‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’ Looks Back at a Notorious Social Exile

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In 1979, five years before he died and four years after his exile from the Upper East Side’s social cockpit, Truman Capote appeared on a talk show as a friend of the common man. The host, David Susskind, remained unpersuaded. “You are always on people’s yachts” and in “great mansions on Long Island,” he pointed out. “The thing in Spain with the Pamplona bull runs.” Come on.

Capote gave up, reverting to a defense of his affection for the moneyed class. It had come to define him as much as his written work, the output of which had notoriously stalled after the publication of “In Cold Blood” in 1966. “I like rich people,” Capote said, “because they aren’t always trying to borrow something from me.”

The joke sprang from the underbrush, inadvertently poignant. If Capote was not on loan, he was there — at the most rarefied parties and dining halls, as the favored guest at Cap Ferrat — to be bartered. The terms of the exchange were relatively simple: his wit and company, his brocaded stories and dazzlingly foul mouth, traded for the devotion of the thin, beautiful, unhappily married women, up and down Fifth Avenue, who were still wearing white gloves past Stonewall and Woodstock, past Watergate and the fall of Saigon.

This world and the writer’s place in it has come up for re-evaluation with the arrival of “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” an eight-part television series on FX. The impressive cast includes Naomi Watts, Demi Moore and Diane Lane as women who contained their subversions to bed, sleeping with men who were not their husbands, and to lunch with Truman — “Tru” — Manhattan’s most celebrated gay confidant.

Whatever implicit contract existed among them was violated to very unhappy consequence in 1975, with the publication of Capote’s “La Côte Basque, 1965” in Esquire magazine. A short story that bears almost no adherence to the form, it was meant to exist as a chapter of “Answered Prayers,” the novel that famously went unfinished.

At just under 12,000 words, the story is all chatter, plotless and full of vulgar cruelties. Capote had betrayed his friends who, perhaps naïvely, did not think of themselves as material. And he had done it in service of a piece of literature that in language and sentiment reads like a set of story-meeting notes for an episode of “As the World Turns.”

Those closest to him were the angriest — Babe Paley, the wife of the CBS chairman William Paley, and the former model Slim Keith, whose identities were barely concealed. Some women, like Gloria Vanderbilt, were named outright. Esquire paid Capote $25,000 for the story, but the cost to him was incalculable, beginning with his expulsion from a world he seemed to value above all others and ending with a descent into the drug and alcohol addiction that took his life at the age of 59.

“His talent was his friend,” as Norman Mailer put at the time. “His achievement was his social life.”

There is a challenge to watching “Feud” from the vantage of a culture in which exposure is in such blood-sport demand, in which billionaires come at you on social media with book-length accounts of their narcissistic wounds. It is the work of understanding how valuable discretion remained to a certain group of people in New York in the middle of the 1970s, as the city and country were unraveling. What might seem like virtue can also read as oblivious self-regard.

It was actually the women who stood outside Capote’s immediate circle who were held up for the most damning and misogynistic appraisal in the Esquire story — for example, the character known as “the former governor’s wife,” someone who had had an affair with William Paley. Capote calls her “somewhat porcine,” then “a homely beast” and then “a cretinous Protestant size 40.” While Mrs. Paley might have conceivably leaned into the schadenfreude that would come from such a description of her husband’s mistress, she was instead activated by the humiliation. She died of lung cancer in 1978 never having spoken to Capote again.

The greatest emotional damage seemed to accrue to Ann Woodward, a showgirl of the World War II era who had married into a prominent New York banking family. She was only an acquaintance of Capote’s and one he did not especially like. In the fall of 1955, Mrs. Woodward shot and killed her husband at their estate in Oyster Bay, in the middle of the night, believing that he was a burglar.

A Nassau County grand jury determined that it was an accident. Capote decided it was not, even though someone eventually pleaded guilty to trying to rob the Woodward house on the night of the shooting. The tragedy had receded, but “La Côte Basque” sent it right back into circulation 20 years later, with an account of a woman, “Ann Hopkins,” whom Capote characterizes as “brought up in some country-slum way,” an ex-call girl and bigamist who murders her husband after he discovers that they were never technically married and she realizes she would end up with more money as a widow than as a divorcée.

In mid-October, just as Capote’s story was set to drop, Mrs. Woodward killed herself in her uptown apartment. While she had had a difficult life and there was no way to know why she did it, many speculated about the correlation.

Esquire editors had no sense of the impact “La Côte Basque” would deliver. “They just didn’t know what they had,” Alex Belth, who curates the magazine’s archive, told me recently. This was clear in the choice of cover for that issue, which featured the comedian Rich Little.

When Esquire bought the story in the summer of 1975, it was reasonable to assume that it would not resonate. There was a lot going on. In June, police officers started showing up at New York airports to hand out “Welcome to Fear City” pamphlets, which warned the newly landed not to take public transportation or walk around after 6 in the evening. On Oct. 17 came the morning news that the city would face bankruptcy in a matter of hours if it could not come up with the $453 million it owed creditors. The national unemployment rate was around 9 percent.

It would have been easy to forget, two years after the birth of People magazine — at a time well into the sexual revolution when formality had been widely decommissioned, when union leaders were celebrated, when the once-dominant social hierarchies were being democratized, when Elaine’s supplanted established French restaurants as the place to be seen — that “society,” in the most sclerotic sense, persisted no matter how irrelevant it seemed beyond a very narrow field.

“Feud,” written by the playwright Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Gus Van Sant, relies almost entirely on interior shots, presumably because the realities of the outside world would seem confoundingly intrusive, jeopardizing the possibility of sympathy for the grievances and obsessions of people who seemed to have so little engagement with it. Capote may have alienated his friends unintentionally, believing that they would find his account of their banter hilarious. Or that at least they would be game enough to forgive him if offended.

It was also possible that he wrote the story as an act of revenge. The portrayal of the women in such shallow terms conveyed the attraction-repulsion to big money that generations of literary figures have had. As much as Capote craved the attention of these women, he saw them ultimately as indifferent, terrible mothers.

Regardless of Capote’s motivation, the story around his painful banishment, already the subject of books, documentaries and a library of reported pieces, endures. At its heart it suggests the limits of a certain kind of inclusion. As a bounder, you might make it to the top, but really you’re always on probation. Capote used to pride himself on being able to see so many things at once, observing lives and worlds from every angle. When he missed, he couldn’t live with his error.

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