The Real Story Behind Capote vs The Swans

Affairs, drugs, murder? The New York socialite ‘Swans’ lived colourful lives – and now their stories have been made into a compelling (and stylish) TV series

Capote vs The Swans

by Rebecca Cope |
Published on

There is a scene in Ryan Murphy’s latest cult TV series, Feud: Capote Vs The Swans, in which Diane Lane’s character Slim Keith succinctly sums up the power of the It girl.

‘The reason we have the best table is because we keep this place open... you think they come here for the fucking salad Niçoise? They come because we do.’

Society – and in particular, New York society – has always been obsessed with beautiful, wealthy women. In the 1960s, Truman Capote, the Breakfast At Tiffany’s author and man about town, collected society It girls, dubbing them his ‘Swans’. Murphy’s series is inspired by Capote’s betrayal of these women, when he committed the ultimate social faux pas: sharing their darkest secrets for public consumption via a story published in Esquire in 1975.

Titled La Côte Basque, 1965, after the group’s favourite lunch haunt, it revealed, via thinly-veiled characters, illicit affairs and humiliations that threatened to topple the Swans’ reputation in high society. It even insinuated that former showgirl Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), a peripheral member, had murdered her first husband.

Slim Keith played by Diane Lane

As well as Lady Keith, a mover and shaker in Hollywood credited with discovering Lauren Bacall, Capote’s other Swans included Babe Paley (Naomi Watts), the hostess with the mostess and wife of CBS millionaire Bill (who, Capote revealed in the Esquire article, had been unfaithful); CZ Guest (Chloë Sevigny) a WASPish Californian who was not only a talented equestrian and gardener but a model and muse for Slim Aarons; and Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), the younger sister of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and a princess after marrying into minor European royalty.

Some of the Swans were born into the upper echelons – such as Guest and Radziwill – others, including Keith and Gloria Guinness (who isn’t featured in the series), married well to get there. Capote once said that these women weren’t necessarily born rich, but were born to be rich. Each was noted for their sense of style, becoming muses and models to the designers of the day. They sat on charitable committees, attended cultural openings and were predominantly seen.

CZ Guest played by Chloe Sevigny

So why make a series about the Swans now, 50 years on? Co-stars Sevigny and Molly Ringwald, who plays Joanne Carson, ex-wife of TV host Johnny, both cite the escapist fashion and glamour as part of their enduring appeal – and the reason that the actors were attracted to the project. ‘They were our royalty,’ says Sevigny. ‘They were the last of the socialites. The show is a lot about how that era was dying, it’s a swan song to how people used to live.’

In response to Capote’s betrayal, the Swans closed ranks, freezing him out with a wall of silence and refusing to address the gossip. Never complain, never explain. Ringwald thinks part of the allure of the Swans both then and today was their mystique. ‘They were these untouchable, fashionable ladies,’ she says. ‘Before reality TV, where we want to know everything about someone, they had this allure because people weren’t able to get that close to them.’

Babe Paley played by Naomi Watts

When it came to preparing for the role, the silence of the Swans was something of an issue for the actors, says Sevigny. ‘There’s not a lot of interviews with the women in print or video, there’s one rare video with CZ when she was older, so mostly it’s other people recounting them.’

Despite the lack of source material, the cast were determined to imbue their Swans with depth, rather than rendering them as ‘two-dimension cave scratchings’, as CZ claimed Capote did in his story. ‘Any one
of those women could have a business now, separate from her husband, but they were held back by who they were married to, they were expected to be hostesses and trophy wives and that was their job,’ says Ringwald.

Ann Woodward played by Demi Moore

‘It’s always a tightrope to try and navigate how you stay true to the story you’re trying to tell but also be respectful of the woman herself,’ says Sevigny. ‘I just tried to find a real dignity and warmth in CZ, to cut through some of the more catty parts of the story.’

Lady Keith delivers an impassioned call to arms to the Swans at her ‘revenge summit’ lunch, accusing men of being the root of all their problems: both their husbands and now Capote. And while the series itself doesn’t go so far as to recast these women as feminist heroes, it does highlight the power of female friendships.

‘Feud: Capote Vs The Swans’ is available to stream from 17 April on Disney+

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