Would you agree that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones? The epigram tinged with melancholy was the title for Truman Capote’s never-completed novel Answered Prayers that destroyed the writer socially, financially and mentally.
When a chapter - La Cote Basque - was published in US Esquire in 1975 the puckish literary genius Capote was technically at the top of his game: the darling of New York’s fashion-leading society dames he christened his ‘Swans’ with immortality as an author guaranteed by his masterpiece In Cold Blood. His 1966 Black and White Ball in New York was remembered as one of THE parties of the 20th century. Yet when that chapter was published, Capote was cut down dead by his beloved jet set and never recovered from the ostracism.
It is the story of Capote’s downfall that Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott fictionalises in her rather brilliant new novel Swan Song. The author imagines the Swans – Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli – as avenging angels hastening Capote to his death. She breathes new life into these Manhattan princesses – including the more forgiving CZ Guest – and makes them so much more than the stereotypical ladies who lunch immortalised in the Stephen Sondheim song.
Capote’s perceived betrayal in La Cote Basque (the eponymous fashionable New York restaurant) was to tell the foulest tales about his Swans’ serially unfaithful husbands. The decision to pen this roman a clef was catastrophic for Capote. Invitations to Marella’s yacht, Babe’s Hamptons home and the Guinness’s private island ceased on publication. So deep was the betrayal of secrets that Babe Paley left instructions that under no circumstance was Capote – once her dearest friend – to attend her funeral.
The picture Greenberg-Jephcott paints of the Swans is bittersweet. Only CZ Guest appears to appreciate her marriage and her status. The others mask disappointment and unfaithfulness with exquisite taste in Mainbocher gowns, hothouse flowers and Verdura jewels. These ladies were the paragon of the American Dream and yet none seemed terribly happy with their lot. Pills, booze and chain-smoked cigarettes are passed between the Swans for the entirety of the novel.
My favourite character in Swan Song is the drawling, wise-cracking, bourbon-slugging, many times married Slim Keith. When married to Howard Hawkes, Slim discovered Lauren ‘Betty’ Bacall and tutored her in the art of effortless perfection. As Mrs Leyland Howard, she consorted with the toast of Broadway. Yet even the worldly-wise Slim lost her husband to man-eating courtesan Pamela Harriman … a villain of the piece in Swan Song.
Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel is a literary in-joke, written as a re-imagining of real people and events just as Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood was. It is a literary conceit that Capote established and Greenberg-Jephcott has developed as a fabulous flight of the imagination.
The author makes the Swans more than a Greek chorus for Capote’s downfall. We inhabit their seemingly glittering worlds and accompany them to the Black and White Ball. You believe every scene imagined by Greenberg-Jephcott. Even the cameo roles such as Diana Vreeland, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Onassis (Lee’s sister) have the ring of truth about them. This is a great skill.
What I appreciate most about Swan Song is the depth of sympathy that Greenberg-Jephcott evidently has for her Swans. Why Capote didn’t extend the same courtesy to these ladies in La Cote Basque is neither explained nor excused. Drug and drink addled as Capote evidently was for the second act of his life, he must on some level have known that publication of his acid drops in Answered Prayers would destroy him. But, then again, wasn’t it Capote who said the only thing that can destroy a writer is himself?
Having read Capote’s complete works including the loose chapters of Answered Prayers I am still at a loss as to why he took aim at his Swans: biting the hand that feeds and reads in one vicious nip. We know he could convert inspiration into great works of fiction such as Breakfast at Tiffanys. Practically every woman known to Capote claimed she was the inspiration for Holly Golightly even though my money is on first of the supermodels Dorian Leigh.
But Capote didn’t even bother to cover his tracks in telling scandalous stories about Babe and Bill Paley or about putting vicious gossip into the mouth of Slim Keith. If it was revenge he was seeking then revenge for what? The Swans treated Capote like a favourite clutch bag: he went everywhere with them and was humoured by their whiskey-slugging husbands.
We will never know why Truman Capote tore the wings from his Swans then feigned incredulity that they ostracised him on publication. According to Swan Song, Capote considered La Cote Basque as revenge on the unfaithful husbands but surely he must have known that washing dirty linen in public equalled social death.
In conclusion, Capote could have chosen different targets with which to discharge poison from his pen. Then again, he had form crucifying Marlon Brando in an essay and painting an ambiguous portrait of his friend Marilyn Monroe in a drugged and drunk state.