“La Côte Basque” by Truman Capote

“La Côte Basque”
from Answered Prayers
by
Truman Capote

Is it enough to change the names of your characters when you write a story based on real people? I suppose it doesn’t matter much if your characters are cast in a good light. But what if the story is full of scandals very close to the truth? I guess writers must pay the price. And that’s what happened in 1975 when “La Côte Basque” was published in Esquire.

Capote had been a favorite among the upper class society ladies until this point, but they immediately dropped him when they read about themselves in his story. Capote had been their confidante for years and had gathered plenty of material. One of the women reportedly received an early copy and, when she read what he said about her, ended her life with a cyanide pill.

The story is about a gossipy conversation between the fictional Lady Ina Coolbirth (Slim Keith) and her lunch companion, Jonesy. They are seated to be seen at La Côte Basque, a restaurant on East 55th Street in New York. As various social legends arrive, Lady Ina makes catty remarks and shares sordid details about the people who move in her circles. One of the stories closely resembles the facts and the cover-up of the William Woodward murder case in which Ann Woodward shot her husband. Capote’s story culminates when Lady Ina tells Jonesy about the night Sidney Dillon (really CBS founder Bill Paley), a notorious womanizer, slept with the governor’s wife. Paley’s wife, Babe, was dying of cancer when the story was published. Horrified to read the details in print, she never spoke to Capote again.

I had not heard of this short story, which is part of Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, until I read The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. Now that I know the back story, I have to agree, it’s pretty harsh. Capote is a talented writer and an interesting figure, but “La Côte Basque” seems like malicious payback for not being one of upper class.

For more about Capote and “La Côte Basque,” check out this November 2012 article in Vanity Fair and click here for a mini biography of Capote.

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The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

The Swans of Fifth Avenue
by
Melanie Benjamin

Rating:

Someone should have warned the elegant and famously wealthy socialites of New York not to reveal their deepest secrets to the famous author and scandal-loving gossiper, Truman Capote! Years earlier, Capote had been welcomed into their fold and became their treasured confidante. The result was a story that shook high society and ended close friendships. “La Côte Basque 1965” was published in 1975 by Esquire magazine as a preview chapter of Answered Prayers, Capote’s last and unfinished novel. Capote had been gathering material for years about this social set and in it, he held nothing back.

Truman Capote/Image: Wikipedia

The Swans of Fifth Avenue is the fictionalized account of Capote’s friendship with six women, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Pamela Harriman, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness and CZ Guest. Capote arrived on the New York social scene in the fifties and became fast friends with these ladies, especially Babe Paley, who was married to CBS founder, Bill Paley. High society did not know what to think of Capote’s unusual and flamboyant style, but they took to him because he was so much fun. And the husbands didn’t mind because his homosexuality made him a safe companion. But, although Capote was often the life of the party, he was also a well-respected author of short fiction and several novels, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s. His masterpiece, In Cold Blood, was still to come.

The women were known as Capote’s swans, and spent their days shopping, having luncheons, attending galas and retreating to vacation homes. Wherever they went, they were impeccably dressed and ready to be photographed at any angle. Many of the swans, especially Babe, considered it their jobs to look perfect. It was serious business being a trophy wife: the women had no earning power other than being bred to marry a rich husband.

Babe Paley/Image: Wikipedia

In particular, Benjamin portrays Babe as a lonely and insecure woman, whose husband, a notorious womanizer, valued her beauty, but only as a means to elevate his status. Separate bedrooms underscored their lack of intimacy and, desperate for his affection, Babe was intent on being perfect and creating the perfect home. She left no detail to chance, anticipating her husband’s every need, even when he hardly noticed. For Babe, Truman came at the right time, filling a painful void.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a highly entertaining account of a period of time in New York that hit its peak just as Capote did. And as Capote began his slide into alcohol and drug abuse, the swans became matrons and had to move aside for a new generation. Benjamin feeds the reader’s need to admire the fashion and lifestyles of the super wealthy, while also showing its emptiness and sadness. Marriage is never till death do us part, and while Babe stays married to Bill, the other swans have affairs, marry, and divorce several times over.

Of course, the swans spent money like no one else and so the question is: how much can the average reader feel sorry for them? They certainly enjoyed the power and attention that their status gave them and the many pictures from the society pages suggest they knew exactly what they were doing, even Babe.

In addition, Benjamin presents a fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante as well as a serious writer. I highly recommend The Swans of Fifth Avenue to readers who enjoy character studies and stories about the New York upper class.

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