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Winter Arts Guide

In ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans,’ a writer’s betrayal and the friendships it shattered

Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."PARI DUKOVIC

Writer Jon Robin Baitz understands intimately the price he pays whenever he puts pen to paper and mines his life and those of the people he loves for inspiration. Indeed, the playwright and creator of the television series “Brothers and Sisters” wrote an acclaimed drama, “Other Desert Cities,” about that very theme. The 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist centered on a magazine writer visiting her prominent family to reveal that she’d written a memoir about their lives and a scandal that led to her brother’s suicide.

“I’ve always struggled with the idea of how much to tell and how much to use from people around me,” says Baitz during a recent Zoom interview. “I’ve always battled my own guilt about what the writer owes others and what will be the cost to others of things that I write. I’ve hurt people before, friends and family, and I don’t like it. I don’t take anything back, but I try really hard not to be malignant in the world.”

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Baitz is mining similar thematic territory as the writer, executive producer, and driving force (with uber-producer Ryan Murphy) behind “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.” Debuting Jan. 31 on FX, the second season of the anthology series — following 2017′s “Bette and Joan” — grapples with the relationship between writer Truman Capote and his coterie of high society “swans,” the glamorous ladies-who-lunch who became his close friends, confidantes, and muses. The author subsequently betrayed them when Esquire magazine published his short story “La Côte Basque,” an eviscerating tell-all chapter of his magnum opus “Answered Prayers” that served as a gossipy story of New York’s elite and a thinly veiled exposé of their foibles, dark secrets, and personal lives.

In response, the women, led by Slim Keith, quickly closed ranks and ostracized Capote. His exile from their circle sent the “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” author further into an abyss of alcoholism and drug abuse. Inspired by Laurence Leamer’s “Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal and a Swan Song for an Era,” the series stars Tom Hollander (”The White Lotus”) as Capote, Naomi Watts as Babe Paley, Diane Lane as Slim Keith, Chlöe Sevigny as CZ Guest, Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill, and Molly Ringwald as Joanne Carson.

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Naomi Watts as Babe Paley in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."Pari Dukovic/FX

Baitz references Joan Didion’s famous quote that “writers are always selling somebody out,” a theme he examined in “Other Desert Cities.”

His 1993 play “Three Hotels” drew upon the experience of his father, a corporate executive for Carnation Milk. “I saw my father’s role in that business, which was in many cases the baby formula business, as a complicated and morally questionable form of capitalism.” His “A Fair Country,” which was produced at the Huntington in 2000, was inspired by his experiences as an adolescent living in apartheid-era South Africa and his privileged family’s complicity with the system of oppression. “It explored the degradation of this American family assimilating in ways that resemble to me a horror film,” he says, “that eventually you become a white apartheid-abiding conformist. The banality of evil, as it were.”

In writing “Other Desert Cities” and now “Feud,” Baitz is exploring his own complex feelings about using aspects of one’s own life as source material.

“I related to both the desperation of Truman’s in writing ‘La Côte Basque’ and his need to show something of himself, and his rage at [the Swans] not understanding it and why he did it, and not even acknowledging that they might have known what he was doing all along.”

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Baitz grew up watching Capote “be fabulous” and “swanning about” in appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and in the 1976 film “Murder by Death. “At the same time, if you were a weird, gay writer kid, I was fascinated by the writing itself,” Baitz says.

There have already been two high-gloss Capote biopics, one (”Capote”) that garnered Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar and the other (”Infamous”) starring Toby Jones, both of which centered on the creation of his masterpiece “In Cold Blood.” But Baitz was intrigued by “this part of his story that wasn’t really told.”

As a writer, Baitz shares with Capote a preoccupation with family, societal, and political systems and “how they operate and how we work within all of these structures.”

“Capote is interested in the cultural anthropology of these people,” he says. “There’s no better writer about systems than Truman Capote. Sometimes he gets so close to it that it’s like a Chuck Close painting. You see the dots and dashes that make up the whole portrait. But that’s the point. He leaves nothing behind in his dedication to exposure.”

While Baitz brought “my own own messy basket of sorrows and twitches and neuroses” to the writing of “Feud,” he credits executive producer Murphy as the engine for these “brilliant monologues about pain, friendship, about this third act in life, about loss, this meditation on irrelevance.”

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“What happens when the zeitgeist is moving on past you? I found the women deeply poignant in their dedication to a way of life that was losing value quickly, that was going the way of the three-martini lunch and the endless cigarettes and the glamour and the fittings, the futility of living for that rather than a kind of deep commitment to your internal life.”

Diane Lane as Slim Keith in "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans."Pari Dukovic/FX

Baitz says that Slim recognized Capote as a behind-the-scenes operator, but she never thought he’d go for the jugular. “They admire each other’s toughness and grit. But sometimes people lie to themselves. She thinks, ‘Oh, he won’t do it to me.’ Well, a scorpion stings the water buffalo’s back when it crosses the river. That’s its nature.”

CZ, who adores Capote and feels terrible that he’s been banished, tries to build a bridge between him and the furious swans. “It’s terrible thing to be a peacemaker,” Baitz says. “She exhausts herself trying, and I think it hurts her a lot.”

Capote’s relationship with Boston native Babe Paley, wife of CBS television and radio president William “Bill” Paley (Treat Williams), may be his most profound. He befriended the Paleys in the mid-1950s and became a close confidante of Babe’s, who was the most glamorous and elegant of the society doyennes. Her husband was known around town as a serial philanderer, and in “La Côte Basque,” Capote revealed, through thinly veiled pseudonyms, a story of a supposed one-night stand Bill Paley had with the New York governor’s wife. Babe’s rejection of Capote afterward stung like so many outraged hornets.

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“Truman loved Babe for the beauty and the vulnerability and the strength and determination she exuded,” Baitz says. “She certainly gave his life a radiance. I believe he loved her very dearly, and I believe he betrayed her very deeply.”

“As Ryan likes to say, a great feud is really about love. It needs love.”