The literary scandal that rocked US high society

Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart) is in La Côte Basque, undisguised and lunching wih her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy. In the show she joins the other swans in casting Capote out, although in life they remained friends for years after. It probably helped that, in his fiction, Ina and PB agree that Lee is so much more beautiful and elegant than Jackie.  

Jon Robin Baitz, who wrote the show, told EW: “This story exists at this point where a world of elegance, ritual and class is being supplanted by a fervour of youth: disco, Studio 54, drugs.” When the middle-aged Capote, dismissed by his swans, embraced that drug-fuelled disco world, it seemed more desperately sad than thrilling.   

The greatest mystery

Why he published La Côte Basque in the first place is the subject of many theories. Clarke, Capote’s friend as well as his biographer, wrote that he warned him that his society friends would react badly. Capote’s reply, he said, was “Nah, they’re too dumb. They won’t know who they are.” Liz Smith wrote in that 1975 article that the swans regarded him as “their favorite house pet”, there for their amusement. Was La Côte Basque his revenge? Capote had a standard response to the debacle, heard in his own voice in The Capote Tapes: “What did they expect? I’m a writer. I use everything.”

That may have been bravado. Joseph M Fox, in an editor’s note to the book published posthumously in 1986 as Answered Prayers – which simply collects the three Esquire stories – said of the backlash, “There’s no doubt he was shaken by the reaction.” Fox believed that was one reason he stopped working on the novel. Capote kept telling friends he had written much of it and even read excerpts, or at least pretend excerpts, aloud. But after he died in 1984, no trace of a manuscript ever surfaced. Babe Paley died of cancer in 1978. One of Capote’s great regrets was that she never forgave him.

The swans are having their moment now, and not just because of the show. Women’s Wear Daily recently called them “fashion icons whose influence still resonates today”, noting that Radziwill and Paley inspired Lanvin’s 2020 spring/summer collection. The Washington Post featured the show in an article titled, “Ladies Who Lunch Have Become 2024’s Unexpected Fashion Icons”.

But it is the real-life drama that continues to be spellbinding. In his preface to Music for Chameleons, his 1980 collection of short pieces, Capote addressed the start-and-stop process of writing Answered Prayers, and explained – perhaps with a dash of fabulism – why he had no trouble remembering the details. “All the characters were real,” he wrote. “I hadn’t invented anything.”

Feud: Capote vs The Swans premieres on 31 January on FX in the US and will be available to stream on Hulu from 1 February.

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *