Capote’s Women: The Story of the Writers’ Swans

“There are certain women who, though perhaps not born rich, are born to be rich,” author Truman Capote wrote about the beautiful, well-dressed, and style-setting women he called his “swans.”

The ultimate arm candy for the wealthiest and most powerful of men, these women of the mid-20th century were trophy wives before the term existed. And they counted Capote, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and creator of the true crime genre with In Cold Blood, his chilling recounting of the brutal murders of a Kansas family, as their best friend.

In Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, New York Times best-selling author Laurence Leamer takes us back to a time and a world where jet-setting, making the best-dressed list, attending and giving A-plus list parties, and dining at the most wonderful places whether in New York, Paris, London, or wherever your yacht happened to be moored were what these exalted women excelled at.

Obtaining their lifestyles depended upon a confluence of beauty, wit, moxie, and marrying and knowing when to discard husbands as they worked their way up and up. At times, divorce papers were barely signed before the next wedding was held.

“You have to enter into their lives,” says Leamer, explaining how he so succinctly captured the personalities of the swans: Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Slim Hayward, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill who constantly seethed because of the attention her older sister, Jackie Kennedy, always received.

“Even though,” Leamer points out, “unlike Jackie she didn’t want to do the hard work that it takes to achieve something.”

These women knew how to climb to higher heights. Gloria Guinness had transitioned from a childhood of constant motion in Mexico and marriage at age 20 to a man 27 years older to marrying a German aristocrat and a romantic involvement with a top Nazi during World War II. Her third marriage was to the grandson of an Egyptian King and her last, the biggest prize, was to a scion of the Guinness beer family who was also a member of Parliament. Other wins were modeling for big time designers and the best of the fashion magazines as well as being on the International Best Dressed List for several years.

But ultimately, she wasn’t happy says Leamer who believes she committed suicide.

There was also Barbara “Babe” Paley whose mother raised her   three daughters to marry money. Paley, who had been badly injured in an automobile accident when young, spent her life in considerable pain. Her husband expected perfection in all things and so she never slept in the same bedroom, so she could the loss of her front teeth.

But being the best wasn’t always the answer to happy life. The swans may have had uber-wealthy husbands, but they didn’t have good husbands. Frequently husbands and wives were flagrantly promiscuous, and the swans often led separate lives not only from their spouses but also their children.

“For them, to be a mom was to be hands-off,” says Leamer. “And the children often paid a price. They didn’t necessary learn to do anything because they were going to inherit a lot of money.”

Ornamental to the max, these were women who did nothing but did it extremely well. And Capote, despite his great literary successes, spent a lot of time doing nothing with them. He listened to their secrets and ultimately decided to write a book revealing what he had heard. When an article he penned revealed some of those stories, the swans all turned against him, and he was exiled from the society he craved.

“I went to a family wedding recently,” says Leamer noting the warmth and connectiveness that everyone had. “These women and Capote never had this.”

It’s such a cliché to say money doesn’t buy happiness. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And it certainly is delicious to read about the lives of women who many thought had it all even though they didn’t.

Online Book Event


Join Laurence Leamer in an online event hosted by the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago when he reads from and discusses his new book.”

When: October 13 at 6:30 p.m.

How to Join In: This program will be hosted online via Zoom. To register, visit americanwritersmuseum.org/program-calendar/laurence-leamer-capotes-women/

TMI: My Life in Scandal by Perez Hilton

The phone call from Perez Hilton came two days earlier than planned.

“He can do it now instead,” his assistant emailed me on Wednesday.

I was totally unprepared. Hilton’s autobiography, “TMI: My Life in Scandal” (Chicago Review Press) — the one we’re supposed to talk about — sat unread on my desk.

Thinking “right now” might mean I had a few minutes to speed read, I reached for it. The phone rang.

Perez.

“I love your book,” I said, just to start it off. That’s all it took.

“Thank you,” Hilton responded. “I was so afraid that people wouldn’t like it. There’s so much of me in it, I’m one of the most transparent and honest people there are. People like that, and they like nostalgia and that’s me, I’m a dinosaur.”

Jurassic throwbacks seem a little bit overdone. Hilton hit the scene 20 years ago, garnering almost instant attention with his blend of gossipy take on celebrity distilled through his blog, podcasts, personal appearances and general lifestyle. He didn’t just report of celebrities, he hung with them. If he didn’t like them or had a juicy story, he reported it. His blog quickly was dubbed the “most hated blog in the world,” though he garnered millions of followers.

But the more he talks about being a dinosaur, it starts to make sense. He was one of the first bloggers.

“I started in 2004,” he said. “There are 13-year-old kids who don’t know about blogging, they’re doing TikTok. There were names that were big that no one thinks about anymore. You may luck your way into celebrity, but you have to have perseverance to be a success. You have to learn to reinvent yourself. I reinvented by going into podcasts; I have two YouTube channels. I started Instagram way back in 2011 when it first came out. It’s about knowing when the next trend is coming, and I’ve always been good at that. I’ve outlasted a lot of the stars I wrote about.”

But Hilton is still worried. Sure, he’s constantly metamorphosing, but he’s learned some lessons and he wants to share a few with me, starting with how important it is to live below your means.

“I have three children, I have to save for their education, I have to take care of them,” he said. Does he know about that new purse I bought? I wonder, vowing to return it.

He also worries about the Kardashians. I should note that by this point, I realized Hilton doesn’t have a filter, which is one of the many characteristics that make him so delightful.

“People reach a tipping point,” he said, explaining why he’s concerned about these glamorous, fully-endowed women who seem to have the most beautiful jewelry, homes, children, clothes, husbands, ex-husbands and boyfriends and a fascinating jet-set lifestyle.

I know about the jet-setting because last year, when I was on Providenciales, one of the islands in the Turks and Caicos, we’d made reservations to have dinner at the Conch House, a beach joint where fisherman dive for conch right off the shore and the cooks turn the meat info fritters, stew and all sorts of conch delights. But then the restaurant called and canceled our reservations. Why? Well, the Kardashians had just flown in and wanted to eat there, and they didn’t want non-cool people around. Their evening was filmed for their show. I didn’t watch it. We went the following Kardashian-less night.

But Hilton knows about tipping points. He reached his own a while back and it taught him lessons even if the Kardaashians aren’t listening to his advice right now.

“Now I’m the cheapest person I know,” he said.

Born Mario Armando Lavandeira, Jr. and raised in Florida, he graduated from New York University, dabbled in acting and public relations but found career success in his ability to feed our celebrity fascination.

“I’m sharing stories in my new book,” he said, “because I want to make money.”

All the juicy escapades with and about stars that I read when I finally read his book are delightful, but they come at a price.

“I work 17 hours a day,” Hilton said. “I never rest. But that’s part of perseverance. The more you work, the more you notice the patterns and you can see how they’re coming together, and which ones will become trends. That’s how you know what the next thing is going to be.”

For your information

What: Perez Hilton Virtual Event

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 30

Cost: This is a ticketed event, and a purchase is required to attend. Anderson’s offers a variety of ticket options. Every book ticket will include a signed copy of “TMI: My Life in Scandal.” 

FYI: To obtain tickets for the Perez Hilton virtual event, visit http://www.andersonsbookshop.com/event/perez-hilton. 

Merrill Markoe: Comedian turns childhood diaries into book

Merrill Markoe. Photo by John Dolan.

The first time I met Merrill Markoe — the multi-Emmy award winning comedy writer who created such segments on the David Letterman show as “Stupid Pet Tricks,” “Stupid Human Tricks” and “Viewer Mail” — was in the living room of Barbara Stevens, who at the time was living in Hobart.

Stevens, who has since passed away, was the mother of my friend Andy Prieboy; Merrill is his partner of almost two decades. The two live in Santa Monica, California with their two dogs. Andy, a musician, and I both grew up in the Indiana Harbor section of East Chicago.

I know a lot about their romance, not from them, but by reading “The Psycho Ex Game” a darkly humorous and ultimately romantic book they wrote together about two friends competing to see whose ex is the craziest. How autobiographical it is, I don’t know for sure, but the basics are very factual. Merrill’s ex was David Letterman, though she changes his name slightly in the book. She not only was his original head writer but also his partner for 10 years. Google her name and up pops the description of her as “the key creative force behind” the Letterman show.

Recently I learned more about Merrill by reading another of her books, the recently released “We Saw Scenery: The Early Diaries of Merrill Markoe.

Andy set up a Zoom meeting so Merrill and I could talk about her book. But first he and I had to share a few stories about Indiana Harbor — we didn’t know each other growing up but we knew a lot of the same people. And Indiana Harbor being what it was, there are always stories. Merrill, as usual, was very polite about it all, but I don’t think she quite gets our enthusiasm for an old steel mill city.

And since California is always on fire, we chatted about how they’d been without electricity for 24 hours when the electric company shut off everyone’s power to prevent further conflagrations during a raging thunderstorm. “Were there fires near you?” I asked, and Andy said there are always fires. I guess it’s the new normal.

It turns out that Merrill kept diaries from her youth, and a few years ago she rediscovered them in a box she was sorting through. Many women around her age will remember these diaries — they often were protected by a tiny lock that supposedly could only be opened with a tiny key.

“I wondered what did I do that was so secret I had to keep it under lock and key?” Merrill said. Nothing it turned out, which was a good thing because those locks are very flimsy.

When she began reading the diaries, it was as if they belonged to a stranger.

“I didn’t remember two-thirds of the stuff I’d written,” she said about the years covering elementary school to college, or as Merrill puts it — spelling bees to an acid test party put on by Ken Kesey.

As she read, she drew. Merrill graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a master’s in art with the goal of becoming an art professor. She segued into comedy writing out of necessity.

“It was easier for me to get a job writing for TV than getting a job teaching art,” she said. “It hadn’t occurred to me before then that comedy was a career, that I could be doing stand-up. I had learned at that point I could write jokes, but I wasn’t someone who could write them while walking back and forth on stage in front of an audience. I’d stay home and write them.”

Illustrating her diary excerpts was part of her search into her past.

“I was looking for that spot when I turned into myself,” she said. “Where I wasn’t 12 or 13 years old observing stuff around me and making jokes. But that’s the core of myself — observing, stepping away from it and writing jokes. When I was hospitalized recently, the first thing I did was make a joke.”

Since we’re on the subject of jokes, I ask who her favorite comedians are.

“I can’t say because whoever I leave out will get mad at me,” she said.

How about dead comedians? She’s got a list: Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker who were famous in the 1920s in New York; Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Alley from the days of black and white television in the 1950s; W.C. Fields; Ernie Kovacs; and Lily Tomlin.

I pointed out she was still alive.

“I know, but I couldn’t do what she did with all those characters she played,” she said. And then we talked about how her drawings and diary passages turned into a book.

“I showed it to Andy and some friends, and they said that’s a book,” she said. “I showed it to my agent, and he sold it.”

So what does she, after all this time, think of her younger self?

“I think she was kind of an idiot,” said Merrill. “At least until she moved to Northern California.”

What: Merrill Markoe Virtual Book Event

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 2

What: Merrill Markoe online event

For more information: http://www.bookyaya.com/

He’s Making You Crazy: How to Get the Guy, Get Even, and Get Over It

“We weren’t born crazy—we were made crazy. It’s true, and I have plenty of stories to prove it. My turbulent dating history has brought me an abundance of peaks and valleys, but I didn’t get there on my own. Crazy is a two-person job.”

         “Women all over the world get called crazy every day,” writes Kristen Doute, star of Bravo’s long running TV series Vanderpump Rules, in her new book, He’s Making You CrazyHow to Get the Guy, Get Even, and Get Over It  (Chicago Review Press 2020). “But we weren’t born crazy—we were made crazy. It’s true, and I have plenty of stories to prove it. My turbulent dating history has brought me an abundance of peaks and valleys, but I didn’t get there on my own. Crazy is a two-person job.”

         Indeed, Doute who co-authored the book with Michele Alexander who in turn was a coauthor of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, that was turned into a movie of the same name starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, has plenty of tales to tell.

         But first a little background. Vanderpump Rules started as a spinoff of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and is centered around one of the 36 or so restaurants that Lisa Vanderpump and her husband own. This one, SUR, is in West Hollywood and Doute was working there as a server while waiting for her acting career to take off when the series first began. Since then she’s been a main character on the show which started its eighth season this January.

         Detailing her relationships and the lessons she’s learned including how to accept her own emotionality and not let it negatively define her, she shares her wisdom in this easy-to-read book written in her typical hilariously outspoken style.

         “In the beginning, the term Crazy Kristen had negative connotations given to me by the people who called me by that name,” she says. “People would say she’s crazy, she’s psycho, she’s outlandish, she’s irrational.”

         Being young, she says she allowed herself to own their opinion of her.  With age and experience came wisdom.

         “What does crazy mean? Is it because I’m passionate or feel strongly and stand up for what I believe in?” she asks rhetorically. “Does that make me crazy? Now I wear Crazy Kristen as a badge of honor.”

         That meant being herself and not trying to change who she is to please a guy, as she did early on in relationship. After all, there are always going to be differences between two people in a relationship. The questions to ask yourself, she says, is if the differences are something you can live with and can you work out. In all, she wants us to learn from her mistakes and the wisdom she’s acquired.

         Doute also sees a double standard—what she terms “himpathy” or male sympathy.

         “That’s where it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a guy–he’s allowed to lash out or do this or do that. But if she does that, she’s crazy’,” she explains, noting that she’s not man bashing because she really likes men—we know, we’ve seen the show.  “Just because we’re passionate doesn’t mean we’re insane.”

         For those who love the show, there’s some juicy stuff about the people she works with. For others, the book can stand alone as a relationship guide or an interesting autobiography of a woman who turned a server job into a career as an actress and also added James Mae, a 1970s-inspired clothing line and her “Witches of Weho” wine collection to her resume.

         Now she can author to that list.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

Ronan Farrow’s book reads like a fast-paced mystery/thriller with hired spies, tapped phones, double and triple crosses, stalking by hired thugs and threats.

Scary! Fantastic! Disgusting! Riveting! Hats off to Ronan Farrow for his excellent work, dogged research and risking his own career–and maybe his life– to find out the truth and make it public as he outed predatory behavior at the top of the food chain. A real expose, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators (Little, Brown & Company) chronicles the sexual abuse of women by powerful men and how their companies/corporations enable them to continue on no matter what. The focus of the book is Harvey Weinstein, the famed produced of such award winning films as “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “The Crying Game,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “The King’s Speech” though Farrow also includes several chilling chapters about Matt Lauer, who co-hosted NBC’s Today show from 1997 to 2017, and also was a contributor for Dateline NBC. We see the savage effects on the victims–loss of jobs and financial stability, physical and emotional harm–and how disposable they are to the powerful who then move on to their next victims. Farrow’s book reads like a fast-paced mystery/thriller with hired spies, tapped phones, double and triple crosses, stalking by hired thugs and threats. Sadly, it’s all true.

Ronan Farrow.
Courtesy of the New Yorker.

As he investigated Harvey Weinstein’s “business” practices, Farrow, the son of actress Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen, also had to re-evaluate and come to terms with his thoughts and feelings about his own sister’s alleged abuse when young by her powerful and famous father. Allen later married another one of Ronan’s sisters who he had adopted. At the time, he was 56 and his daughter was 21. Farrow famously tweeted in 2012 “Happy father’s day — or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law’s day.” All this adds to the multi-layered account of Farrow’s pursuit of the Harvey Weinstein story and his sympathy and understanding of the traumatized women and their fears of speaking out against the famed producer. Farrow accurately portrays the emotionality and fears even famous actresses such as Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan experience as they balance the career-killing aspects of going up against such a powerful man–one who has former Israeli operatives working for him as well as the best of lawyers to counter attack any woman who talks–and the need to tell their stories as well as protect other women by revealing the truth.

Farrow writes about how non-disclosure deals prevent women from talking about their ordeals and protects sexual predators .

Farrow’s list of accomplishments is long and extremely impressive. According to his Amazon biography, he currently is a contributing writer to The New Yorker, where his investigative reporting has won the Pulitzer Prize for public service, the National Magazine Award, and the George Polk Award, among other honors. He previously worked as an anchor and investigative reporter at MSNBC and NBC News–a job he lost because of the network’s pushback against his pursuing the Weinstein story and his print commentary and reporting has appeared in publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post.

Before his career in journalism, Farrow served as a State Department official in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Farrow has been named one of Time Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People and one of GQ‘s Men of the Year. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and a member of the New York Bar. He recently completed a Ph.D. in political science at Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. He lives in New York.

Catch and Kill has received numerous awards and accolades including Washington Post Best Nonfiction Book of 2019, Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2019, Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2019 and Fortune Best Business Book of 2019.

Seduction, Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood

When it comes to the #MeToo movement, Karina Longworth, author of the just released Seduction, Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, is surprised. But not in the way you might expect.

“I’m more surprised that people seem to think everything has changed with a snap of a finger,” says Longworth. “Centuries of institutionalized sexism can’t be fixed that cleanly or easily. Especially in Hollywood—although you don’t have to look further than our national daily political drama to see that toxic and dehumanizing ideas about women are still the rule more than the exception.”

To tell the stories of Hollywood and its famed casting couch, Longworth chose oil magnate, inventor and movie producer Howard Hughes as a way to link the exploitation of women then and now by providing a group portrait of ten actresses who were romantically and/or professionally involved with Howard Hughes, from the late 1920s through the end of the 1950s.

 “Howard Hughes is remembered as one of the great playboys of the 20th century, and when this is discussed, a seemingly endless list of actresses is breathlessly unfurled,” says Longworth. “Reading such lists, I became interested in exploring the very full lives and careers each actress had, and what role being one of Howard Hughes’s girls played in their stardom. I decided to use Hughes as a kind of Trojan Horse through which I could tell the stories of ten actresses, both still famous and forgotten, whose lives and careers were impacted by his interest in them.

Her research was extensive and turned up some interesting documents including a memo Howard Hughes once drafted about actress Jane Russell’s breasts, a subject he was fanatic about, so much so that he designed a bra to showcase them.

              Longworth, the creator and author of You Must Remember This podcasts about the scandalous secret history of 20th-century Hollywood which has hundreds of thousands of listeners, is also the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep. She’ll be in Chicago on Monday, January 14 for a book signing as well as the screening of Outrage, a 1950 movie directed by the sultry actress Ida Lupino about a woman whose life is almost destroyed by rape.

              “Outrage deals with a uniquely female situation in a uniquely empathetic way,” writes Longworth about the movie. “After such a violation, it asks, how could a woman learn how to be around men again, to trust them, to let them touch her?”

              Another goal in writing her book was to create an interest in the actresses on the list of Hughes’s conquests the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep, many of whom are forgotten.

              “I hope readers are moved to watch the movies starring some great actresses, fine stars and fascinating women,” she says. “If they seek out Ida Lupino’s directorial efforts, lesser known Hepburn films like Christopher Strong or Morning Glory, or the movies of Jean Peters and Terry Moore, I’ll have done my job.”

Ifyougo

What: Karina Longworth will join the Chicago Filmmakers for a special screening of the 1950 film Outrage as well as a talk and book signing.

When: Monday, January 14 from 7 to 10 p.m.

Where: Chicago Filmmakers, 5720 N Ridge Ave., Chicago, IL

Cost: The ticket only option to the screening is pay what you can though a donation is encouraged. For a book and ticket, the cost $37.22 w/service fee. To order, brownpapertickets.com/event/3914967

FYI: Women & Children First is putting on the event. For more information, 773-769-9299; wcfbooks@gmail.com or womenandchildrenfirst

%d bloggers like this: