Here’s a dumpy little guy with a dramatic mind who, like one of his own adrift heroines, seeks attention and sympathy by serving up half-believed lies to total strangers. Strangers because he has no friends, and he has no friends because the only people he pities are his own characters and himself─everyone else is an audience.”– Answered Prayers by Truman Capote
This is a quote about Tennessee Williams by Truman Capote in his unfinished masterpiece Answered Prayers. A quote author Laurence Leamer is keen to note could easily be pointed at Truman himself. The breath between what could have been, with what should be and what inevitably is, defines much of the conflict of Capote’s Women. Capote wants to achieve literary greatness, but he sabotages his talent and insight through drink, frivolity and moral decay. The swans—his socialite muses—desire freedom, love and success, yet their world in all its affluent possibility denies them such wants. It is a tragic irony that Capote, who could have illuminated such a contradiction through his literary genius, was ultimately the victim of it.
Capote’s Women is framed as the story of how a brilliant writer betrayed his rich friends by writing a scathing indictment of their lives in the barely disguised fiction of his would-be magnum opus Answered Prayers. However, as we are introduced to the swans one by one, the drama of Capote’s life is reserved as an occasional aside, turned to every now and then as more of an intriguing subplot. The swans are the real focus of this book. Composing such an elect group are Babe Paley, the trendsetting beauty; Gloria Guinness, an icon draped in history and sexual allure; Slim Keith, hungry for life and abundance; Pamelia Harriman, the walking scandal; C.Z. Guest, an aristocrat caught in the twilight of her era; Lee Radziwill, who is ambitious but talentless; and Marella Agnelli, a sophisticate wasted amongst the conservative mores of the elite.
Each of these women ensconced in so much wealth and fame cannot help but fall into the usual trappings of their class. As one reads, again and again, the stories which could fill so many juicy gossip columns, all the affairs and scandals and catty slights, there is dawning realization of banality and repetition to the glamorous lives of these women. What is refreshing about Leamer, though, is that while here and there he will make remarks condemning the morals and attitudes portrayed by these women and their often-repulsive husbands, he allows the reader to mostly draw their own conclusions. He is no soporific moralist.
Always intriguing and averse to philosophic musings, Leamer thankfully does not try to do what Truman could not. His prose is brisk and clean, making only minor indulgences in lavish details that are appropriate given the material. He is also not bogged down by the need for endless quotations inserted cumbersomely into the text, though that is not to say it is poorly researched. In a way, the book’s style reflects more of a celebrity tell-all rather than a historical biography.
As I’ve said, Leamer can be critical when he wants, but he’s always subtle and conscientious of the complexity of these women’s circumstances. His subjects are treated with a delicacy and care that reveal a great sympathy and even occasional admiration. One of the most interesting paradoxes he grapples with is being so close to the center of power without actually possessing it. Indeed, even being crushed by it. There are many splendid passages describing the true extravagance of their lives in a time when such luxury was seen as a right. Yet, amidst the dazzling photo shoots and shimmering galas, lies the melancholy of an outsider. An outsider? How can one be on the cover of magazines and be an outsider? How can one be a nationally revered author and be an outsider? It is this shared thread of alienation Leamer shows that weaves the lives of Capote and his swans together into such close friendship.
Toward the end of the book, Leamer focuses more heavily on Capote as he writes his acclaimed In Cold Blood. Perhaps the first time Capote writes something he believes is truly exceptional, it plants the seeds of ambition that will become Answered Prayers. Capote wants to write a contemporary version of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) and in doing so enter the canon of great American literature. Through his swans, he has gained such intimate knowledge of the American ruling class, and he feels deeper than anything that it is his destiny to do so. The project is continuously delayed and reworked for so long that rumors claim there is no great masterwork. These rumors were not very far from the truth, nonetheless, Capote takes this as a challenge and decides to publish some early chapters of the book. This glimpse of the novel does not convey an astute observer of the bourgeoisie and the myriad conflicts of the heart, but rather a vindictive, tawdry gossip willing to flaunt the confided secrets of his close friends.
There are a few theories presented as to why Capote did this: a secret resentment of the upper echelons born from his meager Alabama upbringing; the trauma of attaching himself emotionally to Perry Smith while writing In Cold Blood leaving him unable to plumb the depths of his own feelings; or maybe alcohol and age had simply done their toll. Maybe it was one of these reasons or all of the above, but I think Leamer, the quiet impresario that he is, suggests another option. Somewhere amid that perfumed world of excess, Capote became ensnared by the chimera he thought he had conquered. To fully understand what I mean by this, you’ll have to read the book and spend time paging through the lives of Capote’s extraordinary women who represent all that was beautiful, decadent and illusory in that bygone age.
Capote’s Women is one of our 2021-22 Fall/Winter Reads. Find the entire list here.