In the years following Truman Capote’s exile by New York’s most powerful women, some would speculate it was the author’s hunger for gossip which led to his descent.
“He’d spill it all out and you’d eat it up,” journalist Sally Quinn recalls.
Capote doubled down on his appetite in the aftermath of his public ostracism.
“All literature is gossip,” he told Playboy magazine.
“What in God’s green earth is Anna Karenina or War and Peace or Madame Bovary, if not gossip?”
Those secrets he spilled are the subject of the latest season of Ryan Murphy’s Feud, titled Capote Vs The Swans, premiering on Binge Thursday.
The franchise, which began with the rivalry between stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, is now tackling the scandal between Capote’s beautiful socialite “Swans” and the exposé that betrayed them.
Its star-studded cast includes Naomi Watts, Demi Moore and Diane Lane.
So how did a flamboyant loner from Alabama become the confidant — turned tattletale — of New York’s upper echelon?
Millions Made In Cold Blood
It’s said when Capote quit school and joined The New Yorker mailroom at age 17, he would wear three-piece Brooks Brothers suits and moccasins to work one day and a flowing, bright cape the next.
He wouldn’t last long — getting fired for insulting Robert Frost’s poetry — but by then, his larger-than-life persona had already charmed his way into the pages of the New Yorker.
His first book Other Voices, Other Rooms was published in 1948.
His novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s followed in 1958 and offered a taste of Capote’s obsession with high society.
But just as soon as he had started to circle the upper crust, he headed back to the South of his childhood to write In Cold Blood.
Capote spent six years in Kansas researching the Clutter family murders and the two men executed for the crime, but it paid off in a big way.
Upon the novel’s 1965 release, it sold out immediately and earned him legions of admirers.
In short, Capote had become a pioneer of the true-crime genre.
Enter, the Swans
After In Cold Blood made Capote a millionaire, he returned to New York with new-found fame and bluster.
He developed a close circle of high-society women whom he affectionately called his “Swans”.
The coterie included Lee Radziwill (the sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis), Gloria Vanderbilt, Babe Paley (the wife of CBS founder William Paley) and Andy Warhol muse CZ Guest.
Capote indulged them with his wry wit and celebrity encounters, threw them extravagant masked balls, and joined them for their twice-weekly lunch meetings.
Author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, who wrote the 2018 novel Swan Song about the social group, said Capote was “the only writer of his generation that had a toe in each camp”.
“He knew the socialites, he knew the politicians, he knew the artists, he was dear friends with Marilyn Monroe, with Jackie Kennedy,” she said in 2021.
“He could have picked any of them to be his muse, and yet he picked these six women.”
TV show host, Dick Cavett, nicknamed Capote “a darling of the beautiful people”.
In the Swans’ embrace, Capote jetsetted to the Hamptons and Paris, partied in the Plaza Hotel.
Another TV host David Susskind remarked to Capote “you are always on people’s yachts” and in “great mansions on Long Island”.
Fiat heiress Marella Agnelli said she considered Capote perhaps “the closest” of her friends.
All the while, he was watching.
“I found myself telling him things I had never dreamed of telling anyone,” Agnelli says in her 2014 memoir.
“He was able to create a deep sense of intimacy.
“But he was waiting like a falcon.”
A ‘magnum opus’ of Proustian proportions
In many ways, Capote had been teasing his tell-all bomb years before it detonated his social circle.
“The novel is called, Answered Prayers; and, if all goes well, I think it will answer mine,” he wrote in a 1958 letter to Random House.
He promised “a large novel, my magnum opus”.
Agnelli says Capote told her the novel was “going to do to America what Proust did to France”.
In 1966, Capote signed a contract with Random House for an advance of $US25,000, more than $359,000 in today’s Australian dollars.
When the novel never arrived, Random House re-negotiated a three-book deal for an advance of $US750,000 and a 1973 deadline.
Along the way, Capote continued to hint at its deadly nature, likening it to a gunshot: “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!”
Nine years later, he published his first chapter, Mojave, to little fanfare in Esquire.
Its follow-up, La Côte Basque, would be a different story.
Referring to the high-society temple of 55th street, La Côte Basque divulges the most scandalous secrets of Capote’s inner sanctum.
In one scene, Capote depicts Gloria Vanderbilt as a vain cosmopolitan who fails to recognize her first husband.
In another, he discloses how a mistress of Babe Paley’s husband leaves a period stain on the couple’s sheets.
“I read it, and I was absolutely horrified,” Paley told writer George Plimpton.
“The story about the sheets, the story about Ann Woodward … There was no question in anybody’s mind who it was.”
When Vanderbilt read the story, she reportedly said, “The next time I see Truman Capote, I’m going to spit in his face.”
“I think Truman really hurt my mother,” Vanderbilt’s son, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, told Vanity Fair in 2012.
A covered-up murder plot
Among the sordid secrets spilled were those of The Most Beautiful Girl in Radio, Ann Woodward.
In 1955, former radio actress Woodward fatally shot her banking heir husband, William Woodward Jr, claiming she mistook him for a prowler.
Found innocent of murder by a jury, she was, nevertheless, imprisoned by a “heavy web of gossip” New York Magazine editor John Homans writes.
But by 1975, the crime was largely forgotten—until La Côte Basque that is.
The chapter suggests Ann Hopkins (Woodward’s moniker) killed her husband on purpose because otherwise she’d be left with nothing in a forthcoming divorce.
Her mother-in-law, Hilda pays off the police to cover the scandal.
“In other words… none of Ann’s story was true,” a character retorts.
One can only guess how Woodward reacted to the accusation.
The former showgirl, who is said to have received advanced warning, died by suicide days before Capote’s chapter came out.
Hilda’s real-life counterpart, Elsie Woodward — who always maintained Ann had intentionally pulled the trigger — responded coolly: “Well that’s that, she shot my son and Truman murdered her.”
‘A man alone on an island’
La Côte Basque’s fall-out was swift.
Greenberg-Jephcott says the moment Capote published the second extract “it was like detonating a bomb”.
“Everyone turned on him, he was a persona non grata,” she says.
Paley, Capote’s closest friend, wouldn’t speak to him again. When she died of lung cancer in 1978, Capote was barred from her funeral.
He struggled to understand the reaction.
“I can’t understand why everybody’s so upset”, he said.
“What do they think they had around them, a court jester? They had a writer.”
The few who stood by Capote said he became a recluse in his Manhattan penthouse, sobbing on his bed and repeating the words, “I didn’t mean to, I thought they’d come back.”
Ebs Burnough, who directed the 2021 documentary The Capote Tapes, tells Vogue Capote never recovered from the banishment.
“[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.”
Mystery lingers over final manuscript
Thirteen years before his death, Capote is again interviewed by TV show host Dick Cavett.
Talking about Answered Prayers, he foreshadows his future: “I refer to it as my posthumous novel because either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.”
Left a social pariah, Capote dived into alcohol and the cocaine-fuelled world of Studio 54.
After appearing drunk on a New York morning talk show in 1978, Capote checked into rehab but soon relapsed.
He died from liver disease just shy of his 60th birthday in the Los Angeles home of Johnny Carson’s ex-wife, Joanne Carson, in 1984.
Carson says he muttered the phrases “Beautiful Babe” and “Answered Prayers” in his last breaths.
The author only ever published two more chapters of the novel after his exile.
In the years after his death, hunts for the rest of the manuscript were unsuccessful.
Greenberg-Jephcott calls it the “great literary sasquatch of the 20th century”.
Even now, rumors continue to swirl about whether the novel was unfinished or, if haunted by his lost friends, Capote destroyed it.
Director Burnough believes the latter.
“My theory is that one night he got really smashed and something happened to the rest of it,” he told The Guardian in 2021.
“I can easily imagine that, after those excerpts were published, and after the phone stopped ringing, he might have woken up after a wild night and seen pieces of it in the fireplace.”