Did you find yourself feverishly looking up all the debutantes who appeared in the premiere of Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans? We thought so. With its glamour and gossip, Ryan Murphy’s latest FX series has quickly become one to watch. For the unfamiliar, the show follows Truman Capote and his flock of Swans—or the upper echelon of New York society women whom he’d befriended as his career crested with the success of In Cold Blood.
These women weren’t dimwitted debutantes, though. The Swans—namely Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Slim Keith, and Lee Radziwill—were old-guard influencers, whose impact could be observed in fashion magazines, interior design styles, and even politics. Capote herded these women to boozy luncheons and far-off resorts soaking in their personal dramas for artistic gain, some might assert. But authors have long been tasked—or plagued—to write what they know. Capote knew them and therefore he wrote about them: the petty injustices, the infidelity, the insecurities. This all culminated in a controversial, or catastrophic, story revealing some of the women’s confidences spurring them to seek revenge. And this was all just in episode one.
With so much to unpack, be sure to check out this curated reading list to learn about the real Swans, Capote, and the stories that landed him in the hot seat.
“Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song of an Era” by Laurence Leamer
For those who fancy a read-along, pick up a copy of the biography upon which the T.V. show is based. Flying high on his success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, Capote is confronted with a crippling case of writer’s block. To lift himself out of the blinding creative fog, Capote pens a thinly veiled tell-all about his fleet of debutantes, risking the friendships that landed him in the middle of New York high society. The Swans assume formation—what comes next is the stuff of New York City legend.
“Portraits and Observations” by Truman Capote
It takes a lot of gall—and courage—to leave high-power friends on read. To understand the driving force behind Capote’s betrayal of the Swans, sink into this essay collection by the writer, beginning with his early days of writing. Journey with him as he leaves New Orleans in pursuit of New York City and later, Hollywood; socializes with starlets like Marilyn Monroe; and reflects on artistic integrity in the face of bewildering fame. Enthusiasts of the writer’s journalism will be pleased to uncover short narrative non-fiction novels such as Handcarved Coffins.
“Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life” by Slim Keith and Annette Tapert
A sign of a life well-lived are the stories that remain. This is the case for Slim Keith’s memoir, co-authored by Annette Tapert. Throughout the memoir, readers are dazzled by Slim’s recounting of highjinks with Hollywood royalty—and rubbing elbows with the real royal family, too. But parties and fun times are easy to revisit. Refreshingly, Slim doesn’t shy away from more difficult subjects, like the failure of her marriages. The book reads like relishing in a lazy, boozy brunch on a sunny garden terrace with your dearest friends.
“Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, The Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century” by Roseanne Montillo
It was the shot that echoed through the hallowed halls of 5th Avenue manses. Ann Woodward, perhaps the “black swan” of the group, confused her husband for an intruder and shot him dead in their home—supposedly. That was the official story, at least. But in certain corners there was speculation of the grimmest degree, much to Capote’s delight. With an advance copy of Capote’s explosive story, Ann Woodward settled down with an aperitif of cyanide, never to wake or scandalize again. The book digs into Woodward’s ascension to New York society, the Swans’s reluctant acceptance of her, and Capote’s potential role in her demise.
“Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball” by Deborah Davis
Before there was social media, socialites, heads of industry, and cultural changemakers gathered at private galas and balls; often, only glimpses of the aftermath were captured in the next day’s society papers. Lucky for Capote enthusiasts, this isn’t the case for the now-infamous black and white ball, which was held at the Plaza Hotel in 1966—and is the subject of this careening biography. Masquerading as a party thrown in honor of Washington Post editor Katherine Graham, Capote culled the guest list to a lean 540 of the city’s most influential names, ranging from Brook Astor to Frank Sinatra and Halston. This book provides an inside look at the inner workings of the party, from the guest list cultivation to the iconic costuming.
“Lee” by Lee Radziwill
Another guest of the black and white ball, Lee Radziwill was no stranger to decadence. The younger sister of Jacqueline Onassis, Radziwill often graced the best-dressed lists. The socialite, with her immaculate taste for dress and home, cultivated a coffee table book packed with personal anecdotes and photographs. Having traveled together with Capote and the Rolling Stones, and married into defunct Polish royalty, her book is sure not to disappoint.
“Capote: A Biography” by Gerald Clarke
So, who was this man who sharpened his words like a sword? Biographer Gerald Clarke spent hundreds of hours interviewing the late author and his cohort to find out—and many of these conversations and insights are gathered in this exhaustive biography. Whether readers are longtime fans of Capote’s work—and attitude—or are new to him, they’ll be pleased to uncover unrivaled access to a man who, despite all his antics, hid behind his peacocking. Clarke tracks Capote’s rise through the ranks of the literary and social scenes in New York, his debilitating addictions, and scathing stories.
Played by Naomi Watts in the TV rendering, Babe Paley was much more than a woman scorned. In fact, she heralded from a family intent on climbing a slippery social ladder. Fortunately, she was in good company: joined by her sisters who were equally tasked to marry up, as it were. Here, Paley and her sisters’ childhood and blustery marriages are recapped, with little unturned or examined.
A notorious letter writer, Truman Capote revealed much about himself in his correspondences. Edited by biographer Gerald Clarke, this letter collection provides inside baseball info for true fans of Capote, new journalism, and strategic networking. Readers will join Capote as he embarks on research for In Cold Blood and suffers the aftermath of wronging his beloved Swans. Without an autobiography to speak of, this book might be the next best thing.
“C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon” by Susanna Salk, introduction by William Norwich, contributions by Peter Duchin, Liz Smith, and Joan Rivers
Photographed by talents like Irving Penn and Cecil Beaton, C.Z. Guest was just as home in her notorious gardens as she was at Andy Warhol’s Factory. In this hard-to-come-by coffee table book, photographs of the socialite range from her trademark, classic outfitting to her interior design work, and her family life. Consider this your Americana mood board, all in one place.