Thursday, January 26, 2012

Work in Progress: Truman Capote's "La Cote Basque 1965"

As a guilty pleasure, I enjoy reading Vanity Fair, especially the inevitable article about super-rich people living their super-rich lives.  Various Kennedys are often involved in these articles.  There’s usually a New York City component, which I also love.    

This month’s issue hit a real homerun as far as my narrow interests are concerned, a long piece about “ladies who lunch,” looking at the golden era of fancy New York society women—like Babe Paley and Slim Keith—lunching in the 1960s at fancy New York restaurants like La Grenouille (where I’ve been! Though, now, thanks to this article, I know that I didn’t get a very good table, even though it seemed fine enough at the time…and the people at the table next to us were talking about their yacht—poor things, forced to sit at that even worse table!).  (Here’s a link to some pictures from the article, which can be found in the February issue.)  And, yes, Jacqueline Kennedy made her appearance in the piece.

Also making an appearance:  Truman Capote, famous for his immense betrayal of these ladies who had befriended him and confided in him: 

“This sheltered, hoity-toity world was torn apart in 1976 by the one writer who had been admitted to its inner sanctums:  Truman Capote.  The publication of ‘La Cote Basque 1965,’ a chapter of his long-awaited and never-to-be-completed Proustian novel Answered Prayers, in Esquire magazine, was seen as a betrayal of the confidences he had extracted from so many ladies over so many lunches.  Set in the restaurant of the same name, Capote’s semi-fictionalized account of some of international society’s major scandals mixed real names—Gloria Vanderbilt, Oona Chaplin, Jackie Kennedy, Lee Radizwill—with barely disguised portrayals of his closest friends, most outrageously Slim Keith and Babe Paley.  Much to his chagrin, they banished him from their society forever.  But when all is said and done, no one did more to immortalize the ladies who lunched….”

Of course I had to go reread Capote’s story.  It’s not a traditional story, mostly a series of stories in dialogue as told to and eavesdropped by Jonesy, who is lunching and gossiping with Ina Coolbirth (nice name!).  She has a big secret to tell but has to rip through a bunch of other people’s secrets and drink too much champagne before she can spill it.  It’s a wicked, angry, bitter story, and quite compelling, especially in the context of the Vanity Fair article.  (Here’s an interesting post about Capote and a short excerpt from the story.)

After the story’s publication, after Capote was cut entirely from this society, he famously tried to explain himself:  “I’m a writer! What did they think I was doing all that time at their parties? I was observing them, taking note – I’m a writer!”  But actually, this loss of social status and loss of these friendships seem to have led to a deep personal and professional decline.  (Here’s his obituary from the New York Times; it paints quite a sad picture.)

It’s the big question many writers struggle with:  can—and should—you write about people you care about?  Can a writer get to the deep truth without ruffling any feathers?  Can true art emerge when a writer fears ramifications?

William Faulkner said, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”  What would Capote say now?  Is “La Cote Basque 1965” an “Ode on a Grecian Urn”?  What if it isn’t?


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.