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!
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