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When the best dressed were undressed

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 16, 2023 5:00 am

Maurice Arcache, a columnist for this paper till the day he died, was highly regarded for his chronicles of the beau monde. What kept him in that circle was that, like the title of his column, his “lips were sealed” when it came to the most incriminating secrets, which he carried to his grave.

Not so for Truman Capote, the American writer best known for his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was adapted into the 1961 iconic film starring Audrey Hepburn.

Truman Capote greeting guests at his Black and White Ball, 1966

Holly Golightly is supposedly a composite of women that Capote knew, including the socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, who was one of a coterie of affluent, elegant women whom he called his “swans,” described as those who “have earned an audience all-kneeling; for her achievement represents discipline, has required the patience of a hippopotamus, the objectivity of a physician, combined with the involvement of an artist, one whose sole creation is her perishable self.”

Wyatt Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt

The swan was a rare breed: “if expenditure were all, a sizeable population of sparrows would swiftly become swans and it may be that the enduring swan glides upon waters of liquefied lucre; but that cannot account for the creature herself—her talent, like all talent, is composed of unpurchasable substances.”

Gloria Guinness in Balenciaga, 1946

Capote also admired how even when they were not truly beautiful, they “triumphed over plainness, decorated with such clever artifice that we surrender to their claim… in a way, the swan manqué is more beguiling than the natural: after all, a creation wrought by human nature is of subtler human interest, of finer fascination, than one nature alone has evolved.”

Babe Paley in 1949 and a Prada piece in FW 2008-2009

In the case of Babe Paley, the authors’ favorite, a lot of effort went into becoming the trophy wife that CBS media mogul Bill Paley desired. Born Barbara Cushing, she was the youngest of the three “Fabulous Cushing Sisters,” the older ones marrying into the Astor and Roosevelt families. She was established as one of the most beautiful and stylish women at her debutante ball in 1915. An unfortunate car accident, however, knocked her teeth out and disfigured her face, requiring dental and plastic surgery. This was a turning point in her rise, as she would always turn up impeccably made up, coiffed and dressed, even when she left her bedroom to face her husband every morning.

Babe Paley by Horst in 1939

Capote’s anointment may have made Babe the Queen of New York, but she was jealous of the other swans, particularly Gloria Guinness, who married into the Guinness dynasty. To one-up her rival, she reminded people that Guinness started out as a Mexican nightclub worker. Although she always tried to downplay or even lie about her origins, causing rumors intended to diminish her social position, Gloria was still regarded as “the most elegant woman in the world,” as once pronounced by Eleanor Lambert, founder of the Met Gala, NY Fashion Week and the International Best Dressed List.

Slim Keith with Diana and Reed Vreeland, 1952

Unlike Babe, who was “perfect,” Slim Keith opted for sporty, easy clothes with a clean, polished look that epitomized the California “it” girl. A Hollywood socialite in the ’30s when she was often seen with stars like Clark Gable and was pursued by the writer Ernest Hemingway, her third and final marriage made her Lady Keith to British banker Baron Keith of Castleacre.

CZ Guest by Cecil Beaton, 1952

CZ Guest was another swan with a pared-back, unfussy American style who was painted by Diego Rivera, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. In 1962, when she married Winston Frederick Churchill, a relative of Sir Winston Churchill, she also made it to the cover of Time magazine’s issue on America high society, the personification of old-guard chic in front of her Long Island estate wearing a button-down shirt and tie with jodhpurs and a sleek hound beside her. Capote called her “a cool vanilla lady,” the incarnation of understated elegance.

Marella Agnelli by Richard Avedon, 1953

If there was a swan that was in a whole other league, it was Marella Agnelli, the daughter of a Neapolitan aristocrat who married Giovanni Agnelli, the richest man in Italy in 1953 and playboy heir to the Fiat empire. She had a rarefied life of palatial estates with the finest art, high fashion and lofty society. “If she were in a Tiffany window with Babe Paley, Marella would be a little more expensive,” Capote reportedly told Katharine Graham, the Washington Post publisher.

The Bouvier sisters (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill)

Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is considered the more stylish of the two, who had a rivalry that Capote exploited. His sympathetic ear and wit were the qualities that endeared him to the swans, who considered him their best friend. Their relationships also flourished because the author charmed their husbands. Many men of that era were homophobic but made an exception for Truman, who amused them.

Carolina Herrera, pre-fall 2022

Capote became so good at social climbing that by November 1966, on the heels of the success of his crime novel, In Cold Blood, he mounted the much-talked-about Black and White Ball with a guest list so wildly diverse—aristocrats and social register blue bloods rubbing elbows with novelists and denizens of Hollywood—that it ushered in the modern era, closing the previous one characterized by exclusivity to segue into one of media madness.

Christopher John Rogers, pre-fall 2022

But if Capote was reveling in his prescience, he may have overstepped his bounds when he published advanced chapters of his coming novel, Answered Prayers, in Esquire. “La Côte Basque,” in particular, caused a scandal when the characters turned out to be thinly veiled versions of his swans, revealing secrets that were told to him in confidence, like Bill Paley’s one-night stand with Mary Rockefeller, which placed Babe in such a bad light for tolerating her husband’s infidelities.

Balenciaga Couture, fall 2022

Gloria Vanderbilt, who was portrayed as empty-headed and vain, supposedly said, “The next time I see Truman, I’m going to spit in his face!” There was such a backlash that the swans and New York society turned Capote into a pariah, driving him to depression and eventual death in 1984 after years of alcohol and drug abuse.

His spectacular rise and fall with the swans have been the subject of fascination through the years, capturing the imagination of writers, filmmakers and fashion designers who have tapped into the timeless elegance and lifestyle of Capote’s women. Unlike those in this era of shameless self-promotion, these influencers of the last century valued privacy and discretion, which is a true luxury—one that Capote didn’t realize and stands as a lesson to learn from in today’s over-sharing world.