GLR September-October 2022

But if Capote was sui generis, way ahead of his time as far as being openly homosex ual, 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. To wonder why Capote was drawn to his swans is to be re minded that this odd symbiosis is no longer prevalent in con temporary 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 qui etly 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. Ex cept 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

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

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 NewYork) and Babe Paley’s husband Bill. Babe Paley died of cancer with out ever speaking again to Capote. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s , one can see how alienated Capote al ready was in 1958. If your idea of Holly Golightly isAudrey Hep burn 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 out sider, 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 Pres ident’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 mu tual 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 his tory 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 Hal ston’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 ob session 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 real ity 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 ,

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

The G & LR


Made with FlippingBook. PDF to flipbook with ease