Truman Capote, Empress of Fashion, A Life of Diana Vreeland
“She’s a genius but she’s the kind of genius that very few people will ever recognize because you have to have genius yourself to recognize it. Otherwise you just think she’s a rather foolish woman.”
Truman Capote, Empress of Fashion, A Life of Diana Vreeland
Image Credit: Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style
“One of the immediately striking things about Beaton’s personal behavior is the manner in which he creates an illusion of time-without-end. Though he is apparently always under the pressure of a disheartening schedule, one would never suppose he wasn’t a gentleman of almost tropical leisure.”
Truman Capote, The Best of Beaton
The above portrait of Cecil Beaton by his friend Rex Whistler was one of the lots in a 2008 Sotheby's London sale, "Pruskin: Decorative Art 1880-1960."
It is correct that Americans do not always understand the ways and customs of the British, but the opposite can be equally true. Consider the negative description of Katharine Graham in The House of Mitford, written by Diana Mitford's son and granddaughter, Jonathan and Catherine Guinness. They erroneously label Graham as a member of the far left, writing that her newspaper, the Washington Post, "played a vital part in preparing the American public for the abandonment of Indochina to Communism as well as exploiting the Watergate burglary to hound President Nixon out of office.”
As most Americans have long been aware, Graham was hardly a revolutionary. She was mainstream, albeit swimming nearer to the left bank of the stream. It is true when she published the Pentagon Papers, she played a pivotal role in alerting the American public what the military command had long known: the Vietnam War was un-winnable. However, it speaks volumes that in deciding to publish the Pentagon Papers, she had to go against one of her closest friends, Robert S. McNamara. He, as Secretary of Defense, was the very person directing American military involvement in Vietnam. Yet, he forgave her and, several decades hence, was a pallbearer at her funeral. The truth was that she socialized with and was held in high regard by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
A case in point was Graham's warm relationship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Their friendship began long before the Reagans moved to Washington, D.C. It originated when he was governor of California when a friend of Graham's visited Mrs. Reagan in Sacramento and realized she and Graham would get along quite well. Who was this friend?
The answer is after the JUMP.
“There’ll be quite a few lines you’ll recognize. I hope you don’t mind.”
--F. Scott Fitzgerald to Budd Schulberg, The Four Seasons of Success
Writing can be like pulling a rabbit out of a hat—a conjuring trick. Yes, there is magic, but there is also sleight of hand. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even an author of his stature pirated experiences from his friends, making off with their best lines and material. One day in December 1940, a few weeks prior to Fitzgerald's death, young Budd Schulberg discovered that the hard way when Scott permitted him to read the first few chapters of the manuscript for Fitzgerald's novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon. The book was familiar to Schulberg, and not because he had already read it, but because some of the best bits were taken from his own life.
Schulberg was the scion of one of the original film families. His father had been director of production at Paramount. The film industry was a part of young Schulberg's life from the time he learned to walk. Make-believe was his reality. He understood Hollywood in a way that non-natives rarely do. It was only natural that Schulberg entered the family business, but he did so as a wunderkind screenwriter, not as a producer. Schulberg wanted to become a novelist and could not believe his luck when Walter Wanger assigned literary legend F. Scott Fitzgerald to help Schulberg complete the script for Winter Carnival (1939)
The project was a life-changing one for Schulberg, and at times hair-raising (when Fitzgerald's demons got the better of him). In spite of those difficulties or maybe because of them, Schulberg and Fitzgerald bonded. Life, however, is filled with the shades of grey not found in Hollywood Technicolor productions. Fitzgerald's avuncular interest in Schulberg did not preclude him from making off with his new friend's best material. What better person to help Scott authenticate his novel about Hollywood than someone who had been born into one of its leading families? The great author's inner dictaphone was always recording. Reading The Last Tycoon, Schulberg discovered:
There were many moments when Scott seemed to be telling his story directly through my eyes. There were my anecdotes, my observations of Hollywood personalities with whom I had been raised. It was almost as if I had written the book and then Scott had filtered it through his more tempered and sophisticated imagination. ... I wished, quite frankly, that I could call back some of the things I had told him. Now that they were imbedded in his book, to use them again would be a most curious form of plagiarism.
Schulberg eventually made his peace with the legacy of his late friend. And, in the end, he evened the score with his novel, The Disenchanted. It was based upon his writing experiences with Fitzgerald, their research trip to an New England college campus, and its comedic but disastrous consequences. [Download the audio version of The Disenchanted narrated by Kevin T. Collins—it is excellent.]
Zelda Fitzgerald could have warned Budd Schulberg about her husband's propensity for literary graft, but she was locked away in an insane asylum. Significant portions of Fitzgerald's earlier novel The Beautiful and the Damned were lifted directly from her diaries and letters. Zelda was one of the most original personalities of the 20th Century, and some of Fitzgerald's best work was actually hers. An editor friend wanted to publish excerpts of her diaries, but for obvious reasons, Scott insisted she refuse. [See Nancy Milford's Zelda: A Biography or Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation.]
F. Scott Fitzgerald was, of course, not the only writer guilty of literary thievery. The actress and playwright Ruth Gordon inserted a Dorothy Parker-type character into so many of her plays that Dorothy quipped she dare not write her memoirs lest Gordon "sue her for plagiarism." Lillian Hellman was another notorious thief. She claimed the heroic deeds of another as her own in her autobiographical Pentimento. She nearly got away with it, but for the publicity when the book was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film Julia. [See "Lillian Hellman versus Mary McCarthy" in Literary Feuds, A Century of Celebrated Quarrels.] And, proving the rule that cheaters never prosper was Truman Capote. The publication of “La Côte Basque, 1965,” in which Truman notoriously stole from the lives of his society friends, all but destroyed him.
“Truman hasn’t written anything in years, and what’s more, he hasn’t read anything in years.”
--Gore Vidal, via Leo Lerman, The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman
“Of course, I’m always sad about Gore. Very sad that he has to breathe every day.”
--Truman Capote, Literary Feuds, A Century of Celebrated Quarrels—from Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe
“Truman stole from Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. The only thing he and I have in common are our mothers are both drunks.”
--Gore Vidal, via Patricia Bosworth, The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan
How does one top Joan Crawford versus Bette Davis? Might we suggest Truman Capote versus Gore Vidal? Perhaps the indomitable Mamacita left Crawford to work for Truman's great friend Joanne Carson? How about it Ryan Murphy?
Babe Paley Talks, Or Does She?
“Style is the ultimate mode of autobiography.”
--Iké Udé, Style File, The World's Most Elegantly Dressed
Given the inherent bias in reporting one’s own life, Iké Udé might be correct in asserting that style is the most authentic form of self-revelation. There is a problem with that, however. Once a person’s public image becomes as legendary as Babe Paley’s, sooner or later someone will invent words to accompany that image. That is what author Melanie Benjamin has done with Babe Paley in the novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue.
She portrays Babe as kindhearted as she is lovely. Beneath the couture wardrobe and the impeccable manners, however, is a desperate and isolated woman: a tragic figure. The Swans of Fifth Avenue version of Babe Paley is a recluse in plain sight whose emotional camouflage is a thin-but-impenetrable veneer of perfection. From Swans, “[Babe] was lonely in her own home, in her own bed—in her own skin—and she couldn’t tell a soul. ‘Don’t air your dirty laundry outside the family,’ Mother had said a million times.”
This interpretation is not without foundation. Friends hinted at it. Vogue editor Babs Simpson described Babe thusly, “Extraordinary skin, beautiful hair, beautiful figure, and dressed better than anybody I have ever seen. She was fun and lively and cozy and I think probably quite a lonely person.” Alas, it would be divine if women of great style like Babe Paley were as perfect in their happiness as they were in everything else. Sadly, the truth is that the road traveled by a perfectionist is often tortuous and lonely, and so it seems to have been for Babe.
Moreover, Babe lacked the hard shell that is as useful in Manhattan society as an armored tank in battle. Cattiness is a shield of sorts, but Babe’s only criticisms were reserved for herself. By all accounts, she rarely, if ever, spoke an unkind word about anyone. Instead, her main defense in the world was a vigorous offense—a strenuous (and ultimately exhausting) commitment to beauty and perfection. Truman Capote quipped, “Mrs. P. had only one fault. She was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect.” If Babe’s meticulousness was indeed her only fault, it is an intriguing one, nearly as beguiling as the half-smile of the Mona Lisa.
The Truman character in Swans is the absurd knight in shining armor that rescues Babe from the prison she created for herself. This Truman is so intelligent, so audacious that he effortlessly shatters her defense mechanisms. Only with him, Babe sheds her dignity and becomes the giddy schoolgirl her domineering mother Gogsie never permitted her to be. The book dares to imagine what Babe was thinking: “Truman is a real friend, the only one who has ever talked to you like this. The only one who cares enough to tell you the truth. The only one who wants to see the past surface. This moment is important. It is the template for the rest of your life. Don’t run away from it.”
Swans even speculates that Babe desired a sexual relationship with her new friend. That sounds ridiculous, but this was early Truman Capote, years before he was bloated by alcoholism and drug addiction. In those days, he was odd-looking but also strangely beautiful. It was as if Truman was an alien and represented the height of attractiveness on a faraway planet.
Also, his effeminate voice contradicted how strong he actually was. Yes, he famously bested Humphrey Bogart at arm-wrestling. It was more than that, though. He was mentally tough. Truman would stand up to anyone, but he was also confident enough to understand when it was expedient to yield. It was a powerful combination, and it was part of his charm. He could be cheeky and subservient all in the same breath. Society A-Listers like Babe and Bill Paley found it irresistible.
It is unclear Babe had as deep of an emotional bond with Truman as Swans of Fifth Avenue suggests. They were certainly close, and he had the nerve to broach subjects no one else would dare. Yet even with him, there might have been conversations that would not have come easily to someone as reserved as Babe Paley. Moreover, the actual Babe had other confidants, including a school chum who lived in upstate New York. That friend, removed from society’s glare, might have been the sort of person whom Babe felt she could trust just as much, if not more, than the court jester of her social set.
Thus far, the best reference source for what Babe Paley actually said and thought is Sally Bedell Smith’s In All His Glory, The Life of William S. Paley. Though Bill is the main subject, the book covers Babe in considerable detail. It includes interviews with friends like Irene Mayer Selznick, Slim Keith, Marietta Tree, Susan Mary Alsop, and Diana Vreeland. Babe’s daughter Amanda Burden and sister Betsey Whitney were also interviewed. From this and a few other sources, a less forlorn portrait of Babe Paley emerges.
In Swans, the fictional Babe despairs over Truman’s betrayal, which she regards as, “The loss of trust, the loss of joy; the loss of herself.” The book has Babe essentially retreat from the world and into her deathbed, where she succumbs to terminal cancer while lamenting the loss of her only true friend. It makes for a poignant scene in a novel, but as is usually the case, actual life is more nuanced.
Babe maintained an active social life until nearly the end. In the summer of 1977, Andy Warhol spotted her at a star-studded soiree at the Dakota attended by everyone from Jacqueline Onassis to Sue Mengers. And, when she was too ill to leave her apartment, café society visited her there. According to Bedell Smith, “A stream of friends came to see her.” Well-wishers included not only intimates like Slim Keith but also such remote acquaintances as Robert Rauschenberg and Joan Didion.
Just as importantly, Babe’s children stepped in to fill the vacuum in her life created by Truman’s departure. Babe had always been close with her eldest son Tony Mortimer, but prior to her illness, a jealous Bill curtailed their time together. When she became bedridden, Tony would visit twice per day, presumably without objection from a distraught Bill who at last took his wife’s feelings into account.
Babe also reconciled with Amanda, the eldest daughter that was in some ways like her. But for a roll of the dice, they could have been lifelong allies. Yet Babe’s full-time job as the wife of Mrs. William S. Paley long overshadowed her ability to be a nurturing mother. Matters were not helped when, upon Amanda’s marriage to Carter Burden, Amanda became the toast of New York and Babe’s social rival. [See “Mr. and Mrs. Carter Burden, Jr.: A Young Couple in New York,” Vogue’s Book of Houses, Gardens, People].
Amanda told Sally Bedell Smith that in Babe’s final months, all the years of benign neglect and social rivalry melted away. Babe and Amanda at last connected. Swans ignores this cathartic event, preferring its more tragic version of Babe. This Babe suffered in silence, dwelling upon the lost friendship with Truman.
One reason Truman’s betrayal might not have affected Babe as deeply as Swans of Fifth Avenue imagines is that her friendship with Truman was likely already in decline. “La Côte Basque, 1965” might have been merely the point of no return in a relationship past its prime. By 1975, Truman was a decade into self-immolation by drugs and drink. Babe might well have concluded her friendship with Truman had “jumped the shark,” if 1) that idiom had then been coined; and 2) the 1970s sitcom that inspired the expression had aired on Bill’s CBS rather than a rival network.
Truman had begun to disturb Babe and his other Swans by bringing along rough trade as dates to their elegant soirees and yachting excursions. Moreover, his very public feuds were an embarrassment—they went against everything for which the Paleys stood. There is a telling episode in Swans in which Babe grimaces as she watches Truman on national television telling Johnny Carson that his nemesis Jacqueline Susann resembles a truck driver in drag. Could it be that even camouflaged by Babe’s perfect manners, Truman sensed that she was beginning to pull away from him?
Also, Babe had already been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would ultimately cause her death. Truman had been repeatedly abandoned in childhood by the mother whom he had adored and who committed suicide when he was a young man. This psychological baggage might have driven Truman to end the friendship with Babe before she or her death could. In early drafts of “La Côte Basque,” it was a character based upon Averell Harriman that frantically scrubbed sex-stained sheets prior to his wife’s return home. Only later did Truman graft the story onto Bill Paley, to whom, by many accounts, the episode actually happened. What precipitated the change? Was it Truman’s realization that his friendship with the Paleys would soon unravel?
After the scandal of “La Côte Basque” broke, Truman explained that his purpose was not to hurt Babe but to protect her. Such a protestation is lunacy from the friend who claimed he knew her better than anyone else. He must have must have realized how deeply she, of all his Swans, valued her privacy. Babe obviously had no choice but to end their friendship. Not only did Bill demand it, but the ghost of her mother as well.
Even so, might not Truman have inadvertently done Babe a favor by unshackling her from the myth she and Bill created? If self-awareness is one of life’s purposes, then it was a necessary step for her. Intimates report that in Babe’s last days, she no longer treated Bill with the cheerful subservience that had so long characterized their marriage. Might Truman’s public revelation of Bill’s infidelity have at long last set Babe free?
In her final years, Babe began to consider what else she might have done with her life, which, though painful, might also have been healing. Her mother raised her to be a trophy wife to a rich man, and in that, she was a tremendous success. She seems to have finally realized that the creativity and perfectionism required to become Mrs. William S. Paley would have served her just as well had she pursued a career. Might this too have been an epiphany that Truman's betrayal helped along?
On many levels Swans of Fifth Avenue is a success. Its flaw is the occasionally mawkish portrayal of Babe Paley. Yet it is also sympathetic to her. In today’s more liberated environment, it is easy to disregard how different things were for women from Babe’s generation whose ambitions were domesticated at an early age by parents like Babe’s mother Gogsie. Books like Swans serve to remind us. Moreover, the book sheds light upon a glamorous but hard-edged time in New York society, and how challenging it must have been for a kind and sensitive person like Babe Paley to scale its heights.
Epilogue: If Babe Paley Talks, Where?
AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND CORRESPONDENCE
Unlike many of her counterparts in English society, Babe left behind minimal paper trail. Consider Lady Diana Cooper, for example. She penned three volumes of memoirs. Moreover, just as many collections of her letters have been published.
Babe Paley left no memoir, but she was a letter writer. Her correspondents included Truman, of course, but also friends such as Marietta Tree and Irene Mayer Selznick. Her letters to Marietta are part of the Marietta Tree archive at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library. The letters to Capote have never surfaced. The location of his to her is also a mystery. No such correspondence was included in Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote. However, his missives to others in that book confirm that such letters were written. If sufficient correspondence still exists, perhaps one day it will be published or find its way into an archive?
As we have noted in previous posts, Truman should not be considered a reliable witness. On a good day, his accounts were marred by exaggeration. On a bad one, they were complete lies. One exception to this rule is the scandal he called “Topic A” in café society: the breakup of Leland and Slim Hayward’s marriage as result of Leland’s love affair with Pamela Churchill. From Truman’s letters in Too Brief a Treat, we know that loyal Babe took her friend Slim’s side, rupturing the united front long maintained by the three Cushing sisters. According to Truman, middle sister Betsey was firmly in Pamela’s camp, “so grateful is she that the threat to her own happy home has been removed.” [Betsey feared her husband Jock and Pamela might rekindle their wartime love affair.]
IN SLIM’S MEMOIR
In her book, Slim, Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life, Slim Keith chose to ignore that Babe inexplicably snubbed her in her will. [Though supposedly Babe’s closest friend, Slim received a relatively minor bauble.] Slim focuses on the positive. She writes, “Babe became the best woman friend I’ve ever had. She possessed all the qualities that one looks for in a female friend—totally trustworthy, kind, thoughtful, funny. I admired her more than any woman I’ve known, on every level. And I learned a tremendous amount from her about character, goodness, kindness, manners—hers were the best of anyone’s—and taste.”
THROUGH THE WILLIAM S. PALEY BIOGRAPHY
Sally Bedell Smith convinced an astonishing number of press-shy individuals to go on record for her book In All His Glory, The Life of William S. Paley. It remains the best source for peeling away the various public and private layers that shroud Babe Paley in mystery. She was a complex character: renowned for her kindness but by all accounts, even her own, a negligent parent. The only source that adequately deconstructs this paradox is the Bedell Smith book.
VIA HER DAUGHTER AMANDA BURDEN
Amanda is one of the most intriguing of those who agreed to be interviewed by Sally Bedell Smith. In many ways, Amanda was much like Babe, even becoming her rival in society when she married Carter Burden (who revered and sought to emulate Bill Paley). Even with much in common, the mother and daughter were distant until the final three months of Babe’s life. In sharp contrast to her own domineering mother, Babe was a remote parent. Might this have ultimately been helpful? Amanda was able to live her own life rather than conform to the blueprint established by her social climbing Cushing grandmother. Like Babe, Amanda had a knack for beauty and perfection, but she ultimately channeled it into a remarkable career, serving as New York City’s Planning Director in the Mayor Bloomberg Administration.
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK: BABE’S PROFILE IN COURAGE
Babe Paley had one moment that just might live on in the history books. In 1954, when CBS’s star anchor Edward R. Morrow courageously eviscerated Senator Joseph McCarthy and his self-serving witch-hunt for Communists, Babe and Bill watched the broadcast with Leland and Slim Hayward in the Paleys’ suite at the St. Regis. At the show’s end, it was Babe, not Bill, who telephoned Murrow and told him “how good the program was.” A cautious Bill held back in case the public happened to take McCarthy’s side over Murrow’s, requiring Bill to disavow his star broadcaster.
OF COURSE, IN STYLE
Babe’s taste in clothes and home decoration transcended any one designer. To be certain that her homes left her imprimatur rather than that of a leading tastemaker, Babe hired multiple design firms for the same project. Parish Hadley, Jansen, and Billy Baldwin all worked on the Paleys’ twenty-room apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue. [Check out Babe and Bill Paley’s 820 Fifth Avenue home in this Wall Street Journal profile.]
Though he dared not show his face at her funeral, the fictional Truman in Swans of Fifth Avenue privately eulogizes Babe. His words best sum up the extraordinary character and discipline without which there would have been no Babe Paley: “For despite her protests, [Babe] had reveled in her image, had worked hard at it, harder than he had ever worked on a book in his life. Every minute of every hour of every day was spent cultivating her style, perpetuating the myth.”
Image Credits: the Cecil Beaton photograph of Babe Paley is from The Fifties in Vogue; the photograph of Truman Capote and Babe Paley by Gloria Braggiotti Etting is from By the Way: Photographs; the photograph of Carter and Amanda Burden by Horst P. Horst is from Vogue's Book of Houses, Gardens, People; the photograph of Slim and Leland Hayward and the snapshot of Babe Paley just below it are from Slim, Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life; and the photograph of Babe Paley by John Rawlings is from The World in Vogue.
Which American author sometimes used the alias "Namurt Etopac" when signing correspondence?
Hint: The solution is hiding in plain sight.
The answer is after the JUMP.
"Andy [Warhol] is a very shy person with an extraordinary talent to get other people to do things for him. In that factory he runs down there, he has thirty-five or forty people, more or less unpaid, who are doing all these incredible things for Andy and one can’t exactly figure out what the grip is. It’s sort of like a strange orphanage for would-be talented people."
--Truman Capote, Conversations with Capote
Image Credit: Mrs. Tependris: The Contemporary Years
La Côte Basque Los Angeles: "Slim, pass Me the Wrench!"
“’‘La Côte Basque’ was most certainly not like reading Proust; it was more like a surgeon doing an operation with garage tools. It’s as though Truman, having lost his scalpel and sutures, said, “Pass me the wrench.’”
Slim Keith, Slim, Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life
Readers who prefer their fiction with fast-moving plots might be forgiven for overlooking the literary works of Truman Capote. His novels—though brilliantly crafted—lack propulsion. It took the tragic murder of the Clutter family and the execution of their killers to provide Capote with the structure his fiction lacked. Even the unfinished novel Answered Prayers, of which “La Côte Basque, 1965” was a chapter, was more blind item gossip column than component of a novel. Capote hoped this book would brand him as the American Proust. Instead, the serialization of one of its chapters turned him into a pariah, making him as notorious as he was famous—the kiss of death for a serious writer.
The stir created by the chapter’s release did have one positive outcome. It gave Capote’s life story a riveting third act. Truman’s personal life contained all the drama his fiction lacked: difficult childhood; spectacular rise; misguided betrayal of his friends; and his tragic downfall. At its apogee, there is even the most talked-about party of the 20th Century--Capote’s Black and White Ball. Melanie Benjamin takes full advantage of this near-perfect arc in her novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue. Yes, she emphasizes melodrama over style, which was not Truman Capote’s way. Its strength, however, is that it transforms Truman’s legendary Swans from one-dimensional style icons into living, breathing human beings, with all the discordant beauty and ugliness that entails. Ironically that was just what Capote hoped to accomplish with Answered Prayers.
Much of the of destruction "La Côte Basque" wrought is well known: Ann Woodward’s suicide; Slim Keith’s humiliation at being outed as a malicious gossip; and most poignantly, the embarrassment to his closest friend Babe Paley as she battled terminal cancer. The list goes on and on, much of which Benjamin covers in Swans of Fifth Avenue. A betrayal that Benjamin omits, however, is that of Capote’s great friend Joanne Carson and her ex-husband Johnny, the legendary Tonight Show host.
One of the secrets of Hollywood was that though Johnny Carson was loved by millions, he was liked by few. As his longtime Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon put it, “Johnny Carson packs a tight suitcase. You won’t get in.” His off-screen personality was mercurial and brooding. In person, Johnny lacked the charm that shined so brightly on television.
Carson entered Capote’s world when they occupied neighboring apartments at the United Nations Plaza (back when the The Tonight Show was first taped in New York). There were frequent storms in Johnny and Joanne’s marriage, and she sought refuge at Truman’s. Capote witnessed firsthand the torment Joanne suffered before finally divorcing the king of late night television.
Perhaps Truman included the Johnny Carson character in “La Côte Basque,” to avenge his friend Joanne. After all, protecting Babe was ostensibly his motivation for humiliating Bill Paley in that same chapter. However, in so doing, Capote does not paint an altogether flattering portrait of the friend whom he is supposedly avenging. Johnny is barely disguised as the loathsome television host Bobby Baxter. Joanne is Jane, Bobby’s long-suffering but overbearing wife. From the chapter:
Mrs. [Walter] Matthau and Mrs. [Wyatt] Cooper lingered over cafe filtre. “I know,” mused Mrs. Matthau, who was analyzing the wife of a midnight-TV clown/hero, “Jane is pushy: all those telephone calls – Christ, she could dial Answer Prayer and talk an hour. But she’s bright, she’s fast on the draw, and when you think what she has to put up with. This last episode she told me about: hair-raising. Well, Bobby had a week off from the show – he was so exhausted he told Jane he wanted just to stay home, spend the whole week slopping around in his pajamas, and Jane was ecstatic; she bought hundreds of magazines and books and new LP’s and every kind of goody from Maison Glass. Oh, it was going to be a lovely week. Just Jane and Bobby sleeping and screwing and having baked potatoes with caviar for breakfast. But after one day he evaporated. Didn’t come home night or call. It wasn’t the first time, Jesus be, but Jane was out of her mind. Still, she couldn’t report it to the police; what a sensation that would be. Another day passed, and not a word. Jane hadn’t slept for forty-eight hours. Around three in the morning the phone rang. Bobby. Smashed. She said: ‘My God, Bobby, where are you?’ He said he was in Miami, and she said, losing her temper now, how the fuck did you get in Miami, and he said, oh, he’d gone to the airport and taken a plane, and she said what the fuck for, and he said just because he felt like being alone. Jane said: ‘And are you alone?’ Bobby, you know what a sadist he is behind that huckleberry grin, said: ‘No. There’s someone lying right here. She’d like to speak to you.’ And on comes this scared little giggling peroxide voice: ‘Really, is this really Mrs. Baxter, hee hee? I thought Bobby was making a funny, hee hee. We just heard on the radio how it was snowing there in New York – I mean, you ought to be down here with us where it’s ninety degrees!’ Jane said, very chiseled: ‘I’m afraid I’m much too ill to travel.’ And peroxide, all fluttery, distress: ‘Oh, gee, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the matter, honey?’ Jane said: ‘I’ve got a double dose of syph and the old clap-clap, all courtesy of that great comic, my husband, Bobby Baxter – and if you don’t want the same, I suggest you get the hell out of there.’ And she hung up.”
There was really no doubt that Johnny was Truman’s sadist television host with a “huckleberry grin.” Capote admits as much in Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations with Capote, published in 1985:
I feel extremely sorry for [Johnny Carson’s] wife. I feel even sorrier for her now. Not this new wife, she’s divorcing him. But his second wife, Joanne. She was very good to him. She did a tremendous amount for Johnny. I don’t think Johnny would have survived or have had remotely the career he’s had if it hadn’t been for her. But he was mean as hell to her. And they lived right next door. He would holler and get terribly angry and she would take refuge in my apartment. She would hide and Johnny would come pounding on the door, shouting, ‘I know she’s in there.’ And I would just maintain a dead silence.”
By the time “La Côte Basque” was released in 1975, Joanna and Johnny Carson were divorced and by accident of fate, both living in California. She moved to Los Angeles first, purchasing a Bel Air home just off Sunset Boulevard. It was where Truman Capote would take his last breath in 1984. Johnny relocated not long after, when production of The Tonight Show shifted from New York City to Burbank. This move must have irritated Joanne, particularly when Johnny remarried someone with the confusingly similar name, “Joanna.” It is a detail that sometimes gets the better of fact checkers. [Abrams Publishing makes the mistake on page 196 of Gore Vidal's Snapshots in History's Glare.]
The West Coast reaction to “La Côte Basque” was mixed. Carol Matthau, whose name Capote did not even bother to disguise, was the Mrs. Matthau he used to disparage Bobby Baxter (a.k.a. Johnny Carson). She was one of the few society friends who stood by him. Mrs. Matthau’s dinner companion in the piece, Mrs. Wyatt Cooper—née Gloria Vanderbilt, did not. Johnny Carson himself made no public comment, but his response is easily inferred. In the half decade prior to “La Côte Basque,” Truman appeared as a guest on the Tonight Show several times per year. After “La Côte Basque,” he made only more appearance, and that was on an episode Barbara Walters guest hosted. That conciliatory gesture was perhaps impossible for the Tonight Show to avoid, as it was to promote Neil Simon’s Murder by Death in which Capote co-starred.
Predictably “La Côte Basque” had no affect on Joanne Carson. She remained steadfast—the one person on whom Capote could always rely. In fact, she stayed true to the legacies of both Truman and Johnny. When asked about “La Côte Basque” by the Los Angeles Times in 2006, Carson’s first instinct was to demure, explaining she did not wish to damage her former husband’s reputation. Yet she could not help but add that the blame was hers “for telling Capote the story in the first place.”
RIP JOANNE CARSON
Joanne Carson died at the age of eight-three in May 2015. In her obituary, the Los Angeles Times noted she was also connected to the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. She met him while working as a stewardess at Pan Am, and through Hughes’s recommendation, was given a screen test at RKO Pictures, his Hollywood studio. The New York Times obituary used a divine glamour shot of Johnny and Joanne Carson from a formal event in 1969. It went into surprisingly little detail, minimizing her connection to two of the 20th Century’s most influential personalities. The Daily Mail provided just a brief character sketch but included a generous assortment of period photographs that are well worth the jump.
JOANNE CARSON MEMOIR
Though Truman Capote’s plots were threadbare, he was an extraordinary wordsmith. Norman Mailer gushed that there was not one sentence he would change in Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Also, consider Capote’s edits to a memoir Joanne Carson began but never finished in which she writes of falling in love with Johnny Carson:
Joanne’s Version: "I wanted to hold on to that moment. To hold on to that feeling, the rush that only being in love can give you, for the rest of my life."
Truman’s Rewrite: "If only I could have held that moment, crystallized it, preserved forever that shining feeling, the rush that early love, first love, provides. Thank God it happened. Because I was never again to experience that feeling, that intense satisfaction; never, not quite."
THE PRIVATE WORLD OF TRUMAN CAPOTE
Joanne Carson completed just that one chapter of her memoir. She called it quits when the Random House editor assigned to her insisted it include the scandalous tidbits one finds in a celebrity tell-all. The manuscript exists in a typewritten form with extensive edits by Capote. It laid dormant for two decades, becoming public knowledge in 2006 when it was included in Bonhams’s “The Private World of Truman Capote,” the sale in which Joanne Carson auctioned off her cache of Truman Capote memorabilia. The brilliance of Capote’s numerous edits reignited the old rumor that Truman extensively revised his childhood friend Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
LUNCH WITH JOANNE CARSON
Joanne Carson and I shared a mutual friend who invited us both for lunch in 2003. She spoke of Truman, Johnny, Babe Paley, and the tremendous excitement leading up to Truman’s Black & White Ball. In the 21st Century, flooded with hundreds of programming alternatives, it is now difficult to imagine the power Johnny Carson wielded in the 1960s when there were only three commercial networks. The Tonight Show had a market share unimaginable today, which Joanne discussed during our lunch.
As Mrs. Johnny Carson, Joanne shared his power. The transition to ex-wife must have been difficult. She seemed to have managed it with dignity and devoid of bitterness.
For more about Johnny Carson and his heyday on The Tonight Show, check out “Theeeeere’s Johnny!” on the Vanity Fair website.
HENRY BUSHKIN'S JOHNNY CARSON MEMOIR
In 2013, Carson’s longtime lawyer, fixer, and wingman published Johnny Carson, a frank memoir about the employer who fired him in 1988. His account of the breakup of Johnny and Joanne’s marriage involves Frank Gifford and a .38 revolver concealed on Johnny’s person. His inference is that but for a roll of the dice, the 1960s might have had its own version of O.J. and Nicole Simpson. The book received unenthusiastic reviews from the New York Times and the Washington Post (yet both considered it significant enough to merit a review).
JOANNA CARSON, 'E' BEFORE 'A' WHEN PRECEDING 'C'
It turned out that the only difference between Johnny's marriages was the exchange of an "e" for an "a" in Joanne. The third Mrs. Carson experienced many of the same difficulties the second Mrs. Carson had. She also divorced him, as noted in this People magazine story.
DEATH OF TRUMAN CAPOTE
In August 1984, Truman realized his health was failing so he booked a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. He died within a few days of arriving at Joanne's. He refused Joanne's request to call him an ambulance. As he lay dying, he quipped, "Just think of me as going to China. There's no phone or mail service there." Via Truman Capote, In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.
Though Gore Vidal and Truman Capote had known each other since the 1940s, labeling them “frenemies” would be putting too harmonious of a spin on their acrimonious relationship. When Capote died in Joanne Carson’s home in 1984, Gore penned a wry note of condolence to her ex-husband Johnny. Read more about it in the Nick Harvill Libraries blog post, “Competitive Dying.”
The photograph of Aristotle and Jacqueline Onassis at La Côte Basque is from Jacqueline by Ron Galella. The photograph of Johnny and Joanne Carson is from Gore Vidal's Snapshots in History's Glare. The photograph of Truman Capote in the swimming pool and the last snapshot of him were both from the collection of Joanne Carson.
Meet the Devil: Truman Capote and the William S. Paleys
“Whether Truman spoke the truth or not, I haven’t a clue and I didn’t care. He was a very good conversationalist.”
--Loel Guinness, Truman Capote in which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career
Melanie Benjamin’s recently released novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue opens with the oft-told but unreliable account of how Truman Capote met his best friends Bill and Babe Paley in January 1955.
Truman Streckfus Persons Capote … showed up one day on William S. and Babe Paley’s private plane, a tagalong guest of their good friends Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick. Bill Paley, the chairman and found of CBS, had gaped at the slender young fawn with the big blue eyes and funny voice; ‘I thought you meant President Truman,’ he’d hissed to David.
It is a marvelous tale, and if factual, a hilarious case of mistaken identity. But, is it true? The Swans of Fifth Avenue is, after all, a novel with limited obligation to fact. The book is a story of friendship gone awry: how Truman Capote met and charmed the Beautiful People and then betrayed them nearly as badly as he betrayed himself. Truman’s friendship with Babe and Bill Paley is the emotional center of the novel, but on its perimeter are others in their circle, including most notably Slim Keith but also Pamela Harriman, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, and C.Z. Guest. It is a delicious treat and under the cloak of fictionalization, it delves into the psychology of its subjects in a way that biography rarely does. However, as it is fiction, there was not need to authenticate Truman’s meet-cute story with the Paleys.
Yet, this tale regarding Truman’s identity exists in nonfiction as well. Gerald Clarke’s well-regarded biography, Capote, relates much the same story. Truman becomes acquainted with producer David Selznick and his actress wife Jennifer Jones through film work, including John Huston’s Beat the Devil for which Capote wrote the screenplay. In January 1955, the Selznicks are invited to fly on the Paleys’ private plane with them to their vacation home in Jamaica. David Selznick inquires whether Truman might come along. Bill Paley replies, “It would be an honor.” Then, when Truman boards the plane, Paley whispers to Selznick, “I assumed you meant Harry Truman. Who is this?
Is it plausible the Paleys assumed it would be former president Harry S. Truman, two years out of office, who would be boarding the plane? We think not. Let’s examine the evidence.
The Credibility of the Source
Truman Capote was a great stylist and raconteur. Effect mattered far more to him than the actual truth. That he said or wrote something makes it no more or less likely that it was true. To friends he once wrote, “not that I mind inventing details, as you will see,” which might be the most honest statement he ever made.
The Improbability of the Supposed Invitee
In 1955, President Truman was not only outside of café society, he could barely afford a cup of coffee. He was certainly not the prototype for presidents who came after him, all too willing to hitch a ride on the private plane of any affable billionaire who makes the offer. President Truman rejected all corporate proposals, believing it would besmirch the office of the presidency. Instead, he returned to Missouri to live in reduced circumstances. His only regular income was a $112.56 per month army pension (presidential pensions had not yet been approved by Congress). Alas, Harry Truman was so outside of the Paley’s social world that he would have made an awkward and unlikely guest, and both of the Paleys would have known it.
The Absence of Follow-Up Questions
After David Selznick inquires whether Truman might accompany them, it is difficult to imagine that Paley would have simply left it at that without further comment or question. For starters, he might have queried, “Will Mrs. Truman be coming along as well?” And, if the answer was affirmative, imagine the très chic Babe lounging poolside for a week with Truman’s salt-of-the-earth wife Bess. Of course, kind and well-mannered Babe would have worked tirelessly to make it all seem perfectly natural should she have found herself in that position (Slim Keith or Gloria Guinness, not so much).
Bill Paley Already Knew President Truman
As Sally Bedell Smith details in her biography In All His Glory, The Life of William S. Paley, Paley’s lieutenant at CBS Frank Stanton arranged a meeting between President Truman and Bill Paley five years earlier in 1950. It resulted in Paley’s appointment to head the President’s Materials Policy Commission in which he took a six-month leave of absence from CBS that ultimately stretched into eighteen. President Truman would not have been a stranger to him. Moreover, Bedell Smith evidently did not believe the story to be credible. In her biography of Paley, she omits the mistaken identity tangent, noting only that Capote “befriended the Paleys in a January 1955 trip to Jamaica.”
Truman Capote Was Already in the Paleys' Circle
Babe Paley’s closest friend Slim Keith writes in her memoir Slim, Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life that she first met Capote in the early 1950s at a party hosted by Diana Vreeland. It is possible that Babe met Truman at the same party, or if not then most likely shortly thereafter. This aligns with the recollections of Truman’s publisher Bennett Cerf who says that Truman met Mrs. Paley through friends. “Babe immediately invited him somewhere they were going. When Bill Paley met Truman for the first time, he reacted like a lot of men do. He was rather startled by this strange little fellow, but it took Truman about three hours to make Bill Paley his life-long friend and admirer.” [Note: Cerf’s comments were recorded prior to Capote’s famous falling out with the Paleys after the 1975 publication of “La Côte Basque”.]
Mistaken Identity with the Former President Was a Recurring Theme for Capote
The Jamaican holiday was not the only case in which Capote claimed he was mistaken for the former president. If Capote is to be believed, even the newly elected John F. Kennedy experienced difficulty distinguishing the two. In a November 24, 1960 letter to Alvin and Marie Dewey (friends Capote made in Kansas while working on In Cold Blood), he writes, “Sent a congratulatory telegram to the Kennedys, and recvd. a reply from Jackie who said that at first they thought it was from Harry Truman until they realized a) Harry wasn’t in Switzerland, and B) wouldn’t have signed it ‘love and hugs.’ Ha!” It seems as if the mistaken identity gambit was a set piece to be edited and re-edited as Capote saw fit. Via Too Brief a Treat, The Letters of Truman Capote.
Capote’s Own Contemporaneous Account Omits the Anecdote
In a February 7, 1955 letter to his frenemy Cecil Beaton, Truman writes simply, “I went to Jamaica with the [William] Paleys for a holiday, which was pleasant but did not last long enough.” Via Too Brief a Treat, The Letters of Truman Capote.
Based upon all the above evidence, it seems as though the Paleys knew exactly the Truman who would be boarding their private plane that January day in 1955. Of course, after the publication of “La Côte Basque” in 1975, they might have regretted it had not been the former president.