Truman Capote’s Swans

Swan Song, by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephacott, is a fictionalised account of Truman Capote and his ‘Swans’, a clique of socialites into whose world puckish Capote, an Alabama hillbilly, charmed his way. The starting point of Swan Song is the aftermath of a 1975 Esquire article entitled ‘La Cote Basque 1965′, in which bitchy little Capote exposed some of the Swans’ secrets and was thence thrust out of the their lives. The novel, narrated in the collective first person by the Swans (‘we’ and ‘us’), ebbs and flows around this event, dipping into the women’s relationships with Capote and with each other, depicting their existence within the global elite.

The Swans in Greenburg-Jephacott’s book: Slim Keith, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill, Marella Agnelli and C Z Guest read like an international equivalent of the Mitford Sisters. Although none of them were as productive as the Mitfords, they were playing on a far larger scale – with American presidents, with men at the head of multinational corporations, flying from penthouse to country residences, from the Carribean to the Mediterranean, hobnobbing with (and marrying) royalty and film stars. They make Nancy et al look positively parochial.

The novel is a fascinating journey through the world of some of the most glamorous and well-connected women of the twentieth century. I was completely absorbed, by the glamorous lifestyles depicted and by Greenberg-Jephacott’s prose, her multi-layered narrative. The novel evokes the glamour and emptiness of Capote and his friends’ lives, each chapter concentrating on one Swan and a particular event. But Greenberg-Jephacott does not tell her stories sequentially; the narrative hops from from one incident to another, shifting between decades, flowing back and forth like one imagines conversations with Capote might have done, looping in and over themselves, surreal and dreamy. Such narrative uncertainty is initially a little disconcerting, but like the stream of cocktails that pour past the Swans’ lips, one soon relaxes into the flow. It mimics the form in which Capote intended to write Answered Prayers: ‘drawn from life yet suffused with fictional elements and partaking of both my reportorial abilities and imaginative gifts.’

Of his writing in general, Capote said (in Truman Capote, Conversations): ‘before I even write the opening words of a book, I will have written bits and pieces that fall one third of the way through, or halfway through, or at the very end; and as I write, I fit all these segments together in Jephacott-Green writes on the final page of the hardback: ‘Capote’s cadences are in everything I write’, and you can hear Truman’s lilting voice sing through every line.

Marella & Gianni Agnelli

Swan Song does something that many great novels do – it charms and educates. I knew very little about the women featured, though I had read Capote’s short stories and tried In Cold Blood (I brought it with me on holiday to an isolated French villa and found it so terrifying I had to cease immediately), knew that he was a childhood friend of Harper Lee, appearing as Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird. But, apart from Lee Radziwill, I knew nothing about his high society friends.  I had no idea that some of these women even existed.  Swan Song gives a voice to these largely silent creatures, whose lives were lived as objects of desire, as the focus of others’ gazes, as the subjects of speculation: in art (CZ Guest was painted by Riviera and Dali and Slim Keith was photographed by Man Ray), through the lens of the media, through gossip that filtered down through the upper echelons.

Babe and Bill Paley

The enigmatic Gloria Guinness; Lee Radziwill (on the right) with her beloved / hated sister Jackie O

Slim Keith

Whilst reading Swan Song I kept flicking to the internet to see what the women looked like, to verify events, to learn more about Capote and his milieu.

Having collated so much information, I thought I’d write a series exploring the characters and background of Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel. An homage to Swan Song, to Capote and his friends.

This first part is about Capote’s social detonation, about the incident that ruptured his relationships with the Swans, in particular his favourite, Babe Paley, forever.  It’s the article that prompted the question that Swan Song seeks to answer – why did Capote write ‘La Cote Basque 1965’?  Why did he self-immolate?

La Cote Basque 1965

La Cote Basque: one of the places to be seen from the 50s, when it opened, to 2003 when it closed.

First, Capote himself.  Truman Garcia Capote or Truman Streckfus Parsons was born in 1924 in New Orleans to 17-year old Lillie-Mae Faulk and Archulus Parsons.  He spent much of his childhood separated from his beloved mother, raised by relatives in Alabama for four to five years, moving to New York to be with his mother and her new husband in 1932.  He was very bright and used his talents as a writer and as a charmer to claw his way from copy boy at the New York Times in 1942 to the host of a black and white masked ball at the New York Plaza in 1965, the party, ‘the pandemonium among the Beautiful People that autumn could not have been more frenzied’ says Vanity Fair.  

But by the 70s, by the time he published ‘La Cote’, Capote was no longer quite the darling of society.  He was slipping further into addiction, had devoted more time to socialising, to collecting celebrity scalps, than focusing on his writing (though, according to People magazine, he wrote for 5 hours a day, 4 months a year). His last big success had been In Cold Blood, published in 1966.  He had the idea that he would replicate the brilliance of In Cold Blood, employing a similar style in his memoirs.  He would write, he claimed, the American answer to In Search of Lost Time, Proust’s multi-volume masterpiece.  And his magnum opus would be entitled Answered Prayers

‘La Cote Basque 1965´ was to form one chapter of this masterpiece.

The ´story´ was published by Esquire 1975. Esquire also published 3 other chapters: ‘Mojave‘ was first, ‘Unspoiled Monsters‘ and ‘Kate McLoud‘ (NB these links are to Esquire, which requires subscription after four free articles), which were also, Capote alleged, part of Answered Prayers.

On publication, society erupted. According to the New York Times: ‘The social set was outraged. Many of Capote’s closest friends turned against him and blackballed him. Capote, a man who spent weekends with Babe Paley and threw the famous Black and White Ball for publisher Kay Graham, was ruined socially. “It’s one thing,” wrote Liz Smith in New York Magazine after the Esquire article appeared, “to tell the nastiest story in the world to all your 50 best friends; it’s another to see it set down in cold Century Expanded type.”’

After publication, Capote swung between saying that he never meant to hurt anyone, then saying that he was a writer – what did they expect? An article in People magazine captures his attitude:

‘Tears streaming down his chubby cheeks, Capote says, “I love Barbara more than anybody in the world. She’s really special. And now she’s sick.” He holds a vodka-and-orange juice in one hand, massages his temples with the other and dismisses the rest of the chic crowd. “Really rich people are the most pathetic, so frightened, so insular. A yacht and five houses are what they have in common. They don’t even like each other. My book will be the definitive work on a whole kind of ambience.”’

In another interview with People, Capote likened Answered Prayers to a gun: “There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel and, finally, the bullet,” he said. “And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen — wham!”’ – he could have meant the impact he intended them to have, or he could have been referring to their deadly aftermath.

Perhaps Capote was bitter about his difference from the wildly rich milieu into which he inserted himself, furious that he wasn’t as lauded by the people on whom he lavished his attentions as he wished he would have been. Capote was also, by all accounts, a show-off; he relished being the centre of attention – perhaps he couldn’t bear keeping the secrets of the rich and famous; he wanted to show the world how much the elite had taken them into his confidence, how important he was in the lives of his Swans. Or perhaps, like his mother, he was self-destructive, could not cope with living the high life, wanted to bring himself down a peg or two.

Swan Song suggests that it’s all of the above and I would tend to agree. 

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