Capote’s Swans
A CultureMap®
by Colin J. Warnock
Published on 9/9/13

Author Truman Capote once said, “All literature is gossip.” No wonder he cultivated the friendship of several women at the center of New York’s high society in the 1950s and ’60s: Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness, C.Z. Guest, Pamela Harriman, Babe Paley, Slim Keith and Lee Radziwill. But when Capote turned their gossip and secrets into literature in his last novel, Answered Prayers, these “swans” abandoned their former confidant, condemning Capote to social exile.

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Truman Capote  (1924–1984 | American writer)
to  The Party of the Century

Truman Capote was well known as the author of the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958; film, 1961), but after the 1966 publication of In Cold Blood he became world-famous. Ecstatic over the commercial and critical success of the book, Capote decided to throw himself a party, one to show his society “swans”—Slim Keith, Babe Paley and Lee Radziwill among them—that he had arrived. Not wishing to appear tacky, Capote named Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, as the guest of honor. The party was held on November 28, 1966, in the Grand Ballroom of New York’s Plaza Hotel, and the guest list included 540 people, who were instructed to arrive masked, wearing only black and white. Andy Warhol, Frank Sinatra, Rose Kennedy, Norman Mailer, Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Vreeland, Richard Avedon and, of course, Keith, Paley and Radziwill were among the elite in attendance. Capote also invited the doorman and elevator operator from his apartment building and several Kansans he met while researching In Cold Blood. The party cost Capote $16,000, but the publicity was priceless. At the end of the evening Capote told reporters, “I just wanted to give a party for my friends.”

The Party of the Century
to  Answered Prayers  (Truman Capote | book | 1987)

While assembling the guest list for what the press called “the party of the century,” Truman Capote delighted in telling those pleading for an invitation, “Maybe you’ll be invited, and maybe you won’t.” According to Capote, he made “500 friends and 15,000 enemies” before it was all over. The one-two punch of In Cold Blood (1966) and the Black and White Ball gave Capote wealth and fame. Appropriately, Capote named his next novel Answered Prayers, whose title comes from an aphorism of Saint Teresa of Avila that “more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” For years Capote teased about Answered Prayers on talk-show couches, promising it would soon be finished. He even published chapters of it in Esquire magazine to prove it was not a literary myth. Capote told friends Answered Prayers would be his Remembrance of Things Past: “If Proust were an American living in New York, this is what he would be doing.” But when Capote died, in Los Angeles in 1984 at the age of 59, no complete manuscript was found. Random House published Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel in 1987.

Answered Prayers  (Truman Capote | book | 1987)
to  Slim Keith  (1917–1990 | American socialite)

After the publication of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote faced the terrifying prospect of what to do next. “No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me,” Capote sighed. The author signed a contract with Random House on January 5, 1966, that provided a $25,000 advance to deliver a novel by January 1, 1968. The novel would be called Answered Prayers. Capote missed that deadline and the next and the next, but Random House gave him more time and more money. During an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Capote called Answered Prayers his “posthumous novel,” predicting “either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.” Desperate to prove the book existed and he could still write, Capote sold four chapters to Esquire magazine in 1975. In one of them, “La Côte Basque 1965,” he dished on his “swans.” They were not amused. A shocked Capote gasped, “But they know I’m a writer!” Slim Keith never spoke to him again. “After ‘La Côte Basque’ I looked on Truman as a friend who had died,” she said. Occasionally, when drinking, Capote would cry, “I didn’t know the story would cause such a fuss!”

Slim Keith  (1917–1990 | American socialite)
to  Truman Capote  (1924–1984 | American writer)

Nancy Gross decided at age 16 to leave Salinas, California, and head to a resort in Death Valley. There she met actor William Powell, who nicknamed her Slim and introduced her to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Soon Slim was a fixture at Hollywood parties, seen on the arm of Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. In 1941 she married director Howard Hawks. But he was unfaithful and Slim decided to trade up: Husband number two was Broadway producer Leland Hayward. (Her marriage to hubby number three, Lord Keith, was a loveless one that Slim ended in 1972. She kept the money and the title.) While married to Hayward and living in New York, she met Truman Capote, who doted on Slim, nicknaming her Big Mama. But Capote betrayed Slim’s confidences in the serialized chapter “La Côte Basque 1965.” Although Capote called the character Lady Ina Coolbirth, everyone knew she was based on Lady Slim Keith. She banished Capote from her life with a finality that was as total as it was sudden. Desperate for reconciliation, Capote sent Slim an ironic telegram that read, “I have decided to forgive you.” Slim did not reply. Capote’s social suicide was complete.

Truman Capote  (1924–1984 | American writer)
to  Babe Paley  (1915–1978 | American socialite)

Truman Capote first met Babe and Bill Paley in 1955. The Paleys had invited their friends producer David O. Selznick and his wife, actor Jennifer Jones, for a long weekend at their home in Jamaica. Selznick asked Bill, “Do you mind if we bring Truman along?” He replied, “It would be an honor.” When Capote emerged from the private plane, Bill turned to Selznick and said, “You know, when you said ‘Truman,’ I assumed you meant Harry Truman. Who is this?” “This is Truman Capote, our great American writer,” replied Selznick. From this case of mistaken identity began a friendship that lasted more than two decades.

Capote said of the Paleys, “We were a great little trio.” But in 1975 the great little trio was torn apart by the publication of Capote’s “La Côte Basque 1965.” In it Capote related a thinly veiled account of one of Bill’s sexual trysts. Babe was devastated. A very private person, she once replied to a journalist’s request for an interview by writing in lavender ink on lavender paper, “I really have nothing to say.” Babe Paley died of cancer in 1978. She never reconciled with Capote.

Babe Paley  (1915–1978 | American socialite)
to  The International Best-Dressed List

When describing Babe Paley, Truman Capote wrote, “Mrs. P. had only one flaw: She was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect.” Barbara “Babe” Cushing was born in 1915. In 1938 she became a fashion editor at Vogue. Trained by her social-climbing mother to find a rich husband, Babe married Stanley Mortimer Jr. of the Standard Oil family in 1940. That same year she was named to the International Best-Dressed List for the first time. Though her marriage to Mortimer didn’t last, Babe topped the list of best-dressed women for the rest of her life. In 1947 she married William Paley, the founder and chairman of CBS. As Mrs. William Paley, Babe created a world of luxury and style for her husband, presiding over a house in Jamaica, a country home on Long Island Sound and a 21-room duplex on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Babe’s friend Slim Keith called her style “perfection,” while Vogue praised her “effortless chic.” In 1958 Babe Paley was named to the International Best-Dressed List’s hall of fame, which awarded her another title in 1975: The Super-Dresser of Our Time. “Over the past 35 years,” the hall noted, “[Babe] never has had an unchic moment.”

The International Best-Dressed List
to  Lee Radziwill  (b. 1930 | American socialite)

The International Best-Dressed List was traditionally assembled by Paris dressmakers. But in 1940 Eleanor Lambert, a fashion publicist for the New York–based Dress Institute, seized control—that is, with a little help from World War II. Lambert wisely predicted the war would hamper the Paris list and quickly mailed out her own survey to 50 fashion experts. The results were circulated as a press release from the Dress Institute and announced in The New York Times on December 27, 1940. Not only had Lambert replaced Paris with New York as the new fashion capital of the world, but her first list decidedly favored American women. In 1962 Lambert’s efforts propelled Jacqueline Kennedy to the top of the list. Jackie was so popular, in fact, that her sister, Lee Radziwill, also appeared on the list for the first time. Vogue editor Diana Vreeland thought Radziwill more chic than her sister anyway. Radziwill was elected to the International Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1996. Her fashion style has inspired designers from Yves Saint Laurent to Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors, who once dedicated an entire collection to the “Lee Radziwill look.”

Truman Capote  (1924–1984 | American writer)
to  Lee Radziwill  (b. 1930 | American socialite)

According to Truman Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke, the author loved his swans because “they had created themselves, as he had done.” Capote saw each as an artist “whose sole creation was her perishable self.” He gave these women his total attention, and they repaid him with their secrets and gossip. During his infamous Black and White Ball, Capote danced with only three guests: actor Lauren Bacall, guest of honor Katharine Graham and swan extraordinaire Lee Radziwill. Capote called his relationship with Radziwill a “special friendship.” Born on March 3, 1933, Caroline Lee Bouvier found it her blessing and her curse to be the younger sister of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. To help Lee escape her famous sister’s shadow, Capote wrote the screenplay for a TV adaptation of the 1944 movie Laura, with Lee in the title role. It was a major flop. The inevitable split with Capote came in 1979 when Lee took the side of Capote’s hated rival Gore Vidal in a slander suit. “She’s just a treacherous lady,” Capote said of his former special friend.

Lee Radziwill  (b. 1930 | American socialite)
to  The Real Housewives of New York City  (TV show | prem. 2008)

Although Lee Radziwill never made it as an actor, she did become a princess through her marriage to Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, which produced two children, Anthony and Ann Christina. Anthony died of cancer in 1999; but his widow, Carole Radziwill, went on to swan in front of the cameras.

In 2004 the television series Desperate Housewives premiered on ABC and was an instant sensation. The Bravo cable-TV network took the idea of suburban housewives and added a reality twist. After the success of The Real Housewives of Orange County, the first series in the franchise, Bravo created a spin-off, initially titled Manhattan Moms. But soon after its 2008 debut, the retitled Real Housewives of New York City ditched the housewife concept and focused on privileged, sometimes unmarried women who work outside the house. After the fourth season, Bravo felt the show had become too toxic and replaced half the cast. Among the replacement alpha hotties was Carole Radziwill. “I may be a princess, but I am definitely not a drama queen” is her tagline. If, as Truman Capote once said, “All literature is gossip,” then The Real Housewives of New York City proves the same is true of reality TV.