The Costume and Capote

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Manhattan as seen from the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022. We started out the week with warm temperatures — high 70s-low 80s — lots of dark clouds moving in with occasional showers. 

Walking the dogs through Carl Schurz Park yesterday, I counted no more than a dozen people in the entire park, mainly those with dogs. The benches along the promenade were empty, as was the basketball court. It was Monday and “back to business,” you’d think that’s why there’s nobody around. Although, maybe no back to business. It seemed odd. And the town is still very quiet, as if off on holiday.

Carl Schurz Park New York, William Glackens, 1922.

However walking along the Promenade by the river, the setting was majestic and calm. It’s easy to remind myself that I live in a beautiful neighborhood bordered by the East River.

The costume. Women dressing. Yesterday’s Daily Mail had an article about a television/movie/series about Truman Capote and his favorite social ladies and how he “betrayed” them with a piece he wrote — Cote Basque 1965 about them in that (social) world.

Published in 1975 in Esquire, it was basically a piece of dish about the “characters” lunching this one particular day in the restaurant. Cote Basque, which was located across 55th Street from the St. Regis and one of the most popular (and exclusive) restaurants with a celebrity/social list of clients including CZ Guest, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, Gloria Vanderbilt, Carol Matthau, Jackie Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill.

Babe and Bill Paley.

Capote’s story (fictional) was about the private lives of these women, all disguised with different names, as told by one of the author’s friends. One particular “anecdote” was about a man — obviously based on William Paley who had a very active extra-marital sex life. 

The story had the Paley character pursuing another prominent social woman, said to be lightly based on one of  Averell Harriman’s wives. The “wife” finally gives in to the man’s taunt for getting her into bed. They meet in the man’s apartment (Paley in real life had an apartment with his wife Babe at the St. Regis, then right across the street from Cote Basque). 

The man succeeds in his objective, a kind of bim-bam-thank you-ma’am, and the woman gets out of bed and leaves. The man gets out of bed and discovers that the sheets were bloody from the woman’s menstruating. Shocked and fearful of his wife learning about his tryst, he tries to wash them in the bathtub. 

That single incident in the Capote story ended Truman’s relationship with the Paleys (with whom he was considered Babe’s “best friend”). Truman, by that time in his life, was rich and famous, especially from his last best-seller In Cold Blood followed by his famous party in 1966 at the Plaza.

Lee Radziwill and Truman at the Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, 1966. Photograph by Harry Benson.

He had every success a writer could imagine, and he always had friends. Although after the publication of the story, not a few of those “friends” dropped him.  How he wore it; how it affected him was to put it out of his mind with the booze and the drugs.

Back to the magazine piece. There were other anecdotal incidents of individuals lunching that day including a character based on Ann Woodward, the widow of William Woodward whom she “accidentally” shot and killed in a famous incident in the 1950s at their estate on Long Island. 

Ann and Billy Woodward.

Truman’s fictional version of the incident (recounted in a conversation at table) presented a case where William Woodward’s death was not an accident but rather coldblooded murder (she shot him while he was showering). 

That same night, Ann Woodward had learned that her husband was going to divorce her and marry a woman he had been having an affair with. Her guilt was obvious when she called for help, but she was saved by her mother-in-law’s power to protect her — so that the grandchildren would have a mother. When the magazine article came out, Ann Woodward read it, and killed herself.  In real life, the two grandchildren, in separate incidents many years later, when young adults, committed suicide.

By the mid-’70s Truman was part of the Studio 54 scene and into the drugs, particularly cocaine. His great success was followed by several years of endless partying. Cote Basque 1965 was originally described as a chapter of his “next book,” a novel, Answered Prayers — which was never finished. His “best friend” Babe Paley cut him off, as did many others. Although some remained friendly. 

I met him only once, and only briefly in the late ’70s, in Los Angeles when I was briefly working for Lester Persky, a film producer. I had to pick up Truman at LAX and deliver him to the Beverly Regent Hotel. Lester had acquired the film rights to a new short story of Truman’s who had come out to Los Angeles to seal the deal.  

He was in bad shape physically. He’d arrived on a Thursday afternoon, having flown from New Orleans where he’d been photographed for People by Harry Benson with, as Truman put it, “ten of the most bee-yu-ti-ful drag queens …” He was drunk and amused by his description. I got him to his hotel while he continued to amuse me with his stories about New Orleans. I learned the following Monday morning that Truman had had a lost weekend at his hotel, never having left the mattress of his bed for two days, surrounded by empty bottles of Stolichnaya and masses of cocaine.

Harry Benson’s famous photo of Truman at one of his favorite haunts in the French Quarter.

On hearing about it Sunday morning, Lester had Truman moved up to his house in Bel Air where he convalesced for a few days and then was able to get onto a plane and returned to New York.

I never saw the man again. He died in August 1984. He made a big impression with many because he was a sorrowful person. There was a great wit so there was humor throughout, but sadness was the underlying foundation of the man. He was frail and delicate in presence but he was tough. It was a tough childhood, basically abandoned by both parents but cared for by women relatives who were kind. And they provided the seeds to his creative development. So he was lucky, abandoned as he was, so to speak. But he was gifted and had been gifted.

Capote photographed by Phyllis Cerf in 1959.

A number of years ago I interviewed Phyllis Cerf, the wife of Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House, about another subject when somehow Truman came into the conversation. She told me that back in the mid-1940s she belonged to a reading group which included John O’Hara, Minnie Astor and several other literary names. When they were going to meet at the Cerfs’ house, Bennett suggested she invite this new writer named Truman Capote. He explained that Truman was very young — in his late teens, but he was very amusing and interesting. 

The day of the group meeting, everyone had just been seated when the butler told Mrs. Cerf that there was “a child at the front door who said you’d invited him to a book discussion.” And so he appeared a couple of minutes later. Everyone was surprised because in his teens he looked much younger. However, in short time, Truman was a part of the discussion in the group, and made a deep impression on the room, including John O’Hara.

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