Book Review: Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer

Capote’s Women
Laurence Leamer

I’ve always enjoyed reading about how Truman Capote befriended New York’s high society women during the 1950s and 1960s, a group referred to as his swans because of their elegant style and beauty. Before I get into that and this book, here’s a brief back story about the American novelist, screenwriter and playwright. His most famous books are Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood and he died before he could finish what he referred to as his masterpiece, Answered Prayers. Its unfinished version was published posthumously in 1986.

Born in Louisiana, Truman’s parents divorced when he was a two and sent him to live extended periods in Monroeville, Alabama. That’s where he met Harper Lee and the two future writers became childhood friends. Truman’s mother remarried when he was eight and they moved to New York. Drawn to the lifestyles of the upper class, most of Capote’s friends were from wealthy, well-connected families and his fascination with high society continued throughout his life. But Capote betrayed his swans in “La Côte Basque,” a chapter from Answered Prayers, in which he revealed their darkest secrets.

Capote’s Women is a look at these seven swans, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, Pamela Harriman, C.Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli. In these brief biographies, Leamer focuses on their upbringings, multiple marriages, tremendous wealth and largely unhappy lives. Some were born into their wealth. Some had humble beginnings. But all were ambitious in their drives to marry rich. They married Hollywood producers, agents, directors, Broadway producers, business tycoons, princes and politicians. They weren’t always friends with each other, however, and especially disliked Pamela Harriman, whose notorious affairs with married men came a little too close to home. Pamela’s second husband, Leland Hayward, was Slim Hawks’ ex-husband and her affair with William Paley (Babe’s husband) is the subject of “La Côte Basque.”  Their connections are as complicated to read as they are to explain!

Truman Capote was also a complicated person, both a serious writer and notorious gossip. He hit a slump after In Cold Blood and spent most of his time schmoozing with his swans, and gathering material for Answered Prayers.

I thought this book was just okay. I’ve read a lot of other accounts of Truman Capote and his swans and much of this same information is available on Wikipedia. Leamer’s writing is loose with the facts, a little disjointed and the book reads like a 300-page People magazine. I much preferred Melanie Benjamin’s fictionalized account of Capote and his swans, The Swans of Fifth Avenue. I did enjoy thinking about the connections between these people, however, and imagining a period of time long gone.

Ultimately, I found it hard to feel sorry for any of the swans or of Truman Capote. I still think Capote’s writing is brilliant, however, and felt that Melanie Benjamin did a much better job portraying the swans as women caught in a time and mindset of perceived perfection.

If you want to go down the rabbit hole, you can read more about Truman Capote here!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

36 thoughts on “Book Review: Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer

  1. Thanks for your review, Barbara. Please, don’t temp me to venture into any rabbit holes! I read In Cold Blood over thirty-five years ago, it still gives me the chills to think about it.

  2. Enjoyed this post and when I read that part about a 300-page People magazine – well the sad part is that might be what some folks want these days – hmmm

    1. Yes, the author has written many biographies and readers like that style, I guess. Not really for me, but I was mildly interested and it made me think about how all those famous people were connected. Hemingway is mentioned a few times because one of the Swans, Slim, was friends with him. Thanks for the visit!

  3. Thanks for the review, Barbara. I don’t know much about Capote and he’s one of those “big” writers that I’ve missed somehow – I haven’t read anything of his. I didn’t know he was friends with Harper Lee. Sounds like his life was as dramatic as his writing. Cheers.

    1. Hi Lynette, I’m slightly obsessed with Capote. He was such a complex person. Very serious about writing, but also very social and he had trouble with alcohol and drugs. Once he hit a slump, he descended into that world. His interviews on talk shows show that – you can find them on YouTube. But I love his writing and hearing him talk about how he wrote. Thank you for reading and commenting!

    1. Hi Donna – yes, that was a disappointment. I loved the cover. Those women were very elegant. But you can find most of the same info online in different places. Thank you for the visit!

    1. Hi Robbie, thank you for stopping by. Yes, it’s a fascinating era. I mentioned in another comment that one of the swans, Slim, was friends with Ernest Hemingway and there was a flirtation between them. Having recently read Hemingway, it was interesting to think about that.

  4. I think Truman had widely mixed feelings about the swans. My favorite of his books is A Christmas Memory. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s a novella.

    1. Hi JT – we read it for my book club a long time ago. I need to re-read it though. Thank you for stopping by. And I agree with you that Capote’s relationship with the swans was definitely complex. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  5. Not heading down the rabbit hole, Barb. I feel pity for these women – all the wealth and adulation and their lives were disasters. Perhaps Capote shared some of their insecurities?

    1. Hi Noelle, no doubt. Despite all these women had, they placed too much value on appearances and money. It’s interesting that Pamela Harriman (none of the swans liked her) was the strongest and most self-confident. And she became a U.S. Ambassador to France! (you’ll have to go down that rabbit hole to see how, though!) Capote was a fascinating combination of drive and personality. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      1. I remember Pamela Harriman. Shirley Temple Black was ambassador to Czechoslovakia just before we lived there. I think women can make really good ambassadors!

      2. I’d forgotten that Shirley Temple Black had been an ambassador. Thanks for the visit, Noelle. It’s so warm up here today – is it warm where you are?

  6. I haven’t read this or any of the books about his swans. I have though, read about him a great deal online, just searching him. I do LOVE his A Christmas Memory and it sits with my Christmas books put out every Christmas season.

    1. Thank you, Chatter Master, for stopping by. I read A Christmas Memory a long time ago and don’t remember much about it. I’m going to read it again, I hope before Christmas!

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