Last week I wrote about Swan Song, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephacott’s novelised account of Truman Capote’s relationships with his ‘Swans’ – Slim Keith, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, CZ Guest, Marella Agnelli and Lee Radziwill – and the self-destructive act that caused most of them to cut Capote out of their lives for good.
I said that I wanted to write a series about the Swans, because I wanted to know more about the women who inhabit Swan Song, so this is the first in the series, about the Swan who receives Greenberg-Jephacott’s first attentions: Slim Keith, alias Mary Raye Gross, alias Nancy Keith, Nancy Hawks and Nancy Hayward.
Slim Keith was a California girl, born in Salinas, CA in 1917. She was ‘an unremarkable girl in a strict, unhappy home ruled by her bigoted father.’ The Steinbecks were family friends. At 16, apparently at her mother’s behest, she went to stay at a resort in Death Valley where she bumped into William Powell, attended some of his parties, and befriended the Hollywood stars that drifted in and out of his home.
Howard Hawks fell in love with her, and though he was married, pursued her until she agreed to marry him. It seems like it wasn’t much fun being married to unfaithful Hawks, although the trimmings of Hollywood and a certain amount of riches might have taken the misery out of matrimony – Slim stayed with Hawks for 8 years. She found Lauren Bacall in a magazine for Hawks, and the pair became lifelong friends. There’s a great photo of Slim, Bacall and her other friend, Ernest Hemingway (who may or may not have been in love with Slim for as long as they knew each other), eating out together.
Slim left Hawks after the birth of her only child, Kitty, and went to stay with Ernest Hemingway, where she met and fell in love with Leland Hayward.
Leland was apparently the love of Slim’s life and they were happily married for ten years – though during that time, Slim had affairs with Frank Sinatra and screenwriter Peter Viertel – until Pamela Churchill, the arch villain of Swan Song, seduced Leland away from Slim.
She is perhaps my favourite Swan. Not only because she looks fantastic – in photos she looks so self-sufficient – holding herself slightly apart, her cool gaze directed deep inside herself. But she also didn’t seem to get stuck in the same nexuses that trapped the other Swans. Where some of the other Swans jetted constantly with their elite clique – the Paleys, Guinnesses, Radziwills and Agnellis – Slim seems to have satisfied herself with a few real friends – Bacall and Hemingway, for example, perhaps knowing how dangerous close relations with the all others could be (she did, after all, lose her husband to Pamela Churchill who wove herself so thoroughly into the fabric of the Swans’ lives). With her looks and charm she could have, perhaps, starred in films: Lauren Bacall’s character in ‘To Have and To Have Not’ was apparently modelled on Slim, but Slim didn’t push for screen tests or stage roles (unlike the much thirstier Lee Radziwill).
She married three times but had only one daughter, and though she cared for her step-children, she doesn’t seem to have become embroiled in family politics – though I’d love to read Haywire, the memoir of her step-daughter Brooke Hayward and see what kind of appearance she makes.
But one of the reasons I most love her is how she appears in photos: in fashion plates she’s cool and enigmatic, as if she’s looking deep within herself, contemplating life.
The way she dresses and holds herself is something else. It’s easy to see how she was awarded the Best Dressed Woman in the World (in 1946). She’s all clean lines, and a long, lean silhouette, hair pulled back, her frame elegant, understated.
“It was about good looks, brains, taste, and style . . . The only ingredient I brought to this recipe was the recognition that, while you have to be natural, you also have to be different . . . In my day, different meant not having your hair done in a pompadour and adorning it with a snood, or not trying to hide your intelligence behind a sea of frills. I somehow knew there was a glut in that market. I opted for a scrubbed-clean, polished look. I thought it was more important to have an intelligence that showed, a humor that never failed, and a healthy interest in men.”
So here’s to the enigmatic Slim Keith – as cool as Lauren Bacall in ‘To Have And To Have Not’, quiet and understated but seemingly full of the spirit of adventure: “What I was not blessed with I went out and got,” she said. “Sometimes the price was too high, but I’ve never been much of a bargain hunter.”