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The True Story Behind Feud: Capote vs. the Swans

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In 1975 New York’s high society was the talk of the town—for all the wrong reasons. That year Esquire magazine published “La Côte Basque, 1965,” a scandalous chapter from Truman Capote’s unfinished roman à clef Answered Prayers. In the tell-all excerpt, he skewered his inner circle of socialite friends, portraying them as catty backstabbers and revealing their secrets. Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and other “swans,” as Capote called them, were furious, and the writer became a social pariah. The excerpt from Answered Prayers—which he thought would be his masterpiece, even more influential than his classic In Cold Blood—instead irreparably damaged Capote’s career and personal life.

A cause célèbre, the excerpt and its fallout continues to be a source of interest and is the inspiration for the TV miniseries Feud: Capote vs. the Swans (2024). We go behind the scenes to tell the true story of Truman Capote and the socialites he befriended and betrayed.

Truman Capote

  • Original name: Truman Streckfus Persons
  • Born: September 30, 1924, New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Died: August 25, 1984, Los Angeles, California (aged 59)

From a young age, Truman Capote established himself as one of America’s leading writers. His first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, appeared in 1948 and drew widespread praise. The book is a sensitive, partly autobiographical portrayal of a boy’s search for his father and his own sexual identity. More acclaimed work followed, including the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). Capote achieved his greatest success in 1965, when In Cold Blood was published in The New Yorker magazine; it appeared in book form the following year. A true-crime classic, it introduced a new genre that Capote called the “nonfiction novel.”

Writing helped make Capote famous, and he reveled in his celebrity. Known for his sharp wit and love of gossip, he became a fixture in high society and a confidante to a number of socialites. During this time he also began drinking and using drugs heavily. Between his busy social life and occasional stints in rehab, Capote spent little time writing. After the excerpt from Answered Prayers was published, he began a downward spiral. Ostracized by his glamorous friends, his alcohol and drug problems worsened, and Capote died in 1984 at age 59.

• In Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Truman Capote is played by English actor Tom Hollander.

Babe Paley

  • Original name: Barbara Cushing
  • Born: July 5, 1915, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Died: July 6, 1978, New York City, New York (aged 63)
  • Spouses: Stanley G. Mortimer, Jr. (1940–46); William S. Paley (1947–78)
  • Children: Stanley G. Mortimer III, Amanda Mortimer Burden, William Cushing Paley, Kate Cushing Paley

With her impeccable taste and manners, Barbara (“Babe”) Paley was considered the grande dame of Truman’s swans. She worked as a fashion editor at Vogue magazine before marrying her second husband, CBS executive William S. Paley, in 1947. They subsequently became the golden couple of New York society. The ultimate trendsetter, Babe Paley was a fixture on best-dressed lists, known for her elegance, whether wearing high-end fashion or more affordable attire.

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Paley was especially close to Capote, who reportedly idolized her. He notably said: “Mrs. P. had only one fault: she was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.” She reportedly confided in him about her husband’s numerous affairs, and Capote wrote about the adultery in “La Côte Basque, 1965.” Babe Paley, who had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, refused to speak to Capote after the story was published, and she died in 1978.

• In Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Babe Paley is played by Australian actress Naomi Watts.

Slim Keith

  • Original name: Mary Raye Gross; first name later changed to Nancy
  • Born: July 15, 1916, Salinas, California
  • Died: April 6, 1990, New York City, New York (aged 73)
  • Spouses: Howard Hawks (1941–49); Leland Hayward (1949–59); Kenneth Keith, Baron Keith of Castleacre (1962–72)
  • Child: Kitty Hawks

While still a teenager, Nancy Keith became popular on the Hollywood social scene. Tall and slender, she earned the nickname “Slim” and became known for her fashion sense as well as her charm and wit. She attended parties at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon mansion and became friends with numerous celebrities. For a time she worked as a model. While married to director Howard Hawks, she discovered Lauren Bacall. Slim Keith was the inspiration for Bacall’s sultry character in Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944), and Keith supplied the film’s famous suggestive line: “You know how to whistle, don’t you?”

After divorcing Hawks, she married producer Leland Hayward, and the couple settled in New York City. There she became a leading socialite. She later wed British banker Kenneth Keith, Baron Keith of Castleacre, thereby becoming Lady Keith. In describing what made her stand out, Slim Keith stated, “I thought it was more important to have an intelligence that showed, a humor that never failed, and a healthy interest in men.”

• In Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Slim Keith is played by American actress Diane Lane.

C.Z. Guest

  • Original name: Lucy Douglas Cochrane
  • Born: February 19, 1920, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Died: November 8, 2003, Old Westbury, New York (aged 83)
  • Spouse: Winston Frederick Churchill Guest (1947–82 [his death])
  • Children: Alexander Guest, Cornelia Guest

She was given the nickname “C.Z.” at a young age because her brother had difficulty saying “sister.” She made her society debut in 1937 and later worked as a showgirl and then studied acting in Hollywood. However, her name was more commonly found in gossip columns than on call sheets. At one point she went to Mexico, where Diego Rivera did a nude painting of her. Other artists, including Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, would also paint her.

In 1947 she married steel heir Winston Frederick Churchill Guest, who was a second cousin of Winston Churchill. The couple became fixtures on the international social scene. C.Z. Guest was noted for both her style and beauty—British Vogue notably wrote that she had “the face of a flower.” An expert gardener, she wrote about horticulture in books and a widely syndicated weekly newspaper column. After Esquire published “La Côte Basque, 1965,” the Guests remained friends with Truman Capote. In 1978, as his substance use issues worsened, they traveled with him to a rehab clinic in Minnesota.

• In Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, C.Z. Guest is played by American actress Chloë Sevigny.

Lee Radziwill

  • Original name: Caroline Lee Bouvier
  • Born: March 3, 1933, Manhattan, New York
  • Died: February 15, 2019, Manhattan, New York (aged 85)
  • Spouses: Michael Temple Canfield (1953–58); Prince Stanislas Radziwill (1959–74); Herbert Ross (1988–2001)
  • Children: Prince Anthony Radziwill, Princess Anna Christina Radziwill

She was the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, one of the world’s most famous women. Although often in her shadow, Lee Radziwill became a fashion icon in her own right—in fact, many claim that she had more style than her sister—and she was a fixture in New York society. She also pursued a number of careers, including interior decorating, acting, and writing. However, none proved successful.

In 1959 she married her second husband, Prince Stanislas Radziwill of Poland, and thereby became a princess. They divorced in 1974, and she later wed film producer Herbert Ross. Lee Radziwill and Capote were close friends, though the two drifted apart, reportedly because of his excessive drinking. However, she was one of the few swans to defend him after “La Côte, Basque, 1965” was published.

• In Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Lee Radziwill is played by American actress Calista Flockhart.

Ann Woodward

  • Original name: Ann Crowell
  • Born: December 12, 1915, Pittsburg, Kansas
  • Died: October 10, 1975, Manhattan, New York (aged 57)
  • Spouse: William Woodward, Jr. (1943–55 [his death])
  • Children: William Woodward III, James Woodward

Ann Woodward grew up in Kansas City and was largely raised by her mother, who ran a taxi business. Highly ambitious, she moved to New York City in 1937, where she became a nightclub dancer, then a model, and later a radio actress. She was once voted “the most beautiful girl in radio.” At some point she is believed to have had an affair with William Woodward, Sr., a wealthy banker. He reportedly encouraged her to take up with his son, William Jr., whom he was worried was gay. Although his parents opposed the marriage, the couple wed.

While the Woodwards were prominent in New York society, Ann Woodward struggled to be accepted. In addition, her marriage to William Jr. was volatile, and both had numerous affairs. In 1955 she shot and killed him, thinking he was a prowler. Although legally exonerated, Woodward was ostracized by society. Capote called her “Mrs. Bang Bang,” and in “La Côte Basque, 1965” he portrayed her as a cold-blooded killer. Days before the short story was to appear in Esquire, Woodward took her own life. Upon learning of Woodward’s death, her former mother-in-law, Elsie Woodward, reportedly said, “Well, that’s that. She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her, and so now I suppose we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

• In Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Ann Woodward is played by American actress Demi Moore.

Joanne Carson

  • Original name: Joanne Copeland
  • Born: October 20, 1931, Los Angeles, California
  • Died: May 8, 2015, Los Angeles, California (aged 83)
  • Spouses: Johnny Carson (1963–72); Richard Rever

Joanne Copeland worked as a model and as a flight attendant before marrying Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show, in 1963. The couple lived in New York City, where Carson’s show was filmed. Although Joanne Carson disliked the city’s social scene, she was close friends with Capote, whom she had met years earlier. After Joanne and Johnny Carson divorced in 1972, she hosted a health and fitness show, Joanne Carson’s VIPs (1972–73). About this time she moved back to Los Angeles. Capote had a writing room in her home, and he died there in 1985.

• In Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Joanne Carson is played by American actress Molly Ringwald.

Amy Tikkanen Rick Livingston