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In the End, Feud: Capote vs. the Swans Didn't Toy With History Too Much

Though the Ryan Murphy anthology series did take some liberties.
  • Tom Hollander in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans (Photo: FX)
    Tom Hollander in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans (Photo: FX)

    Ryan Murphy continues his reign over TV with the latest season of Feud: Capote vs. the Swans. While not covering a rivalry as culturally infamous as that of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the story of writer-slash-gadabout Truman Capote and the coterie of glamorous rich women he befriended then betrayed is so perfect for the Murphy oeuvre, it seems practically gift-wrapped for him.

    The legendary writer of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (played by Tom Hollander) was a social animal who collected high society darlings the way others covet diamonds. His entourage included socialites like Babe Paley (Naomi Watts) and C.Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny), former Hollywood wives like Slim Keith (Diane Lane), and Jackie O's sister, Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart.) To be a swan — his nickname for his ladies — was to be the most glamorous and interesting person in the room at any given time, and to be on Capote’s arm was to have the perfect partner for puncturing the unbearable snobbery of the system. Well, right up until he threw all of those women under the bus by publishing a barely veiled story about them that spilled all their secrets and portrayed them as spoiled wastes of space. It didn’t go well for Capote, and Feud delves into how he climbed to the peak of the social ladder before stumbling back to the bottom, thanks to his own hubris.

    The season is adapted from a book, Capote's Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era by Laurence Leamer. It's a fun, fizzy read, eager to capture the kind of wit and good taste that made Capote's writing so delicious. Feud mostly sticks to history but fills in some of the gaps to widen the story of this scathing fall from grace.

    Did Ann Woodward Kill Her Husband (And Did Capote’s Story Kill Her?)

    We see Capote’s first lavish dinner party with the Paleys in the pilot, wherein he immediately ingratiates himself among the New York elite with his raconteur skills and sideways glance at the world. When asked by CBS head honcho Bill Paley (the late great Treat Williams) if he knows something none of them do, Capote regales them with the story of Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), a socialite who murdered her husband and got away with it.

    In Capote’s evidently embellished retelling, Woodward killed her philandering husband with two shotgun blasts to his body. She did so because she was about to be revealed as a bigamist, but got away with it because her family paid off people in high places to make the whole problem go away. Capote brags that he's going to write about this one day, and his dramatized version of events ends up in Answered Prayers, the lightly fictionalized roman à clef that led to his social downfall.

    In 1955, banking heir William Woodward Jr. was murdered in his home. There had been a series of burglaries in the area over that year, and Ann claimed she had opened fire on what she thought was a thief breaking into her home. A grand jury deemed the death an accident, but the damage was done to Woodward's reputation. She was shunned from her social circles for the rest of her life.

    Woodward later died by suicide by ingesting cyanide. Feud draws a direct connection between Woodward's death and Capote's publication of the first chapter of Answered Prayers. Slim Keith (Diane Lane), one of the fellow swans, says that Ann had received an advanced copy of the chapter and probably killed herself out of shame. Woodward's own mother-in-law later said of Ann's death, "She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her, and so now I suppose we don't have to worry about that anymore." The dates do line up on this theory. Ann’s body was discovered on October 10, 1975, and the story was published in Esquire the following month. But Woodward left behind no suicide note, nor is there any evidence that she received an advanced copy of the piece, and the true impetus for her death can only be theorized. Whatever the case, it certainly did not help Capote’s already disintegrating reputation.

    Did Bill Paley Have a Very Bloody Affair With Happy Rockefeller?

    One of the most scandalous aspects of Answered Prayers is how it didn’t even bother trying to conceal who these characters were stand-ins for. So, when the characters Bill and Cleo Dillon were described as a high society pair comprising a successful media businessman and his socialite wife, everyone knew they were meant to be the Paleys. That made things messy when the chapter described “Bill Dillon” as a philandering serial cheater having sex with the Governor’s wife. One of their affairs was described as ending in blood when Bill realized his lover was on her period, and he didn’t have long to clean up the mess before his wife got home.

    Feud portrays this betrayal in the opening scenes of the pilot, with Babe telling Truman about her husband’s very messy affair and how it might finally drive her to leave him. Truman placates her and says she won’t leave him because she’s too old and enjoys the good life the Paley name provides. While that part is apparently true, according to Laurene Leamer, it’s much harder to find irrefutable evidence of the menstrual sex trap. John Richardson, a friend of Babe, told Vanity Fair in 2012 that Truman's betrayal hurt her because Bill's affairs "weren’t the talk of the town until Truman’s story came out.” But shockingly, neither the Paleys nor Happy Rockefeller, the wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, confirmed the story.

    Was Truman Capote’s Lover Abusive?

    The pilot also introduces John O'Shea (Russell Tovey), a bank manager and married father with whom Capote has a tryst in a bathhouse. He later becomes not only Capote's lover (all while Capote is still technically with his long-term partner Jack Dunphy) but his business manager, which the swans greatly disagree with. It doesn't take long across the series for O'Shea to reveal himself to be both cruel and queerphobic. He’s shown to be derogatory towards his older lover, and rejects ever being called gay or bisexual.

    O'Shea infamously left his family for Capote, taking on the role of Executive Vice President of Capote's corporation Bayouboys, Ltd. sometime in the mid-1970s. The New York Public Library's Capote archives note that O'Shea helped to negotiate lucrative contracts for Capote with the Washington Post, although he never completed the works he signed up for. Gerald Clarke, in his biography of Capote (via Vanity Fair), said that the O'Shea relationship was deeply troubled, and at some point during the summer of 1976, "there was a disagreement between the two men, and Capote cleared out overnight, with months still left on his lease, which he had paid in full." The New Criterion describes their relationship as "an insane mésalliance that turned into an orgy of mutual abuse."

    Did Capote Take in O’Shea’s Teenage Daughter?

    O’Shea is seen abandoning his family to move in with Capote, refusing to pay child or spousal support to his estranged wife and kids. This drives his teenage daughter Kate (Ella Beatty) to desperation, and one day, she picks up the phone to ask her dad for help. But Truman picks up, and soon, she finds herself part of his life and viewing the man as more of a father figure than O’Shea.

    Given how Capote is portrayed as selfish, self-pitying, and self-destructive, perhaps the most surprising revelation of Feud is that this detail about Kate is 100% true. It came to light most prominently in the 2019 documentary The Capote Tapes. There, Kate Harrington talks candidly about how Capote was the real father in her life, and how he advised her to become a model to make money. Harrington told Vanity Fair that domestic life with Capote was “incredibly calm and pleasant.... He was very nurturing." Capote also accompanied her to lunches, introduced her to his famous friends, and trained her in the art of gossip. Harrington described how "the calm protector she knew — quick to kibosh an older movie star’s flirtations with Harrington at a Beverly Hills party, for example — wound himself into a catty caricature at social events." She also saw in him too much of her father, thanks to their joint issues with substance abuse.

    Did Capote’s Ashes Go on Auction?

    When Capote died in 1984 at the age of 59, he was well and truly a society outcast. His only true confidante was Joanne Carson, the ex-wife of late-night TV host Johnny Carson, with whom Capote spent his final days. It fell upon Carson to organize the funeral, but Jack Dunphy assumed that he would receive all of his partner's ashes. In fact, Carson kept some for herself in a box which was later stolen and retrieved four years after Truman's death. When Dunphy died in 1992, both his and Capote's ashes were reportedly scattered at Crooked Pond, New York, where they had lived together for several years. When Carson died in 2016, the remains of Capote's ashes that were in her possession went on auction at Julien's in Beverly Hills. (The ghosts of the swans watch this disapprovingly in the Feud finale, which closes out the series on a fitting, if somewhat undignified, note for Capote himself.)

    About a quarter of Capote’s ashes were in the jeweled box that made its way to auction, as Leamer details in his book. After the thwarted theft, Carson decided she wanted to inter her friend at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, a funeral home and cemetery with a high-profile clientele. Marilyn Monroe’s crypt is there, most notably. Carson secured a marble crypt for herself and Capote at a cut-rate price since its initial owner hadn't paid up in time. Still hesitant to part with his remains, Carson removed half from the urn and padded out the rest with her dog's ashes.

    Capote's ashes went for $43,750. Julien’s Auctions president Darren Julien claimed that Capote "would have loved" his remains causing such a ruckus. The ashes were sold to an anonymous collector.

    Did Capote Really Burn the Manuscript for Answered Prayers?

    By the finale, Capote is broke, drunk, and desperately trying to finish the novel that kicked off his downfall. Answered Prayers was a fictionalized imagining of Capote’s life, told through the lens of a small-time rent-boy who worms his way into high society. The excerpt that killed his social standing and numerous friendships featured the swans in various states of disarray and misery. Feud shows Truman trying to right his wrongs through fiction, by casting himself as the much-need savior of these poor women. Yet it falls flat on the page, and the ghost of Capote’s own mother (played, of course, by Jessica Lange) calls him out on his vanity. Soon, Truman realizes the story, both real and imagined, cannot be salvaged, and so he burns the manuscript.

    It's hard to corroborate much of this because Capote was a seasoned gossip who often lied about the status of his "unfinished masterpiece." There have been a number of rumors about what Capote did with the rest of Answered Prayers(the version you can buy today is only three chapters long and includes that damning one published in Esquire.) An unpublished short with a title from one of those missing chapters was found in Capote's archives at the New York Public Library.

    Capote alleged that John O'Shea had stolen at least one unpublished chapter. Joanne Carson claimed that she had read three "very long" chapters that completed the novel. She also insisted that Capote had given her a key to a safety deposit box with the completed novel inside, but he didn't give a location for this box. Random House senior editor Joseph M. Fox, with whom Capote signed his initial book deal, claimed that mutual friends had also seen these missing chapters and that Capote had destroyed them before his death.

    Jack Dunphy had a less scandalous but probably more realistic theory: that Truman simply never finished Answered Prayers because he was so shocked by the fallout from that one chapter's release. While Feud settles on the destruction of the manuscript for a more satisfying conclusion to Capote’s narcissism, any and all of these possibilities ring true for a man who always found a way to make truth more entertaining than fiction.

    Kayleigh Donaldson is a writer of film and pop culture features for Screen Rant and Pajiba. Also seen at SyFy Fangrrls and Bright Wall Dark Room.

    TOPICS: Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, FX, Calista Flockhart, Chloe Sevigny, Demi Moore, Diane Lane, Naomi Watts, Ryan Murphy, Tom Hollander, Truman Capote