In honor of ‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’: Let’s take a look back at Truman Capote in Hollywood

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One of 2024’s obsessions is “Feud: “Capote vs. the Swans.” The FX on Hulu limited series revolves around the best-selling novelist Truman Capote‘s friendship with several of the highest of New York’s society women include Babe Paley, Slim Keith and Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.  The women treat him as a sort of father confessor, but when he publishes an excerpt from what he considers his will be his masterwork “Answered Prayers” in Esquire — a thinly veiled account of their lives and secrets –they feel betrayed and turn their back on their once trusted friend. He spends the rest of his life trying to get back into their good graces.

Everyone knows Capote wrote “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and his superb “In Cold Blood” and was a witty albeit inebriated guest on countless talk shows, but how much do you really know about him?

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Capote was all of 20 when his short story “Miriam” was published in “Mademoiselle” in June 1945. The following year he won the O. Henry Memorial Award. In 1948, he published his first novel, the semi-autobiographical “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” He turned his lauded quasi-autobiographical 1951 novel “The Grass Harp,” set in a Southern town in the 1920s about a young boy and two old women who moves into a tree house, into a play in 1952. The play was a flop, running just 36 performances. Barbara Cook headlined the 1971 musical version which was an even bigger disaster running seven performances. (Capote wasn’t involved in this production). A production was done live on Kraft Television Theatre in September 1952. And Capote adapted his novel in 1960 as a “Play of the Week” starring the legendary Lillian Gish. Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek starred in the 1995 film version.

He had much better success on Broadway in 1954 with the musical “House of Flowers, for which he wrote the book and lyrics with Harold Arlen. The musical of about two competing bordellos in a stylized Haiti featured Pearl Bailey, Alvin Ailey and Diahann Carroll and ran for 165 performances.

Capote’s television masterpiece was the poignant semi-autobiographical “A Christmas Memory” which premiered on “ABC Stage ’67.” Set in small-town Alabama during the Depression, the drama revolves around a sensitive young boy spending his last Christmas with his elderly aunt who is also his best friend. Capote was the narrator. Geraldine Page won the Emmy as the aunt, as did Capote and Eleanor Perry’s teleplay; the drama also received the Peabody Award. Capote’s Emmy sold at auction in 2002 fetching $8,510.28. And in 1968, Capote and Perry adapted his short story “The Thanksgiving Story” for which Page won another Emmy.

Radziwill wanted to be an actress. Because he would do anything for a Swan, Capote went to producer David Susskind with a proposal: “Lee Radziwill is going to be an actress and I think we should all put something together for her. I’m sure that she’ll be so good I’ll write it for her myself.”  He shouldn’t have bothered. (Thomas Phipps is also a credited writer.) The 1968 TV movie version of the classic 1944 film “Laura” laid an egg with the Chicago Tribune declaring it the worst drama of the television season adding Radziwill was “unbelievably bad.”

Capote also wrote for the movies.  He contributed to the screenplay of the troubled David O. Selznick production “Indiscretion of an American Wife, directed by Vittorio De Sica and starring Selznick’s wife Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift (Capote would later say it was only a few lines). The film was made in 1952 but wasn’t released until two years later. After the original screenplay of John Huston’s offbeat 1954 crime caper comedy “Beat the Devil” starring Humphrey Bogart and Jones was deemed unacceptable, it was Selznick who suggested Capote to collaborate with Huston.  “John and I decided to kid the story, to treat as a parody,” Capote noted. Huston wrote in his autobiography that he and Capote often wrote scenes just hours before they were shot.

The 1961 “The Innocents,” based on Henry James “The Turn of the Screw,” is still one of the scariest gothic ghost stories. Brilliantly directed by Jack Clayton and co-adapted by Capote, it features a terrifying performance by Deborah Kerr as a mentally fragile governess who believes there is something malevolent going on with her young charges. The Criterion Collection describes it as a “psychosexually intensified adaptation…. a triumph of narrative economy and technical expressiveness.” Capote and co-writer William Archibald won an Edgar Allan Poe Award and reaped a WGA bid for the  taut screenplay.

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