Book Review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
In 1975, Esquire Magazine published two new pieces by Truman Capote – “Mojave” and “La Côte Basque.” These were chapters from his by-then legendary upcoming capolavoro, Answered Prayers, a novel of great literary ambition that was meant to cement Capote’s legacy; a novel that was likely never finished, the chapters of which have largely gone missing, if they ever existed at all. “La Côte Basque” provoked outrage amongst Manhattan’s elite; the socialites whom Capote had befriended during his rise to public prominence saw themselves in the chapters’ characters, their secrets out in the open. The setting is New York’s famous restaurant, La Côte Basque, where P.B. Jones, Jonesy – an amalgamation of Capote himself and Perry Smith, the infamous murderer from In Cold Blood – and Lady Ina Coolbirth are having gossip for lunch; the kind of gossip that would ruin friendships, estrange siblings, and destroy marriages. So began the fall of Truman Capote, whose literary indiscretions led to his exodus from the high society he had worked so hard to infiltrate.
The publication of this piece is the catalyst in Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel Swan Song. The novel is narrated by the “swans,” Capote’s closest circle of socialite friends whom he betrayed, and encompasses the decades of decadent indulgence in travelling, drinking, partying, as well as Truman Capote’s personal demons, starting with his scarring relationship with his mother, and ending with his exile and artistic draught. Let’s meet this cast of characters.
- Slim Keith (born Nancy), wife to Howard Hawks and then Leland Hayward, responsible for Lauren Bacall’s career, and one of Manhattan’s most influential socialites. In “La Côte Basque” she is Lady Ina Coolbirth, the one who acts as Capote’s whistleblower of every dirty secret the elite kept close to their chests.
- Babe Paley, wife of CBS magnate Bill Paley, Capote’s favourite “swan” who goes under the name Cleo in his writing, and the one to suffer most from this publication (especially considering she was dying of lung cancer at the time).
- Lee Radziwill, younger sister of Jackie Kennedy, who was by then Aristotle Onassis’ widow. Lee’s envy of her sister was fertile ground for gossip – both verbal and written.
- Ann Woodward, wife and murderer (allegedly by accident) of William Woodward, appearing in “La Côte Basque” as Ann Hopkins. Lady Ina spills the beans about the true circumstances of William’s death, something that may or may not have been the reason behind Ann Woodward’s suicide shortly after the chapter was published.
- Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, wife of Fiat magnate and infamous playboy Gianni Agnelli, Capote’s numero uno swan, and one of the few people from Swan Song who are still alive.
Numerous other famous figures from the 50s, 60s and 70s make appearances in the novel, including Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend, John and Jackie Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, etc.
Greenberg-Jephcott pulls an exquisite stunt of metafictional nod to Capote by writing a book about him that falls comfortably under the definition of his most prized invention: the non-fiction novel. What he started with In Cold Blood and tried to perfect with Answered Prayers is triumphantly celebrated in Swan Song. The facts serve as a scaffold for this novel, and as the characters start to populate it, Greenberg-Jephcott’s rich and colourful prose fills in the gaps with scenes and conversations that no one witnessed but which fully come to life on the pages of Swan Song. It becomes clear that after the immensely successful “true crime novel” that Capote brought to prominence with In Cold Blood (a genre that has only grown in recent decades), his next step was going to be the “gossip novel,” a literary creature that is hard to imagine in its entirety with Capote’s work unfinished.
Swan Song is likely the closest thing available to an Answered Prayers disciple. It brings together a constellation of unlikely elements that Capote started aligning. At times it reads like a more mature Gossip Girl (sans melodrama), a piece of New Journalism, an exploration without judgment of the one percent’s elitist self-obsession and self-absorption, and a character study of the charismatic and enigmatic writer. The language of the novel parallels the settings it describes – the grandiose villas and hotels, the refined and complex attires, the rich and plentiful banquets and lunches in New York’s (as well as many other metropolises around the world) most exclusive restaurants.
It’s easy to imagine these indulgent characters living la dolce vita, with all its details – you can almost taste the flowing rivers of champagne and martinis, you can almost feel the the touch of silk sheets on your skin. Of course, as is usually the case with these situations, beneath the lush surface, the residents of Swan Song hardly leave any of the seven deadly sins unexplored thoroughly. It’s a novel that is as interested in the literary value of Capote’s approach to writing and his life as it is in the moral decay of the most privileged. It is our generation’s The Secret History.
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song is published by Hutchinson and comes out on 14 June.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.