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2024-02-23 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine I Grew Up With Capote’s Swans

I Grew Up With Capote’s Swans

A first-hand account of the fun, feisty, and fabulously fashionable socialites who learned a thing or two about gossipy writers
Photo by Patrick Robert Doyle, via Unsplash

Ryan Murphy’s Hulu series Feud: Capote vs. the Swans is dishy and glamorous, but also sad. After author Truman Capote published “La Côte Basque, 1965” a scathing chapter of his never-published tell-all novel Answered Prayers, outing the illicit affairs and sordid scandals of his once-BFF swans, the women never spoke to him again. Capote was banished from high society and descended into alcoholism and drug addiction before dying at the age of 59 in 1984. Married to Babe Paley, Bill Paley had a front row seat to the Capote war of words that deeply affected his wife and her friends. At dinner one night, he warned my mother: “Beware of becoming too close with gossipy men who are writers.” A lesson he learned first-hand.

As a kid growing up on the Upper East Side and Southampton, I was surrounded by Capote’s infamous “Swans.” Watching Feud has brought back some fun, feisty, and of course fabulously fashionable memories of swoony socialite swans Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C.Z. Guest, and Babe Paley (who was married to my uncle Stanley Mortimer before Bill Paley).

Nancy “Slim” Keith (born Mary Raye Gross in Salinas, California – her mother Raye Nell Boyer Gross later changed her name to Nancy) was a frequent dinner party guest at our apartment on 79th Street and house in Southampton. I always dug her round tinted sunglasses (worn at night) and brassy voice. I remember when Keith swooped into our front hallway, cigarette in hand, and announced that she had her purse snatched on Park Avenue. “I spotted this tall, handsome man staring at me down the block,” she announced proudly. “I thought he was trying to pick me up but before I knew it, he had grabbed my bag and ran down the street.”

Nancy “Slim” Keith and Leland Hayward at the Stork Club in 1949
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Keith, who was single at the time but had previously been married to film director Howard Hawks, producer Leland Hayward, and British banker/aristocrat Kenneth Keith, the Baron Keith of Castleacre, was always complaining about her ballooning weight. In our library, wearing PJs and a woolen forest green bathrobe, my parent’s guests would drink and smoke. I heard them saying that Keith visited Duke University numerous times, desperately trying to lose weight with Dr. Walter Kempner’s Rice Diet (where patients basically lived on rice and fruit and walked, a lot).

Another swan, Lee Radziwill, the younger (and some say more beautiful) sister of Jackie Onassis kind of crashed our Christmas lunch one year, toting her two children, Anthony and Christina, with her. I was younger than Radziwill’s kids and they had zero interest in playing with my new Atari after a too-long lunch where Radziwill and the other grownups smoked cigarettes in between every course and gabbed about people and places I had zero interest in. When I would complain about the stench of tobacco smoke, my mother would declare: “It’s not for you to comment on what adults do.” Case closed. Another Christmas, Radziwill showed up with Peter Beard, who always exuded a renegade coolness that I wanted to emulate. Then a few years later, Beard came to a Christmas party at our apartment with then wife, OG supermodel Cheryl Tiegs. My buddies and I at the party stalked Tiegs from room to room, ogling her with preteen lust. “Cheryl Tiegs is a stone-cold fox,” I reported with glee to my envious classmates at Buckley the next day.

Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote at the 1967 Emmy Awards where Capote won for his adaptation of his own short story, A Christmas Memory
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

I don’t remember C.Z. Guest as a child but when I was in my early 20s, I included quotes from Guest about gardening in my column for Paper magazine. She wrote me the nicest letter afterwards which I still have, saying that she loved being included “in such a young, hip magazine.”

Babe Paley, the ultimate style siren, and queen of the Swans had sadly died at age 62 in 1978 and I don’t really remember seeing her around much. My parents later became close to her husband Bill Paley, the oft-grinning, legendary Chairman of CBS. We used to go to Mr. Paley’s house in Southampton for Thanksgiving lunch and one summer when I was 15. I posed in Paley’s swimming pool for his daughter Kate, who was making avant-garde “video paintings.” And two days after I was kicked out of Pomfret School, I flew to Paley’s house in Nassau in the Bahamas. My mother had told me I would be spending my days in the Caribbean working for Paley’s gardening crew, but that thankfully never happened. The first night we were there, Paley’s best friend Michael Tree told my parents that his daughter had been “bounced out of a few boarding schools” and everyone laughed. The dreaded gardening detail was never brought up again.

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