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    Tru Joy and Tragedy

    By Jan Wahl–

    Truman Capote’s greatest character was surely himself. Although he stood only 5’3″ and died 40 years ago, his legend—encompassing operatic emotional highs and lows—still looms large, as evidenced by this year’s hit FX series Feud: Capote vs. The Swans. Hopefully it will inspire you to learn more about him, and to read his signature works.

    Capote was a sad but talented man, with moments of satisfaction and a need to be surrounded by the uber wealthy and beautiful, but not when he was writing his true crime novel, In Cold Blood. It led him to spend much time in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas, where a family had been murdered. He followed the story all the way to the deaths of the two men who did it, taking a deep dive into the community, personalities, and tragedy. He took this event and turned it into his own crime and punishment, using it as well to delve into the nature of evil. Capote’s commitment to accuracy and exhaustive research elevated the book into journalistic perfection.

    Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s was originally a novella from 1958. It tells of his early New York days and a remarkable neighbor named Holly Golightly. Novelist and playwright Norman Mailer said this work was the best of his generation, and that he would not have changed one word in it. Golightly remained Capote’s favorite character and he was heartbroken when the 1961 film adaptation (starring Audrey Hepburn) miscast that character. I agree with him that Marilyn Monroe would have been the perfect Holly, but I’m a Marilyn fan in anything. There were other problems with the film—Mickey Rooney, anyone?—but it cemented Capote as a cultural icon.

    Feud: Capote vs. the Swans is now on Hulu, giving me enjoyment every minute. This American anthology TV series was created by Ryan Murphy among others and directed by Gus Van Sant. Its eight episodes were based on the book Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love Betrayal and a Swan Song for an Eraby Lawrence Leamer. I love this book because the swans themselves are allowed more space to fly. In the series we do not get their backstories, but it is still a visual feast of fun and fashion.

    I have always been fascinated by stories of very wealthy women, their style and their personalities. In Feud, we see how they are driven to go within, to hide feelings and thoughts from everyone except each other. Sometimes it seems that their husbands or ex-husbands have defined them to the erasure of their own souls. But there is so much to rejoice for them: gorgeous gardens, clothes, homes, jewelry. Is that enough or really important? I find myself saying, “Hey, Babe, it would be enough for me!”

    There are many ways to learn more about the Swans themselves. My favorite is Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life by Slim Keith. There is also Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, the Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century by Roseanne Montillo and Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. The most fun to read is The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, a nonfiction novel Capote would have enjoyed.

    In 2005, Philip Seymour Hoffman was excellent in Capote, a film that focused on the writing of In Cold Blood. Toby Jones is also perfection as Capote in Infamous, a different look at In Cold Blood researching, relations, and reporting. Tom Hollander has stepped into the role in Feud, a Capote surrounded by his glamorous swans and beginning the end of his downfall. But we shouldn’t leave out the one time we see Capote the actor, basically playing himself in the terrific 1976 comedy Murder by Death. This underrated howler is one to see, and you’ll need it after Feud!

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian and film critic on various broadcast outlets. She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

    Off the Wahl
    Published on February 22, 2024