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The Lifelong Feud Between Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, Explained

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans is all about Tom Hollander‘s Truman Capote taking on the upper crust of Upper East Side society. But it just as easily could have been about Capote’s relationship with his longtime nemesis, Gore Vidal. The sixth episode in the series, “Hats, Gloves and Effete Homosexuals,” delves into Capote’s intense rivalry with that other famed midcentury queer author, which came to a head when Vidal sued Capote for slander in 1975 due to a salacious story Capote told about Vidal at dinner with the Kennedys.

Maybe Capote and Vidal’s mutual disdain stemmed from their many similarities. Both Capote and Vidal opted to skip college. Born in 1925, Vidal joined the military after graduating from Phillips Andover Academy. Capote, meanwhile, took up a job as copy boy in the art department at the New Yorker while still in high school. The position, in Capote’s opinion, was “not a very grand job,” but sufficed because he was “determined never to set a studious foot inside a college classroom,” he later said. “I felt that either one was or wasn’t a writer, and no combination of professors could influence the outcome. I still think I was correct, at least in my own case.” Later in life, Vidal would become a major donor to Harvard University—though he never attended it—leaving his entire fortune to the university.

Higher education or not, it soon became clear that both Capote and Vidal were writers. They quickly joined the literati, with Capote bursting onto the national literary scene with his short story collection Breakfast at Tiffany’s and, of course, In Cold Blood. Vidal, a truly prolific writer, would first find success in the 1950s writing mystery novels under a pseudonym before moving into other genres. His play The Best Man: A Play About Politics was nominated for six Tony awards in 1960, including best play, and his satirical 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge, about a young woman running an acting studio in Hollywood, was groundbreaking for being one of the first novels to feature a main character undergo gender confirmation surgery.

Capote was openly, if not particularly proudly, gay. Vidal had sexual relationships with both men and women, and pointedly didn’t identify as gay. Instead, he rejected the label on the grounds that there was no such thing as being gay, only gay sexual acts. Vidal’s voracious sexual appetite was public knowledge; he wrote in his memoir, Palimpsest, that he’d had 1000 sexual experiences by the time he was 25.  In a 1969 issue of Esquire, he elucidated his thoughts on sexuality and sexual expression. “We are all bisexual to begin with,” Vidal wrote. “Homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime … despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three.”

Similarities aside, Capote and Vidal’s animus was longstanding, well-documented, and well-known in their elite circle. “You would think they were running neck-and-neck for some fabulous gold prize,” legendary playwright Tennessee Williams once said of the pair. Both men did nothing to dispel notions that they weren’t fond of each other. “Truman Capote has tried, with some success, to get into a world that I have tried, with some success, to get out of,” wrote Vidal in Palimpsest. Capote wasn’t much kinder. “I’m always sad about Gore,” Capote once quipped. “Very sad that he has to breathe every day.”

Things reached a boiling point in 1975, when Vidal sued Capote for slander. Capote had been running around town, insisting that Vidal had been thrown out of the White House for being “drunk and obnoxious” at a party President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie O threw for Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill and her husband, Prince Stash Radziwill. Capote had reportedly told this story to Playgirl Magazine and as a guest on The Stanley Siegel Show, and Vidal was seeking $1 million in damages. Capote countersued. 

Despite publishing his infamous, bridge-burning story “La Cote Basque 1965” that same year, Capote sought refuge with one of his beloved swans: Radziwill (played on Feud by Calista Flockhart), with whom he had danced the night away at his Black and White Ball ten years prior. Capote claimed that although he wasn’t present for Vidal’s alleged ousting, he had heard the story from Radziwill, and that she would sign a deposition saying so, claiming that Radziwill found Vidal to be “the most sinister man I know.” But Capote’s trust was wildly misplaced. 

Originally Published Here.

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