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Swan Song By Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

“They told him everything. He told everyone else,” Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott teases across the back cover of her debut novel. Before Nora Ephron coined the phrase “everything is copy”, the diminutive Truman Capote – with his penchant for screwdriver cocktails and high-pitched gossip before elevenses – performed it mercilessly on the yacht decks of the rich and famous. They were known as his “swans”: spoilt Fifth Avenue ladies who unwisely unfurled their vulnerabilities over Grand Marnier soufflés, mistaking their confidante's inebriated ardour for everlasting fidelity. Swan Song centres around Capote's ultimate betrayal in 1975: the publication of La Cote Basque, 1965 – a tell-all short story for Esquire magazine that destroyed the lives of the high-society women who entrusted the Southern gothic shapeshifter with their darkest secrets. Greenberg-Jephcott's debut is a devastating read that blurs the lines between vulnerability and narcissism; sex and power. And, ultimately, it is Capote's self-destruction that will have you racing breathlessly towards the end – questioning it all. KL

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SWAN SONG

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

£12.99, Hutchinson

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“They told him everything. He told everyone else,” Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott teases across the back cover of her debut novel. Before Nora Ephron coined the phrase “everything is copy”, the diminutive Truman Capote – with his penchant for screwdriver cocktails and high-pitched gossip before elevenses – performed it mercilessly on the yacht decks of the rich and famous. They were known as his “swans”: spoilt Fifth Avenue ladies who unwisely unfurled their vulnerabilities over Grand Marnier soufflés, mistaking their confidante's inebriated ardour for everlasting fidelity. Swan Song centres around Capote's ultimate betrayal in 1975: the publication of La Cote Basque, 1965 – a tell-all short story for Esquire magazine that destroyed the lives of the high-society women who entrusted the Southern gothic shapeshifter with their darkest secrets. Greenberg-Jephcott's debut is a devastating read that blurs the lines between vulnerability and narcissism; sex and power. And, ultimately, it is Capote's self-destruction that will have you racing breathlessly towards the end – questioning it all. KL

Chapter:

One

1974

Theme

For the first time in his life, the words refuse to come.
He lies in bed, propped on a pile of chintz pillows, their suffocating tangle of tea roses faintly reminiscent of a Southern grande dame’s parlor.

We’ve each mused, at one time or another, that somewhere beneath his gnarled-gnome exterior lurks a genteel New Orleans matron, mortified by her host-form’s crassness.

He stares vacantly at the page before him, thoughts elsewhere. On delivery dates he hasn’t met, on advances already spent. On the Fabergé paperweight he’s just nabbed at auction, how it changes hue when the light shines through it just so, citrine tones conjuring Babe’s miniature vegetables, darling little carrots that only grow so big.

On the eight hundred pages of lies he has or hasn’t told, depending on who you ask. Depending on what he’s said and to whom.

For all his boasts to the contrary, the paper—curled around the barrel of the Smith Corona balanced on his protuberant stomach—is barren. A stack of sunny legal pads proves equally unfruitful, his spider-like scrawl more scribbled through than not.

He reaches for an ashtray full of half-smoked cigarettes and grabs his pack of Trues—a brand he’s sworn to each of us had been named after him. He trembles as he lights one, causing the flame to quiver before he sucks the nicotine into his lungs. He runs a hand through his tissue-fine hair, a gesture of old, when a mop of thick corn-silk fringe swept across his forehead. The fringe, like so much else, is long gone, with only a habitual gesture to remind us of a tow-haired boy we once adored. A boy pampered and indulged well into middle age, courtesy of his unquestioned genius.

In madras pajamas and ratty pink cardigan, the aging wunderkind seems less the literary lion, less still the social barracuda of public perception. Alone in the darkened room, stripped of bravura, he looks like what he is—‘just a pissant rug rat from Monroeville, Alabama, shit-scared as ever.’ (His phrase, not ours.)

The Tiny Terror is in many ways still the terrified toddler who sobbed when his Mama left him locked in fleabag motels while she stole out with her lovers. Lillie Mae, who traded her small-town, small-time name for the more exotic ‘Nina,’ a further removal from the role she never wanted: Mother to the odd Lilliputian boy with the snow-hair, toad-face, and girlish voice, the child whose very oddness repulsed her.

***

He’d sat, he’s told us, on the ‘Big-Bed,’ chubby fingers sticky with sugar from the bag of beignets that had been bought to bribe his silence. He watched her dressing as he chewed, wide eyes peering from his cherub face. She was barely more than a girl herself, and were it not for his gnawing at the scrap of fried dough, one might mistake him for her baby doll, propped against the pillows—rather than her great mistake. A live baby, who she never asked for, from whom she just needed a few hours’ escape to try to salvage her wreck-of-a-life.

She’d told him this in dulcet tones, almost a lullaby, which he couldn’t help but think of as good, given her smile as she cradled him close.

She was beauty and light. His whole tiny universe.

He’d studied her as she sat at the vanity in a sheer black slip, taming a honeyed pin-curl into place. He watched as she unscrewed a tube of lipstick—red like the tin fire engine a man called Daddy once gave him. She smacked a pout at her reflection. Across the room he mimicked the same, spreading sticky sugar between invisible lips. She grinned at him, and he giggled.

He pulled another beignet from his bag as she slithered into a silky dress, the green-gray hue of Spanish moss. She’d told him that was the name of the stuff that hung from the trees there, those spider arms blowing in the breeze that used to scare him, the rustle of which he had come to think of as home.

She moved to a hotplate in the corner. His eyes followed, transfixed by the colored lights that shone through the window onto her face, flashing Red-Green-Blue, Red-Green-Blue—like a Christmas tree. A trumpet-wail from the open window battled a jangling pianola from another room. She’d shaken her hips to the ragtime of the latter, as she stirred a saucepan of milk, pouring a healthy splash from the glass bottle of ‘Mama-juice’ she always kept on her nightstand. He loved to look at that bottle, its amber liquid sparkling in the lamplight, even when there was precious little left inside.

She had poured a cocktail of warm milk and Mama-juice into a tin cup and presented it to him. She stroked his hair, telling him what a fine boy he was as he sipped, the fire trickling down his throat. He nuzzled against her, inhaling her perfume. It reminded him of the scent of jasmine in the lobby they walked through each day, sneaking past the fat man behind the desk who, like a broken gramophone record, asked in an angry voice when she intended to pay. She’d made it a game—run, run! she told him—and his chubby little legs raced to keep up with hers.

Here in the Big-Bed, she stroked the white straw that topped his head, the warmth of her thigh the last thing he remembered before sinking into deepest sleep.

***

When he woke the room was dark. He reached for her, but she was gone.

He sat up, groggy, feeling like syrup had been poured through his brain. The colors of the Christmas neon still flashed in through the window. He could still faintly hear the player-piano, drowned by the blare of a brass band.

He slid off the Big-Bed, feet dangling, falling with a thud to the oor. He teetered toward the door, reaching upward for the cold brass knob. He turned it—one way, then the other. Wouldn’t budge. He put his cheek against the crack and cried out, ‘Mama . . . ?’

No answer.

He called again, ‘Mama—?! Mama!!

Only music and shrieks of pleasure from below.

Terrified, he howled—desperate that someone might hear him. He worried that she’d gone away for good and forgotten to take him. He pounded tiny fists against the door, screams muffled by ragtime and laughter and grown-up things he didn’t understand. He slumped to a heap on the floorboards, sobbing till he just couldn’t sob anymore.

***

He’d cried himself asleep by the time she returned. She scooped him up, dumping him in a threadbare armchair. He stirred—and through exhausted half-slumber he could just make out the man she led into the room. A man in a smart white suit, sharing a sloppy gulp of Mama-juice as their mouths collided, just before they fell into the Big-Bed, crushing his bag of beignets, stuffed between the pillows.

***

Of course, sometimes the details change . . .

The color of her dress. Beignets or cake, ragtime or blues. Who the man might be. Whether the Mama-juice was clear or amber. Whether she’d instructed the motel staff to ignore his screams. He’s always left behind, locked inside. Alone. Abandoned. Terrified.

That’s the important part, as the tale is told and retold—

Alone. Abandoned. Terrified.

The details, frankly, are interchangeable.

***

We’ve all heard his stories, a hundred times over.

These were Truman’s playing cards. How could they fail but rouse our sympathy? How could we not reciprocate with our own tragic tales, each believing ourselves to have privilege over one another . . . ? Each believing ourselves to be his Favorite.

We loved him, after all. We welcomed him into our homes—our multiple homes—into our pools and yachts and planes. Accepted him into our celebrated families—Paleys. Guinnesses. Guests and Keiths. Agnellis and Bouviers. All vigor and tans, fresh-cut flowers and pure-bred pups. With our money and our manners, we picked up his tabs and lifted his stature. We festooned him with cachet.

We were the wives he’d never know. The mothers he wished he’d had. We loved him as we loved our own broods—more so, perhaps. No one would dare leave Truman behind with the nanny. His childlike zeal and raunchy wit proved too heady a cocktail. He’d even seduced the husbands. Those alpha males who launched networks and empires, who found themselves confiding in our androgynous sprite in ways they couldn’t confide in us.

He seduced us all with words—and Truman knows full well the power of his words. They’re both armor and weapon, the one thing he’s sure of. They alone have never failed him, their lyricism hinting at the beauty trapped within his stunted body, not to mention his conflicted soul.

But now the muses have gone silent. For the first time since he set up a spartan desk in his childhood bedroom, armed with a composition book and a thimble of whiskey, the muses refuse to speak. Blind to the elusive gossamer threads, from which he once wove such intricate verbal webs. Deaf to the delicate balance of tones he used to strike so effortlessly. Stripped of that singular gift to find just the right word to make a phrase reverberate.

While the right words elude him, the wrong ones are another matter. Waffle and bile increasingly spew from his thinning lips— half-baked thoughts, easy insults. He can hardly stop himself. And loooord-eeee, the boasts!

‘Honey, I was born to write this book. I’m the only one who could write it. Let’s face it, no one else has the guts to say what I’m prepared to say. I’ve seen spoiled monsters first-hand and, baby, they ain’t pretty. Trust me, this story is the one true thing I know.’

We’ve heard him preach this gospel, to anyone who’ll listen. Columnists. Chat-show hosts. Friends, strangers. Enemies, sycophants—come one, come all. He’s been writing it for ages. Told everyone he was doing it. He’s taunted with bits and pieces, read snippets to some of us, quoted lines to others, and hashed and rehashed the plot. For years Truman’s warned we just might find ourselves making an appearance. He’s tailored hand-carved coffins for each of us.

‘It’s called Answered Prayers. And if all goes well, it’ll answer mine.’

There’s been a lot of buzz, alotta talk. But it’s becoming cheap dime-store talk. Shit on a shingle, masquerading as pâté on Tiffany silver—‘It’s positively epic, the thing I’ve been crafting. Everyone I’ve ever met. Everything I’ve seen. I’m constructing this book like a gun. There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet. And when it’s red it’s gonna come out with a speed and power you’ve never seen—WHAM!!

Yet now the words elude him, like snowflakes on a balmy day, evaporating before he can grasp them. Without his precious words, he is nothing. Panicked.

And when Truman panics . . .

He props himself upright, steals a glance at the clock. Nine thirty. It’s five o’clock somewhere. He removes the typewriter from his distended gut and drags his otherwise shrunken carcass from the bed, treading carefully over the landmines of his thoughts.

Two

Bare feet wade through a thick shag carpet, woolen strands threading between his toes. He proceeds through an open-plan living room, glass walls revealing a brittle desert landscape beyond. He’s donned swimming trunks and a terrycloth robe, which hangs loosely around his minuscule frame. Oversized sunglasses hook over tortoise specs. The thinning hair is hidden beneath a panama hat and apart from the middle-aged paunch, he could pass as a ten-year-old boy, drowning in adult clothing.

He slides a transparent door open, squinting against the glare.

Lying catatonic on the patio is an English bulldog, Maggie, slobber dribbling from her protruding tongue. Truman steps over her, making a beeline for a wet bar. He pauses at the mini-fridge, torn between options. Shouts back to the slumbering lump— ‘What’ll it be, Mag-pie . . . ? A Bloody-Blood or my Orange Drink . . . ?’

The rolls of canine flesh fail to respond beyond a steady, listless panting.

‘That’s what I thought . . . OJ it is.’ He reaches for a carton of concentrate. Removes a hundred-proof bottle of Stoli from the freezer. He fills half a highball with the vodka, adding the tiniest smidgeon of juice. Demurely sips—then tops up the hooch for good measure.

Na zdorovye,’ he quips in thick Russian dialect, toasting lazy ole Mags as he shuffles past. Heading for a lounger, Truman collects an apricot princess phone, rigged with an exceptionally long wire, linking him to the house as if by coiled umbilical cord. He reclines in the sun, Orange Drink in hand. He takes a swig, pulling a black book from the pocket of his voluminous robe. He finds the desired number. Dials. And in that adolescent-girl whine we’ve all come to recognize in a single syllable, he commands the receiver.

‘Hello, precious. Mr. Don Erickson, s’il vous plaît,’ then, surprised by the receptionist’s apparent ignorance, ‘Why, honey, it’s Mr. Truman Streckfus Persons Capote, if you didn’t know.’

He balances the phone on his shoulder, and like a contortionist he twists around, shimmying out of the bathrobe and retrieving his drink with surprising dexterity.

From the other line, anxious, ‘Mr. Capote?’

‘Donny. Greetings and salutations.’

‘And to you, Mr. Capote.’

‘I’m not your daddy, for Chrissakes! Call me Truman.’

‘Mr.— Truman. I want to thank you for returning our call. We’re very excited, and may I stress very excited, at the prospect of publishing your stories—’

Chapters,’ Truman corrects. ‘The first chapters of my magnum opus. Looooong-awaited chapters. Fifteen years in the making. Think of this as a little sneak peek . . . A few chapters to keep ’em guessing.’

‘Yes. Chapters. I just want to express, on behalf of the Esquire staff—’

‘Let’s cut to the juicy bit, shall we? The New Yorker’s offered me twenty thousand. Care to sweeten the pot . . . ?’

The line goes silent. Truman frowns, dabbing the pooling sweat collecting in the reservoir between his chest and belly. His ‘man-tits,’ he’d been amused to inform us while sunbathing on board the Agneta, sailing cobalt waters off the Amal Coast, slathering the ‘most divine’ shea butter on his beloved Babe’s porcelain skin.

We had all, of course, told him what a silly creature he was, that he was far too prepubescent to have tits of any sort.

‘Donnn-eeee . . . ? Cat got your tongue?’ Truman ventures, pressing the charm offensive, somewhere between a purr and a growl.

From the other end, palpable disappointment.

‘We were prepared to go to sixteen. I’m sorry, Truman. We’d do anything to keep our hat in the ring. We know how big this will—’

Aaaac-tually, I don’t think you do.’

‘We do! We’re simply a smaller operation than—’

‘Sugar, you have no idea how big this book is gonna be.’

Truman rises, dragging the mile-long phone cord past Maggie, who lifts her head as it grazes her lumpy back. At the wet bar he mixes himself another Orange Drink, the once icy vodka bottle weeping in the heat.

‘We know. We knew with Breakfast, didn’t we? We just don’t have the resources to go any higher. Try as we might, we can’t outbid the New Yorker.’

Truman pours himself an extra capful of Stoli, tosses back the shot.

‘Give me one good reason why I should go with Esquire for four grand less. You’ve got sixty seconds, Donny-Boy. Convince me.’

A sharp intake of breath, then— ‘Who would you like your readership to be?’

Truman pauses. ‘Well . . . I don’t want ’em kicking the bucket midway through. I suppooose I’d like a younger readership. One that doesn’t give a flying hoot about The Rules.’

‘Okay. Demographically, do you know what the occupation of the greatest percentage of New Yorker subscribers is?’

‘No.’

‘Dentists.’

‘Dentists—?’

‘Yes—dentists. Purchased as what’s known in the trade as Lobby Lit. There’s your audience. Sad fucks with toothaches waiting for a root canal.’

Truman chews an ice cube, ingesting this, drumming his claws against the highball.

‘You know I’ll have certain demands . . .’

‘Anything.’

‘I want cover approval.’

‘You got it.’

‘And you cannot change a word of text. I mean it! Not a syllable!’

‘All right . . .’

‘I’m flying to the Yucatán to see Lee—do you know Lee Radziwill? She’s utterly divine. Far more stunning than her sister . . . I mean, I love Jackie, don’t get me wrong. She was one smart cookie back in the day—surprisingly well read—but she can be so severe, don’t you think? The whole weepy-widow routine . . . No man would touch that with a ten-foot pole! And face it, she can look a bit like a drag queen in pearls from certain angles. Of course Ari . . . Well. He’s no looker. He did sleep with Lee first . . . but that’s another story. Anyhooooo. Seeing Lee in Mexico, then on to Key West, where I’ve found the most deliciously trashy seaside motel. I only have one copy of my book. Only one in the whole wide world. You’ll have to come down and pick up the manuscript. Personally.’

‘Done.’

Truman dumps the last of the ice cubes into his glass. ‘Weeee-uull . . . okay then, hon. Esquire it is. And on that note, I’m gonna do a jig and pour myself one last little something to celebrate . . .’

A splash more Orange, splash(es) more hundred-proof. Truman teeters with drink and phone toward the swimming pool. Maggie, half-eye on alert, rolls resentfully clear of his path.

On the line the mood shifts to one of triumph.

‘Wow. Truman, that really is terrific!’

‘I’m delighted, Don. Simply over the moon.’

He sets the phone base at the pool’s edge, dipping his toe in the chlorine bath.

‘But Donny . . . be forewarned.’ Truman pauses, wading waist-deep into warm water, relishing the moment. ‘I’m about to detonate a bomb.’

‘You always do. I’m sure this will prove no exception.’

‘Ohhh, but it will. They ain’t seen nothin’ yet . . .’

‘Well. I can assure you— You won’t regret this.’

‘Nooooo,’ Truman ponders, ‘I don’t think I will. But you might.’ Satisfied, he places the handset back in its cradle.

Faintly . . .

You don’t think you’ll regret it, Truman?

Truman polishes off his OJ, sets his glass beside the phone.

Part of you isn’t worried about what we’ll say when we find out . . . ?

His brow furrows. Ours is not the Calliope voice he’s been longing to hear.

Turning to his morning exercise, Truman dog-paddles the length of the pool, keeping both head and hat above water. At the deep end he grasps the diving board, stretching his arms, feet dangling into the depths below. He makes a U-turn and paddles back to the shallow end.

You know, there’s only one thing that cannot be forgiven . . . Betrayal, in black and white.

‘Stop it,’ Truman says aloud, to no one in particular. Maggie raises her head at the sound of a phrase she recognizes. He laughs. ‘Not you, Mags.’

Bitchery and butchery, in Century Expanded type. Are you sure you won’t regret . . . ?

Holding his breath, he ducks his head beneath the water. It’s serene. Peaceful. But in the glugging, amniotic solitude, a voice, Our voice, persists . . .

As a rule, people are far more hurt by what they read than what they hear.

Truman allows his weight to sink, leaving his panama hat bobbing gently on the glassy surface.

Three

A week later, a limousine pulls up in front of Capote’s modest desert retreat. A chauffeur collects his luggage: a pair of worn Vuitton suitcases, découpaged with labels.

‘My bags have been positively everywhere,’ Truman often boasts. ‘They’ve traveled twice as much as me. It’s not my fault . . . They have their own little legs that run on ahead!’

As he carefully locks the deadbolt—we’ve been told there have been break-ins in his absences—the chauffeur returns for the final item of luggage. A thick, rectangular parcel, meticulously wrapped in brown butcher paper, tied with kitchen twine. As he reaches for the parcel, Truman lunges in his path.

‘Nooooo thank you, Mr. Hauptmann. This baby’s not leaving Daddy Tru-bergh’s sight!’ The chauffeur, a heavyset Mediterranean, backs away. Truman laughs heartily.

‘Gracious! I’m like a little ole junkyard dog! Bless your cotton socks. To whom do I have the pleasure . . . ?’

‘I’m Vincent, sir.’

‘Vi-chen-teee . . .’ Truman rolls the name around on his tongue. ‘Well, you simply must tell me all about yourself . . .’

***

In the back of the limousine, Truman sits with parcel in place of honor on the seat beside him. He taps the partition. Flashes a grin in the rearview mirror.

‘Say, Vicente . . . ? You wouldn’t mind if I popped this delicious bottle of bubbly, would you? I can’t think of anything more rude than to drink while you’re driving. But would you mind terribly . . . ?’

‘No, sir. Help yourself.’

‘It’s medicinal, you know. I just have to wash down the teensiest of pills, and they’re always so much nicer with my old friend Dominic P.—’ Truman reaches greedily for the chilled bottle of Dom Perignon, giggling when the cork pops, like a child with a Christmas cracker. He removes a Quaalude from an enamel Victorian snuffbox in his pocket. Slides a turquoise pill into his mouth, then a jade one, together fanning into the colors of a peacock’s tail.

‘Vicente what?’

‘Angelotti.’

‘Angelotti. Quel divine! You’re Italian, I presume.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Well, isn’t that just the most exotic thing to be. And where did you say you were from?’

‘My family came from Sicily, but I grew up in Hoboken.’

‘What an extraordinary coincidence! My friend Francis comes from Hoboken. He’s a singer . . . Perhaps you know him?’ Truman’s accordion-grin expands. Celebrity never ceases to thrill him as a topic. ‘Francis . . . ? Francis Sinatra . . . ?’ He watches the driver’s eyes widen. ‘You know, he wanted to buy the film rights to my book. Now as much as I love Francis dearly, he’s notoriously stingy, and my Big Mama—that’s my very close friend Slim—she was acting as my agent at the time, and she said to hold out for a million.’

‘Sinatra,’ the driver stammers. ‘You know Frank Sinatra?’

‘Vinny, I know everybody. So Slim, she was married to Howard Hawks before she left him for Leland Hayward, who left her for that slut Pam Churchill—as in Winston, Pam having bagged his son Randolph ( . . . and just about anything else with a pulse!) Anyhow, I had met Howard through Bogart, who met his darling wife Betty through Slim, who literally discovered her—not that that misogynist rat Hawks gave credit where credit was due, and—’

‘You knew Bogie too . . . ?’

Knew him? He called me Caposey. I beat him at arm-wrestling. Three times. I won two hundred bucks off him, which in those days was alotta dough. But when I body-slammed Bogie— he dared me!—and took him out of commission for three days, Big John Huston was not too happy with Li’l Ole Caposey, let me tell you! Where was I—? Oh yes. Back to Slim . . .’

***

By the time the car pulls up to the Sputnik facade of LAX in two hours’ time, Truman has told Vincent the life histories and bed-hopping of almost everyone in our circle.

The chauffeur has listened, incredulous, not sure whether this pint-sized raconteur is a teller of truths or crazy as a coconut. Truman, having exhausted himself with a potent cocktail of gossip, dolls, and champagne, slumps in his seat, mid-catnap.

Vincent collects his luggage from the trunk and sets it by the curb. He opens the back door and gently shakes his snoring passenger. Truman wills himself awake, peacock-plume-eyed, empty champagne bottle in his lap. He squints toward the open door, where the chauffeur stands with the sun at his back, features obscured, surrounded by a halo of light.

‘Mr. Angel-otti . . . have we reached the City of Your Kind?’

‘Welcome to Los Angeles, Mr. Capote.’

‘Give me your arm, dear angel boy, and help me to fly.’

The chauffeur hoists Truman to his feet—no easy task, his featherweight form leaden with fatigue. As porters arrive to drag suitcases inside, Truman removes his watch. A flashy Cartier affair. He presses it into Vincent’s palm, who stares at the offering, flabbergasted.

‘For you, Vicente.’

‘But sir—I couldn’t possibly—’

‘Don’t offend me, Angel. Bogie had one, Francis has one, I’ve got a dozen.’

Vincent’s protests cease as Truman rolls back the sleeve of his uniform, tenderly fastening the watch strap around his wrist. He pats the chauffeur’s arm. ‘Bellissimo.’

He lowers his insect shades and follows the porters into the terminal.

***

It’s not until he drifts past the rush of travelers, languidly swimming against the stream of hustle and bustle, following his bags—which indeed have their own legs today (we’ve always insisted there’s generally a sliver of truth in what Truman says . . . )

Not until he’s sauntered up to the Aeroméxico counter without a care in the world, been checked in, ticket printed by a doe-eyed señorita in the smartest pillbox hat (‘Just like Jackie used to wear,’ we knew he’d tell her, ‘until that terrible day, the Pepto-Bismol pink pillbox, splattered with Jack’s blood . . .’)

Not until he’s slurred a final ‘Adios, amiga,’ pausing to contemplate that the masculine version of that farewell had been—as he’d tearfully informed us—Perry Smith’s final words before he’d watched him hang, the killer having limped forward, kissed his cheek and whispered, ‘Amigo . . .’ into Truman’s ear. He’d felt the breath coming from Perry’s warm lips in the icy warehouse, noticed his exhaled puffs, coming faster as he mounted the scaffold steps, where a delicate black mask was tied over his eyes. Visible breath—same as the lawmen and journalists watching. A last exhalation of vapor gave the illusion of hovering when the floor dropped out from under him and the breath was no more. Too late did Truman realize that he’d never be able to jettison those images, of Perry and Dick’s fragile necks snapping, or of the shotgun blasts for which they paid—four shots that snuffed out the Clutter clan, upstanding folks by all accounts, in a single blood-soaked night. He couldn’t escape the feeling that theirs was his own funeral, and that the boy with the fringe had died with them in that freezing warehouse, leaving a shell of a man in his place.

Not until he’s allowed himself a groggy moment of self-pity for all that he has lost, for the price that he has paid for his art . . .

Not until then does Truman remember . . .

He looks around, horrified, groping for the thick brown parcel, deciding it must have been tossed into his luggage. Bags are retrieved, flung open, guts rifled, and every conceivable item tossed from their cavities. Tablets covered in Truman’s fussy scrawl. The weighty Smith Corona, concealed in its leather sheath. Paisley swimming trunks. Black silk pajamas. Scarves of unacceptable lengths. T-shirts. Corduroys. Furs— —

Furs? In the Yucatán? We’ve always said he couldn’t pack. How many times has one or another of us neatly packed his bags for far-flung jaunts, removing wildly inappropriate items he’s always managed to sneak back in last minute . . . ? While he, the pampered son, sits curled at the foot of our beds, part pasha, part Pekinese, observing our efforts, rhapsodizing, ‘But darling, that’s amazing,’ delighted by our labor on his behalf.

At the feet of the startled señoritas of Aeroméxico, Truman tosses his hallowed treasures, searching in vain for the only item that matters.

‘Oh-my-god-oh-my-god oh my GAWD,’ he wails, a peacock screech, which in itself is not unlike a woman’s scream. (Were he operating at full capacity he would have appreciated this detail, having more than once pointed out in the Central Park Zoo that the New York City Police have often been called to investigate a shrieking ‘genus Pavo’ on this very basis.)

‘I can’t believe . . . Fifteen years of my life— fifteen YEARS!’ 15

The Misses Aeroméxico exchange uncomfortable glances.

‘I can’t—I’ll never be able to duplicate . . . !’

He reaches the bottom of the final case and sits back on his haunches, his portable world scattered pitifully around him. (So pitiful we could almost feel sorry for him . . .) He sees his last minuscule chance receding into nothingness, which is even more frightening than the Nothing he’s been grappling with. He realizes that this may well signal the end of the line. He doesn’t have the strength to start again.

But Hemingway did, when it happened to him, we’d assure him—

‘I hate that pompous old fart,’ he’d say, per script. ‘Homophobic faux-macho cunt. Bore, bore, BORE.’ Those of us who’d known Papa would argue otherwise and Truman, claws extended, would inevitably snap, ‘Well, he was practically a child back then—Mr. Shotgun-for-Breakfast could hardly do much now!’

The elfin body rounds in defeat. His bony shoulders begin to shake, with them the spine, as ordered and de ned as a string of freshwater pearls.

A concerned señor, the counter manager, appears and kindly offers to phone the ‘young man’s’ hotel. Truman shakes his head in his skeletal hands, knowing full well that all is lost.

The voices, Our voice—soloists, overlapping now—

You should have known, Truman, that it was beneath you.

Flinging fine-boned skeletons from our walk-in closets . . .

Airing our thousand-count, bloodstained linens for all to see!

Leaving us reeling that our trust could be so utterly betrayed by our closest confidant . . .

‘Noooooo!’ Truman wails. Señor Aeroméxico withdraws, mistaking the protest for him.

We can just hear the headlines—Capote kills in cold blood. Ladies who lunch—eviscerated in Manhattan’s most fashionable eatery by their best friend?!’

‘I didn’t mean to . . . I didn’t mean—’

Our best friend . . .

Aeroméxico has summoned the porters.

‘Where did he come from?’ asks the befuddled manager.

‘He was dropped off, sir. In a big black limousine.’

You—with whom we sipped Cristal and spilled our souls! Shared juicy gossip over bubbling pots of Soufflé Furstenberg, egg yolks oozing into milky custard as we dished the latest dirt. We confided, in tipsy tête-à-têtes, our most guarded, martini-soaked secrets, while you listened with the attention our husbands failed to provide.

You ungrateful little dwarf! Low-level social climber—

‘You’ve always made that mistake about me! I was an artist! Always an artist!’

Señor Manager is on the phone now, ringing car companies, calling for reinforcements. A well-heeled queue has formed at the counter. Most ignore the display, unwilling to acknowledge such theatrics in a public place, and one as glamorous as the airport.

A child waiting in line, clutching her mother’s hand, stares at Truman with fixed, frightened eyes. He looks to her, making a tearful appeal—‘Who did they think they had . . . ? What did they think I was . . . ?!!’

‘Mama . . .’ The girl retreats behind her mother’s skirt.

Then, another voice, across the room . . .

‘Mr. Capote . . . ?’

The voice of an angel, floating toward him.

Truman looks to see the flash of a golden wing—an appendage wrapped in Cartier.

Just like that, Saint Vincent Angelotti is standing over him, offering the sacred object . . . Eight hundred pages, wrapped in brown paper, carefully tied with string, which might as well be the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes.

‘I’m sorry, sir. I came as soon as I realized. You left this on the backseat.’

Truman Capote reaches out, recovering his destiny, clutching it to his concave chest.

‘Ohhhhhhh, grazie, Angel! Grazie!

And suddenly he knows, definitively—regardless of the outcome—sometimes the wrong words are better than no words at all.

Four

1975

Variation No. 1

Lady Slim Keith—formerly Mrs. Leland Hayward, formerly Mrs. Howard Hawks, formerly scrawny Nancy Gross of Salinas, California—is startled when the phone rings just before eight. She’s reading the morning papers in bed, her routine of late. It’s what divorcées do, she’s told herself—even reluctant divorcées, when forced to create new rituals. She’s always been an early bird, up with the sun, relishing the lazy hours before the rest of the world has risen to join her. Yet the unexpected ring alarms.

No one calls until ten. It just isn’t done.

Her mind races . . . The asylum? Has Billy pulled another prison break? If so, should she contact Leland, or should she wait . . . ? He and horrid whore-ed Pam have neglected Billy awfully. She herself has tried to intervene, but then, as we’ve reminded her, it isn’t her responsibility; he isn’t her son any longer, if a stepson ever was.

When the phone goes quiet, she feels the relief of reprieve. Probably just some rat in London who hasn’t had the decency to check the time.

Then—a fresh round of ringing punctures the stillness.

It must be Billy. Or Bridget? The Hayward brood gone haywire. It wouldn’t be the first time, and Slim doubts it will be the last. She feels a sharp stab of anxiety, the same she felt when the phone went at sunrise years ago, with grim news about Papa. Ernest had not been well. ‘I’m sick of it all, Miss Slimsky,’ he’d said when she last left Havana, and he’d meant it. They’d been dove shooting one last time, she later confirmed, with the very gun he’d used to— —

Christ. Not Billy too . . .

Bracing herself for the worst, Slim reaches for the receiver. Before she can answer, Babe’s voice, strained—higher than its usual smooth, silvery perfection.

‘Have you read it?’

Thank God—just Babe.

With a wash of relief, Slim reaches for the papers. ‘Times or Post?’

She’d already flipped through Suzy and Charlotte’s gossip columns, scanned picayune slings and arrows hours before. The usual birdbrain socialites jostling for see-and-be-seen preeminence. Par for the course.

No Paleys. No Haywards. Nothing to warrant an 8 a.m. alarm.

‘Truman’s piece in Esquire,’ says Babe, in an un-Babe-like rush. ‘Have you read it . . . ?’

Esquire . . . ? No.’

‘Well, get it right away. Read it and call me back.’ Click. Click? From the Queen of Manners? Decidedly un-Babe-like . . . What could possibly—?

Slim rings for her maid, hands her some change from the vanity drawer, and sends her scampering down to the corner newsstand.

***

An hour later, Slim sits at her kitchen table nursing a bottle of Scotch, the pages of Esquire spread open before her, confronting her fictional doppelgänger.

Lady Slim Keith, meet Lady Ina Coolbirth . . .

Both carefree, Californian broads, thrice divorced. Both damn good-looking, yet one of the boys. Sultry gals-next-door, whose laid-back cool makes trousers and suede jackets and slip-on flats alluring. Both poster girls for the man’s-man’s ideal woman. A woman who drinks deep and lives large, who fishes, rides, and shoots big game. Who’ll spin a helluva yarn once the cocktails start owing . . . Trouble is, the booze and the spiel tend to flow together.

And there they all are. Our precious, protected secrets. Shared in hushed voices among members of our set, bandied like tennis balls at our most exclusive clubs. Courtside, poolside small talk. Harmless enough. But guarded with hawklike vigilance from anyone outside.

We’re all there. The whole goddamn cast. Some of us appearing under our real names—Babe and Betsey, Jackie and Lee—others under thinly veiled pseudonyms. All at our signature tables at La Côte Basque, unknowingly weathering the barbed insults of the fictional Lady Ina . . . clearly Slim, dishing the foulest dirt with a gigolo queen named ‘Jonesy’ . . . obviously Truman.

But it’s not ‘Jonesy’ from whose lips the slander drips . . . It’s hers.

Slim feels a cold chill run through her body . . . the arctic chill of panic.

Oh, Truheart. You little motherfucker. What have you done?!

That’s before she reads the worst of it . . . When she gets to the bloodstained sheets, she fumbles for the phone. Babe answers on the first ring.

Well?

‘I feel like I just got punched in the gut.’

‘Yes, but what did you think . . . ?’

‘Pure garbage. Bitchy, catty trash,’ Slim says unequivocally. She tries to sound dismissive, but they both know this is bigger than that.

It’s a declaration of war.

‘That story . . .’ Babe pauses. ‘Do you think that it’s true?’

Slim holds her breath, knowing exactly which one Babe means . . .

The Sheets.

Slim can’t bear to tell her. With her cancer . . . with the treatments. We all know about Bill’s women. But with Babe looking death in the eye, to mention them seems exceptionally cruel. ‘Truman’s a fantasist. I’ve always told you that.’ Cannot tell her . . . Can’t . . .

‘But there’s always some truth in what he says,’ Babe persists. ‘Clearly “Ann Hopkins” is Ann Woodward. The pretend intruder, the dead husband . . .’

‘Okay, so that bit’s true. My God, to dredge that up . . .’

‘What was he thinking?’

‘Christ. I hope Ann’s okay . . .’

***

Slim doesn’t yet know, but Ann is not okay. Someone smuggled her an advanced copy of Truman’s article days ago. Needless to say, poor Ann Woodward was horrified by the prospect of having her long-buried demons revisited, sickened by the thought of being dragged through the mud, branded ‘BIGAMIST’ and ‘MURDERESS’ in blazing scarlet letters, all over again.

She’d always admitted to shooting her husband, mistaking him for a prowler. She’d certainly set up the idea, The Prowler being the Woodwards’ sole topic of conversation at the dinner they’d attended for the Duchess of Windsor the very night in question—Ann in particular having banged on about it (Truman’s sardonic pun). They’d been worried about the break-ins in their Oyster Bay hamlet. Had taken to sleeping with shotguns by the bed. What they failed to mention were the separate bedrooms, so broken was the marriage, hanging at that point by a thumb- nail. Ann had heard an intruder and shot without looking. But there was something shy in the position of her husband’s naked body when police responded to her frantic call.

Truman relished the salaciousness of it all, and had a new detail to share each time he told the tale around an enraptured luncheon table, as if he peeked into the Oyster Bay police files on a regular basis.

‘She says she’d grabbed her musket—à la Annie-Get-Your- Gun—and unloaded that bespoke baby into blackest pitch. Bang! Bang!’ Truman enthused. ‘Then she flipped the light switch on, and who should she find—quelle surprise—but her dear, departed Billy, positively riddled with buckshot. Only this unlucky buck was lying limp in the hallway, stretched between their boudoirs. The sheriff arrived to find li’l Miss Oakley poised atop the body—a position she so often occupied in life,’ (he loved to add with a smirk.) ‘She sobbed those great big crocodile tears, still sporting her blighted nighty, splattered with blood like a crimson Jackson Pollock.

“I did it! I killed him! It was dark—I couldn’t see!” At a measly twenty-foot distance?! Ha! Well, the cops didn’t need but two brain cells to rub together to suss out in a jiff that that didn’t add up. The hall was a fine story—mighty fine. I give Annie an ‘A’ for effort. Excluding one small point: that wasn’t where he was killed . . .’

When we’d asked Tru how he could be so sure, he retorted, with forensic zeal, tidbits that had been withheld from the press. ‘Honey, the police found the corpse inside a glassed-in shower. Naked for Chrissakes! The water was still running and the door was shattered with bullets. Now you tell me . . . ? How did he die . . . ?’

He’d then slurp a spoonful of soup, or drain a martini, satisfied.

The scandal had faded, to Tru’s dismay, with Ann’s acquittal, her mother-in-law Elsie having refused to press charges. She was a vestige of the Gilded Age of Astors and Vanderbilts, when one didn’t taint the family name with shame, even if it meant setting a murderess free. Elsie Woodward believed one should only see one’s name in print twice—once at one’s birth and once at one’s death (not even marriage currying favor, its lifespan being so fleeting.)

For Truman, however, the more ink the better. For him a good story never died, and he’s waited with the patience of Job to resurrect this gem. Truman’s a great one for grudges and for almost two decades, Ann’s been at the top of his hit-list.

‘Look at Capote, that horrid little faggot,’ he’d told us Ann had sniped at a party in St. Moritz in the early Fifties. Other times he’d said he’d bumped into her on the packed El Morocco dance floor, stepped on her clodhopper toes in a frenzied, tipsy jitterbug.

‘Watch it, Fag . . .’ she’d hissed.

‘Watch yourself, Bang-Bang,’ he said he’d fired back.

Whichever version, however vicious or not, she’d gotten her comeuppance, on the knifepoint of his pen. She’s the main attraction in his Esquire sideshow, the production simply dripping in Truman’s malice. She’s billed as ‘Ann Hopkins’, a flame-haired widow in a black Mainbocher suit and veil, sitting with a Gibson-swilling priest, who consoles her over the death of a husband called ‘David’.

‘Ann was a two-bit Showgirl—Call girl, more like,’ Lady Ina tells Jonesy in Truman’s tale, sinking a spoon into her Soufflé Furstenberg. ‘Desperate to grind her way out of the chorus, Ann found a patron in David Hopkins Senior before moving on to Junior, who married her for her . . . talents. But when David found out that his Daddy’d beaten him to the punch, the marriage went south quick . . .

‘David wanted out, without the hefty price tag, so he hired a crack P.I. to see who else’s bones were hiding in Ann’s closets. And before you could blink, he had photographic proof of Ann mounting each member of the Piping Rock Polo Club (one-by- one-by-one, then the whole team, tous ensemble . . .) Enough to warrant an arrest, not to mention a divorce! But in a twisted turn of fate, clever Private Dick decided to poke around Ann’s old homestead—

‘He interviewed her toothless relatives, who had never known her in the highfalutin’ role of Mrs. David Hopkins—’ Lady Ina relishes this bit in particular— ‘But as Angeline Lucille Crumb, tomboy brat of a taxi-rank Madame, operating from the men’s room of the movie palace of her shit-kicker midwest town. Little ‘Angie’ got hitched fast to get outta Mama’s house—child bride to one Joe-Bob Barnes, a hillbilly leatherneck, promptly shipped to Okinawa. But no sooner had Joe-Bob’s convoy set sail, Angie fled the scene, turning up in Manhattan, repackaged as ‘Ann Eden’. Years hence, Clever Dick dredged up those ancient marriage scraps and unearthed said Joe-Bob Barnes, and got him to testify that he’d married one Angeline Crumb, never divorced her, and that the last time he checked she was still his Missus. Billy threw down, having learned Ann’s dirty secret, which rendered their marriage null and void. He threatened to leave her shamed; he would’ve taken the children. She’d worked too hard to fall back down to the bottom of the heap. That must’ve been what did it . . . Backed into a corner, bigamy exposed: her first rung on a mile-long ladder out of the inbred gutter. What was left for Ann but to shoot him? La matadora, she was dubbed by the press—the woman who kills. A fate beyond her control, poor dear, determined by an accident of birth; a lethal cocktail of trash and ambition, a gold-digging, shameless whore of a — —’

‘But I never met Truman Capote, and he never met me!’ Ann had insisted when she was told about the article. Whatever the truth, after reading Tru’s sordid Esquire tale, Ann marked the date of its release in her pocket diary. She had retreated to her Fifth Avenue prison and drawn the curtains, her maid Miss Reever would later tell our maids. She’d asked Reever to hold her hand and pray with her.

That night, in a blue-flowering nightgown, Ann shed a notepad from the bedside table, ‘DON’T FORGET . . .’ printed in typeface as its heading. She scrawled ‘Ann Woodward’ beneath, and placed it by her beige Bakelite telephone. Instead of the mask of cold cream she usually slept in, Ann, still the showgirl of her youth, painted her face, applying pancake base, rosy cheeks, and gobs of green mascara, as if going on stage for a final, grotesque curtain call.

Then, grappling with the ghosts of her messy, guilt-racked past, Ann Woodward went to bed, took a fatal dose of Seconal and never woke up. (The same drug that killed Lillie-Mae-Nina- Capote, we’ll later remind one another, gobsmacked by the irony.)

Punished for an insult spat eighteen years earlier, Ann is Truman’s first victim.

Five

A pause from the other end of the line. Babe’s slightly labored breathing. Forty years of L&Ms, finally taking their toll. When she speaks again, it’s careful . . .

‘That story . . . The Sheets. Who do you think it is . . . ?’

‘Who knows. Could be anybody,’ quips Slim, a little too quickly.

Another pause, soft wheezing, then, ‘I can’t figure out who the woman is, but I think I know who the man might be . . .’

Slim downs her drink . . . Here we go.

Babe pauses, then, cautiously, ‘Slim . . . do you think it could be Bill?’

Slim, with feigned certainty, ‘It’s fiction, Babe. Half-baked fiction at that. Don’t waste a minute more on it.’ Changing the subject, ‘Where are we lunching? Quo Vadis?’

‘But he’s Jewish, “Sidney Dillon” . . .’

‘So is half of Manhattan.’

On the line Babe calms her breath. ‘It can’t be. Truman wouldn’t do that . . . Not to me. Not to us.’ The thought seems to mollify her.

At the St. Pierre, Slim pours another Scotch. She wishes she could agree.

He’ll pay, that sick little fuck. He’ll pay for selling our secrets like some cheap back-alley pimp. For putting his bile in her mouth.

‘Like I’ve said—Truman’s out for Truman.’

‘But you love Truman.’

‘I love him. But I’ve never trusted him.’

Oh, but Slim had. She hadn’t meant to, but Truman had a way of getting you talking. Getting you drinking and getting you gabbing. Slim racks her brain to separate fact from fiction. Had she told Truman the rumor of Bill’s attempt to bed the Governor’s Wife while Babe was out of town, only to have the lady in question menstruate vats of blood onto the Paleys’ marital sheets? When Babe had called and announced her early return, Bill, in a darkly slapstick turn, had stripped the bed in a panic and thrown the linens in the bath. The idea of the great Bill Paley, CBS mogul, at tub’s-edge on all fours scrubbing bodily fluid from fine Egyptian cotton like an old Russian washer-woman had seemed amusing at the time, as long as it was kept from Babe. More amusing still was Bill’s alarm—after depleting multiple bars of Guerlain’s Fleurs des Alpes guest–soaps—that the bedding might fail to dry in time. The lauded laundryman had stuffed the sheets into the oven, baking their restored pallor to a vanilla linen crisp.

Surely it was Tru who had told that tale to Slim—or had it been the other way around? Oh God . . . ‘Lady Ina’ feels a pang of remorse for not remembering.

They had shared so much, the pair of them, having told each other tale after tale with competitive zeal, it all seemed to bleed together.

And Jesus, had they talked. They’d talked through hundreds of lunches over twenty years. Over cognac chicken hash in the Oak Bar at the Plaza. Over the Colony’s lobster Thermidor and boeuf à la mode. Past the cast-iron lawn jockeys in their jewel- toned silks on the way into 21. Across smoggy tables at the Stork Club. At dinner parties, over quivering aspic. At galas, shunning banquet fare. In loungers, sipping gimlets, on poolside terraces and shipboard poop decks. They’d talked in taxis stuck in traffic. On Vespas whizzing through Madrid. At thirty thousand feet on board transatlantic flights, smoking at the bar to pass the time. On freezing trains through barren Russian landscapes, clinging to each other for warmth.

It was after those surreal days in Moscow—after a vodka-drenched rail journey to Leningrad, sinking shot after shot, wrapped in multiple coats to stave off the ferocious cold, singing folk songs they’d been taught by the locals Truman had befriended, toasting ‘Na zdorovye’ with each toss-back of succor, enjoying the feeling of crystal-clear Mama-juice as it trickled like lava down their throats—that Truman suddenly cocked his head and stared at Slim.

‘You never confide in me, Big Mama,’ he’d mused, a twinge of hurt in his voice.

‘Truheart, please. We talk all the time! I tell you everything.’

‘Yes . . . But you never confide in me. About you.’

Slim had smiled, ‘No, I don’t, darling, you’re right.’

‘Why don’t you confide in me?’ he pressed, Stoli stripping defenses like paint thinner.

‘Well, Truman,’ Slim slurred, ‘it’s very simple. I don’t trust you.’

Papa had always told her, ‘Miss Slimsky, you have a first-rate, bona fide bullshit detector,’ and Slim had detected early on that Truman was a master of the art. She’d in short order spotted what most of us denied: If Truman could run around blabbing to each of us about the others—‘in the strictest confidence, sugar!’it was pretty damn certain he was liable to be blabbing to everyone else about us, in an endless round-robin of chat.

We were his creations, whether rendered by mouth or pen, the Miss Golightlys no less real than the Mrs. Paleys or Guinnesses or Keiths—the Mrs. Keiths and Guinnesses and Paleys no more. The details of our lives supplied base metal for his tales, which through some strange alchemy he turned to shimmering, narrative gold, spanning themes and genres. We’d see shades of ourselves in his work; nothing you could pinpoint—we wouldn’t stand for that. It was our essence that peopled his text. We floated in and out in different guises . . . Babe drifted through his tarnished fairy tales. Gloria’s covert past stalked his thrillers. Marella’s foreign cadence metered his librettos. Lee’s long-stifled envy simmered beneath his rivalries. The bridles and orals of C.Z.’s sporting life pervaded his pastorals. Slim spawned heroines in stark western gothics: Steinbeck-tinged seediness meets little girl lost.

‘Big Mama had a brother who looked exactly like me. Same tow hair, same cherubic face. The spitting, spitting image. Edward was his name (after their Daddy—a big fish who owned half the sardine canneries in Cannery Row—) but folks only ever called Ed Junior “Buddy”—the very name my old cousin Sook called me as a boy . . . Buddy.’

We had each, on more than one occasion, listened as Truman spun the trauma of Slim’s childhood into mythos, as he had for each of us in turn. ‘He was mummified, you know—actually mummified, like those sad souls in Pompeii. Poor little Buddy. Saddest thing. That tiny boy, in an old man’s nightshirt, one he would never grow into. Flames lapping him up like a thousand serpents’ tongues. Slim tried to save him—her name was Nancy then, and Nancy was a very brave girl and she adored her baby brother. They shared a secret language, just like Slim and I do.’ Here he’d pause, wistful, sometimes removing his glasses for effect.

‘I’ve always felt quite close to Slim—eerily so. From the moment we first met, in Mrs. Vreeland’s living room, a room so red you could hear the walls sizzle. Well, I plopped down beside Slim on that crimson-patterned sofa, and I said to her, “Honey, I just know we’ve met before—another lifetime ago.” I recognized her, see . . . ? It was like finding a missing scrap of my own mislaid self. We’re old souls, Slim and me—we’ve been around the block a few times. Why, for all we know, I could be Buddy reincarnate!’ (Most of us thought this last bit was asinine, and told him so—but we nearly saw his point about the rest.)

Whether Slim was born an old soul or was forced to become one remains uncertain, but grief had robbed her of a childhood, her youth incinerated alongside Buddy, when she was still little Nancy in Salinas. She’d been reborn as we know her in Death Valley, where she was sent to cure her spotted lung, a scrawny kid of seventeen. An ironic place to start a life, but start one she did, when Bill Powell plucked her from a motel in Mojave and christened her ‘Slim Princess,’ the ‘Slim’ sticking long after the ‘Princess’ had been dropped.

Even now, decades later, Slim has told us she still wakes in an icy sweat, having felt in her nightmares the blast of heat from the open grate. She comes to, rolling in bed, trying desperately to smother the flames that had licked the edge of Buddy’s nightshirt; flames that traveled as if through wild brush through the cotton fibers.

When the surviving Grosses later stood at the cemetery watching his body being entombed in the mausoleum her father had bitterly purchased, Nancy had noticed that there were only plaques enough for four of their five. On an unseasonably cold day for the California valley, Nancy wondered which of them her father had blamed for Buddy’s death and denied a place in the family plot, in some sick game of permanent musical chairs. She decided in short order that that was the last place in the world she wanted to end up, and quietly vowed to bequeath her spot to whomever had been slighted.

The men she had chosen from that day on were, each in his own way, the father she’d been denied. Her string of husbands, revolving door of lovers—there was something of the patriarch in each. ‘Big Mama’s on the hunt for a Big Daddy, because her real one was so absent,’ Truman noted. ‘He only cared for Buddy, and when he went away, so did Mr. Gross. You never get over being left like that . . .’ This was the cue to replace his glasses, with a practiced shift in tone. ‘I know this, you see, because I had absent parents too.’

They’d been chasing them since. A head-shrinker’s field day, the pair of them. Filthy ole Freud’s wet dream—Slim searching for Daddy, and Truman for Mommy, he desperate to recast Nina with a swanlike being, one who would love him with unwavering devotion. He had us now, en masse. And Slim realized, in Russia more than ever, just how desperately Truman needed the love that Nina had denied him.

***

It was after an even longer journey to Copenhagen, after they’d checked into the Hotel d’Angleterre and basked in the rediscovered luxury of creature comforts, that Slim saw Truman shed his armor. And it was in that moment that she understood him. Or thought that she did . . .

They’d had an idyllic day out, devoured an absurdly indulgent lunch of pickled herring and schnapps, followed by a heaving platter of smørrebrød—though they concurred that anything would have seemed indulgent after weeks of freezing borscht. Even what Truman pointed out were, let’s face it, little more than open-faced sandwiches with fancy Danish names.

On their way back to the hotel, Slim stopped to photograph a group of local children tossing coins into a fountain. When she turned around, Truman was gone. Slim popped her head into a row of shops, checking them one by one. No Tru. She continued on to the hotel when he suddenly appeared at her side once more. He slipped a wrapped box into her coat pocket.

‘For you, Big Mama. That’s because I want you to have things as pretty as you are.’

Slim opened the box to find an exquisite antique ring: brilliant canary gemstones, linked in a delicate band. Truman had disappeared into a shop as she walked, and managed to find a gift more suited to her tastes than her husbands and lovers combined. He could, when he chose to, be the most thoughtful creature alive. He knew us, Truman. This was one of the myriad reasons we loved him. And Slim, despite her cynicism, was not immune.

***

Each evening on their travels, they had shared a nightcap, and Truman had walked Slim to her room, kissed her goodnight, and retired to his own. Their last evening in Denmark they repeated the ritual, only this time Truman stopped at her door.

‘I’m gonna come tuck my Big Mama in, that’s how much I love her,’ Truman insisted in an oddly hushed voice.

Slim unlocked the door and Truman followed her into the suite. He sat on the edge of the bed, watching as she undressed, studying her long body with wide eyes. She walked naked to the bathroom, as she would in front of a child. Easy, devoid of self-consciousness. She returned wearing a thin silk robe.

‘You just do what you usually do, then I’ll put you to bed,’ he almost crooned.

Slim settled in at the vanity, proceeding step by step through her nightly beauty ritual. Truman watched with rapt attention as she removed her makeup, as if witnessing the dance of the seven veils as Slim shed each cosmetic layer with tantalizing promise, until her bare flesh was revealed. He studied her face in its natural state, the earliest traces of sunburst lines forming around her eyes.

‘Beautiful,’ he exhaled. The sunburst rays spread as she smiled at him in the mirror, as Lillie Mae once had while he chewed sugared beignets, another lifetime ago.

He watched, enraptured, as she slathered a layer of cream onto her skin. She loosened her hair around her shoulders—a seasoned blonde, darker than it once had been, the color of winter wheat. With soft boar bristles she brushed each side, exactly fifty strokes.

Finally Slim rose, walked to the bed, and removed her robe. And like a tender lover, childlike father, or both combined, Truman lifted the covers for her. She slipped inside, and he gently tucked the soft blankets around her.

‘I’m doing this, Big Mama, because I love you. I love you very much.’ His eyes met hers, welling with sincerity.

‘I love you too, Truman.’

‘No, you don’t,’ he frowned, turning from her.

‘Of course I do,’ she insisted, reaching her arm out to touch his rounded back.

No—you DON’T!’ He jerked away.

Slim sat up, startled. She turned him to face her, his visage flushed the color of rotting cherries. Teeth clenched, tears streaming down his hot, puffy cheeks.

‘Truman, whatever’s wrong?’

No one loves me.’

‘That’s not true. I do. And Babe. And Jack—’

‘You don’t. None of you. Well—maybe Jack . . .’ he allowed. ‘Because Jack sees me for exactly who I am.’

Slim reached for his arm and he snapped. A feral animal, caught in a cage. Protecting the one thing he had: knowledge.

‘You don’t think I know? You don’t think I know what I look like? What I sound like? You don’t think I see people cringe when they meet me? Or wince when I speak?’ He rubbed his eyes. ‘I’m a freak. I’m a monstrous little freak and everybody thinks it.’

Slim started to protest, but he cut her short.

‘Oh sure, people get used to me. People can adjust. But every time they see or hear me, it starts all over, the adjustment—to get past the freak show to all that’s trapped inside. Be honest, Big Mama. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean.’

Slim sat quietly. As much as she hated to admit it, she did know what he meant. She’d watched it happen, again and again— we all had—watched a room forced to acclimatize to his mannerisms. She’d felt it herself—not once, but the tiniest bit every time she saw him, before she slipped into his delicious Trumanisms once more.

She did know, and he knew that she understood.

He hung his weighty head, hiccuping silent, choking sobs. ‘I’m unlovable. No one could ever love me the way I want to be loved.’

With a surge of warmth, Slim wrapped her arms around him and held on tight, trying to smother the flames of Truman’s misery as she’d once attempted to smother the flames lapping at Buddy’s nightshirt.

***

To be fair Truman had warned her about his Esquire bombshell weeks ago at the Russian Tea Room, where they like to wax nostalgic over their Moscow venture. They laugh at the notion of the stark Soviet haunts they’d braved bearing any resemblance to the jade jewel-box dining room, gold-leaf phoenix reliefs swooping down on chattering Manhattanites. Slim looked doubly radiant in that space, bathed in the warm light reflected off its twenty- three-carat ceiling, light that even gave Truman an oddly flattering, if slightly jaundiced, glow.

‘You’re in it, Big Mama,’ he’d smiled as they snuggled close in a circular banquette, sipping blood-red pickled-beet borscht and a round of Black Russians, chased by a round of White. ‘Hold on to your hat . . . !’ Slim had not thought about it since. She’d expected a cameo—not the leading goddamn role!

Well. He won’t charm his way out of this mess, the snake.

Slim has a sudden flash of the pair of taxidermy cobras in Truman’s United Nations Plaza apartment. They’d found them together in an antique shop in Madrid, thought they were kooky and fun. Scaly bodies stuffed upright, raised at the point of attack; mouths agape, sharp little fangs poised to sink into unsuspecting flesh. He’d laughed and laughed like Br’er Rabbit in his briar patch when each of us jumped at the lifelike reptiles, encountering them for the first time.

Oh, it’s war all right.

Slim hears the click of Babe’s Ronson on the line, and imagines her bringing the next in a string of L&Ms to her lips, nails buffed to perfection.

We can each picture Babe, fingering a stray lock of hair as she tends to when she’s nervous—the bit tinged with premature silver, usually hidden in her neat bouffant.

‘Slim. Tell me honestly. As my friend. If you know, tell me . . . Is it Bill?’

Slim takes care her answer comes neither too quickly, nor too slow:

‘It isn’t Bill.’

She downs her third Scotch and tells her first lie of the morning.

It’s not yet 10 a.m.

Tagged in:
BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
America
Fame

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