The Timeless High-Society Elegance of Truman Capote’s Swans

The Timeless High-Society Elegance of Truman Capote’s Swans

The hit FX show, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, has struck a cord with viewers eager to immerse themselves in the world of America’s original socialites, who perfected both understated chic and opulent glamour with their incredible high jewelry and fashion.
The hit FX show, Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, has struck a cord with viewers eager to immerse themselves in the world of America’s original socialites, who perfected both understated chic and opulent glamour with their incredible high jewelry and fashion.

I n the New York of the 1960s and 1970s, no-one was more in demand than Truman Capote. Still riding high on the success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, the author had become a celebrity bon vivant, his dazzling storytelling, quick wit and loose tongue making him a coveted dinner guest among the upper echelons. But as Ryan Murphy’s latest series of Feud for FX demonstrates, high society could quickly turn to high scandal when Capote’s typewriter turned to his closest friends.

Gloria Guinness and Lee Radziwill wearing High Jewelry at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball at The Plaza, New York City.
Gloria Guinness and Lee Radziwill attend Truman Capote's Black and White Ball at The Plaza, New York City, 1966, wearing statement jewels and couture. Guinness wears a platinum, diamond and ruby necklace by Cartier and Radziwill wears diamond chandelier earrings.

The Original Housewives

Based on Laurence Leamer’s book Capote’s Women, Feud: Capote vs The Swans features an all-star cast including Tom Hollander as Capote as he basks in the glow of the beautiful, rich and powerful women he nicknamed his “swans” and whose acquaintance allowed him unfettered access to an exclusive world of private jets, yacht parties, boozy dinners, penthouse hotel suites and – crucially – secrets.

Making up the Swans, who the show’s tagline calls “the original housewives”, are Babe Paley (Naomi Watts) queen bee and wife of media magnate Bill Paley, the thrice-married Slim Keith, a California-born socialite with humble beginnings and Hollywood connections, C.Z. Guest (Chloe Sevigny), a renowned gardener, equestrian and muse to both Diego Rivera and Salvador Dalí and Lee Radizwill (Calista Flockhart), younger sister of one Jackie Kennedy.

Salvador Dalí, Portrait de Madame Winston Frederick Churchill Guest, née Lucy Douglas Cochrane, 1958. Sold for in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, London, 2011.

Together, they are the epitome of glamour and gossip: these are ladies who lunch in extreme luxury, swapping sordid stories over souffles and coupes of Champagne and delighting in Capote, their prized party companion. But as the series depicts, the reverie came to an abrupt end when Capote used pseudonyms but little else to reveal infidelities, insecurities and even an accusation of murder in a scorching essay titled La Côte Basque 1965 published in Esquire magazine in 1975.

An extract from his never-finished book Answered Prayers, it saw Capote mine his rarefied world for more than just inspiration, producing a (very) thinly-veiled expose of the ugly underbelly of the swans that sent shockwaves through the New York elite. But unsurprisingly, telling all about his cosy coterie had serious consequences for Capote who found himself frozen out of social circles with the swans determined to cut off his bloodline of material.

While the friendships irreparably fracture, what is always evident in Capote vs The Swans is that however dramatically their lives might unravel behind closed doors – or in magazine pages – the Swans remained impeccably turned out at all times. As the show’s camera lingers over earrings placed in velvet boxes and necklaces slipped over perfectly coiffed hair, these women are the embodiment of keeping up appearances.

High Jewelry and Fashion of the Swans

Costume designer Lou Eyrich is a long-time collaborator with Murphy and went to painstaking lengths to ensure the show’s fashion was true to the original Swans. She conducted research at the Costume Institute at the Met and a large proportion of the costumes used were vintage finds although she enlisted designer Zac Posen to recreate the spectacular gowns worn at Capote’s infamous 1966 Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel.

Slim Keith Ann Woodward High Jewelry
L-R: Slim Keith in her trademark trousers and flats and Ann Woodward in a double string of pearls. Getty Images.

The fabulous jewels are all real, by the likes of Van Cleef & Arpels, Belperron, and Cartier and required extra security on set – indeed, a Verdura bracelet even plays a key role in the plot at one point. For these women, luxury wasn’t for special occasions but an everyday occurrence and attention to detail is everything. Their classic refinement meant everything, down to gloves and hairpins, had to be spot on. As Capote famously once said of Paley, “Babe Paley had only one fault. She was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect”.

Babe Paley Swans High Jewelry
Naomi Watts as Babe Paley in Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. Pari Dukovic/Courtesy of FX.

The show takes care to highlight each of the Swans’ individual style, as Sotheby’s Frank Everett explains: “what strikes me about The Swans and their jewelry is the true “working” nature of their collections. Pieces were chosen not only for their beauty and design, but for their correctness for an outfit and appropriateness for the occasion. Plain gold pieces for day, a few diamonds for cocktail and glamorous showstoppers for dinner/evening. Jewels were truly seen as fashion accessories, as well as precious objects of value. The jewels were worn to make a Swan look beautiful, elegant and tasteful, not just rich.”

In real life, Paley was an undisputed fashion icon and Watts reportedly had 160 costume changes in the first four episodes alone. A former Vogue fashion editor and frequent feature on the International Best Dressed List, she is credited with starting the trend of tying silk scarves onto handbags and gravitated towards the ladylike polish of labels like Givenchy, Halston, Chanel, Balenciaga and Valentino.

Paley’s understated glamour contrasts with the bolder styling of Radziwill, who, ever striving to escape the shadow of her older sister, was something of a trailblazer embracing statement pieces like leopard print coats. Meanwhile a more masculine silhouette is seen on both Slim Keith, a famous proponent of trouser-wearing and sporty tailoring, and CZ Guest whose preppy, tomboy looks were always accompanied by her signature double string of pearls.

Ultimately, as Capote says in the show, his Swans were “beautiful and unruffled above the water” but “underneath the crisp surface of the water, they have to paddle twice as fast and vigorously as an ordinary duck just to stay afloat”. While they may be a masterclass in elegance, as Capote exposed, their closets were as full of skeletons as they were furs.

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