Breakfast at Truman’s
Betrayal, over easy.
Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By WINSTON GROOM
Into their posh salons Truman Capote swam effortlessly: rich, famous, effeminate, brilliant, and deliciously wicked of tongue. He called them his “Swans.” (Others, not so charitably, called them “fruit flies.”) He was seen with them at fashionable restaurants for lunch, notably La Côte Basque. Their husbands tolerated the five-foot-three author—also known as the “Tiny Terror,” an appellation bestowed on him by Aileen Mehle, the “Suzy” of gossip columns—because he amused their wives. He was sometimes also referred to as their lapdog.
In 1966, Truman threw himself a huge party at the Plaza Hotel in the name of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Called the Black and White Ball, the masked affair became the talk of the town for months over speculation on who would (and would not) be invited, and remains legendary after saturation press coverage that was almost obscene. But as sometimes happens when persons are abruptly covered with fortune and fame, weird behavior set in, occasioning our psychobiographer to shift into high gear. To coin a phrase from my Great Uncle Marshall, a sage Southerner if ever there was, Truman Capote, basking in all his celebrity, had suddenly become a “Big Ass Pete.”
His drinking increased; he tried cocaine. He began to have ugly public spats with luminaries such as Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. He made up falsehoods about befriending celebrities such as Greta Garbo and having sexual affairs with Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn. He frequently made a spectacle of himself, drunk or stoned, on television. He was arrested for drunk driving. It was also about this time that the Answered Prayers scandal broke.
Depending on which version of Truman’s story you believe, he had planned, at least as far back as 1958, to do a big “faction”-type book about high society, which he felt himself uniquely destined to write. In some versions of the tale it was the sole reason he had kissed up to the Swans, to get into their boudoirs and learn their innermost, dirtiest secrets. In other accounts, he merely realized at some point that there was good stuff in his private conversations with these upper-crust mavens, with whom he had become the closest of friends. Whichever it was really doesn’t matter; the result was the same: Answered Prayers was arguably the most shocking betrayal since Judas sold out Jesus Christ. No one was spared. The vilest, most repulsive acts were described in the filthiest language imaginable. Ann Woodward, the socialite suspected of having murdered her husband in 1955 (later immortalized by Dominick Dunne in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles) actually committed suicide after seeing an advance copy of a chapter entitled “La Côte Basque, 1965.”
The book, in fact, was never finished, but that didn’t stop anything. Seven years after its due date, four chapters of the “by-then-much-anticipated” Answered Prayers began to appear in Esquire, at that time the smartest magazine around. Some of it is witty, some of it is bitchy, but practically none of it is printable in a respectable magazine such as this. By the time “La Côte Basque, 1965” appeared, the Swans were furious. The barely disguised characters of Keith, Paley, Guggenheim, Onassis, Vanderbilt, Woodward, and others were publicly dragged through the sordid lies, infidelities, abortions, indiscretions, and other abominations which, until then, they had so naïvely revealed (or cavalierly gossiped about) across restaurant tables and in drawing rooms with “that dirty little toad,” “hideous fag,” “snake,” “monster,” etc., etc. Most vowed never to speak to Capote again, and most kept their word.
Nevertheless, Answered Prayers was not only the talk of the town, it scandalized a large segment of the nation. For his part, Truman seemed, at first, amused and then defensive at the reception of his work, which his publisher had foolishly compared to Proust.
“Well, who did they think they were talking to?” he hissed. “I’m a writer.” He seemed to think that, sooner or later, his Swans would get over it and all would come right again. But to his dismay—and ultimately to his horror—that did not happen, and Truman began to realize that a considerable part of his life was suddenly closed to him forever. To absorb this, he began spending more time away from the city, at his country house in Bridgehampton, which is where I encountered him for the first time.