Is 'Feud: Capote vs. the Swans' a True Story?

feud capote vs the swans
Is 'Feud: Capote vs. the Swans' a True Story?Courtesy of FX
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The new chapter of Ryan Murphy's Feud series, Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, tells the tale of Truman Capote and his famous Swans, focusing on Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, and Lee Radziwill. When Capote wrote a short story for Esquire, "La Côte Basque, 1965," he unearthed the secrets of his Swans for the world, leading to the titular feud.

But how much of Feud: Capote vs. the Swans is a true story? "I often think that truth is just a guess," writer Jon Robin Baitz tells Town & Country. "I don't think there's such a thing as empirical truth ever when it comes to human beings."

"What is truth?" Baitz continues philosophically. "What is it? You navigate it by holding onto your sanity as much as you can and saying frequently, 'There, but for the grace of God go I.' So you get really close to the story as you're painting on the page with whatever words seem right."

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Baitz wrote the show, adapted from Laurence Leamer's book, Capote's Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era. As Leamer tells Town & Country, the series "begins with the sad, forlorn, lonely Truman walking alone in a field. He looks out and sees swans, not his elegant women friends but white birds. There is no dialogue. That scene is as memorable as the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan. The old veteran returns to the American cemetery in Normandy to walk among the graves. It's one of the great scenes in cinema history. The beginning of Capote vs. the Swans is in that league. But it's not from my book. As far as I know, it never happened, but it's the truth. It's the truth on a profound emotional level. From now on, when I think of Truman Capote, I'll think of that scene."

Leamer says, "While on the set, the screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz approached me and said, 'Larry, I’m sorry for all the changes I’ve made in your book.' I said, 'Robbie, you’re a dramatist. That’s what you do. Dramatize. There’s no reason to apologize.' Of course, any author is nervous about how Hollywood will handle his book. Now that I’ve seen part of the series, I know Baitz and Ryan Murphy have made this story their own brilliantly, and I’m so happy to be part of it."

eud capote vs the swans premieres wednesday, january 31 at 10 pm etpt pictured front, l r chloe sevigny as cz guest, naomi watts as babe paley, diane lane as slim keith cr fx
Capote’s Swans in a still from Feud, including C.Z. Guest, Babe Paley, and Slim Keith. Courtesy FX

Adapting Leamer's book (and what really went down around the publication of "La Côte Basque, 1965"), Baitz explains that they decided to leave Gloria Guinness and Marella Agnelli, two of Capote's Swans, out of the story. "There wasn't a lot of room," he explains. "Both of them were sort of slightly at the side, but interestingly, both of them had warned the Swans that this would happen." They felt less like victims, he says. "They were less wounded and damaged by it. They were both, interestingly, foreign—it was the Americans who got really hurt. They didn't have another place to go to."

It felt like a natural choice to center the plot on Babe Paley and Capote. Babe, Baitz says, was "the closest subject of the betrayal, and the pain of it is incomprehensibly off the scales of the pain chart. It envelops you and lives in you, and you feel stupid for having believed it. And you wonder if anything was real because you're really the subject of a kind of elaborate scam." He adds, "Babe—I think he definitely loved Babe. I think he admired her perfection. He thought she, more than anyone, knew how to live elegantly for the camera, but not all the time. There's a gateway [through] her, too, to high society."

truman capote and babe paley
Truman and Babe, as played by Tom Hollander and Naomi Watts, in Feud.FX

Of Babe and Truman's friendship, Naomi Watts tells T&C, "They had this deep friendship, an exchange of love and pain." She continues, "I know that Babe trusted [Truman] almost instantly, he showed his vulnerabilities, she felt safe to show hers."

Watts explains that the friendship with Truman was perfect for Babe at that moment in time. "I think there was a hole in her life," she says. "She needed this person at exactly this point in her life, having suffered in a lonely loveless marriage where [her husband, Bill Paley] was causing her a great deal of pain. So [Truman] comes along, he's smart, he taught her about literature and art, as well as being playful and fun and silly and naughty—that was a side of her that she didn't, she couldn't put forward in the world. She had to be this graceful wife, this wife that worked hard to make everything look good and people feel good. Their relationship was very unique."

Leamer says there was really a lot of love between them. He explains, "Truman loved Babe Paley from the moment he saw her. He loved her beauty, her elegance, and the vulnerability she showed only to him." Capote, in Baitz's opinion, "does a magic trick where he's able to be a friend, but at the same time, he expects people to accept on face value that this is what he does."

So, is Feud: Capote vs. the Swans a true story? Yes and no. As Leamer says, the show "is an artistic creation and moves seamlessly in and out of factual truth. Some viewers may want to read Capote’s Women to sort this all out."

Feud: Capote vs. the Swans is now airing on FX, and streaming on Hulu. Watch now

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