remembering the swans

a guide to the stylish and interesting women who fascinated (and flocked to) truman capote in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
January 26, 2015  |   column: DELIBERATE POLISH




in her just-released memoir, maria agnelli: the last swan, marella agnelli recalls her friendship with truman capote, which soured—like all of his friendships with the group of society women he’d dubbed “the swans”—in the 1970s, when he began publishing sections of “answered prayers,” a roman à clef in which he satirized the lives of his longtime confidantes. (and, many felt, exposed their secrets.) of course, agnelli was much more than just a pal of capote’s—a neapolitan princess, she was married to the italian industrialist gianni agnelli from 1953 until his death in 2003, and was known for her many impeccably designed homes. as singular as she was, though, the other swans were equally impressive: read on for a quick primer on the rest of capote’s clique.

babe paley, a former vogue editor who married an oil heir, stanley mortimer jr., and then the founder of cbs, william paley, was legendary for both her beauty and style; as capote himself once said, “babe paley had only one fault: she was perfect. otherwise, she was perfect.” (her second marriage, however, was not—her husband’s unfaithfulness was detailed in capote’s novel.)

c.z. guest, another great beauty, served as muse to everyone from salvador dali to andy warhole—in her youth, she even posed nude for diego rivera. she also worked as an actress, a columnist, and a fashion designer, and earnest hemingway was the best man at her 1947 wedding to winston guest (a polo champion and cousin of winston churchill).

like her fellow swans, slim keith was a fixture on the international best dressed list; she also modeled frequently for harper’s bazaar. but she is best known, today, for having provided the prototype upon which lauren bacall based her performance in to have and have not, which was directed by keith’s first husband, howard hawks.

gloria guinness was raised in relatively humble circumstances—born in mexico, she was the daughter of a journalist, and once worked as a nightclub hostess. but, over the course of four marriages (to a dutch sugar-factory superintendent, a german nobleman, an egyptian prince, and, finally, a british politician and beer heir) she worked her way into the highest echelons of society.

married in 1939 to winston churchill’s son randolph, the british-born pamela churchill harriman was initially best known for her relationships: after she divorced her first husband, she took up with gianni agnelli (they were together for the five years just prior to his marriage to marella) and she began an affair with the broadway producer leland hayward, who became her second husband, while he was still married to slim keith. upon his death, though, harriman married her third (and last) husband, the politician and businessman w. averell harriman, and subsequently became very involved in democratic politics as a fundraiser and, later, a diplomat.

as agnelli notes in her new book, the swans were not a tight group so much as an assortment of women who each had a close connection to capote. (lee radziwill and gloria vanderbilt are also sometimes thought of as being in the group, although their friendships with capote were not as intimate or long-lasting.) “it seemed like there were too many swans,” agnelli writes. “i had always thought my relationship with truman was personal. the intimacy, the laughs, the giggles…i thought it was a special friendship between truman and me, unaware that he was also giggling and laughing with babe or gloria or slim. when i told him, ‘strange, i thought i was the only swan,’ he answered only, ‘oh, well, darling…’”

maria agnelli: the last swan, is available now.

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