GLR September-October 2022


Truman and His Swans A NDREW H OLLERAN

T RUMAN 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-mar ried 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. 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 pub lish, 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 Andrew Holleran is the author of the new novel The Kingdom of Sand, which is reviewed in this issue. 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, how ever, 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

could be traced to real life. (His great failure was the homosex ual 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 enor mous pressure to produce a follow-up to the success of his non fiction 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 and his stepfather to New York, which was where he met an other version of his swans in high school—girls like Gloria Van derbilt, 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 re called, 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 neg ligée. The sight of this small man walking around town trail ing 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. 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 sec ond marriage that Capote moved with her

Capote was sui generis, way ahead of his time as far as being openly gay, and the women he called his swans were right out of an EdithWharton novel.

September–October 2022


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