This documentary novel provides an oblique means of revisiting a series of events where the realities are so obscured you can have fun recreating them! The starting point is the novelist, Truman Capote, in later life – and arguably lacking self-censorship and good judgement – writing a thinly veiled account of the lives of the rich and famous in the wealthy circles he had access to.
The full book, to be known as Answered Prayers, was never published but part of it appeared in Esquire magazine as La Cote Basque. Swan Song focuses on this but also moves around, exploring Capote’s early life and his appalling relationship with his mother together with the ease with which he found success as a writer. His most successful novel, In Cold Blood, was written in a documentary form and, over the years, there have been plenty of allegations that he was happy to embellish the reality of that story so, in that sense, he had something of a track record as someone who could tell a good story without necessarily too much regard for the truth. He was also someone whose fame allowed him to infiltrate these wealthier socialite levels of society where he was a confidante of many of the women he went on to write about. He was a drunk who played with drugs and was largely, but not exclusively, homosexual but he was also a good listener, often in the public eye and a gossip. It is fair to say that the women he knew best, a group which became known as the Swans, courted him as much as he courted them.
It all went sour when he started writing about them. As the book unravels this period of his life in the 1960s, the women are almost complicit in the stories, enjoying the bitchiness about others, gossiping about what might be in there and feeling offended if excluded. Some of the women are easily recognisable. Jackie Kennedy is in there and Capote has a love hate relationship with her sister Lee Radziwill. American readers will know many of the others – new American money, the wives of politicians and a Guinness heiress.
The story in the novel is told from the perspective of one of this group and the publication of the extract led to Capote being vilified and excluded from it. However, the real consequences went further. There is a character called Ann Hopkins who is clearly a thinly veiled version of Ann Woodward, an aspiring model and showgirl from a country background who wanted to be famous and would do almost anything to get there using her looks and her body. She succeeded and eventually married a rich socialite called William Woodward. The official story then is that, as the relationship came under strain, a burglar came into the house. Confusing her husband for the intruder she accidentally shot him. In Capote’s version she murdered him and escaped conviction because of her connections. Hearing that the story was to be published Ann Woodward committed suicide. Whatever really happened – and it is likely that Capote’s version was closer to the truth – that added to the outrage.
The book unravels all of these things. It is well researched but is also clearly a work of fiction although written in the same documentary style as Capote enjoyed. It catalogues Capote’s very public slide into drugs and alcoholism encouraged by talk show hosts where he made a constant fool of himself while falling out with people who tried to help him. He comes over in the novel as unpleasant but with a superficial easy charm.
It is an interesting read. It encouraged me to find out more about the main characters without liking any of them. The whole thing is a bit of a circus parade but, even today, we all like to get a peep into the lives of the rich and famous and we’re rarely sorry when they crash and burn!
(Swan Song was published in June 2018. I received a review copy courtesy of NetGalley and the publishers, Hutchinson.)