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In ‘Feud,’ author Truman Capote goes to war with his high-society ‘Swans’

The second season of Ryan Murphy’s hit FX anthology series dramatizes a scandal that rocked New York high society in the 1970s.
Demi Moore as Ann Woodward in "Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans."
Demi Moore as Ann Woodward in "Feud: Capote vs. the Swans."Pari Dukovic / FX

In 1975, Truman Capote struggled with a case of writer’s block. Having risen to fame a decade earlier for writing the literary classics “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the acclaimed writer, who was remarkably open about his homosexuality, had managed to surround himself with a coterie of rich, glamorous New York socialites whom he nicknamed his “Swans.” Capote ingratiated himself into these doyennes’ lives and became one of their closest confidants — only to expose their most intimate secrets in “La Côte Basque, 1965,” an excerpt published in Esquire from his (ultimately unfinished) magnum opus, “Answered Prayers.”

The retaliation was swift. Capote’s high-society ladies closed ranks, banishing the novelist from the glitz and glamor of high society that he loved so much. The dramatic fallout sent Capote into a drug-fueled spiral of self-destruction from which he would ultimately never recover. He died Aug. 25, 1984, a month before his 60th birthday, in the Los Angeles home of his longtime friend Joanne Carson, ex-wife of the late-night television host Johnny Carson.

Truman Capote
Truman Capote in 1968.Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Nearly 50 years later, that scandal takes center stage once again in Ryan Murphy’s “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” an eight-part series that premieres Wednesday on FX and streams the next day on Hulu. Written by Jon Robin Baitz and mostly directed by Gus Van Sant, the juicy second season of “Feud” dramatizes Capote’s greatest betrayal against the backdrop of a bygone era of New York City. The first season, which premiered in 2017, explored the bitter rivalry between Hollywood royalty Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

“The White Lotus” star Tom Hollander plays Capote, and a bevy of actresses who rose to prominence in the 1990s and early aughts play his Swans: Naomi Watts stars as Babe Paley, a Vogue fashion editor and wife of CBS chief Bill Paley; Diane Lane as Slim Keith; Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest; Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis; and Demi Moore as Ann Woodward. (Joanne Carson, though not a Swan, is played by Molly Ringwald.)

“He knew that he was a tourist in their world, and at some level they thought he was lucky to be there,” Hollander said of Capote’s imposter syndrome among the Swans during a Jan. 22 press conference. “So when they felt he turned, they were vicious: ‘From you? You were the adornment in our house. You are not our equal.’ I think, at some level, he probably knew that, which is why he writes ‘Côte Basque’ in the way that he does, because at some level he’s enraged at his own position.”

Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in "Capote Vs. The Swans."
Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in "Capote vs. the Swans."Pari Dukovic / FX

That dramatic tension appealed to Baitz, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter perhaps best known for creating the ABC drama series “Brothers & Sisters,” which was one of the first shows to depict a same-sex wedding on network TV. Baitz said he grew up reading Capote’s “incandescent” writing in the 1970s and ’80s. As a young playwright in New York City, he very briefly intersected with Capote, despite not running in the same circles.

Following the success of the first season of “Feud,” which earned 18 Emmy nominations and won two, Baitz began working with Murphy on a second installment. The producers toyed with a number of ideas that were eventually scrapped, including one about the faltering marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

In 2021, Murphy read and optioned the rights to Laurence Leamer’s book “Capote’s Women.” Having previously read Gerald Clarke’s biography of the late novelist, Baitz said, “a lot of what Laurence gave us covered some of the same material, but maybe from a more Swan-ish point of view.”

Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest in "Capote Vs. The Swans."
Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest in "Capote vs. the Swans."Pari Dukovic / FX

With Murphy writing many of the outlines and Baitz tasked with penning the episodes, Baitz became most interested in depicting the novelist’s “decline and fall, rather than many of the other stories we know about him, which are the moments around ‘In Cold Blood’ or earlier.”

“There was a wealth of documentary footage over the years, or footage of Truman on talk shows, in different states of inebriation and stress, and they are piercing. When you look at them, you see someone slowly decomposing in front of you,” Baitz told NBC News in a video interview.

Baitz said he and Hollander are old friends; they have spent summer vacations together and shared a mutual friend in the late actress Natasha Richardson. But it was actually Joe Mantello — Baitz’s ex-partner, who plays Capote’s partner Jack Dunphy in “Feud” — who suggested Hollander for the role.

“Tom had actually worked hard on trying to find something that wasn’t a quick drawing but had layers and layers of Truman Capote’s mood and behavior already under the surface,” Baitz recalled of the actor’s audition. “After the one reading, it was very clear to all of us that there was going to be a very special characterization of the man in there and that it wouldn’t necessarily be one that you had to compare to the other performances. It was its own thing.”

Hollander is not the first actor to embody Capote; in addition to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for his work in the 2005 film “Capote,” Toby Jones played the author in “Infamous,” the 2006 film that chronicles his process of writing “In Cold Blood.” While he does not look exactly like Capote, Hollander’s physical transformation — complete with his voice and mannerisms — is almost uncanny. In addition to repeatedly watching Capote’s TV appearances and working with a vocal coach, Hollander said he would have Capote’s voice “on my phone in my ear before every take.”

“Ryan was very helpful. He said, ‘Get the flamboyance and get the classic stuff in early so that the audience feels reassured that they’re seeing the person they imagined they were going to see, and then later you can start being your version more,’” Hollander told reporters. “There was a sort of strategy in there — you’ve got to nail some big moments where he had to be sufficiently flamboyant and then I could find other moments with Gus where I could just be or be listening or do smaller behavioral things where I was still.”

Naomi Watts as Babe Paley in "Capote Vs. The Swans."
Naomi Watts as Babe Paley in "Capote vs. the Swans."Pari Dukovic / FX

Capote and his Swans are depicted as having a kind of symbiotic relationship; while they elevated him socially and were largely accepting of his sexuality, he made them feel seen and loved in a way that the men in their life did not. 

“Their vanity was flattered by having him around and him understanding them and listening to them in a way that their husbands weren’t,” Hollander said. “He was filling a great gap in their emotional lives; he was an incredibly entertaining, perceptive, clever, interesting, singular man.”

That Capote and his inner circle of privileged women shared such a profound connection makes his betrayal all the more hurtful. For Baitz, Capote’s decision to publish a thinly veiled fictionalization of the women’s lives likely stemmed from a combination of his increasing drug use, the panic and desperation of a writer who feels unable to reproduce his best work and a belief that his Swans would eventually forgive him.

“It’s not like it’s the best writing he’s ever done,” Baitz said. “There’s some dazzling formations in there, but it’s an unspeakably vulgar performance. He used to be an exquisite writer, and now it’s sensationalist by the time he gets to this.”

More broadly speaking, the miniseries depicts Capote “losing touch with the day-to-day reality of human contact and what it means to be in a relationship with another human being,” Baitz added. In addition to his friendships, the series also delves into his romantic and sexual encounters with other men — and the homophobia that ran rampant during that era, even from the women in his life.

“He did have a fascination for gutter life; all of these accouterments to his self-loathing are palpable,” Baitz said. “At the same time, he had a long-term companion in Jack Dunphy, whose counsel he sort of refused to take but who was endlessly trying to pick up the pieces after him. So, a lot of that stuff is very accurate. That relationship did go on for decades.”

Although “Feud” is grounded in true events, Baitz admitted that the creative team exercised some creative license to tell this “speculative” iteration of Capote’s story. For instance, the team decided to create a faux documentary of Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball, the basis of the third episode. Baitz also dreamed up a meeting between Capote and writer James Baldwin in the immediate aftermath of the publication of “La Côte Basque, 1965,” in order to get an outsider’s perspective on the story, he said.

“There’s something impressionistic about playing with the life of an artist and his milieu that doesn’t necessarily depend on chronology or fact, that leaves room for impressionism and hallucination in order to explore the inner life of the characters,” Baitz added.

Baitz said Capote’s fascinating life is a cautionary tale of what happens when one tragically wastes their life by “placing too much weight on the way society makes you feel and makes you operate and what it makes you do.”

“This notion that you’re performing for a camera all the time is so toxic,” Baitz said. “What you invest in matters, and if you invest in your position in society, I think it’s going to come with a cost no matter who you are and what you do.”