Moving Pictures
Apr 11, 2024, 06:27AM

Feud: Capote vs. Vidal

While Capote vs. The Swans gets a prime time slot the real feud remains untouched.

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When Truman Capote died, Gore Vidal, the writer with whom he had a years' long feud—including a $1 million lawsuit—called it Capote’s “best career move.” Capote had run through a lot of the fortune he’d earned and had become an alcoholic and pill-popper whose output was now more television appearances (sometimes drunken and incoherent) than actual writing.

When Capote was in the prime of his career, Vidal, a child of the upper class—Sidwell Friends and St. Albans education, a grandfather who was a U.S. Senator, a father who founded TWA—had remarked that Capote was striving to get into the social circles that he was striving to get out of. (Capote’s maternal family were rural dry goods store owners, and his father was a con man and stepfather an embezzler.) Trash-talking the coastal elites is just a luxury belief when you’re firmly ensconced in them, as was Vidal.

Capote and Vidal were acclaimed for working in specific genres of fiction. Capote created the modern true crime novel with In Cold Blood (1966). Less recognized, Vidal is, according to the late literary critic Harold Bloom, an important creator of distinguished historical fiction.

The writers, gay, produced early works centered on homosexual characters: Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) could be the first American gay novel. Vidal’s third novel, The City and the Pillar (also 1948), is about a gay soldier trying to reconnect with the first man he slept with. Capote was always open about being gay, way back in the 1940s. Vidal went through strange locutions like using the word “homosexualist” or claiming that there were only gay acts not gay people—though he’s buried in a Washington, DC military cemetery with a man with whom he spent 53 (no doubt not monogamous) years.

It’s funny to me that that both men wrote for popular magazines like Esquire—which other kids and I could find in my stepfather’s business’ waiting room—and also appeared on television. As a pre-teen and teen I was aware of Vidal, and spent a summer in a university library reading the bleak The City and the Pillar. (And the funnier Myra Breckenridge.) I was almost completely unaware of Capote. I may have been aware of Vidal because he punched up, feuding or making derogatory remarks about people like Ayn Rand or William F. Buckley Jr.

While Vidal was almost coming to blows with Buckley, Capote was inviting Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley Jr. to his famous Black and White Ball, for 400 guests who in today’s world would be called influencers: the wealthy, talented, famous, heavily slanted to people in PR, publishing, movies and television, and media. From Tallulah Bankhead to Candice Bergen to Bennett Cerf. People who could often, among other things, sell more copies of a book.

It’s surprising that Ryan Murphy’s FX/Hulu show Feud: Capote vs. The Swans, isn’t about the feud between Capote and Vidal. It’s about Capote befriending the last set of wealthy American and European women who exercised power just by being style innovators and marrying powerful men, and how he betrayed them and lost their friendship by telling their secrets in his later fiction.

Murphy’s story is fiction. The last episode includes the ghosts of the swans revisiting Capote’s and their Manhattan haunts as well as a contrite Capote attempting to atone for the betrayal before he dies, and being ultimately forgiven. So far one child of a swan, Babe Paley’s daughter, has written that the character on screen portrayed by Naomi Watts bears no relation to her mother. But the swans are far more cinematic that Gore Vidal would’ve been: Naomi Watts (Babe Paley, wife of the chairman of CBS), Chloe Sevigny, Molly Ringwald (as the second Mrs. Johnny Carson), Diane Lane, Demi Moore, and Calista Flockhart (as Lee Radziwill).

Murphy leaves things out you’d think might’ve been included—if this were historically accurate. Ann Woodward (Demi Moore), the first swan he betrays, with the blessing of the other swans (she was too obvious a gold digger), a poor girl from the Midwest who’d tried to refashion herself into a cultured lady, then married her upper-crust sugar daddy’s son to achieve the wealth and social prominence she craved. But then she may have murdered her husband when she shot him, claiming she had mistaken him for an intruder. Left out of Murphy’s show is that Ann’s husband was widely believed by his family to be gay (or bisexual) and that Woodward had charged he wanted to bring another man into their bed. (And that when she was mad at Capote she called him a “faggot.”) See Roseanne Montillo’s biography of Ann Woodward, Deliberate Cruelty.

Capote insinuated himself into these social circles by being witty and charming—and as a petite and effeminate little pixie, very non-threatening. (The taller and socially-connected Vidal could not be so non-threatening.)

It’s interesting that Murphy produced this the same year his American Horror Stories series is portraying a satanic IVF clinic and the year the Pope has denounced surrogacy. By becoming the darling of beautiful powerful women, Capote was able to influence, and enjoy the wealth of, the powerful men they could marry but he couldn’t. He was using their bodies for the power female beauty supplies, perhaps why many gay men worship divas like Cher, Streisand, or Midler, and a few want to dress up and pretend to be them. We’d all like, we think, to be married to the chairman of CBS. In books about Capote and the swans, like Deliberate Cruelty or Party of the Century, we learn that Capote may have picked the mistresses of the powerful men, sometimes with the supervision of the swan who was his wife.

  • Gore Vidal’s feud with Truman Capote stemmed largely from literary envy as his book The City and the Pillar got him blacklisted while Capote’s book Other Voices, Other Rooms which also dealt with gay themes made the best seller lists. Gore Vidal had a mean spirited vindictiveness towards those he loathed which was a long list of people and the spiteful grudges he held were eternal even after his enemies death with the “best career move” comment after Capote’s death and the “RIP WFB-in hell” after William F. Buckley’s death as examples. He even insulted WFB son Cristopher Buckley calling him “creepy” and “brain dead’. I guess for Gore Vidal being the son of your deceased enemy also makes you fair game for trashing...That being said it should be noted that Gore Vidal was an exceptional writer.. Perhaps my favorite book he wrote was 1876 which covered in descriptive detail one of the most interesting Presidential elections in U.S history between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. A very intriguing read... Gore Vidal is a prime example of the complete disconnect between talent, [Gore Vidal’s talent as a writer was tremendous] and basic human decency which in the case of Gore Vidal was in woefully short supply.

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