Truman Capote – and the women whose stories he stole and hearts he broke

Truman Capote

“All Swans are invited to a night discussing a great writer and a great betrayal”, ran the invitation.

“A little over a decade ago, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott became fascinated with a particular moment in the life of Truman Capote. Like Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, this is a non-fiction novel based on exhaustive research but told with a novelist’s flair and a screenwriter’s gift for dialogue.

With ‘In Cold Blood’, Truman Capote had achieved wild acclaim, was the darling of the press and had developed close bonds with iconic tastemakers and jet setters Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli and Lee Radziwill, the IT girls of their day, and whom he referred to as his ‘Swans’. Yet, by 1975 Truman was suffering from writer’s block and was eight years delinquent delivering his next manuscript. Inexplicably and devastatingly, he published excerpts from his savage roman à clef ‘Answered Prayers’ in Esquire. This thinly-veiled account of his Swans’ deepest secrets savagely betrayed the confidences of his inner circle and spelled professional and social suicide for Truman Capote. In her novel, ‘Swan Song’, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott brilliantly inhabits the lives of the extraordinary women whose company Capote so treasured and so betrayed”.

Intrigued? I certainly was. I knew something of Truman Capote, having read a number of his books and, like most people, having seen the iconic film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (which Truman disliked, having wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role which propelled Audrey Hepburn to stardom). Of the Swans episode I was, however, completely ignorant – until the official launch of ‘Swan Song’, tonight.

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott began proceedings by reading an extract from her novel involving the character Nell, who was based on Harper Lee’s mother. Yes, proving life really is stranger than fiction, Truman and Harper Lee were next door neighbours as children, growing up together and remaining lifelong friends, although Truman struggled to come to terms with the success of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Kelleigh then set the scene for further discussion of ‘Swan Song’ by talking to us about Truman Capote the man: his childhood, strained relationship with his parents, how he found success as a writer – and why, in the end, his writing was his downfall.

By any standards, Truman’s upbringing was unconventional – and informed much of his writing. His mother, Lillie Mae, was in her teens when she married and had Truman; a social climber by nature, she was devastated to find out, on her honeymoon, that her husband was broke. Their marriage was a troubled one and Lillie had copious affairs; Truman would be taken to a New Orleans hotel and locked in a bedroom while Lillie rendezvoused with her lovers. Unsurprisingly, such experiences stayed with Truman for life and, Kelleigh believes, explain why he never fully trusted anyone.

When he was four, Truman’s parents divorced and he was sent to live with cousins of Lillie, Later, Truman would recount chasing after Lillie’s car and, unable to catch up with his mother, drinking a bottle of her perfume (he had a flair for the dramatic even then). School proved a challenge: Truman flunked all subjects and was considered “backwards”. Then, through a stroke of chance, he took an IQ test – in which he excelled. Declared a genius, Truman – for the first time in his life – had both power and motivation.

This was not necessarily a good thing. You will recall that, at this time, Truman lived next door to Harper Lee, and that the two were firm friends. Towards Harper’s mother, however, Truman felt no warmth, finding her malicious and vindictive. An entry entitled ‘Mrs Busybody’ for a short story competition ensued; Truman duly won and the story was published – causing outrage.

In the meantime, Lillie Mae had remarried, to a Cuban business man who adopted Truman as his stepson. Soon, Truman was living in New York and working for The New Yorker, as a copyboy – a job he found beneath him. Truman had far greater aspirations and frequently took long, boozy lunches at the Plaza. Already out of his favour with his bosses, Truman was fired after walking out of a talk hosted by The New Yorker in honour of Robert Frost who was furious at this cavalier treatment and demanded that heads roll.

It was writing, as always, that propelled Truman forward. At that time, much of the best new fiction was being published in women’s magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar – and the magazines fought over Truman, snapping up the short stories into which he inserted himself as a character.

These short stories proved the springboard to Truman’s first novel, for whose inspiration he turned to friends including Gloria Vanderbilt, Oona O’Neill (married to Eugene O’Neil, then to Charlie Chaplin) and Carol Matthau: Truman’s ‘Cygnets’, if you will. Concerned the novel’s voice wasn’t authentic, however, Truman ditched it and returned to his childhood town, Monroeville, where he wrote ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’.

‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ soon followed – arguably, the novel for which Truman remains most well-known. And yet, as Kelleigh reminded us, it is far from the light-hearted read that people imagine it to be and Holly Golightly far from the happy-go-lucky character that people associate with Audrey Hepburn. Holly’s real name, we learn half way through the book, was Lulamae. Ring any bells?

There seems little doubt that Truman invested Holly with many of his and Lillie’s characteristics, creating a spiky, angry – even dark – character. His relationship with Lillie remained complex; his mother vacillated between kindness and cruelty, Truman’s effeminacy a constant target for her barbed tongue. But in 1954, tragedy struck. Lillie’s husband was arrested on fraud charges and Lillie committed suicide, devastated that a lifetime of ferocious social climbing had come to nothing. Truman never recovered from this blow and never forgave the upper classes for “taking away” his mother.

Was ‘Answered Prayers’ Truman’s revenge? It’s surely no coincidence that it targeted the very people his mother had wanted to emulate. Six socialites, all well-connected, all influential – and successful career women, it should be remembered; these were not vacuous women. All of them adored Truman Capote and considered him their close friend – and he, Kelleigh is adamant, adored them, choosing them as the subjects of his writing because he believed them to be the “heroines” of his novel.

Indeed, the closer Truman grew to these women the less comfortable he felt writing about them and he put his manuscript aside for six years to research and write ‘In Cold Blood’. This was a huge and instant success, with Truman hailed as the artist of his age and becoming very rich.

If only Truman could have drawn a line under his writing then. Alas, ‘Cold Blood’ was the last book he published during his lifetime and by the mid-1970s he was forced to return movie rights’ money to 20th Century Fox. In 1975, he made the life-changing decision to publish ‘Answered Prayers’ in chapter format in Esquire. Chapter 1 was well-received, but Chapter 2 – ‘La Côte Basque 1965’, loosely based on Babe Paley and her husband William – horrified the New York elite. The publication of two more chapters ensured Truman’s downfall was complete.

Babe and William Paley
Babe and William Paley

Truman claimed – disingenuously? – to have had no idea how hurt his Swans would be by his exposal of their dirty laundry; he’d anticipated some displeasure, but believed the women loved him so much that their friendships were secure. Instead, they spent the final ten years of Truman’s life trying to destroy him.

Interestingly, Kelleigh, who devoted 14 years of her life to researching and writing ‘Swan Song’, told us that she likes Truman more, not less, after finishing her novel. She understands, she says, Truman’s shock at his banishment: for 20 years, he had been the star turn at the Swans’ parties, endlessly witty and entertaining, enjoying long, gossip-fuelled lunches with them and enhancing their lives in every way. As far as Truman was concerned, he had kept up his end of the bargain- now, it was time for them to fulfil theirs.

Hmm. That’s what you might call a charitable interpretation of Truman’s behaviour. Shouldn’t friendships have some boundaries, one being trust?

Whichever side of the debate you fall down on (and I’d love to hear your thoughts), ‘Swan Song’, which has already received praise from the likes of William Boyd and Rose Tremain, looks certain to be a compelling read. Expect a review to follow in due course!

Swan Song


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