Truman Capote's Cabal: Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott Introduces the Swans of Swan Song
The inspiration for Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott's latest novel, the women around Truman Capote were unique, wealthy and powerful. At first the object of Capote's fascination and friendship, as Greenberg-Jephcott's novel reveals they were also the victims of his greatest betrayal. Here she invites you to meet the 'swans' of Swan Song.
In the mid 1950s, Capote befriended six of the most powerful socialites of the age, with the intention of using them as subjects for his savage roman à clef Answered Prayers, intended as his Proustian opus.
He always had an obsession with the American rich, inherited from his mother. From a backwater in Alabama, Lillie Mae Nina Capote longed to be a part of high society. After her suicide, Truman, while fascinated by the upper class, would blame them for the loss of his mother.
What the author admired most were women who - like himself - were bold acts of self-creation.
He saw each ‘Swan’ (as he would christen them) as the heroine of her own novel.
By 1975, he had reached the pinnacle of success. In Cold Blood had achieved wild acclaim.
He had hosted his infamous Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel. Yet celebrity had started to erode his work. Eight years delinquent delivering his manuscript, and under increasing pressure, Capote published ‘La Cote Basque’, an excerpt from his long-awaited novel in Esquire. In doing so, he betrayed his inner circle, the women he had come to adore.
‘Mrs. Paley had one flaw— she was perfect. Other than that, she was perfect.’ - Truman Capote
Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley was a study in perfection. The youngest in a trio of stunning siblings known as the Fabulous Cushing Sisters, Babe was the daughter of a world-renowned brain surgeon and a socially ambitious mother who raised her girls to please - to marry up, into social royalty. After a failed starter marriage, Babe worked as a fashion editor at Vogue and served as frequent muse to the designers of the age. She married CBS network tycoon Bill Paley, and set out to curate the perfect world for Bill and their guests, and was known as a hostess nonpareil. Yet beneath the flawless surface, heartbreak simmered. The Paley marriage hid secrets, which Babe confided to Truman alone - secrets he would reveal to the world in print, in a misguided attempt to defend her honour, humiliating the husband who failed to appreciate her. He thought that she’d understand. He could not have been more mistaken...
‘She was indeed a lady— “Lady Ina Coolbirth”, an American married to a British chemicals tycoon and a lot of woman in every way.’ - Truman Capote
Perhaps the Swan most betrayed by the Esquire bombshell was Lady Slim Keith - formerly Mrs. Leland Hayward (as in the Broadway impresario), formerly Mrs. Howard Hawks (as in the film director) - when Truman put his libelous gossip into the mouth of her fictional doppelgänger in Answered Prayers, ‘Lady Ina Coolbirth’. Both Californian broads, thrice divorced. Both breezy, golden. Both of whom could spin a helluva yarn, once the booze started flowing. (Slim’s best friend and protégé Lauren Bacall would channel her onscreen - as Hemingway’s ideal woman, one who could shoot, drink and banter with the boys.) Slim too used Truman as her confidante, especially when her second marriage was under siege. He knew Slim would be angry for his feat of ventriloquism in his ‘La Côte Basque piece’, but thought she loved him too much to be mad for long. In this he grossly miscalculated...
‘If Marella and Babe were in the window at Tiffany’s, Babe may be more elegant, but Marella would be more expensive.’ - Truman Capote
Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto Agnelli, Truman’s ‘European Swan Numero Uno’, was an Italian princess, daughter of an Neopolitan nobleman and American heiress. After a stint in Manhattan - working first as a model, then as an assistant to surrealist photographer Irwin Blumenthal - Marella returned to Italy and wed her schoolgirl crush, Fiat scion Gianni Agnelli (a Don Giovanni on the scale of Mozart’s rake.) The Agnellis became synonymous with Jet Set mobility, flying between international homes, sailing the Mediterranean on their prized yacht, on whose polished decks Truman spent many a summer lounging. Marella had read Truman’s work before becoming his friend and revered his prose. Given an early copy of ‘La Côte Basque’, however, she was horrified to recognize the ‘fictional’ subjects as their mutual friends. On his last yachting venture, Truman said something to Marella that was so egregious, she cut him from her life out of fear. ‘I saw a killer in those eyes,’ she’d later report. ‘That like his “amigo” Perry Smith (In Cold Blood), he could slit any of our throats and not lose a minute’s sleep.’
‘Gloria was the most beautiful woman of the twentieth century, with the single exception of Babe, who was neck-and-neck with her.’ - Truman Capote
Like Truman, Gloria was a hustler. As wife to brewery descendant, Loel Guinness, Gloria was a force in society. She contributed regular columns for Harpers Bazaar for almost a decade, and claimed that running six homes was easier than running one.
However, her beginnings were far from glamorous. While vague about the details of her past, it is known that she was born in Mexico - though when and where remain open to question. The rumours were rampant - that she began life as a Taxi dancer in Veracruz; that she married a German sugar plant manager, before moving to Paris and landing a Von Furstenburg count; that she was a spy for the Nazis during the war. It was rumoured at the time of the Guinness marriage that Loel had to purchase both the passport she lacked and her dubious war dossier.
Devoted to Truman, with whom she shared a bawdy sense of humour, Gloria was spared reference in the Esquire extracts. Her reaction to her omission was perhaps the most surprising response of all...
‘Her hair was but a shade darker than the dress she was wearing, a Mainbocher column of white... No jewelry, not much makeup; just blanc de blanc perfection.’ - Truman CapoteTruman was introduced to C.Z. Guest by Cecil Beaton during the interval of the premiere of My Fair Lady. He referred to her as ‘The Cool Vanilla Lady’, a tribute to her reserved, Hitchcock-blonde persona. In fact, C.Z. was as down to earth as they came. She was born Lucy Cochrane into a Boston brahmin family, but the young “C.Z.” wanted to be anything but a debutante. To shock the prim Mayflower matrons, she staged a racy cabaret on the roof of the Boston Ritz, which lead to an offer from the Ziegfeld Follies. With no goal other than to get herself thrown out of the Social Register, C.Z. moved to Manhattan, cast in the Follies as ‘third blonde from the left.’ Studio chief Daryl Zanuck moved her to Hollywood, convinced she had star potential.
She found acting tedious and fled to Mexico City, where she posed nude for Diego Rivera. She settled down after meeting her match in Winston Churchill Guest, champion polo player, (cousin of Winston). Both took sport seriously, riding and breeding horses. An avid horticulturist, C.Z. became an entrepreneur, branding a line of gardening products. She was the one Swan who stood by Truman after the fallout, flying him to rehab, desperate that he turn his life around...
‘(Lee & Jackie) are like a pair of Western geishas; they know how to keep a man’s secrets and make him feel important.’ - Truman Capote
Truman knew Jackie first. Jackie, in whose shadow Lee had lived since childhood, as the younger of the two Bouvier sisters. Lee temporarily trumped her sister when she married a publishing heir to gain her independence. But then Jackie married Jack Kennedy and became First Lady. Lee wed Polish Prince ‘Stas' Radziwiłł, rendering her royalty. Affairs ensued, with Aristotle Onassis in particular, which Jack and Bobby Kennedy insisted Lee end (years later, Jackie, when widowed, would go on to marry Ari.) The tension beneath the surface of this public sisterhood was a burden to bear. When dropped by Jackie, Truman befriended Lee, convinced she was the superior Bouvier. Assuming the role of star-maker, he had her cast in a revival of The Philadelphia Story. When Lee ‘laid a golden egg’, he determined that film was her medium, adapting a television version of ‘Laura’ for her to star in. Another flop. He encouraged her writing and design careers. Took her on tour with the Rolling Stones.
When Lee refused to come to his defense in a defamation suit with Gore Vidal, Truman was devastated. What he saw as Lee’s betrayal was the final straw, transforming him from aggressor to victim...