Brought up in near poverty in a small backward town in the deep South, with odd looks, a high-pitched voice and awkward mannerisms, Capote didn’t really belong among the elite in New York. However, his ability to pen spectacular prose in classics such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood made him the toast of Manhattan.
“I was enchanted by him,” Keith wrote in her memoir. “He wasn’t just bright, he was riveting.”
Capote’s favourite swan was Paley, who, in between confiding about her husband’s numerous infidelities, took the young writer under her wing and taught him all the rules that he needed to survive in their world.
With Paley’s expert tutelage and his witty conversational skills, Capote became indispensable to the swans, flattering them and giving them the one thing their high-powered husbands couldn’t – attention.
Radziwill, who’d tried to one-up Jackie Kennedy, by bagging a billionaire over her US president, was left disappointed when Aristotle Onassis then left her for her big sister. She confessed to Capote every dark and dirty family secret about their fraught relationship after it led to her entering into an unsatisfying marriage to a Polish-Lithuanian aristocrat.
“My God: how jealous she is of Jackie!” Capote revealed in a letter written in 1962. “I never knew.”
It wasn’t long before Capote traded in his typewriter for jetting around the globe, long lunches and parties. But his immense talent soon became a gilded cage, his ticket into this world was only guaranteed by his next big hit.
Just like Holly Golightly, Capote could not escape from the emotional state of the “mean reds”, eventually turning to drugs and alcohol. So suddenly when writer’s block struck, his best friends became his muses. Answered Prayers would become “the greatest novel ever written”, he boasted. In reality, it aired all the swans’ dirty laundry through veiled caricatures.
In 1975, he went against his editor’s advice and gave a chapter, entitled La Côte Basque, 1965, to Esquire magazine. The story opens with P.B. Jones, a stand-in for Capote, meeting Lady Ina Coolbirth, who he portrays as a drunk and a zealous gossip as she tears apart her friends while they chat in a bar.
“He couldn’t have been describing anyone else,” Keith fumed in her memoir. “Not only had he used my persona, he made me narrator of the whole damn thing.”
Even his beloved Paley, who was by now riddled with lung cancer, didn’t manage to escape his pen. Her husband’s infidelity with politician’s wife Mary Rockefeller was all there in black and white, told through the character of Cleo. Capote didn’t even bother to change the names of Radziwell and Kennedy, both of whom were written as modern-day Western geishas.
But the worst portrayal of all was saved for Woodward, who inspired Ann Hopkins. The socialite had shot her husband William twice, killing him in 1955. Woodward had always claimed that she’d mistaken him for a burglar and had never been charged. Answered Prayers told a different story.
“She’s a murderess,” Coolbirth said. “The police know that.”
Having been warned about the contents of Capote’s book before it was released and fearing that she could not survive another scandal, Woodward took a cyanide pill, ending her life.
The swans quickly closed rank and thrust Capote out of their world. At first, he didn’t seem to grasp the consequences, calling Bill Paley to ask him what he thought. He even offered to send him a copy of the magazine, which the businessman declined.
“I’m preoccupied right now,” Bill later told Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke. “My wife is very ill.”
Paley died in July 1978, having never spoken to her old friend again. “She was the only person in my whole life that I liked everything about,” Capote told Clarke.
With Capote’s friendships, his reputation and his social standing now in tatters, he slid further into depression as he became more reliant on drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. He partied with Andy Warhol at Studio 54, loudly declaring his innocence to anyone who still bothered to listen. “What did they expect?” he would say.
“I’m a writer.”
He was never able to finish the book. Capote died alone of apparent drug intoxication while battling liver disease in 1984.
“When Truman Capote died … I felt nothing,” Keith said. “For me he had died nine years earlier.”