Feud: Capote vs. The Swans Reminds Us to Never Trust a Writer

The second season of Ryan Murphy’s Feud follows Truman Capote’s infamous breakup with the East Coast socialites he called “the Swans,” showing how his charm and talent as a raconteur couldn’t save him from being banished by wealthy elites.

Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. (FX)

When Truman Capote died in 1984, his bitter rival Gore Vidal quipped, “Good career move.”

By that point, Capote had almost entirely lost his creative capacities as he disintegrated, body and mind, from the ugly effects of alcoholism and drug use and heartbreak over his ostracization from the elite circles he loved. He’d run afoul of “the swans,” as he called the svelte gang of rich, thin, jet-setting fashionistas who dominated the New York City social scene. They vengefully made sure he wasn’t invited to the right parties ever again.

That’s the subject of the belated second season of Ryan Murphy’s Feud currently playing on FX/Hulu, subtitled Capote vs. The Swans. The first season, way back in 2017, was subtitled Bette and Joan. It featured a memorable depiction of the legendary long war between formidable Hollywood stars Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), which reached its vicious peak during the filming of the 1962 horror classic in which they both costarred, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Murphy has a lurid gift for depicting fame and fortune in terms of the way it creates its own kind of insular derangement. It’s fairly rare for wealthy, successful people to live sane lives, as you can judge by both reading biographies or actually knowing any yourself. And because they generally have power over others in their orbit, there’s nobody who can intercede and put a stop to their lunacy. With every kind of opportunity for happiness available to them, they tend to drive themselves ever-crazier with obsessions over their status in elite society and their neurotic personal relationships poisoned by greed, malice, envy, and a determination to control everything.

In the first hour-long episode of Capote vs. The Swans, a lot of ground gets covered fast, so you’ll know almost at once if you have the stomach for the whole eight-episode series. We see the way the impossibly fey Capote (Tom Hollander) insinuates himself into the lives of top socialites such as Barbara “Babe” Paley (Naomi Watts), Nancy “Slim” Keith (Diane Lane), C. Z. Guest (Chloë Sevigny), Lee Radziwill (Calista Flockhart), and Ann Woodward (Demi Moore). Then he betrays them by writing a thinly disguised and waspish 1975 tell-all story for Esquire magazine that describes their lurid vices and bad marriages and backstabbing behaviors that’s designed to make their real identities obvious. The piece was called “La Côte Basque, 1965,” and it was intended as a chapter of the book Answered Prayers that he worked on erratically for years without ever finishing. The incomplete work was published posthumously in 1986.

Note that the series relies on the representation of a lost world in which it was possible to have “top socialites” who were well-known to the public and yet could still keep their scandalous secrets hidden, sometimes for decades. Based on Laurence Leamer’s book Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, the series is as fixated as Capote on “the swans,” who appeared to float on the untroubled surface of a world in which they had the power not only to command the best of everything for themselves, but also to elevate the reputations of fashion designers, restaurants, hotels, and vacation spots simply by patronizing them. Such people need courtiers: witty, attractive, and interesting people to dine with them and attend their parties and live in their guest houses and in general lighten their burden of overpampered ennui. That’s where Capote came in.

Once a physically beautiful, openly gay young writer of celebrated short stories such as “Miriam,” “Shut a Final Door,” and “A Christmas Memory”; acclaimed novellas like The Grass Harp (1951) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958); accomplished screenplays for films including Beat the Devil (1953) and The Innocents (1961); plus the literary phenomenon of 1966, his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, Capote in middle age had lost his looks and his control over his writing. But he’d held on to his outer charm, his catty wit, his ability to nose out lurid gossip among the upper-crusters, and his talent as a raconteur that allowed him to convey anecdotes memorably and with maximum spiteful glee.

After “La Côte Basque, 1965,” Capote was emotionally wrecked by how implacably the swans closed the iron door on him. It’s an interesting psychological study. Why worm your way into their favor, putting up with all their condescension and casual slights, apparently in order to get a best-selling book out of it by publishing their most scandalous secrets in tones of sneering contempt — okay, up to that point it makes perfect sense — but then fully expect to be welcomed back into the fold again?

Well, if you know anything about that era, you know the answer has to be a Freudian one, and it’s probably going to turn out to be his mother’s fault. And sure enough, in the second episode, Capote’s dead, monstrous mom, Lillie Mae Faulk (Jessica Lange) — who once abandoned him in childhood to the care of relatives in Alabama in order to seek her own fortune in New York City — turns up in a hallucination he has to thank him for the brilliant way he avenged her against the East Coast elite that never accepted her even after she married into money. Though even in his own hallucination, Capote doesn’t fully accept that account of his motivations.

At that abysmal point in his life, we see Capote retreat to the sympathetic arms of the monied elite on the opposite coast, spending Thanksgiving with his loopy but caring New Age friend Joanne Carson (Molly Ringwald), ex-wife of talk show titan Johnny Carson. Her casual, sunny, open-space, California Thanksgiving at a normal-sized table is intercut and contrasted with the gleaming, candlelit, long-table swankiness of Thanksgiving among the East Coast elite. At least Murphy evinces a certain honesty about the pull of extreme, ostentatious, traditional wealth. Never mind Capote avenging his mother, a big part of his obsession is clearly that he wanted the fanciest possible dining experience. The trappings of extreme wealth, all that gold and silk and mahogany, have their own allure, even if you think you hate rich people.

The narrative of the series leaps around in time, starting with an interlude between tight friends Truman Capote and Babe Paley, who’s distraught and seeking his comfort. In a flashback, we see that her husband, media tycoon William S. Paley (Treat Williams), has been cheating on her more outrageously than usual with one of her archenemies, Margaretta “Happy” Rockefeller (Rebecca Creskoff), wife of the then governor of New York State, Nelson Rockefeller. And Happy (“never was a woman more wrongly named”) has gotten revenge on William Paley for ending their affair by persuading him to join her in one last encounter in the Paley master bedroom. There she deliberately gets menstrual blood all over the sheets and mattress, knowing he’ll never get it cleaned up before his wife gets home.

From that opening scene in which Babe Paley clings to Truman Capote for sympathetic support and he pledges his undying friendship, we jump back to earlier days when dinner-guest Capote does his best venomous charmer routine for the first time in the Paley mansion. The monied elite are all enchanted by his dramatic tale of how heiress Ann Woodward got away with murdering her husband, who was threatening to divorce her. “And I’m going to write about it!” he concludes exuberantly.

So, in a way, they’d all been warned. That makes some sense of his plaintive self-justification later, after he’s drunk deep of all their cruelest, nastiest deeds and most pathetic interludes and spun a literary version of them for the reading public: “But that’s what I do…”

It’s all melodramatic fun in its way. The acting is big and purple, with some predictably compelling performances by Hollander and Watts, as well as Russell Tovey as Capote’s physically abusive lover John O’Shea. There are some effective turns as well from actors not well known for them. For example, Moore has never been better than she is in her few scenes as the big-bouffant-wearing Woodward, leveling her maniacal basilisk glare at Capote right before she causes quite at scene at an elite eatery during one of many ladies’ lunches that are an obligatory part of the narrative.

The humiliated swans go out for lunch right after the publication of “La Côte Basque, 1965,” though they know everyone’s staring at them after having read the dirty details of their personal lives. It makes sense, given that La Côte Basque was the name of the swans’ favorite restaurant. It’s as if they were helpless to do anything else but dress up and eat out, no matter what the circumstances.

This is an oddly shaped narrative, front-loaded in the first two episodes with the central events of Capote’s downfall. It’s not clear where writer Jon Robin Baitz and director Gus Van Sant can take the series for six more episodes. I’ve read chilling references to upcoming fantasy scenes that never occurred in real life, such as a meeting between Capote and James Baldwin (Chris Chalk) in which they discuss racism in America. I have to say that sounds like just the kind of ludicrous, made-up, celebrity-obsessed filler Murphy would sink to at his worst, which we saw in his 2020 miniseries Hollywood, by the way.

But there’s clearly a sick fascination in seeing the unravelling of Capote after he engineers his own fall from the social-climbing heights he’d worked so hard to reach. Judging by his own commentary, he never did fully come to terms with the role he played in it all. He blamed “the swans” for their refusal to understand and forgive him. He was quoted as saying, “I am a writer—what did they expect?”

And it has a certain compelling force, the idea that, of course, you can never trust a writer.