The Truman Show
By Jonathon Whiley
The Grand Ballroom, the Plaza, New York, 1966. The party of the century – worthy of Jay Gatsby’s wildest dreams – is in full swing. Old sport, it’s quite the affair; a swaggering, sashaying juggernaut, a pilgrimage for the crème de la crème of high society and perhaps the most glamorous footnote in America’s social history.
Champagne flows “like the Nile” – a cool 450 bottles of Taittinger – and European aristocrats skate across the marble floor, mingling with Hollywood stars, princesses, politicians and models. It’s a who’s who to razzle-dazzle ’em; a smorgasbord of starry socialites with an eclectic cast that includes Andy Warhol, Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow, Norman Mailer and Princess Lee Radziwill – sister of Jackie Kennedy – among many, many others.
Our host is one Truman Capote. Riding high on the success of his chilling true crime classic In Cold Blood, the novelist is the toast of the Big Apple and invites “500 of his closest friends” to a masquerade party in honour of the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
Such is the demand for a place at the top table that one woman threatens to kill herself if she isn’t invited. Truman relents.
Mercifully our own ringside seat at a party for the ages comes courtesy of author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. Her debut novel, Swan Song, transports us to the white-hot heat of Manhattan’s glitziest soirées, allowing us to glide through the martini-soaked dining rooms of the city before reclining on sun-drenched yachts in the Med as part of an extraordinary reimagining of Capote’s later life. It’s a jet-set world where salacious gossip and beauty are writ large across the literary landscape, with betrayal lingering like a spectre at the most delicious feast.
Enter stage left, “the swans”; six women in Capote’s inner circle: Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Lee Radziwill, Babe Paley, Slim Keith and CZ Guest, who would become the subject of his infamous unfinished work, Answered Prayers.
A series of excerpts were published in Esquire magazine in 1975, detailing the swans’ innermost secrets. “They told him everything,” the book’s tease reads. “He told everybody else.”
Feathers well and truly ruffled, the swans severed their friendship. Socially exiled, Capote couldn’t cope and cut a tragic figure in later life, consumed by drugs and alcohol.
“He really truly adored them,” says Kelleigh. “It sounds very callous but these were two decades’ worth of relationships. It was 20 years of five-martini lunches and holidays and confessions. The tragedy is that as angry as everyone was, they were also heartbroken and it was enough to absolutely destroy him.”
Kelleigh is riotously entertaining company when we meet at the Alfred Tennyson pub on Motcomb Street. Negronis are dispatched – fittingly – as she talks at
breakneck speed in an accent that stays true to her Texan roots.
A Belgravia resident for the past year – she lives with her husband Dominic, an actor – she has spent the last 10 years researching her debut and four years writing it.
It’s been worth the wait. Capote’s very own publisher, Penguin Random House, acquired the novel with a six-figure pre-empt – practically unheard of these days – and widespread critical acclaim greeted its recent release. One broadsheet journalist dubbed it “a book of which Capote – even at his best – would have been proud.”
Kelleigh says the reception has been “amazing” and “it has also been a great exercise in letting go of something, which has, apart from my marriage and relationship with my parents, been my primary relationship.”
“[It’s been] these six women and Truman, for a decade,” she says.
Her love of Capote dates back to childhood. “I discovered him around the age of 12 and then just read everything; the short stories, the novels, everything. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the first one I read and it really spoke to me.
“I remember loving it and of course Holly Golightly is very much a hybrid of Truman and his mother Nina. It’s not an accident that Holly Golightly’s real name, we find out midway through the book, is Lula Mae. Truman’s mother’s real name was Lillie Mae and they had the exact same background.”
Kelleigh began reading biographies of Capote at 17; Gerald Clarke’s, as well as George Plimpton’s account. In both, the names of certain women kept cropping up: the swans.
“They were iconic women of their age,” Kelleigh says. “More so than the starlets or the actresses or the models. They were the models. Four out of six swans worked for Harper’s Bazaar; the others worked for Vogue, as editors, models and writers.
“They really were the tastemakers of their age and are remembered for their connection with Capote and for marrying very powerful, wealthy men. What has been lost is the fact that each of them were entrepreneurs. They were important voices and to me it became important to report their individual narratives.”
Each solo chapter is based on an event in a swan’s life. “With Slim Keith it’s when she went to Spain to help Lauren Bacall get over Bogart’s death,” Kelleigh says. “While this is going on, she is losing her second husband, who was the love of her life.”
Swan Song’s supporting cast features a starry collection of names. Harper Lee was a childhood friend – as a boy Capote wrote his first story, Mrs Busybody, about her mother – and the likes of the Kennedys, Ernest Hemingway and Mick Jagger all make appearances.
“Every story is a circle that comes back to another point,” she says. “But it has about 10 swirls before you come back.”
Kelleigh says she could have written a linear version that would have taken her a year-and-a-half. But with a whole range of literary techniques – the story of Gloria Guinness is told in the form of a traditional Mexican folk ballad – it took four years.
The spellbinding penultimate chapter of the book – which Kelleigh quite rightly calls “a literary acid trip” – was finished just days before the final version of the novel was due.
She was at their crumbling farmhouse in rural France and Hurricane Harvey had just hit Houston, her hometown. She watched rowing boats on submerged streets and then she spotted it. “There was a kid on a giant swan float on what should have been a street,” she says. “All of a sudden I think seeing a literal image of a swan, I thought, ‘Oh my god it’s Swan Lake’. Not literally, but metaphorically. It’s the last scene in Swan Lake; The Dying Swan.”
She started typing and didn’t stop for 24 hours. “I haven’t changed a syllable since.”
Kelleigh says that her love for Capote only deepened by writing the book. She recently recorded the accompanying audiobook and has also been asked to take part in a documentary on Capote as the only person who didn’t know him personally.
You wouldn’t know it of course; such is the ease in which Capote’s charismatic voice emerges. He was, she says, “almost impossible to resist” and loved by almost all walks of life. Practically a pimp for Bill Paley – “he would set up, unbeknown to Babe, Bill’s affairs” – he also reduced macho Marlon Brando to tears on one occasion, when he wept into his glass telling tales about his mother. “Truman published it,” says Kelleigh. “It’s utterly fantastic and Brando was livid.”
Kelleigh says that her intention was never to finish Capote’s Answered Prayers, but to write a “version of the story that killed him”.
“The story that he was, because of the great trauma of the fallout, never able to complete. I felt a huge responsibility to, in some way, provide a version of that and to pay homage throughout.”
Whether Answered Prayers exists remains a mystery. “We just have the extracts that survived,” says Kelleigh. “He wrote it for decades and we know there was more. He would go around and show people the manuscript. Multiple people would hear him tell the same chapters again and again and it would be the same verbatim. He clearly wrote it and then towards the end of his life, he would randomly give people keys. They would say, ‘What’s this?’ and he would cryptically say, ‘Answered Prayers’. He loved taunting them. He would suggest that he had taken out safety deposit boxes but wouldn’t tell them which banks. It was this great game and I like to think that one day we’re going to find it.”
Swan Song costs £12.99 and is out now.