‘Fight: Capote against the swans’ recalls a notorious social exile


In 1979, five years before he died and four years after his exile from the Upper East Side social cabin, Truman Capote appeared on a talk show as a friend of the common man. The presenter, David Susskind, was not convinced. “You’re always on people’s yachts” and “big mansions on Long Island,” he noted. “The thing about Spain with the Pamplona bulls.” Come on.

Capote surrendered and returned to defending his affection for the moneyed class. He had come to define it as much as his written work, whose production had noticeably stalled after the publication of “In Cold Blood” in 1966. “I like rich people,” Capote said, “because they don’t always try.” borrow something from me.”

The joke emerged from the undergrowth, inadvertently moving. If Capote wasn’t on loan, he was there (at the most exclusive parties and dining rooms, like the favorite guest at Cap Ferrat) to be exchanged. The terms of exchange were relatively simple: his wit and companionship, his brocaded stories and his dazzling bad mouth, were exchanged for the devotion of the thin, beautiful, unhappily married women along Fifth Avenue who still wore white gloves. passing Stonewall. and Woodstock, passing through Watergate and the fall of Saigon.

This world and the writer’s place in it have been reevaluated with the arrival of “Fight: Capote against the swans” an eight-part television series on FX. The impressive cast includes Naomi Watts, Demi Moore and Diane Lane as women who contained their subversions in bed, sleeping with men who were not their husbands and having lunch with Truman – “Tru” – Manhattan’s most famous gay confidant.

Any implicit contract that existed between them was violated with very regrettable consequences in 1975, with the publication of Capote’s “La Côte Basque, 1965” in Esquire magazine. A story that hardly adheres to form, it was destined to exist as a chapter of “Answered Prayers”, the novel that, as is known, was left unfinished.

At just under 12,000 words, the story is chatty, plotless, and full of vulgar cruelties. Capote had betrayed his friends who, perhaps naively, did not consider themselves material. And she had done so in the service of a piece of literature that in language and sentiment reads like a set of meeting notes for an episode of “As the World Turns.”

The people closest to him were the angriest: Babe Paley, the wife of CBS president William Paley, and the former model. keith thin, whose identities were barely concealed. Some women, like Gloria Vanderbilt, were named directly. Esquire paid Capote $25,000 for the story, but the cost to him was incalculable, beginning with his expulsion from a world he seemed to value above all others and ending with a decline in drug and alcohol addiction that left him. He took his life at the age of 59. .

“His talent was his friend,” as Norman Mailer said at the time. “His achievement was his social life.”

It’s a challenge to see “Feud” from the perspective of a culture where exposure is so in demand for blood sports, where billionaires attack you on social media. with book stories about his narcissistic wounds. It’s the work of understanding how valuable discretion still was to a certain group of people in New York in the mid-1970s, as the city and the countryside fell apart. What might seem like virtue can also be interpreted as unconscious self-esteem.

In reality, it was women outside Capote’s immediate circle who were the subject of the most damning and misogynistic evaluation in Esquire history; for example, the character known as “the ex-governor’s wife”, someone who had had an affair with William Paley. . Capote calls her “a little porcine,” then “a homely beast,” then “a size 40 Protestant cretin.” While Mrs. Paley may have been inclined toward the schadenfreude that would arise from such a description of her husband’s mistress, she was triggered by her humiliation. She died of lung cancer in 1978 and never spoke to Capote again.

The greatest emotional damage seemed to fall on Ann Woodward, a World War II-era showgirl who had married into a prominent New York banking family. She was just an acquaintance of Capote’s and he didn’t particularly like her. In the fall of 1955, Mrs. Woodward shot and killed her husband at her Oyster Bay estate in the middle of the night, believing him to be a thief.

A Nassau County grand jury determined it was an accident. Capote decided not to, even though someone eventually pleaded guilty to trying to rob the Woodward home the night of the shooting. The tragedy had receded, but “La Côte Basque” put it back into circulation 20 years later, with the story of a woman, “Ann Hopkins,” whom Capote characterizes as “raised in some poor neighborhood in the countryside,” a former -Prostitute and bigamist who murders her husband after he discovers they were never technically married and she realizes she would end up with more money as a widow than a divorcee.

In mid-October, just as Capote’s story was about to be published, Mrs. Woodward committed suicide in her uptown apartment. While she had had a difficult life and there was no way to know why she did it, many speculated about the correlation.

Esquire editors had no idea the impact “La Côte Basque” would have. “They just didn’t know what they had,” Alex Belth, curator of the magazine’s archive, told me recently. This was clear in the choice of the cover of that issue, which featured comedian Rich Little.

When Esquire bought the story in the summer of 1975, it was reasonable to assume it wouldn’t resonate. There were a lot of things going on. In June, police officers began showing up at New York airports to hand out “Welcome to Fear City” pamphlets, which warned newcomers not to take public transportation or walk after 6 p.m. On October 17 came the morning news that the city would face bankruptcy within hours if it could not pay the $453 million it owed its creditors. The national unemployment rate was around 9 percent.

It would have been easy to forget, two years after the birth of People magazine, at a time of the sexual revolution when formality had been largely eliminated, when union leaders were celebrated, when once-dominant social hierarchies were being democratized, when Elaine’s established French restaurants supplanted as a place to be seen; that “society,” in the most sclerotic sense, persisted no matter how irrelevant it seemed beyond a very narrow field.

“Feud,” written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Gus Van Sant, relies almost exclusively on interior shots, presumably because the realities of the outside world would seem disconcertingly intrusive, jeopardizing the possibility of sympathy for the grievances and obsessions of people. who seemed to have so little commitment to it. Capote may have unintentionally alienated his friends, believing they would find his account of his pranks hilarious. Or that they would at least be brave enough to forgive him if they were offended.

It was also possible that he wrote the story as an act of revenge. The representation of women in such superficial terms conveyed the attraction-repulsion toward large amounts of money that generations of literary figures have felt. As much as Capote craved the attention of these women, he ultimately saw them as terrible, uncaring mothers.

Regardless of Capote’s motivation, the story surrounding his painful banishment, already the subject of books, documentaries and a library of reported pieces, endures. Ultimately, it suggests the limits of a certain type of inclusion. As a jumper, you can reach the top, but in reality you are always being tested. Capote used to pride himself on being able to see so many things at once, observing lives and worlds from all angles. When he failed, he couldn’t live with his mistake.

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