No Holds Barred: From Capote’s Swans to Bravo’s Housewives

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The Black and White Ball, as depicted in FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans.

I “grew up” in New York City in the late ’60s/early ’70s. It was a special time where overall culture — art, music, fashion — collided with big stores like Bendel, Bonwit, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf, and all of Madison Avenue. Most of all, society’s stars beamed brightly — Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Mariella Agnelli, Jackie Kennedy (of course), Lee Radziwill, Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley. Even Andy Warhol’s Edie Sedgwick was an uptown girl who went downtown to become a Velvet Underground celebrity. Manhattan became the center of the universe.

High style and legitimate class ruled the city, if not the world. It was a new Gilded Age. John Fairchild (publisher of Women’s Wear Daily) became the scribe of all this, and WWD became everyone’s daily Bible. Fairchild was responsible for making “The Ladies Who Lunch” true stars of the era (even Stephen Sondheim composed one of his greatest hits “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch” for his 1970 Company hit show).

Fairchild had photographers (Bill Cunningham started his career then) posted outside all of the hot small chic restaurants of the day; La Côte Basque, La Grenouille, La Caravelle, Lutèce, Le Pavillon. It was a fashion runway every day. Lunch only. Not dinner. The restaurants were all simple, small, and loaded with fresh flowers. There were never enough tables or banquets. The reservations were tough, and tabs were high.

The designers of the day were mostly American and friends of “The Ladies.” There was Bill Blass, Donald Brooks, Geoffrey Beene, Halston, Anne Klein, and Adolfo. Sure, the ladies all wore real French couture and that’s how they learned the look. Their eyes were trained on real understated elegance. Not stealth wealth. They already owned Chanel and Saint-Laurent and Valentino, but they brought the American fashion business forward. After all, they represented the new modern American woman.

They all majored in lots of marriages, money and pedigree troubles. But they kept their “material” to themselves.

No catfights á la Dynasty‘s Krystle Carrington or Alexis Colby. The Ladies were the epitome of quiet class — no hired stylists needed.

They were the experts. In fact, no body trainers, and not much plastic surgery. Instead, they went to Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon for massages and maybe a vibrating belt session. Or twenty leg lifts in a private stretch class. They lived on cigarettes, pills and booze — maybe a bite of a hamburger — and no one went to spas. They flew to European “clinics” to dry out or to get yak urine shots for energy, not longevity. Most of them died from lung cancer. But “The Ladies” were the real deal. They were not “rich bitches” (those were the gay guys who came later). They held great stature and a quiet influence over fashion and culture in general. They were silent but could be deadly, and, unlike the Bravo housewives, they never acted out.

Babe Paley photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld for Vogue, 1946.

Compared to today’s explosion of social media “influencers,” The Ladies not only set the bar; they were the bar. At the time I wanted to tie my Hermés scarf on my handbag like Babe Paley; I wanted to own a pair of her“Canoe” pumps made by pricey shoemaker Helene Arpels, I wanted to use Hermés eau de toilette Caleche, and I dreamt of going to Kenneth’s hair salon for one of those smooth bouffant hairstyles minus the Aqua Net frozen helmet. I wanted Babe Paley’s cheekbones and her Acapulco house in Las Brisas, and her yacht in Cape Ferrat. Everybody envied Babe — even her name.

Slim Aarons, Family Snapper (Babe Paley), 1959.

Obviously, Babe and The Ladies weren’t considered “liberated,” and used marriages as “career moves.” Many today would consider them limited in their abilities. But were they? I think The Ladies looked and acted better than what is considered “brand name” today. But again, these are different times.

And then writer Truman Capote brought them all to center stage. I remember wanting a gay pal like Truman to listen and solve narcissistic problems. He could make it all safe and intimate while keeping sex off the playing field. Eventually many women did get a “Truman” in their lives. Gay closets remained closed but open for homosexuals who desired to be “walkers” or true (“TRU”) blue style teachers and confidants. Till they weren’t.

FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans is based on Lawrence Leamer’s Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era.

So with all this nostalgia, you can imagine how excited I was to hear Ryan Murphy producing the eight part series FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans. After all, Murphy did so well with his former Feud Series on Betty Davis and Joan Crawford. He nailed Hollywood’s sexism, ageism and misogyny. The new one is based on Lawrence Leamer’s book, Capote’s Women: A True Story of LoveBetrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era.

As the series states (I am paraphrasing); “Acclaimed writer Capote surrounded himself with society’s elite ladies he called Swans. He befriended them all and sinisterly betrayed them in a chapter of his final book Answered Prayers which was famously republished in Esquire. The ladies ended up banishing him from the high society world he so loved and adored. It sent him spiraling to his demise.” Juicy premise to be sure. But tough to pull off in the end.

Why did Murphy choose to bring this story through now? I heard him compare the Swans to the Bravo Housewives but that seems thin. Betrayal is a common theme. At the time Truman exposed his Swans, Watergate was exposing Nixon. Betrayal was in the air (it still is). You could say Truman felt betrayed by his Swans as he was always “the perfect court jester to attend their parties who could sing for his supper.” Always a jester, never a swan. It’s clear Truman wanted to be them — not just have entrée.

Naomi Watts as Babe Paley. FX
Diane Lane as Slim Keith. FX
Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill. FX

You could say that nobody cares about these women, or that era anymore. But I disagree. I really wanted Murphy to make that time of New York City taste and style as significant as Gilded Age. Because it was.

The Swans cast, from Naomi Watts to Demi Moore, Calista Flockhart and Diane Lane, were impressive. But none of them could hit the mark because the script was too weak. What’s more… it is too hard to replicate these particular beauties. Their faces were very classically iconic and the particular way they held themselves was unique. Actress Chloë Sevigny may be a big blonde, but she was the wrong big blonde to play stately CZ Guest.

Chloë Sevigny doesn’t quite cut it as C.Z. Guest.

I kept thinking how fabulous actress Carey Mulligan looked playing Felicia Bernstein in Maestro. Her hair was not too wiggy, her makeup was natural, and she too wore the “Canoe” shoes. But there was a quiet strength and intelligence in Mulligan’s interpretation. She was formidable, but vulnerable in her stance. Mulligan is nominated Best Actress and is the star of the movie as the ultimate “supportive” wife to a brilliantly complicated bisexual conductor, Leonard Bernstein.

Carey Mulligan as Felicia Bernstein in Maestro.

I was so looking forward to great costumes and sets in Swans. After all, Succession, White Lotus, Mrs. Maisel, and Gilded Age all educated our eyes to astounding production values. None of that appeared in “Swans.” The clothes looked like Peck & Peck, and the Verdura jewelry seemed ordinary. Even La Côte Basque (originally small and floral?) resembled a California Pizza Kitchen. How could Ryan Murphy miss so badly on style with this material?

I have only seen three of the eight segments, but I am already feeling it is too long. However, series director Gus Van Sant did pull off a clever device in the third episode by presenting Truman’s famous 1966 Black and White Ball as a black and white Maysles Brothers documentary. It became a movie within a movie and got you backstage on all of Truman’s back-handed manipulations with the Swans, party planning and high-end bitchery.

The Black and White Ball as depicted in the series.

You also witnessed each Swan thinking she was going to be party “guest of honor” (it went to non-Swan Katherine Graham). The episode was a well-done cinema verité moment. The truth is the Maysles never filmed the party; they only did 1/2-hour interview of Truman on “In Cold Blood.” But Albert Maysles did give him the title Answered Prayer for Truman’s book. And ironically the Maysles went on to document Big and Little Edie Beale in Grey Gardens (Jackie and Lee’s cousins). Maybe the Beales were “Swans Adjacent?”

Truman and Guest of Honor Kay Graham, photographed by Harry Benson at the Black and White Ball, 1966.
Marin Ireland as Katharine Graham at at the Black and White Ball in Feud: Capote Vs. the Swans.

Truman and Lee Radziwill photographed by Harry Benson at the Black and White Ball, 1966.
Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill at the Black and White Ball in Feud.

Naomi Watts makes an entrance as Babe Paley at the Ball in Feud.
Chloe Sevigny as C.Z. Guest at the Ball in Feud.

“Swans” is actor Tom Hollander’s star turn as he does an amazing job portraying Truman from younger writer/celebrity to his drunken death at Joanna Carson’s Los Angeles home. He stayed away from over-the-top characterization and mastered Capote’s voice and his body language — his mincing hand gestures and even his silly dancing. It’s hard to compete with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar winning performance in Capote. But Hollander succeeds in his own way.

Tom Hollander as Truman Capote.

I guess Murphy can take (and did) a lot of creative license with this dramatization, but I couldn’t believe certain scenes; Truman getting beaten up at Joanna Carson’s Thanksgiving dinner table by his boyfriend in front of an aghast Phyllis Diller? Or that Ann Woodward (Demi Moore) would throw a drink in Truman’s face at La Côte Basque’s center table? Those restaurants were all about decorum and those women didn’t operate in TikTok hysterics. But I do wonder how the remaining “family and friends” of these real people felt watching this rendition.

Demi Moore as Ann Woodward ready to toss that cocktail!

Supposedly there is more “creative license” in future episodes with Truman commiserating with fellow writer James Baldwin. Some people have questioned that idea as they weren’t friends and Truman often criticized Baldwin’s writing.

I really wanted FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans to work. But now I see why it was shown on FX. A strange network that features Fargo, Sons of Anarchy, Guardians of the Galaxy and other grittier productions. You can also stream it on Hulu minus the commercials, which for me wrecks any series.

Sadly, I walked away from Swans realizing you can’t go home again or even revisit a historic time and place of serious sophistication and true elegance. None of that plays in our current world. Certainly not when Lauren Sanchez and Jeff Bezos are considered today’s Babe and Bill Paley.

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