The true story of Feud: Capote vs. The Swans

Truman Capote went from society darling to social pariah after publishing secrets about the glamorous women of Manhattan’s elite.

“Much ink has been spilled” over the rise and fall of this “brilliant and troubled author of groundbreaking books like ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘In Cold Blood'”, said Vanity Fair. Now 40 years after his death, he “returns to the zeitgeist as the bleeding and bloated heart” at the centre of Ryan Murphy’s Disney+ anthology series “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans”.

What is the true story?

After the publication in 1965 of “In Cold Blood”, a “revolutionary piece of narrative non-fiction” that “explored a notorious Kansas murder case”, everyone “wanted a piece” of Capote, said The Independent.

When he threw a “lavish” party, the Black and White Ball, at the Plaza Hotel in 1966, he “cemented his place at the pinnacle of high society”.

Among the guests were his “swans”, the group of “dazzling, impeccably turned out (and staggeringly rich) women who were practically American aristocracy”. Chief among them was Babe Paley, former Vogue fashion editor and wife of the head of CBS. Capote had called her “the most beautiful woman of the 20th century”.

Actor Henry Fonda and his fifth wife Shirlee Mae Adams attend the 1966 Black and White Ball (Image credit: Harry Benson / Express / Getty Images)

A “brilliant observer of the human condition”, Capote had spent the best part of two decades with some of these women, said Tatler, “two decades to explore the deepest recesses of their lives, two decades to understand them”.

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In 1975, he showed his authorised biographer Gerald Clarke “La Côte Basque 1965”, an excerpt of an unfinished book, “Answered Prayers”, based on “the lives of Truman’s beloved swans and their friends”.

Clarke realised that they “would recognise themselves immediately – and they would not be happy”. Capote apparently replied: “Nah, they’re too dumb.”

He was wrong, and many of them refused to speak to him ever again. This resulted in “almost complete social isolation for the writer”, said Harper’s Bazaar, which was “said to have pushed him to new levels of drug abuse and alcoholism”.

How has it been received?

The story has been dramatised for the screen before, most recently as the 2021 documentary “The Capote Tapes”, and in 2005’s “Capote”, with the Oscar-winning Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role.

The “fallout from the exposé is the focus” of this new series, said the Daily Mail. Based on Laurence Leamer’s book “Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal and a Swan Song for an Era”, it stars Tom Hollander as the writer and Naomi Watts as Babe Paley.

Paley was supposedly Capote’s ‘favourite swan’ (Image credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Despite having a “cast to die for”, including the “wonderful” Hollander, the series is a “dud”, said Lucy Mangan in The Guardian

It is “peculiarly lacking in dramatic tension”, said Mike Hale in The New York Times. And, although Hollander acts “his little pink socks off”, it is “soulless, frequently crass, repetitive, confused and (by far the worst sin for a drama about gossip) downright dull”, said Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail.

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Yes, there is a “certain coldness to the series”, said Anna van Praagh in the London Evening Standard, but this is a “must watch”. In an “age of algorithm-inspired amphetamine-laden mass market TV”, the eight-part, eight-hour series from writer Jon Robin Baitz and director Gus Van Sant “feels like one from a bygone Hollywood era”.

It is “luxuriously made and unhurried” and “as pleasingly daring and experimental as you would expect”.

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