Laurence Leamer chronicles the rise and fall of America’s most glamorous women—and the author who betrayed them
Author and Palm Beach resident Laurence Leamer has immersed himself in the glories and pitfalls of the rich and powerful, with subjects ranging from Johnny Carson and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Kennedy political dynasty. He is a particular expert on Palm Beach lore, and his 2019 book Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace, caused him to be permanently banned from the historic club.
His latest project, Capote’s Women (published by Putnam), is eight stories of high-society glamour and folly, humor and tragedy. Leamer reports on the rise and fall of such fashionable socialites as Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Hayward, Marella Agnelli, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill, all of whom caught the attention of author and gadfly Truman Capote in the 1950s and ‘60s. Capote would befriend the women, whom he affectionately called his “swans,” but in the decline of his career, he would begin an unfinished “novel,” published in parts in Esquire, that would savage their reputations. [The story was called “La Côte Basque, 1965,” and was later included in Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers—Ed.] Leamer weaves a mini-biography of Capote into the lives of these women, whom the author dubs a “vanishing breed, a species that would live and die in one generation.”
On Capote’s betrayal of the “swans”:
When it happened, in this piece in Esquire, people defended him and said these rich women got what was coming to them. And I don’t feel that way at all. I feel he did something terrible. He could have told the stories in a different way. He could have cloaked it somewhat. But it was so arrogant, and insecure. And of course he paid an enormous price for it. Most of these women didn’t want any more to deal with him.
On Leamer’s favorite swan:
Gloria Guinness, who had this incredible home south of Palm Beach—what a life she had. She was married to a top Nazi, she may have been a spy, and she committed suicide. That’s another thing: This book is a warning about marrying for money. It’s a cliché that money doesn’t buy happiness, but if you go out to marry for money, it’s probably not going to work out. It didn’t work out for most of these women. It wouldn’t work out today. You pay for it.
On what ultimately ended the swans’ glory days:
Society changed. In part, feminism killed them off. Betty Friedan killed them off. Suddenly, young women were inventing their own style, and it wasn’t the swans’ style. And it wasn’t about money. It wasn’t haute couture. Gloria Guinness was writing a column for Harper’s Bazaar, and she was angry about it. All these things that she cared about no longer mattered to people.
When these women walked into the Colony or La Côte Basque [in New York City], everybody stopped and looked at them. It was an incredible spectacle. They were their own art. And I’m embarrassed to even praise such a thing now, but I have an admiration for it.
On fashion today, vis a vis the Swans’ heyday:
I’ve been in Palm Beach for 30 years. When I arrived, you’d see people in ties and high heels walking down Worth Avenue. Now, it looks like a locker room. … I went to Café L’Europe for dinner with my wife, and there were two obese guys at the next table in shorts and flip-flops. There was a table near me with 12 people talking so loud you couldn’t even hear. And the manager said they couldn’t do business with a dress code.
On what hooks Leamer:
I’m looking for stories about people who live at the highest level, whatever it is. They try to do it their absolute best. And the swans did that. Johnny Carson and the Kennedys did that. I love being within those lives.
On being banned from Mar-a-Lago:
Eric [Trump] was livid that I criticized the food—because you don’t criticize anything. … I’m not only banned from the club. … I am banned from any event at Mar-a-Lago, and there are a lot of public events I’ve gone to. … I consider it a kind of honor. I wish he’d give me a badge I could wear.