Truman and His Swans

Published in: September-October 2022 issue.


A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song  for an Era
by Laurence Leamer
Putnam’s. 356 pages, $28.


TRUMAN CAPOTE is probably best known for two books, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, but months before the first was published in 1958, he wrote a letter to his friend Bennett Cerf, the head of Random House, proposing “a large novel, my magnum opus, a book about which I must be very silent, so as not [to]alarm my sitters and which I think will really arouse you when I outline it … called Answered Prayers, and if all goes well, it will be the answer to mine.”

            Capote’s unwitting “sitters” were a group of rich, well-married women whom he called his “swans.” But he never got around to writing the novel about them. After publishing two fragments in Esquire, one of which so horrified the women on whom he’d based the characters that they never spoke to him again, he was subject to an ostracism that led to a downward spiral into drugs and alcohol, ending with Capote’s death in Los Angeles at the age of 59. Though rumors floated around that the manuscript of Answered Prayers was to be found in a locker at some Greyhound bus station, the manuscript, if there was one, has never been found.

            Capote had had great ambitions for the book: “I plan to do for America what Proust did for France,” he told one of his chief swans, Marella Agnelli. Looking back, however, one is struck by the differences. The “swans” in In Search of Lost Time were a small circle of Parisians who presided over salons that mingled the aristocracy with the up-and-coming bourgeoisie. They possessed historic chateaux and medieval bloodlines; Capote’s merely had money and a spot on the Best Dressed List. Their power came from their husbands. His favorite swan, Babe Paley, had married the founder of CBS; Slim Keith, the director Howard Hawks; Gloria Guinness, the heir to an enormous brewery fortune; Marella Agnelli, the heir to an Italian automotive giant; and Pamela Harriman, the son of Winston Churchill. Yet there were so many parallels between the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the women Capote befriended—their beauty, their chic, the way the media equated them with all that was fashionable and desirable—that the mystery is why he was never able to turn them into his magnum opus.

            It wasn’t as if the writer wasn’t warned of the difficulty. When Marella Agnelli read the excerpts Capote planned to publish, she told him they weren’t literature; they were gossip. Capote’s future biographer Gerald Clarke warned the writer that everyone would know on whom the characters were based. (“Naaah,” Capote replied, “they’re too stupid.”) Proust took pains to create composite characters so that nobody in his novel could be traced to real life. (His great failure was the homosexual character the Baron de Charlus, whose model, Robert de Montesquiou, claimed after reading the novel that he might as well change his name to Montesproust.) Capote didn’t even try; it was as if he wanted to offend the hands that had fed him—a lot of caviar.

            The sympathetic explanation for Capote’s cashing in years of intimate revelations by the swans is that he was under enormous pressure to produce a follow-up to the success of his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. But the most shocking excerpt in Esquire (November 1975), “La Côte Basque, 1965,” brings to mind a famous observation by the journalist Janet Malcolm that all reporters know they are going to betray their subjects. The portrait of Capote on the cover of Esquire shows him fingering the blade of a knife, like a hired assassin. Maybe that’s why the title of Laurence Leamer’s new book, Capote’s Women, sounds like a story about a Mafioso and his molls.

            Capote defined swans as women who were “born to be rich.” The earliest template was his own mother, so intent on finding a wealthy husband after she divorced Capote’s father that she would lock her panic-stricken son up in their room at a hotel in New Orleans while she went out husband-hunting at night. Later she’d park him with her relatives in a small Alabama town (“A Christmas Memory”) while she went north to husband-hunt. It was only after her second marriage that Capote moved with her and his stepfather to New York, which was where he met another version of his swans in high school—girls like Gloria Vanderbilt, Oona O’Neill, and Carol Marcus, who liked to hang around 21 and the Stork Club, flirting with older men.

            From the very start, Capote (who can be seen in the 2020 documentary Truman and Tennessee saying “It would have been easier if I had been a girl!”) made no attempt to disguise his sexuality at a time when most people loathed homosexuals. The courage Capote showed walking into an Irish pub in Brooklyn Heights one day, dressed, as Norman Mailer recalled, in “a little gabardine cape … looking like a beautiful little faggot prince,” made Mailer realize his friend must be living on sheer adrenaline most of the time “and would die of adrenaline overflow.” Gore Vidal was appalled by Capote’s effeminacy, declaring that he had the voice of a Brussels sprout. When Capote went to Kansas to interview people for In Cold Blood, he received visitors at one point in a pink negligée. The sight of this small man walking around town trailing a long scarf was a vision so exotic that he needed his childhood friend, writer Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), to act as a bridge between the townspeople and the man Mailer dubbed the Tiny Terror.

            But if Capote was sui generis, way ahead of his time as far as being openly homosexual, the women he called his swans were right out of an Edith Wharton novel. They were expected to marry well—and, in the case of the swans, to tolerate their husbands’ serial infidelities while they gave beautiful dinner parties and decorated their numerous homes.

Truman Capote at his masked Black & White Ball, 1966. Elliott Erwitt/Magnum photo.

            To wonder why Capote was drawn to his swans is to be reminded that this odd symbiosis is no longer prevalent in contemporary culture. Nancy Reagan’s friendship with Jerry Zipkin may have been the last example of this link between gay men and the “ladies who lunch.” Like Zipkin, Capote was expected to provide gossip, which he did. One of the swans, Slim Keith, warned Babe Paley that in the end Truman “will rat on us”—a view shared by the manicurist that the swans employed. The manicurist was witness to Truman’s habit of bringing gossip about the swan who wasn’t there to the swan whose hands she was caring for that day. “Catty” is a word no longer associated with gay men, but he also charmed the swans with his sympathy, wit, and ability to listen, so that several of them did consider him to be her best friend. Between their husbands’ infidelities and their own friends’ husband-snatching, there doesn’t seem to have been much domestic happiness in this café society that Capote’s mother, according to his partner Jack Dunphy, had been trying to crash with little success.

            Dunphy disliked the swans, arriving in their yachts to take Capote away from his writing when he and Jack were living quietly abroad. As the years went by, Capote could occasionally show his own resentment, staying in his cabin when invited by Marella Agnelli to tour ruins on the Greek and Turkish coast by asking her who wanted to look “at a bunch of old rocks.” After the huge success, and emotional exhaustion, of In Cold Blood, his resentment surfaced in an even stranger way: for instance, bringing boyfriends to dinners with the swans when he knew they could not possibly fit in. There was, for example, the man who met Capote when he fixed his air conditioning in Palm Springs, a Korean War veteran who, when asked by one of the swans at a dinner party if he’d been to Europe, replied: “No. Except for that time in Korea.”

     But Capote’s resentment as a court jester and a homosexual was never more public than when he published “La Côte Basque” in Esquire to quell suspicions that he was suffering from writer’s block. “La Côte Basque” is a spare, stark account of two women in a New York restaurant talking about the night a man named Dillon seduced a prominent woman who bled so profusely during sex that he had to spend hours in the apartment washing the sheets in the bathtub before his wife came home—a story that those in the know would recognize as being about Happy Rockefeller (the wife of the governor of New York) and Babe Paley’s husband Bill. Babe Paley died of cancer without ever speaking again to Capote.

            In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one can see how alienated Capote already was in 1958. If your idea of Holly Golightly is Audrey Hepburn in the film version, it’s startling to read, on the printed page, how brutal, hard, and bleak Holly’s views of love and life are, and how often she uses homosexual slang to express it. Her voice is much like that of P. D. Jones, the narrator of Answered Prayers, a gay hustler who lives at the Y. That Capote chose a hustler as his guide to the world of the swans only confirms the impression one gets from Leamer’s book: that Capote was always an outsider, which makes it ironic that he was done in by his own kind. His final estrangement from the swans (in the person of Jackie Onassis’ sister Lee Radziwill) came about because of Gore Vidal. Capote had told a story to Playgirl in which Vidal was kicked out of the Kennedy White House because he had insulted the President’s mother at a dinner party. Vidal said he’d been upbraided for putting his hand on Jackie Kennedy’s back while steadying himself as he passed her chair. The discrepancy allowed Vidal to sue Capote for a million dollars. Capote defended himself by claiming that he’d been told the story by Lee Radziwill, whom he wanted to testify on his behalf. But after her lawyers advised Radziwill that she might be sued by Vidal as well, she backed away. When Liz Smith, a gossip columnist whose only failing, Leamer says, was kindness, pleaded with Lee to help their mutual friend, Radziwill refused. “The notoriety of it is too much,” she said. “I am tired of Truman riding on my coattails to fame. And Liz, what difference does it make? They are just a couple of fags.”

            In the end, Capote’s Women, besides being a potted history of the swans, amounts to a biography of Capote. Like Vidal at the end of his life, Capote was a hopeless drunk. It’s no surprise that Ryan Murphy, who just filmed Halston’s life, has announced his intention to create six episodes based on Capote’s Women. His story—and that of the swans—reflects the harshness of our American obsession with Fame and Fortune (the names Andy Warhol gave his dogs). It is also a portrait of the strange, now passé, alliance between society women and their walkers. The brutality, the survival skills, of the people whose chief aspiration was to be chic make Leamer’s book read like an article in the Vanity Fair of Tina Brown’s era. But in reality it amounts to a story as old as the Greek myth of Icarus.

      Yet what brought this world of café society, of Capote and his sitters, to an end was not simply Capote’s hubris; it was also the demise of the Fifties. Even the swans, whose denouements comprise the last chapter of Capote’s Women, could not survive the Sixties, when all notions of social status, dress, and proper behavior were up for grabs. The entire culture changed when Capote was supposed to be completing Answered Prayers, but ended up instead in the basement of Studio 54, where a young man Capote groped one night said the words no gay man ever wants to hear: “You’re nothing but a tired old queen.” Studio 54 is also where Halston would provide his friends with cocaine out of one of two pockets in his coat: the cheap stuff and the really good. As Leamer notes with his sly eye for detail, Capote always got the “good,” if that’s the word for it.

            Leamer’s own explanation for Capote’s inability to write Answered Prayers has nothing to do with writer’s block or the exhaustion he must have felt after In Cold Blood, or the fact that he may have had nothing to say about the swans in the end, or the close of the Fifties. It was simply a literary limitation: Capote was a “miniaturist,” incapable of structuring and sustaining over the course of three thousand pages the sort of narrative that Proust had. Consider the book that Capote did publish after the disaster of “La Côte Basque” in lieu of Answered Prayers: a collection of short stories, a nonfiction novella, and travel pieces called Music for Chameleons (1980). Its introduction compares the fate of the artist (Capote) to a man flagellating himself with his own high standards. But this book feels like the things he used to write for the fashion magazines. Perhaps Capote had just run out of imaginative gas, but Music For Chameleons supports Leamer’s point: that he was, at his best, a poet of small touches—like the scene in In Cold Blood when the killers are finally caught and returned to the scene of the crime and put in jail, as stray cats walk up and down the courthouse square eating scraps of dead birds caught in the grilles of the parked cars—the Capote touch.

            The truth is that Capote was such a mass of contradictions, there’s something almost Shakespearean in the story presented in Capote’s Women, though Leamer himself belongs to an older tradition, that of Juvenal and Suetonius, exposing the scandals of the rich and powerful. What one is struck by is the insecurity, defiance, malice, and alienation of a sensitive homosexual in times that were far more homophobic than the present, though given the way things are going, one should not be complacent. Capote clearly saw himself as a real outsider. In 1955 he went with a production of Porgy and Bess on a tour of Russia (described in his book The Muses Are Heard), and years later, in her memoir, Slim Keith describes a moment when Capote is putting her to bed in their hotel in Copenhagen. “Sleep well,” Truman tells her, “because I love you, very, very much.” “I love you too, Truman,” replies Keith. “No, you don’t,” Truman replies. And Keith says: “Don’t talk like that—of course I do.” And Truman, “after a long gaze,” says:


No, no, no. You don’t. No one loves me. I’m a freak. You think I don’t know that? I know how difficult it is for people to adjust to what I look like and how I sound when they first see me. It’s one of the reasons that I’m so outrageous. I don’t think anyone has ever loved me—maybe Jack. … But not many other people. I’m an object. I’m a centerpiece, not a figure of love, and I miss that. There’s not an awful lot to love.


Perhaps that’s why his self-induced sabotage of his friendships with his swans hurt so much. Vidal put it more cruelly: “Truman Capote has tried, with some success, to get into a world that I have tried, with some success, to get out of.”


Andrew Holleran is the author of the new novel The Kingdom of Sand, which is reviewed in this issue.