Why Truman Capote Spared Katherine Graham

The real reason Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, Truman Capote’s guest of honor at the Black and White Ball, was the only “swan” he didn’t betray

By Joseph Rodota in Air Mail: When the November 1975 issue of Esquire magazine hit the newsstands and Truman Capote revealed therein the deepest secrets of a small group of rich, beautiful women known to history as his “swans,” reaction at the top of Manhattan’s social dogpile was swift and nearly universal.

“Ostracizing Truman became the thing to do,” Sam Kashner wrote in a recent issue of AIR MAIL. Slim Keith refused to take his calls and considered suing him for libel. “The next time I see Truman Capote, I’m going to spit in his face,” fumed Gloria Vanderbilt. Babe Paley never spoke to him again.

Ryan Murphy’s new FX series, Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, explores the writer’s falling-out with the socialites he counted among his closest friends—how he betrayed them, and how they, in return, took him down. But viewers won’t see Capote violate the trust of one woman with whom he was especially close: Katharine “Kay” Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post and Capote’s guest of honor at the Black and White Ball.

Writers Truman Capote and Katharine Graham walking in the snow (Photo by Barthel Bruce/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images)

Capote met Graham through Paley, over lunch in 1961. (Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was the fourth guest at the table.) “It’s hard to describe Truman as I first saw him,” Graham later wrote in her best-selling memoir, Personal History. “He had that strange falsetto voice…. He was very short, perfectly groomed, and coiffed…. He was a magic conversationalist—his sentences were like stories.”

“We quickly became friends,” Graham recalled.

In the summer of 1965, Capote invited Graham to join him on a chartered yacht, courtesy of his friend Marella Agnelli, wife of the Fiat chief, to explore the Adriatic Sea and the Greek Islands.

Graham hesitated; just two years earlier, her husband, Phil, had died by suicide, and she had taken over the reins of The Washington Post. “I had come a fair distance in worldliness but not that far,” Graham later recalled, “so I told Truman that I wouldn’t fit in and would feel ill-at-ease.”

Truman persisted; Graham eventually accepted the invitation, “with great reservations.”

A death in the family delayed Marella’s arrival, so Capote and Graham began the journey without their host. Capote brought with him galleys of In Cold Blood. “Sitting for hours on the back deck of the boat in the balmy air, we discussed it all in detail,” Graham later wrote.

Something besides a shared interest in true crime may have cemented their friendship. In a short story titled “Yachts and Things,” rediscovered in the New York Public Library three decades after Capote’s death, the narrator (Capote) describes a Mediterranean cruise with “a distinguished intellectual woman, whom I shall call Mrs. Williams.” One night, anchored off the coast of Turkey, they saw a party in full swing. One thing led to another, and soon 25 Turks were smoking hashish aboard the chartered yacht. The narrator and “Mrs. Williams” decided to partake.

“I had never smoked hashish before; neither had Mrs. Williams,” Capote wrote. “It hit us pretty hard.” Buzzed, they stretched out on the deck, “giggling and laughing until Mrs. Williams began to snore … ”

This vacation with Capote, Graham would later write, marked the beginning of “her new life.”

More here.


“The hidden veins of jet darken your magnolias, here I am Lucia Martinez …” Pic shared by Dr. Gholam Mostafa, California