“La Côte Basque”
from Answered Prayers
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.
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