ball on January 20, 1953

Babe Paley and her second husband, William Paley, at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Inaugural Ball on January 20, 1953

CBS via Getty Images

Keith was similarly distressed by the story, describing Coolbirth as “a mirror image of me.” She added, “I had adored [Capote], and I was so appalled by the use of friendship and my own bad judgment.” But Woodward was the woman seemingly affected most by “La Côte Basque”: Just before it arrived on newsstands, she died by suicide, perhaps after receiving an advance copy of the story. As Woodward’s mother-in-law said, “She shot my son, and Truman murdered her.”

Some of the Swans—like Radziwill, who was depicted in “La Côte Basque” in vaguely flattering terms, and Guest, who was left out of the piece entirely—kept in touch with Capote after the story appeared in print. But most of the women shunned their former friend, viewing his actions as uncouth in an era when discretion was the byword of elite society.

“The Swans … lived aspirational lives and were the envy of women across the States and elsewhere,” psychologist Carolyn Mair tells British Vogue. “Ordinary people would have read about these women and their lifestyles in the press and fashion magazines and would relate to them as if they were also their friends. The publication of ‘La Côte Basque, 1965’ would likely have triggered a shocked sense of betrayal amongst the readers.”

Slim Keith with her first husband, director Howard Hawks, circa 1942

Slim Keith with her first husband, director Howard Hawks, circa 1942

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Capote’s downfall

Capote’s exclusion from “a world he seemed to value above all others” led him to seek solace in drugs and alcohol, notes the New York Times. He was surprised by the reaction to “La Côte Basque,” defending his actions by saying, “I’m a journalist—everybody knows that I’m a journalist!” Radziwill observed, “I just don’t think he realized what he was doing, because, God, did he pay for it. … It was all downhill from there.”

Esquire published two more chapters of Answered Prayers in 1976, but the project soon stalled. Over the next several years, Capote drifted in and out of rehab, producing little of the acerbic writing that had made him famous. On August 25, 1984, the author’s friend Joanne Carson found him struggling to breathe in the guest bedroom of her Los Angeles home. By the time paramedics arrived, Capote was dead, with the cause later identified as “liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication.” According to Carson, his last words included the phrases “beautiful Babe”—a reference to Paley—and the title of his unfinished novel.

Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote pose together in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel during Capote's 1966 Black-and-White Ball.

Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote pose together in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel during Capote’s 1966 Black-and-White Ball.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Friends of Capote were divided on whether he’d finished writing Answered Prayers. Carson believed he’d hidden the completed manuscript in a safe-deposit box, but no such document ever surfaced. Publishers compiled three of the chapters released by Esquire into a 1987 novella, but the work garnered mostly negative reviews. Far from reshaping America the way Proust did France, as Capote intended, Answered Prayers serves largely as a reminder of loss, whether it be the author’s lost friendships or his squandered potential as a writer.

Ebs Burnough, director of the 2021 documentary The Capote Tapes, tells Vogue that Capote “never recovered” from the fallout of “La Côte Basque.” “[These were] friendships born and nurtured over 20-something years,” Burnough says. “All of a sudden, not one but all of his friends—who had been like his family, because he didn’t really have any family—were not speaking to him; there was literally nowhere for him to go. He was alone drinking, and the phone stopped ringing. He was a man alone on an island.”

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