Is it OK to mine your past relationships to feed your art? Looking at you Tay Tay – Sydney Morning Herald

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Craving a break from the spectacle of contemporary America, I have been burying myself in the glamour of the recent American past – the day-drinking and exquisite fashion of New York high society in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
I’m spending my evenings with the moneyed women depicted in Feud: Capote v The Swans, a new show that is the sort-of sequel to the previous iteration, which depicted the rivalry between old-Hollywood actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
Truman Capote escorts Lee Radziwill to a reception at the Four Seasons in New York on November 5, 1969; Calista Flockhart as Radziwill in Feud.Credit: Getty, supplied
The women of the second season, the “swans” – Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill – were the grand dames of New York society, ruling it with a semi-benevolent gloved fist at a time when traditional class structures were dissolving in the social revolution of the ’60s.
They were socialites, rich wives, fashion editors, philanthropists and epic lunchers.
Radziwill was the sister of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy – she took her surname from her second marriage, which was to a minor Polish prince.
She used the title of “Her Serene Highness”, even though the Republic of Poland had abolished the recognition of noble titles in 1921 – denoting a queenliness that might have related to her reported jealousy of her more famous sister.
The drama of the series comes from the man the women took as their social pet – the writer and bon vivant Truman Capote.
Capote was very famous, particularly after publishing In Cold Blood in 1966.
The true-crime book, about the murder of four family members in rural Kansas in 1959, was a sensation, a masterpiece of taut prose and a new kind of non-fiction (although it has since been shown Capote probably made up important bits of it). Capote was openly gay, sharp of wit and extremely charming. He grew close to the women he called his swans, and they told him all their gossip, secrets and personal tragedies.
Little did they know their pet had an agenda, as writers so often do.
Truman Capote and C.Z. Guest in June 1976. Chloe Sevigny as Guest in Feud.Credit: Getty, supplied
He inhabited the whole haute-Manhattan scene with a plan to turn it into a book – a Proustian masterpiece he would call Answered Prayers.
But when he published the first chapters of his work-in-progress in Esquire magazine in 1975 and 1976, the women found their (highly) personal life secrets exposed in thinly veiled fiction. They were easily identifiable. The stories caused scandal and were the subject of great gossip.
The swans excommunicated Capote from their milieu, and he spiralled into drink and depression. In 1984, he died from both, having never finished the book.
Capote bit the hand that fed him. He stole his friends’ stories, an act of exposure they couldn’t forgive.
It is a story that is as old as story-telling, albeit a sharp and very well-dressed version. Writers from Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie, to Philip Roth and Martin Amis have all been accused of taking inspiration from their own lives and the lives of others.
The American poet Robert Lowell used extracts from the distraught letters of his cheated-upon wife in his collection of poems The Dolphin. He didn’t ask her permission. The book won the Pulitzer prize.
In one of the poems, Lowell pondered if he had “plotted perhaps too freely with my life/ not avoiding injury to others”.
Taylor Swift was seen wearing the scarf in question (no, this red one isn’t the actual scarf) during late 2010, in multiple paparazzi shots with then-boyfriend, Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal.Credit: AP; iStock
The answer was yes, but the moral injury these men meted out never dented their own literary reputations – and it remains the case that women writers are the ones disparaged as “confessional”.
Which brings us to Taylor Swift (everything brings us to Swift these days, she has become a projection of so much beyond her music).
Swift is famous for writing freely about her love affairs, and just as freely about criticism over those love affairs (apparently she, a young woman, has too many of them).
She also writes about the tension between being a “pathological people pleaser” as she puts it, and an artist who wants total creative freedom.
One of Swift’s most famous ballads, 2012’s All Too Well, is an epic song about the heartbreak of her love affair with a man widely believed to be the actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
The song references a red scarf of hers that the man keeps after their break-up – the internet has since harangued Gyllenhaal to give Swift back her scarf (which he left at his sister’s house).
He is a famous actor in his own right, but he will be forever known as the man who stood Taylor up on her 21st birthday, as depicted in the song. His star has faded in recent years.
Swift also has a few songs purported to be about her love affair with pop star Harry Styles (although they have probably enhanced his reputation) and the musician John Mayer, who said Swift’s song about him, titled Dear John, was “a really lousy thing for her to do”.
Mayer later wrote his own song about Swift, called Paper Doll.
How can artists examine their own lives while protecting the privacy of others?
It’s probably impossible, but Swift’s self-exposure more than outdoes her exposure of other people.
The legendary Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly is a Swiftie, and he knows a thing or two about self-exposure in service of his art.
Speaking to The Australian, Kelly described Swift as “the girl next door, with a pistol in her purse” who is “kicking against the pricks in quite a few of her songs”.
But, crucially, Kelly said, Swift “kicks against herself, too … it’s not ‘me against the world’, because she’s critical of herself in her songs, as well – and we can all relate to that”.
Indeed.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior writer and columnist.
Copyright © 2024

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