“I am about as tall as a shotgun, and just as nasty,” once proclaimed literary legend Truman Capote, a statement that would sadly work against him in the second half of his career. Best remembered in the pop culture of today for penning the source materials for the largely successful Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, the famed author’s ultimate downfall is a tale of high-society outrage and literary scandal, one that raises more questions than answers. Or fewer answered prayers than unanswered ones, if you will.
“Society’s sacred monsters at the top have been in a state of shock,” read the words of an article titled “Truman Capote in Hot Water,” written by journalist Liz Smith, that appeared in the February 1976 edition of New York magazine. “Never have you heard such gnashing of teeth, such cries of revenge, such shouts of betrayal and screams of outrage.” She was, of course, referring to the publication of a certain short story by Capote in Esquire the previous November known as “La Côte Basque 1965,” said to be a chapter from the author’s forthcoming magnum opus, a novel called Answered Prayers. “Let them go ahead and make me a monster,” Capote told Smith. “There are no secrets.”
The controversy erupted after the story’s publication in Esquire because its subject matter was one that Capote had practically known best: his “swans.” These were high-society women whom the author befriended, since he believed them to be human works of art that went unappreciated by the men in their lives who saw them as trophies. This group of Manhattan socialites, composed primarily of Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, C.Z. Guest, and Lee Radziwill, loved Capote almost as much as he loved them. But that all changed, quickly and starkly, when he took the intimate details of both their personal lives and those of their friends that they had shared with him at elite uptown lunches and published it for the world to see. Almost all of them shunned him immediately thereafter and never spoke to him again.
But the publication of “La Côte Basque” should not have been the shock and awe that it was: for years, Capote had told anyone who would listen that he was writing the greatest novel of his time. It was to be called Answered Prayers, “and, if all goes well, I think it will answer mine,” he told Random House. The title was attributed to quote from Saint Teresa of Avila that was never confirmed to have actually been said: “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones.” Through a modern lens, it’s quite simple to deduce that what he was already hailing his latest literary masterpiece would draw inspiration from the women with which he so frequently surrounded himself.
“Answered Prayers would be his masterpiece, he knew — the book that would give him a place in the literary pantheon alongside the greatest writers of all-time,” wrote Laurence Leamer, author of Capote’s Women. But it would never come to be, as the finished novel never saw the light of day. Aside from a handful of chapters that appeared in magazines throughout the 1970s, Answered Prayers never materialized. Was it his crumbling social reputation as a result of his ostracization from the swans’ inner circle? Was it his increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol? Did Capote’s much-hyped magnum opus ever even exist to begin with?
I Can Make It Anywhere, They Love Me Everywhere
Although Capote would only start sharing glimpses of what was to become Answered Prayers after the largely lauded publication of In Cold Blood, considered the grandfather of the nonfiction novel, the author had dreamed up the premise for a “large novel, [his] magnum opus” in the 1950s. Fascinated by high-society socialites like his friends, he was also mesmerized by those plagued by infamy and notoriety. One such woman, who was never a swan and never a friend to Capote, was Ann Woodward, infamous for shooting and killing her husband Bill after mistaking him for a burglar in 1955.
“Truman Capote was fascinated by people like Ann Woodward, people who schemed their way into society, much as his mother had done, the strivers who devoted their lives to associating with and winning acceptance from the right people,” wrote Roseanne Montillo, author of Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, the Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century. “Truman had done the same thing himself. No one appeared to point out the incongruity to him, that he was the son of a woman similar to Ann Woodward and was, as a gay literary man from the South, a version of her. Truthfully, many of his friends, mostly society figures, had followed a similar path.”
Indeed, if Capote had ever heard of the term imposter syndrome at the time, his picture would have surely accompanied its dictionary definition. While he rose to literary fame quite young with the publication and acclaim of his debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms in the late 1940s, it was his association with the “right people,” and especially his swans, that kept him in the spotlight long enough for those same people to start believing he was born there and never for a second didn’t belong. But more times than not, the opposite was true. He was internally terrified to be exposed for the fraud he secretly was, despite his literary triumphs.
His inspiration for what would become Answered Prayers also took root for his yearning to write an American novel that would rival Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. He believed Proust to have been “kind of a secret friend,” and he felt in competition with his work long after Proust’s death. “His subjects would be rich Americans, particularly rich American women, and he would do for American aristocracy what Proust had done for the French,” said Montillo of Capote’s outline for Answered Prayers. But just as his mother and their tortured relationship had most likely been the biggest inspiration for his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, this new novel would go even deeper and probe at the myriad inner demons Capote had lurking just beneath the surface.
Lucky for him, Capote soon found another project that suddenly diverted his attention away from his burgeoning Proustian classic. In November 1959, a farmer and his family were murdered in the quiet farming community of Holcomb, Kansas. Enthralled by the case, the author headed to Kansas and started conducting interviews for what would become the highest-selling and best received work of his career, In Cold Blood. Now the insecure homosexual from Alabama who had to hide behind his friends’ wealth actually had some of his own to speak of. And that’s where the fairytale starts to sour.
That’s Not the Truth, Ellen
“Truman had absolutely no respect for the truth,” once said John Richardson. “He felt that as a fiction writer he had license to say whatever came into his head as long as it had a surprising point of shape to it, or an unexpected twist to its tail.” It was writers like these, along with Gore Vidal (someone else who was definitely no friend of Capote’s) who questioned the validity of the real-life narrative presented in In Cold Blood. When it came to semi-autobiographical fiction, skewing the facts to fit your fictional needs is a skill. With nonfiction, not so much. The author’s response to the allegations was concise. “Art and truth are not necessarily compatible bedfellows,” he told Cosmopolitan magazine.
Which is why Answered Prayers seemed like the book Capote was born to write. “Oh, how easy it’ll be by comparison!” he replied to a reporter inquiring as to how his upcoming masterpiece would be different from the nonfiction on which he was now making a name. “It’s all in my head.” In a later interview with Playboy, he said, “Part of me is always standing in a darkened hallway, mocking tragedy and death. That’s why I love champagne and stay at the Ritz.” On January 5, 1966, Capote signed a contract to write Answered Prayers for Random House, working with editor Joseph Fox, whom he had collaborated with on In Cold Blood. The advance was $25,000 (equivalent to over $230,000 in 2023) to be delivered on January 1, 1968. Still enjoying the widespread praise that In Cold Blood continued to generate, he had only written a handful of chapters for his new novel, and the first deadline came and went.
In 1969, Random House cancelled the initial contract and offered Capote a new one, something more advantageous for the author that might compel him to actually deliver something this time: a three-book deal with a higher advance of $750,000 ($6.1 million in 2023) with Answered Prayers due in January 1973. He told Gerald Clarke, his friend and later biographer, that the novel would be his “principal work…almost everything in it is true. I have a cast of thousands.” The deadline was, unsurprisingly, pushed again to January 1974 and then September, with still nothing materializing.
Capote did, however, continue to work on other projects that he thought would be breadcrumbs for his fans and editors, such as a new collection of nonfiction published as The Dogs Bark in 1973 to a dissatisfying reception. Elsewhere, a screenplay he had written for an adaptation of The Great Gatsby was rejected, and writing commissioned from him by Rolling Stone never appeared. By 1975, restlessness over Answered Prayers had quadrupled, and Capote remedied the situation by publishing an excerpt that June in Esquire called “Mojave,” intended at the time to be the novel’s first chapter. (He would later change his mind about including it, and it is no longer considered part of Answered Prayers.)
The initial Esquire publication urged him to continue showing glimpses to the public of what Capote was still considering the best work of his career. But in November 1975, everything would change. That month, Esquire published “La Côte Basque 1965,” which follows protagonist P.B. Jones (Capote insisted that he was not P.B., but that he just knows him well) as he dines with Lady Ina Coolbirth at La Côte Basque, an upscale French restaurant in Manhattan. Capote had dined there countless times with his swans over the years, so it was inarguable that the story drew inspiration from the catty conversations he’d had with his friends about the sordid lives of the city’s upper class.
Wait, Is This Play About Us?
Countless theories exist as to which character represents which real-life swan in “La Côte Basque” — Lady Ina is unanimously agreed to be Slim Keith, and an anecdote about another woman’s rich and powerful husband conducting an affair with the governor’s wife is sadly attributed to Babe Paley, with whom Capote was closest. Gloria Vanderbilt is portrayed in an unflattering light. Lee Radziwill and her sister Jackie also appear in the story by name, merely as unsuspecting patrons.
But upon a rudimentary reading of the story today, the most ruthless and underhanded inclusion is the real-life narrative of Ann Woodward, fictionalized as Ann Hopkins. By the time “La Côte Basque” was first published in 1975, it had been 20 years since the murder scandal that had brutally exiled Woodward from high society. Although it was surely not forgotten in people’s memories, it was no longer the first thing on their minds.
For Capote to drudge it up for everyone to gasp and speculate about once more proved to be particularly painful, especially for Woodward. Perhaps it was his ultimate revenge for the times she had referred to him as a “fag” and a “little toad” in public. “Her story didn’t belong to her anymore; it belonged to anyone who would write about it,” observed Montillo. “She had lost agency over her own character.” After receiving an advance copy of the story, Woodward died by suicide on October 10, 1975. Woodward’s mother-in-law Elsie famously remarked, “Well, that’s that. She shot my son, and Truman murdered her.”
The reactions among the swans were swift and to the point: most of them cut off Capote cold turkey, never speaking to him again. Babe Paley, one of Capote’s dearest and most treasured friends, his favorite of all the swans, was suffering from terminal lung cancer when “La Côte Basque” hit newsstands. She stopped taking his calls, and they never made up before her death in 1978. When the author died in 1984, Slim Keith stated that she felt nothing: “For me, he had died nine years before.”
Lee Radziwill was one of the only swans not to ostracize Capote after the story was published, which many attributed to the fact that she was not openly disparaged within its prose, but they lost touch as a result of his growing dependence on drugs and alcohol. The other was a swan who does not appear in “La Côte Basque,” C.Z. Guest. “Everybody knew the man’s a professional, and they told him those things anyway,” she once told a reporter. “He’s a dear friend of mine, but I wouldn’t discuss very private matters with him. I don’t even know who those factual people are.” She continued supporting him in the final years of his life, including by financing an unsuccessful stint in rehab.
Oh Mary Alice, What Did You Do?
“What did they expect?” Capote kept asking of the backlash caused by the story. “I’m a writer, and I use everything. Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?” He couldn’t stand feeling like he was being used for his talents, even though that’s exactly how he had worked his way into high society. “He was snubbed by those he had fought so hard to befriend,” wrote Montillo. “And he must have realized how fleeting those relationships had been to begin with, how unimportant he truly was in their lives, if it was so easy for them to cut him out.”
But Capote’s sense of insecurity and vulnerability was ever-present, always just below the surface. The truth was he was damaged to the core by his exile, and it undoubtedly contributed to the downward spiral that plagued the remainder of his life. He continued working throughout the late 1970s: two additional chapters from his masterpiece appeared in Esquire in 1976, “Unspoiled Monsters” and “Kate McCloud.” He became a frequent guest at a new club called Studio 54, populated by a world of people who had no idea who Babe Paley was.
He admitted to having stopped working on Answered Prayers around 1977 in the preface to his story collection Music for Chameleons (1980), lamenting that he had been in the midst of both a creative and personal crisis. A 1978 college tour was largely disastrous, and he had no recollection of an inebriated appearance on The Stanley Siegel Show. Jack Dunphy, Capote’s longtime partner, said during this period that he looked “tired, very, very tired. It’s as if he’s at a long party and wants to say goodbye — but he can’t.”
Multiple people claimed to have seen a full manuscript that was said to be Answered Prayers. Capote’s friend Joanne Carson maintained that it definitely existed. “He had many, many pages of a manuscript, and he started to read them,” she said. “They were very, very good. He read one chapter, but then someone called, and when I went back, he just put them aside and said, ‘I’ll read them after dinner.’ But he never did — you know how that happens.” When he died in her home in 1984, Carson admitted that Capote had given her a key to a safety deposit box where he alleged the remaining chapters were hidden, but never indicated where the box was located.
Other friends of Capote’s, Myron Clement and Joe Petrocik, also claimed to have been witness to a manuscript and heard stories from the greatest novel that never was. “I remember I was at the other end of his couch, and he’s reading all this from a manuscript,” Petrocik told Vanity Fair in 2012. “Then he’d take a break, get up, and pour himself a Stoli. But the thing is, at that time, I never saw the actual manuscript. And then it occurred to me, later, just before I nodded off to sleep, maybe he had made the whole thing up. He was such a wonderful, wonderful actor.” On a different occasion, however, Petrocik recalled Capote giving him a manuscript to read as they traveled together. “I actually had it in my hands.” But for all he knew, it could’ve been a pile of blank paper.
Two central theories remain about the ultimate fate of Capote’s Answered Prayers. One is that it never existed to begin with; he wrote the chapters everyone had seen and nothing else, due to writer’s block and the devastating reaction from his swans. The other is that he had in fact written pages and pages of a manuscript for a novel that did exist at one time, but that he burned its unpublished relics in a fit of self-doubt and despondency. Most literary critics of today subscribe to the latter.
“My theory is he did write it and it didn’t meet his standards, so he destroyed it,” said Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, author of the historical fiction novel Swan Song.“When you’ve worked 20 years on a book, you’ve lost your entire social circle, who are essentially your family, over it? Those aren’t standards that are easily met. It would have to have been The Holy Grail of novels to have been worth what he lost.” She also maintained that there was a reason it took him so long to accomplish what he wanted to be his greatest work, why he missed deadlines on it for decades. Biographer Gerald Clarke held a similar theory, that Answered Prayers wasn’t the only cause of his ultimate demise, but witnessing the execution of the killer in the In Cold Blood case permanently damaged Capote’s psyche.
Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn
Still one question lingers: why did he do it? Why did Capote write or publish a story like “La Côte Basque,” knowing that it might hurt the women he considered himself closest to? Clarke recalled seeing an early draft of the chapter the summer before it appeared in Esquire, warning the author that what Capote was still perceiving as a tale that would rival Marcel Proust or Edith Wharton was nothing more than fictionalized gossipy chatter that he’d heard whispered at opulent dinner parties. Clarke assured Capote that those he’d written about would recognize themselves immediately and not be happy. “Nah, they’re too dumb,” dismissed the author. “They won’t know who they are.” Famous last words.
Reading the three known chapters from Answered Prayers today, which were first published in novel form posthumously in 1986, it’s easy to see how and why Capote had predicted this to be his magnum opus. He writes openly and frankly in ways that his other work desperately wanted to, but just couldn’t. It’s definitely more openly queer than any of his other work, even though Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, among others, feature queer characters.
Though he remained paralyzingly insecure over his backstory and upbringing throughout his adult life — his poor childhood in the South, how his mother never loved him and she drank herself to death — Capote was a gifted writer, which is why the culture and certainly his rich friends took notice of him. But in order to maintain his born-again status in high society, he had to work for it: he was a known storyteller, an actor prone to embellishing, likely even a pathological liar.
When he dreamed up the premise for Answered Prayers, he believed it would answer all of his own because he wanted it to be the novel where he finally let his guard down, where he could be his authentic, catty, unabashedly queer self and not worry about the repercussions because he had worked long and hard enough to earn his place in literary culture. Sadly for Capote, others didn’t see it that way. He loved his swans, but he dared to be seen more as merely their stereotypical GBF (gay best friend).
What exists of Answered Prayers today is definitely among his best work, even “La Côte Basque.” Sure, it’s vicious and underhanded when you bring in the context of the author regurgitating private details that were allegedly shared with him in confidence by his rich lady friends, and the pain it caused Ann Woodward feels excessive. But on its own, it’s among some of his most compelling prose. Many authors including Melanie Benjamin, author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue, feel differently, chalking Answered Prayers up to an unfortunate mistake because it was supposedly out of touch with his other work. But his unfinished masterpiece was the Truman Capote he dreamed of being, if his own inner demons hadn’t wore him down. That and a good old-fashioned literary scandal. Somehow apropos, though, isn’t it, considering how much he loved to gossip?
• “Capote’s Swan Dive,” Vanity Fair
• “Answered Prayers: the mysterious manuscript that devastated Truman Capote,” Penguin Random House
• “Why, Exactly, Did Truman Capote Expose His High-Society Confidantes’ Darkest Secrets?,” British Vogue