The inside story of how Truman Capote betrayed his high-society friends

Capote and his ‘swans’ (from left) – Babe Paley, Slim Keith, CZ Guest, Lee Radziwill
Capote and his ‘swans’ (from left) – Babe Paley, Slim Keith, CZ Guest, Lee Radziwill

Truman Capote met the American socialite Lee Radziwill over an intimate lunch at a New York restaurant in 1962. Her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy, was the First Lady of the United States at the time, and Radziwill was married to a Polish count – she had a grand home in London, a splendid Manhattan apartment and two children. On the surface at least, it appeared as though she had everything. That day, however, Capote learnt otherwise as Radziwill admitted she was so consumed by jealousy over her sister’s place in the White House that it had become a disease.

The discussion was supposed to be secret – as were her other numerous tirades against her sister – but to Capote, the celebrated American author, a secret was little more than wrapping paper.

After the lunch, he wrote to his friend, the photographer Cecil Beaton: ‘Had lunch one day with a new friend Princess Lee (My God, how jealous she is of Jackie: I never knew); understand her marriage is all but finito.’

Capote soon learnt it wasn’t enough to listen; he must promote Radziwill over Jackie. He gave a gushing tribute that opened a cover story on her in People magazine. ‘She’s a remarkable girl,’ he said. ‘She’s all the things people give Jackie credit for. All the looks, style, taste – Jackie never had them all, and yet it was Lee who lived in the shadow of this super-something person.’

It was not enough to praise Radziwill; her sister must be denigrated, and Capote was there to do the job. Soon he became one of her closest friends.

Capote with Radziwill in Manhattan, 1969
Capote with Radziwill in Manhattan, 1969 - Getty

Radziwill was one of a group of elegant women friends he carefully chose to surround himself with. He called them his ‘swans’. To Capote, a swan was the personification of upscale glamour in a postwar world. She was lovely, yes, but it was not just her beauty that created the attention – she was clever too, cunning, even, and her wit intrigued even such a merciless critic as Capote.

There were probably no more than a dozen women who he deemed true swans – among them Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, the wife of CBS tycoon William S Paley, Lucy Douglas ‘CZ’ Guest, a cover girl, and Nancy ‘Slim’ Keith, an American socialite and fashion star. The swans were all on the international best-dressed lists, they were each celebrated in the fashion press and beyond, and they all knew one another.

Capote’s swans changed husbands as regularly as changing lightbulbs – occasionally taking each other’s. Pamela Churchill, ex-wife of Randolph Churchill (son of Winston), seduced Slim Keith’s husband Lelan Hayward while Keith was in Russia with Capote. Only Capote could make friends  of both Keith and Churchill. And nothing enlivened his days better than a delicious scandal.

Often the scandals were about the swans – their lives, affairs, secrets – but eventually Capote himself became the scandal after he betrayed his swans in one fell swoop, sharing their darkest secrets in the most public fashion.

It is a scandal I wrote about in my book Capote’s Women (published in the UK on 13 July). Last autumn, TV producer Ryan Murphy started filming an eight-part series, Feud, based on my bestselling book. It follows on from an earlier series of the same name, which aired on BBC Two in 2017 and chronicled the tortured relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange.

Once the project was announced it started a media frenzy about who had been cast as Capote and his swans. Matthew Snyder, a senior agent at talent agency CAA, says that in his career, he has never seen any project receive so much publicity so early.

Demi Moore, Chloë Sevigny, Diane Lane, Calista Flockhart and Naomi Watts are among the chosen ones. But of all the roles, Tom Hollander playing Capote will receive the most scrutiny. As author of the classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote was not only one of the most famous American authors of the 20th century, but a wildly celebrated character, as much a denizen of TV talk shows as literary salons.

With his waspish ways, it would be easy to turn him into a caricature, but by the evidence of my day on the set, Hollander’s performance is far from it.

I visited the set as they were shooting scenes for the Black and White Ball, the so-called ‘party of the century’ celebrating the triumphant success of Capote’s 1966 non-fiction masterpiece, In Cold Blood. The event took place in the ballroom of New York’s Plaza Hotel, a setting replicated at the historic Polish Consulate in Manhattan. During filming there was a sense of restrained excitement, as if everyone was in the midst of something special, even among the extras, decked out in the finery of the day.

At the Black and White Ball in 1966
At the Black and White Ball in 1966 - Magnum Photos

Capote was born on 30 September 1924, in New Orleans. He thought his mother, Lillie Mae Persons, was one of the most beautiful women in the South. It is from Lillie Mae that he developed his obsession with beautiful women, finding their loveliness a transcendent blessing. His father, Arch Persons, was often off somewhere, and when he was, Lillie Mae picked up men and brought them back to her room.

She eventually left Persons, dumped her son with relatives in Alabama, and headed north to New York. There she met an ambitious office manager, Joseph Capote, and married him. Lillie Mae eventually had her son join them in Manhattan, when she was appalled to discover that her diminutive son was gay.

Capote hardly managed to graduate from high school but nevertheless set out to become a writer. He had one thing going for him: massive talent. When the 23-year-old published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in 1948 with fully realised gay characters, he established himself within the literary hierarchy.

At a time when homosexual acts were illegal, Capote was unapologetically flamboyant, a walking billboard for his queerness. It was a daring thing for him to do in the early postwar years, but nothing deterred him. He had ingratiating social skills and, unlike many of his fellow authors, was able to hobnob with the upper reaches of American society; ‘witty little Truman’ with his gossipy tales, a delightful addition to a dinner party. He paid for his meals with his brisk repartee. If he ever grew quiet or dull, he knew that he would probably not be invited back.

Of all the dinner parties, those thrown by Babe and her husband were among the most illustrious. As the head of CBS, William Paley was one of the most powerful men in America, and Babe, his second wife, was often referred to as the most beautiful woman in America. But when the parties were over, Babe, though usually secretive, would confess to Capote the reality of her troubled marriage.

She was one of the best-dressed women of the age, endlessly admired for her style, beauty, and taste; only Capote knew how unhappy she was behind closed doors, and how the irascible, womanising Paley thought of her like a fine painting, to be purchased, displayed, admired, and ignored.

One day she invited Capote to an out-of-the-way New York restaurant to meet the man she loved, an American ambassador. He was charming and devoted but soon afterward she ended the affair, telling Capote ‘she was afraid Bill would find out’. It was better to be alone. Capote was one of few who knew the truth; as with Radziwill, he was one of her confidantes. They trusted him implicitly.

The same was true of Guest, a striking statuesque blonde from an old New England family, whom he had met at the opening of My Fair Lady in 1956. She was standing at the bar surrounded by admirers when they struck up a conversation.

After affairs with stars Victor Mature and Errol Flynn, Guest had married the Anglo-American champion polo-playing Winston Guest and became a queen of New York society. That she was also a snob of merciless proportions, Capote found endearing. He enjoyed nothing better than sitting next to her at the Guests’ dinner parties where she excoriated those beyond her purview.

Capote appropriated her snobbish demeanour as his own. ‘You must be either very rich or very poor,’ he said. ‘There’s absolutely no taste in between.’

It was rare that Capote gave any glimpse into his impressions of himself during these exchanges, but one evening while in Copenhagen with Slim Keith, he was in an unusually revealing mood and offered her a rare insight. ‘No one loves me,’ he said. ‘I’m a freak. You think I don’t know that?

‘I know how difficult it is for people to adjust to what I look like and how I sound when they first see me. It’s one of the reasons I’m so outrageous. I’m an object. I’m a centrepiece, not a figure of love, and I miss that. There’s not an awful lot to love.’

Several of the swans shared a manicurist who disliked Capote. He would be there, telling savage tales about the other swans while she worked on one swan. Another day the manicurist would be with another swan. Capote would be there, sprawled out telling the same ugly tales only this time the other swan was in the mix.

Marella Agnelli, who dropped Capote after he read her some of Answered Prayers
Marella Agnelli, who dropped Capote after he read her some of his novel Answered Prayers - Magnum Photos

At some point after Capote entered this haute social world – with an acceptance and intimacy unlike many authors – he realised these lives had the makings of a great novel. His masterwork, he decided, would sit on the same shelf as Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, as an enduring chronicle of an age and a class. He would call it Answered Prayers after the saying attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila: ‘There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.’

So, when he was listening to Lee Radziwill raging against her sister or CZ Guest dismissing her lessers, he was making mental notes; after all, he had a nearly photographic memory. Chronicling Pamela Churchill’s many affairs alone would have filled the pages of a book. ‘We spent a lot of time on yachts together,’ he said. ‘Anybody becomes a confidante on a yacht cruise, and I think I’ve lived through every screw she ever had in her life. Believe me, that’s an Arabian Nights tale of a thousand and twelve!’ Her notoriety only made her even more intriguing.

A child brought up in near poverty, he had entered this rarefied world in part to observe and write about these lives in a way nobody had done before.

And so, to Capote, his writing about them was not betrayal. It was his art. He had seen that his swans were unable to fly away into happiness. They were weighed down, each one with her own personal drama.

One of the first of Capote’s friends to see his writing about his friends was Marella Agnelli, an Italian noblewoman and wife of the Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli. Theirs was not so much romantic love as a dynastic marriage, whose parameters both understood perfectly well. Despite her husband’s other relationships, Marella performed her wifely duties perfectly, overseeing the furnishing of splendid homes and serving as an impeccable hostess.

With Gloria Guinness and Babe Paley, 1957
With Gloria Guinness and Babe Paley, 1957 - Ullstein Bild

Capote was taken by this literate, artistic woman and her exalted European lifestyle. He visited the Agnellis often in their Italian and Swiss homes and on their yachts. On one of her cruises, Capote read a portion of Answered Prayers to Marella. She was honoured to have this great writer confide in her, but as he read she became disturbed. This was just plain nasty; savage thrusts at people, some of whom she knew. ‘Oh, Truman, this is a gossip column,’ she said. ‘What are you getting yourself into?’

On Capote’s next visit, he spent time attacking one of Marella’s friends in vicious feints. This was the kind of thing Capote did so often, but Marella had had enough. She vowed to end her friendship with the author but Capote had become so self-absorbed that it took him a number of months to realise Marella had dumped him.

By now he had ample material for an epic novel that would expose the underbelly of wealth and privilege. But gossip was circulating that Capote had writer’s block. For years he had been talking about Answered Prayers. Though Capote spun a great tale, he never showed any significant pages to his publisher.

By 1975, a decade after the masterful In Cold Blood and a full 17 years after Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his detractors whispered there was nothing but unanswered prayers out there and no masterful work.

Capote appeared to have enjoyed socialising with his wealthy friends better than sitting by himself, laboriously writing a novel. But there were some pages in existence and he felt he had no choice but to still his enemies by publishing a segment about a lunch at the celebrated restaurant La Côte Basque. When he showed the chapter to Gerald Clarke, his authorised biographer, Clarke recognised clear and savage portraits of a number of the swans, and he warned the author that his friends would not be happy if he published it.

‘Naaaah, they’re too dumb,’ Capote said. ‘They won’t know who they are.’

Hollander with Diane Lane as Slim Keith
Hollander with Diane Lane as Slim Keith - GC Images

When Capote published ‘La Côte Basque, 1965’ in the November 1975 issue of Esquire, it was received not as the early pages of a masterpiece but as a string of gossipy vignettes in the author’s inimitable style. The game among the knowledgeable was to pick out who was who. For a few weeks, it was the talk of dinner parties from Manhattan to LA as everyone played the guessing game.

Capote’s swans saw many of their most intimate secrets exposed before the world, embarrassing them beyond measure. One character – a thinly veiled William Paley – is so outraged at being denied entry to certain clubs and venues because of his Jewish birth that he gets revenge by sleeping with New York Governor Averell Harriman’s wife, Marie. A sordid tale on several levels, made worse by the fact that Babe Paley was, by then, dying of cancer, while suffering this public humiliation.

She never talked to Capote again. In the last months of her life, she laid out her funeral in elaborate detail: he was not on the invitation list.

When Slim Keith read the Esquire piece, she immediately recognised herself as the narrator, Lady Ina Coolbirth, whose husband leaves her for another woman. That this was true was hardly a condolence. It was a merciless portrait and a betrayal of the first order. From then on, she savaged Capote at every venture and venue imaginable.

Capote did not trash all of the swans, nor were they all anonymous. He wrote about Radziwill using her real name; in the story she is sitting in La Côte Basque with her sister Jackie, whom he describes as ‘unrefined, exaggerated’ looking, ‘an artful female impersonator impersonating Mrs Kennedy’. As for Radziwill, she was ‘marvelously made, like a Tanagra figurine; she’s feminine without being effeminate’.

And yet Capote’s gravest mistake of all was not realising how important his women friends were to him; they were at the centre of his emotional wellbeing. Without them, he was bereft. How could he apologise if they would not take his phone calls? And how could he live without the spectacular social life they provided him?

Radziwill remained close – until she turned on him in her own merciless betrayal. Capote’s nasty tongue had gotten him into a libel suit with fellow author Gore Vidal. Capote expected Lee to be his most important defence witness, but – unwilling to be sucked into an expensive legal mess – she let him down.

For her part, CZ kept the faith and the friendship, accompanying Capote to rehab for the alcohol and drug addictions that he developed over his last decade.

Naomi Watts playing Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, with Tom Hollander as Capote, in Feud
Naomi Watts playing Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, with Tom Hollander as Capote, in Feud - GC Images

However, he couldn’t shake the drink or the pills; whenever it got too bad, he flew to Los Angeles to stay with Joanne Carson, the ex-wife of talk show host Johnny Carson. It was there, on 25 August 1984, that Capote died in Joanne’s arms. He was cremated at Grand View Memorial Park, and she had his ashes divided in two, half to be shipped to Capote’s longtime lover Jack Dunphy in New York, the other half for her to keep. When Dunphy learned that Joanne had taken half the remains, he never talked to her again.

I got to know Joanne a few years later. One day she called to tell me that shortly before Capote died, he had recorded a tape telling her how to give a 1980s Los Angeles counterpart to the famous Black and White Ball he had thrown in 1966 in New York. She would throw it on Halloween 1988.

I was there that evening, costumed as the executioner, an effective disguise. Joanne had invited a roll call of Hollywood stars and asked the gossip weekly People magazine to come along, hoping to immortalise her triumphant event. But not a single important star turned up. Presumably they dared not risk attending a party given by the ex-wife of Johnny Carson, in case he banned them from The Tonight Show. The event was a disaster. The tables around the swimming pool were empty.

People had nothing to write about until Joanne dramatically came out of the kitchen and said someone had stolen Capote’s ashes. As a result she got her story in the magazine, but it was hard to back down from her lie. She did so by saying the thief subsequently returned the ashes, leaving them by a gate.

After Joanne’s death in 2015, Capote’s ashes were auctioned off. There was some debate about whether this was unseemly, but observers pointed out that in 1977 Napoleon’s penis was auctioned in Paris for $3,000. Capote’s ashes eventually sold for $45,000.

Capote would have been amused. People bid for his presence in death just as they had in life. As long as people read his books, talk about him, make movies about him and fight over some measure of his presence, he is still with us. And with Tom Hollander set to bring him back to life on the small screen, he lives on.


Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Ambition and Betrayal, by Laurence Leamer, is out in the UK on 13 July (Hodder & Stoughton, £25); to order from Telegraph Books, call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk