The last of Truman Capote’s Swans have died. Last month Lee Radziwill passed away at the age of 85, followed a week later by Marella Agnelli, at 91. Their gilded lives — and the scandal that tore through their circle and decimated Capote — have been brilliantly revitalised in a debut novel by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. Swan Song (Hutchinson) had already picked up some prizes before publication, such as the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize at Cambridge, and now it has been longlisted for the UK Women’s Prize.
Truman Streckfus Persons Capote had stormed the American world of letters at a young age, spinning his unhappy Alabama upbringing into literary gold in books such as Other Voices, Other Rooms, and The Grass Harp. It was Breakfast at Tiffany’s that established him as a formidable writer, and he reached his apex with the genre-creating “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, published in 1966.
His prose bit and shimmered, cut and glowed; it was as lush as the Persian carpets he loved, but as hard as diamonds, too.
Small and baby-faced — a sprite or a goblin depending on how you viewed him — Capote rode on his literary success into the most rarefied social circles, adopted as an amusing pet by wealthy women and their husbands, too. He burnished the enormous success of In Cold Blood by throwing one of the most famous parties in history: his dazzling Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel. He dangled the invitations for months, constantly revising the guest list and gleefully calibrating the barometer of who was in and who was out.
Queening it on the night were the women he called his “Swans”: the Italian noblewoman Marella Agnelli; Princess Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jackie Kennedy; the exquisite socialite Babe Paley; the much-married Lady Slim Keith; fashion leader Gloria Guinness; and CZ Guest, fêted gardener and horsewoman. All beautiful, all wealthy, all defined by their powerful husbands.
They welcomed Capote into their homes and onto their planes and yachts. Jephcott conjures a ghostly chorus of their voices to narrate the story. “With our money and our manners, we picked up his tabs and lifted his stature. We festooned him with cachet.” They were, they said, the mothers he wished he’d had. “He seduced us all with words — and Truman knows full well the power of his words. They’re both armour and weapon, the one thing he’s sure of.”
It was precisely his words that would cause his downfall. Capote’s defenders maintain that it was the prolonged trauma of investigating the murders of In Cold Blood that took a toll on him; others say it was simply drink and debauchery.
Swan Song opens in 1974 with a bloated Capote marinating in vodka and bile, propped up in bed trying to write. He is trying to finish his latest book, Answered Prayers, but the words won’t come. All he has is a handful of chapters that he flogs to Esquire.
He had been boasting about the book for years around town: “It’s positively epic... Everyone I’ve ever met. Everything I’ve seen. I’m constructing this book like a gun. There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and finally, the bullet. And when it’s fired it’s gonna come out with a speed and power you’ve never seen — WHAM!!”
He wasn’t exaggerating. When the magazine published the first of the stories, titled La Côte Basque, in 1965, he detonated a missile. The story is set in the restaurant of that name, a favoured place for ladies lunching, and relates a Cristal-fuelled conversation between a Capote-like writer and a thinly disguised Slim Keith, who maliciously spills the gossip on their social acquaintances and others in the restaurant. (She calls Jackie and Lee “a pair of Western geisha girls”.) She tells one story of a tycoon bedding a woman who left a bloodstain “the size of Brazil” on the sheets, which he then had to scrub by hand before his wife came home in the morning. Everyone knew it was Babe Paley’s husband.
The response to the story was swift and deadly. For his treachery, Capote was summarily banished from the haute monde. He had betrayed those he loved most, and who had loved him most.
From there he slid into dissipation and loneliness, never completing the full novel, and died just before his 60th birthday in 1984.
He never did understand what he had done wrong.
“All literature is gossip,” he complained to Playboy magazine. “What in God’s green earth is Anna Karenina or War and Peace or Madame Bovary, if not gossip?”
• From the April edition of Wanted 2019.