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Get ready for FEUD: Capote vs. The Swans

Get ready for FEUD: Capote vs. The Swans
FX’s FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans "Pilot" premieres Wednesday, January 31 at 10 p.m. ET/PT -- Pictured: (l-r) Naomi Watts as Barbara "Babe" Paley, Tom Hollander as Truman Capote (FX)

Look, I don’t really think Feud: Capote vs. The Swans qualifies as true crime either, technically, but Truman Capote did more or less invent the genre, at least in its more serious or prestige-y iterations, with In Cold Blood…which is how I have justified reading and watching reams of gossipy material, oral histories, lost-tapes documentaries, and musty midcentury magazines about Capote’s decades-long downward spiral.

How much of it is just tittle-tattle? Most of it. How much of it have I personally consumed? My siblings in Christ: alllll of it. Bad news for people who make the mistake of mentioning Capote or related topics to me at parties, but good news for y’all, because I can throw eeeevery Capote and/or “swans” property into a big line-up and let you know if it’s worth your time.

Calista Flockhart, Chloë Sevigny, Diane Lane, Molly Ringwald, Naomi Watts, and Demi Moore as the swans (and Ann Woodward) (FX)

Definitely Worth It

  • Famous original In Cold Blood. Even if you read it in school, it’s worth revisiting, not necessarily because it’s brilliant throughout, because it isn’t. It’s not a perfect book. It’s a bit too long, and accusations leveled at Capote about “emotional re-enactments” of events for which he wasn’t present, inappropriate involvement with Perry Smith, etc. probably have merit. But if the genre had a Mt. Rushmore, this one would probably be its George Washington, and you kind of have to take it in the context of the time, and the fact that, in the middle of the last century, said genre consisted of this book; Edward Radin; and lurid true-detective magazines that were functionally porn, and that was it.
  • In Cold Blood (1967 film). A bit overpraised, but loyal to the text, and will save you some time if you want to story but don’t have time for the book.
  • Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. George Plimpton’s oral history of Capote’s life and times is one of my favorite books of all time, primarily because that style of reporting takes you back to a time and place, and lets all the contributors have their individual flavors of speaking. But it’s also very handy when it comes to assessing whether you “have time for” a given piece of obscure Capote material, because almost without fail, materials that came after the Plimpton have relied heavily on the Plimpton, to the point where you needn’t bother.
  • The Capote Tapes. Exhibit A of a property that reading the Plimpton will render unnecessary, although it’s very pleasing visually and you have some “value-add” talking heads for sure (André Leon Talley, for one). I had hyped this one to myself too much when it came out, I think, so the review I’ve linked here is a bit sourer than warranted — but I did say you shouldn’t pay to watch it, and as of this writing, it’s on Hulu.
  • Capote. This is Gerald Clarke’s authorized bio; if you only have room in your life for one, this one or Plimpton’s, I guess you should opt for the Clarke? But if I had to save one in a fire, I’d take the Plimpton. For what it’s worth, the film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman is based on the Clarke, but that’s not the filmic take on the man I’d recommend either! Nope, I’d go with…
  • Infamous. This one, which came out in 2007, is based on the Plimpton, so, shocker, I prefer it — although I didn’t know its pedigree when I saw it. “Wait, isn’t Sandy Bullock playing Harper Lee in that shteez??” I know, I had the same reaction, but the casting of Toby Jones as Capote is so “correct” that it balances out, and IIRC Bullock is quite good. This isn’t a perfect document either, don’t get me wrong, but because it flew so far under the radar compared to Capote two years prior, its energy isn’t quite so self-serious.
An official FEUD: Capote vs. The Swans trailer. (FX)
  • Capote’s Women. Laurence Leamer’s book is what this season of Feud is derived from, and on its own, it’s not essential. But Leamer has a knack for writing cultural histories that go down easy; the prose isn’t sterling, but it gets the job done. (The audiobook is a solid bedtime listen.)

For Completists Only

  • Capote (2005 film). I mean, it’s fine! Hoffman did a hell of a job, although I still think he was miscast, Oscar or no. I ought to rewatch it. But as far as prepping for Feud goes, this one’s less important.
  • Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, the Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century. I wanted to like this more than I did, and I didn’t dis-like Roseanne Montillo’s book on the intersection of, and parallels between, Capote and Ann Woodward. Played by Demi Moore in Feud, Woodward died by suicide shortly before the notorious Answered Prayers excerpt appeared in Esquire, and that’s often blamed on said excerpt/Capote, who hated Woodward (not without reason) and loved to gossip about her husband’s death. There’s no doubt that Woodward shot her husband, Billy, but while officially it was adjudicated an accident, not everyone agreed. Montillo’s twinning of these cultural adversaries is maybe not a whole book, though, and sometimes her writing’s “ear” feels like it’s in the wrong era, more eighties than post-war. Here again, the audiobook is recommended — Mia Barron’s narration is fantastic — but if you’ve read the Plimpton, you’re going to recognize a lot of the quotes.
Truman Capote in his UN Plaza apartment. I’m going to need someone to source me that couch. (Photo via Vanity Fair)
  • Capote In Kansas. A graphic novel about Capote’s time in Kansas investigating the Clutter case, written by Ande Parks and drawn by Chris Samnee. Samnee’s art is striking, but Parks uses some literary “devices” I don’t think are successful.
  • Dear Genius…: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote. Capote’s longtime partner Jack Dunphy tried to novelize his relationship with Capote, and particularly Capote’s circling the drain of booze and pills and his own grief over their increasing estrangement, via a…priest character? I reviewed it here, and while Dunphy has the occasional breathtaking phrasing, Dear Genius is a confusing and misbegotten failure.
  • “La Côte Basque, 1965.” It does seem strange to put the short story that started all this mishegas in the “enh, if you want” section, buuuuut…enh. If you want? It’s not badly done, but you’ll get the necessary intel from other sources…none of which is necessarily going to explain the much-ness of the ado about this particular nothing, if you know what I mean. It’s not a waste of time, but don’t pay to read it.
FEUD: Capote Vs. The Swans‘s Treat Williams as Bill Paley, who figured heavily in the “Cote Basque” scandal. (Pari Dukovic/FX)

Ignore Without Guilt

  • In Cold Blood (1996 TV movie). It’s not as bad as you might think based on the bonkaloo casting (Eric Roberts; enough said), but it’s nowhere near good enough to spend multiple hours with.
  • Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball. For whatever reason, Deborah Davis’s book never quite gets going (apparently, much like the ball itself didn’t). The most piquant and useful accounts I’ve read were — sing it with me if you know the words — in the Plimpton.

Anything I missed? Suggestions? Warnings? Questions? See you in the comments, if not right now then I hope after Feud premieres. (Just a reminder: that’s Wednesday January 31 on FX.)

Edited 1/30/24; a previous version stated that Molly Ringwald plays Ann Woodward. In fact, it’s Demi Moore playing Woodward; apologies for the error.

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Happy discussing!

Meredith

Tuesday 30th of January 2024

I can't speak to the excellent "to be read" list above, but...does anyone else think the photoshopping of the Feud's image is weird? I know they're "swans," but the extra long necks they gave everyone is giving me the icks.

Elizabeth

Tuesday 30th of January 2024

Molly Ringwald plays Joanne Carson in Feud, not Ann Woodward. Demi Moore plays Ann.

Sarah D. Bunting

Tuesday 30th of January 2024

I'm so sorry re: the Woodward mix-up! I've corrected the piece; I think I was staring at the list for too long and started transposing people (I did manage not to call Calista Flockhart "Jackie"...but just barely). Thanks for the notes.

(And! Great news re: the "Cote Basque" paywall dropping.)

df lewis

Tuesday 30th of January 2024

Great Article. Thank you for all of your insights and recommendations. Just one thing to note - Demi Moore, not Molly Ringwald, is playing Ann Woodword in the Fued: Capote vs The Swans series. Molly Ringwald is playing Joanne Carson.

Tracy Bealer

Monday 29th of January 2024

Thank you for promoting me to finally read the Plimpton! It’s been on my TBR pile for far too long. And though Capote’s performance in Murder By Death is probably not at all necessary to prep for Swans, I’ve always thought it said something of the man that he agreed to take the role!

Margaret

Tuesday 30th of January 2024

I have seen MBD (a pandemic watch) and it is clearly fueled by copious amounts of the decade's finest drugs, I found it lazy, racist garbagio and yet was still tickled by Capote popping up.

Sarah D. Bunting

Monday 29th of January 2024

I've still never seen MBD but the quotes in the Plimpton about that (and Beat The Devil) are amazing. LMK what you think of the book!

Jackie

Monday 29th of January 2024

Awesome! I listened to the Capote’s Women audio book and got the library to scan La Cote Basque for me. Kind of surprised that Esquire has it behind a paywall (at least as of a few weeks back).