Feud: Capote vs The Swans: Scandal, Lies, And Secrets… But What Was True? | Feud Season 2 Explained

Feud: Capote vs The Swans follows the downfall of arguably the most famous American mid-century writer, Truman Capote. His best seller In Cold Blood catapulted him to stardom, and with his natural magnetism and inclination for spectacle catapulted him into the closest inner circles of New York City’s elite, where he befriended a number of very powerful society women, who he referred to as his Swans. However, everything changed for Capote after he published a scathing excerpt about his friends in Esquire Magazine – which got him exiled from high society and sent him spiraling.

While these women were very much real, how much does Feud rely on facts and where does the show, and Capote, bend the truth for dramatic effect? Let’s take a look at how the show has portrayed the Swans so far compared to their real stories to figure out how much fact is woven into the show’s fiction.


Babe Paley

In Feud, Capote is portrayed as a nefarious miner of secrets. He poses as a friend and confidante to some of New York’s most powerful housewives, including the fashionable socialite Babe Paley, the wife of the powerful chief executive of CBS, Bill Paley.

Their dynamic in Feud offers a glimpse into Truman’s vulnerability, which in the show threatens to puncture his carefully curated persona that charmed media titans and political royalty alike. In real life, it was known that Capote worshiped Babe Paley – even writing in his diary, “Mrs. P had only one fault: she was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.” Feud took its cue from real accounts of Babe and Truman’s first meeting, which occurred in the mid-50’s by accident—or fate—depending on how you look at it.

Capote’s friend, film producer David O. Selznick and his wife, were invited to the Paley’s residence in Jamaica. When David asked Bill Paley if he could bring “Truman” along, Paley, assuming he was referring to President Harry Truman, said it would be “an honor.” To the Paleys’ surprise, the five-foot-three literary genius and party boy boarded their private jet on the day of the trip, and Babe and Truman became fast friends. It was known that Babe adored Capote for his wit and Southern charms, and he, in turn, adored her and the glamorous, surface-pristine life that she lived.

But there was clearly an intimacy between them that ran deeper than what people saw on the surface, which Feud also suggests.

“He was the love of my life.”

In Gerald Clarke’s biography about Capote, he is quoted saying, “She was the only person in my whole life that I liked everything about…I was her one real friend, the one real relationship she ever had.”

Despite all her wealth and influence in society and fashion, Babe Paley’s story is rather a sad one. Groomed from a young age to marry into immense money and power, Babe and her sisters were their mother’s bargaining chips to bait-and-catch husbands from prominent families. And in 1934, Babe was in a severe car accident and had to have facial reconstruction surgery.

How, when they rebuilt your face, you were suddenly more beautiful than ever. You became a swan from an ugly duckling, am I right?”

In 1940, Babe married Stanley Grafton Mortimer Jr, the heir of a powerful oil family. They had two children together and divorced in 1946, which was the same year Babe met the CBS mogul Bill Paley. At first, they seemed like an ideal pair. Babe, newly divorced, needed to marry into wealth to save her reputation, while Bill, a Jewish-American immigrant, sought acceptance into New York’s wasp-y society. Babe married Bill in 1947 and they had one daughter together, Kate – but the marriage quickly soured when Babe discovered her husband’s philandering, and his obsession with keeping up perfect appearances.

“And left me to quietly throw out those sheets and order new ones from Porthault in Paris, which I did, and it was all white again. As it always is, always so…perfect for you.”

Naomi Watts, who plays the iconic socialite on screen, gave her thoughts on why Truman and Babe were seemingly made for each other: “I think there was a hole in her life. She needed this person at exactly this point in her life, having suffered in a lonely loveless marriage where [her husband, Bill Paley] was causing her a great deal of pain. So [Truman] comes along, he’s smart, he taught her about literature and art, as well as being playful and fun and silly and naughty—that was a side of her that she didn’t, she couldn’t, put forward in the world.”

Sadly, their friendship came to an abrupt end in 1975 when Capote published “La Côte Basque,” an excerpt from his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, which he told People Magazine would be filled with thinly-veiled characters mined from his vault of high society gossip and scandal. And his beloved Babe was not spared.

“How bad is it? Is it true?” “I’m sorry, Bill, I don’t know what to say. It’s no doubt it’s you and Babe.”

In Esquire, Capote tells the explicit story we see in the opening of the first episode, though in his article he renamed the couple The Dillons. The husband, quoted as the “TV clown/hero” and Jewish, has an affair with the Governor’s wife, who punishes him for reaching above his class by leaving menstrual blood on his sheets. The jilted Mrs. Dillon is painted as a sympathetic figure and echoes Capote’s own reverence for Babe Paley. The veracity of this story has never been confirmed in real life, but given Bill’s notorious womanizing ways it’s not totally unlikely that some parts of Truman’s story might have been pulled from real life.

Sadly, around the time of Truman’s betrayal, Babe Paley had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The series depicts Babe’s final years as a tragic display of pretense and grief, as she is rarely seen without lipstick or coiffed hair even during her trips to the hospital. The writers also use Babe’s illness as a plot device to villainize Capote in the Swans’ eyes. To them, his betrayal struck a mortal blow against the glamor queen of New York, who would never be the same again.

“You know, sometimes I feel so tired of all of us, of this… I could die.”

Babe Paley severed ties with Capote after the publication of “La Côte Basque,” which humiliated the socialite and made a caricature of her marriage—even if it was true. While the series shows a remorseful Bill Paley during his wife’s final years, in reality, the CBS mogul was still philandering up until Babe passed away at the age of 63. Feud even imagines that Bill was having an affair with Babe’s best friend, Slim Keith ...

However, the queen of New York kept it classy until the very end, cataloging her fine jewelry collection , and she planned her own funeral down to the guest list and each exquisite detail. And if you’re wondering if Truman and Babe made up before she died, as it happens on the show…

“It’s the most important part, the trying, because who ever really succeeds in the end?”

The sad answer is no. Truman and Babe never spoke again, and the writer did not receive an invitation to Babe Paley’s funeral.

Slim Keith

In “La Côte Basque,” the narrator, fashioned after Capote himself, has lunch with a drunken, foul-mouthed socialite named Lady Ina Coolbirth, who spills all the town gossip. It was widely speculated that Lady Coolbirth was based on the Californian socialite and former friend of Truman’s, Slim Keith. The queen of ladies-who-lunch earned the nickname “Slim” for her sporty and West Coast minimal style, which landed her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar when she was 22 years old. On Feud, Slim holds court at luncheons and dinner parties, and in one scene, tells a story about Princess Margaret plucked directly from Capote’s piece in Esquire.

Often entertaining with Hollywood’s elite, Slim Keith had relationships with actors like Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. She even once had a fling with the American writer Ernest Hemingway. The socialite was married three times, first to film director Howard Hawks and then to the producer, Leyland Hayward. Her final marriage was to the British banker and aristocrat, Sir Kenneth Keith, which bestowed her the title of Nancy, Lady Keith of Castleacre.

On Feud, Slim commandeers a campaign to make Truman the laughing stock of society after he publishes “La Côte Basque.” Given that Lady Coolbirth was mirrored after her in the most unflattering light, and humiliated her best friend Babe Paley, it’s not surprising why she’d feel spurred to revenge.

“Everyone will see it. Everyone will watch. He will have no door open to him. He will have no oxygen.”

There is no real account that Slim orchestrated Truman’s excommunication from society, but Feud posits otherwise . Feud’s fourth episode even imagines another reason why Slim was so adamant to take down Truman—she was sleeping with Babe’s husband, and needed something, or someone, to assuage her guilt. In real life, it was reported that Slim never spoke to Capote again despite his numerous attempts to contact her.

“How about this for truth? I’m suing you for defamation.”

C.Z. Guest

Among Capote’s circle of Swans was the ice-blonde beauty, C.Z. Guest, who is played by actress Chloë Sevigny on Feud. C.Z. Guest was known as one of Capote’s most loyal friends, even after the controversy of “La Côte Basque” But considering the most damning comment about her in Esquire was that she was a “cool, vanilla lady,” it makes sense why she likely took less offense to the piece than her friends Babe and Slim. C.Z. did, however, uninvite Truman to Thanksgiving dinner on her fellow Swans’ behest.

A Boston native, C.Z. Guest was born Lucy Douglas Cochrane, but adopted the name C.Z. from her childhood nickname, Sissy. She made her debut as an actress in a revival of Ziegfeld Follies before she married Winston Churchill’s second cousin, Winston Frederick Churchill Guest. Fun Fact: Slim Keith’s old beau, Ernest Hemingway, was the best man at their wedding. C.Z.’s beauty graced the cover of Time Magazine, and like her fellow Swans, she was an honorary member of the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame. She was a woman of many hobbies, but her favorite pastime was gardening. In fact, she published a book titled First Garden in 1976, in which Capote wrote the foreword.

In other words, C.Z. Guest lived a life that looked as perfect and manicured as her garden on her 150-acre property in Long Island. However, she did face some financial troubles due to her husband’s failed airline business, and was forced to sell the Long Island estate and most of her prized antique collection. Feud portrays this chapter in C.Z.’s life in Episode 3 but fictionalizes the circumstances when the I.R.S. shows up at her front door.

“The I.R.S? They’re coming now? Listen to me, C.Z, pour three fingers of single malt, rocks, I’ll be there by the third.”

She calls Truman for help, and Truman, who has a documentary crew following him around in prep for his grand Black & White Ball in 1966, is giddy with anticipation.

In real life, there was never a film about the Black and White Ball. The fictional documentary in episode three is most likely based on a short film the Maysles brothers made about Capote called A Visit with Truman. The unaired footage in episode three was a creative choice to hone in on what the show posits was Capote’s real motivation in his friendships: to exploit these women and profit from the human flaws that lay beneath their gilded exteriors.

Lee Radziwill

In Episode 3, which takes us back to Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, we come face-to-face with another Swan who was once enthralled by the writer but grew bitter toward him over time.

“He makes us into his number-one friend. He makes himself out to be our great protector, but really, is he?”

Born Caroline Lee Bouvier, Lee Radziwill was an actress and interior designer, but was more famously known as the younger sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. And she was, at one point, one of Truman Capote’s most loyal friends.

For some reason, Lee isn’t featured as much as the other Swans in the first several episodes of Feud, but the real story of her and Truman’s friendship is worth exploring, and provides important context to her bitter monologue in Episode 3.

“We have a man, a celebrated little man, trying to outdo himself in a ballet called Dance of the Seven Trumans.”

In a letter to photographer Cecil Beaton, Truman once said that Lee was jealous of Jackie, who at the time, was the First Lady of the United States. Despite claims that Lee lived in her sister’s shadow, the socialite did pretty well for herself, marrying a literal prince, which bestowed her the title of Princess Lee Radziwill. But marrying into royalty wasn’t enough for Lee, and in 1967, she enlisted the help of her friend Truman to begin a short-lived acting career. Capote, eager to remain in Princess Lee’s orbit, helped her get cast in a production of The Philadelphia Story and even wrote her a lead part in his television movie adaptation of the 1944 noir classic, Laura.

However, Lee’s performance was not the star-making turn she had hoped, and apparently Capote was absent throughout much of the writing process. Lee’s acting career ended the same year Laura premiered in 1968 after her performance was torn apart by critics.

“He’s in Hollywood, acting, acting in some grotesque little farce, Neil Simon. He’s insidious.”

Despite the movie’s failure, she and Capote remained close friends. However, in Feud, we get the sense that Lee is resentful of Truman, perhaps due to feeling jealous about his other friendships with high society women, like Babe Paley.

“Of course you’re the guest of honor, Babe. I mean Slim. I mean Lee.”

In Feud, Lee is onboard with Slim’s smear campaign against Truman, until she has a change of heart, and dresses down Slim for trying to destroy an already self-destructive person.

“Truman is a sick, desperately unhappy man destroying himself without any, any, help from you.”

While the exchange between Lee and Slim was dramatized for narrative purposes, the portrayal of Lee’s complicated feelings toward Truman reflect the real friendship between them that lasted after the Answered Prayers excerpt was published. However, things soured between them later that year after Truman told a salacious story about her sister, Jackie Kennedy, and the writer, Gore Vidal. Diane Lane, who plays Slim Keith on Feud, recalled meeting the real Lee Radziwill around the time Truman died and said “there was still an aura of betrayal.”

Ann Woodward

Arguably the juiciest part in Capote’s expose was aimed at the socialite and radio actress, Ann Woodward, who is played by Demi Moore on Feud. In 1955, Ann became the subject of a sensational true crime story when she – allegedly – mistook her husband for a burglar and shot him. Although she was found not guilty, the circumstances inspired much speculation, and Life Magazine even wrote about it as “The Shooting of the Century”

That was murder, my dear. She killed Billy with malice. The police are well aware of it.” “Well, how did she get away with it?” “Are you saying you couldn’t?”

After the shooting, Ann met Capote and believed him to be her friend – but the writer soon revealed that he had no intention of protecting Ann from her wanton reputation, often badmouthing her at parties. Despite their shared humble beginnings, Truman did not sympathize with Ann – especially after it was reported that Ann called him a slur. Twenty years later, he barely disguised her name in “La Côte Basque,” calling her Ann Hopkins and detailing the crime as a premeditated attempt to end an unhappy marriage, with a costly cover up story.

“That’s why Ann Hopkins got away with cold-blooded murder. Her mother-in-law is a Rhode Island goddess and a saint.”

Ann Woodward died by suicide just days before the story was published, and it’s been rumored that she was sent an advanced copy. Her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Woodward, was quoted saying: “She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her, and so now I suppose we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” Yikes. In Feud, the writers paint Ann as a more sympathetic figure, and her banishment from society foreshadows Truman’s own downfall when he decides to exploit his friends’ secrets.

“One day you will know what this poison tastes like. And remember, the only unforgivable sin is deliberate cruelty. You wrote that, didn’t you?”

Joanne Carson

There is one woman in particular who played a pivotal role in Truman Capote’s life: Joanne Carson, portrayed by Molly Ringwald on Feud. After her divorce from The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson in 1972, Joanne became very close with Capote . She even built him a writing room in her Bel Air home, where Capote worked on his unfinished masterpiece, Answered Prayers. And while Truman did write about Joanne and her troubled marriage to Johnny Carson in “La Côte Basque,” in the end Joanne valued Truman’s friendship more than her wounded pride.

Laurence Leamer, the author of the book, Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, which Feud is heavily based on, wrote: “It was a devastating depiction, and immediately recognizable to anyone who knew anything about Johnny Carson’s famously roving eye… But Joanne was so insecure (and so desirous of having Truman as her friend) that she did not let the shattering portrayal bother her.”

Feud leans into this characterization of Joanne as Capote’s sole defender. It was Joanne and Jack Dunphy, Truman’s lifelong on-and-off lover, that ultimately saw the good in him despite the havoc he wrought during his career. Episode two hints at Truman’s death, which would later take place at Joanne’s home in 1984, ten years after he published “La Côte Basque.”

Like other shows that portray the scandalous, fabulous lives of the uber-wealthy, Feud is a feast for the eyes, filled with zippy insults, opulent real estate and haute couture. But its heartbeat truly lies in its interpersonal relationships. The sting of Capote’s pen was enough to rupture a friendship that felt more like platonic soulmates , and in doing so, Truman inevitably wrote his own fate.

Feud’s screenwriter, Jon Robin Baitz, acknowledges how the show toys with the truth, much like Capote did during his career. “What is truth?” Baitz is quoted saying, “You navigate it by holding onto your sanity as much as you can…so you get really close to the story as you’re painting on the page with whatever words seem right.”

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