Meet the Devil: Truman Capote and the William S. Paleys
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.
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 for the Paleys.
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”.]
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.
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.”
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.