The Babe Paley in ‘Feud’ Is Not the Woman I Knew

The first time I saw Naomi Watts playing my grandmother Babe Paley in “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” she was in tears. She had just discovered her husband’s affair with Happy Rockefeller, the governor’s wife, finding him on the bedroom floor, scrubbing a stain of menstrual blood from their plush carpet. Babe summons Truman Capote to her Fifth Avenue apartment, her face set in distress, her mascara running. He tries to comfort her, handing her a Valium, reminding her that her marital arrangement is still worth it; she can buy a Matisse to soothe her broken heart.

None of this happened.

The torrid, bloodied scene is based in part on Capote’s short story “La Côte Basque, 1965,” published in Esquire in 1975, and on Laurence Leamer’s 2021 nonfiction book, “Capote’s Women.” In Capote’s story, the husband, a media titan who is given a different name, is never on the floor, never discovered by his wife; he scrubs the sheets in the bathtub and places them in the oven to dry. In his book, Mr. Leamer surmises that the governor’s wife in Capote’s story is Marie Harriman, not Ms. Rockefeller.

I can accept that details are changed when real people are fictionalized. I know it is hard to capture the ineffable magic of someone’s presence. There are no live recordings of Babe, no way for an actress to know how she moved and spoke. What I cannot accept is the theft of my grandmother’s narrative.

I was 9 when she died, the day after her 63rd birthday, in 1978. As a grandmother to me, my brother and my older cousins, she was magic. She let us run wild at Kiluna Farm, her house in Manhasset on Long Island. She insisted we join the adults at every meal. To entertain us, she would arrange a large piece of lettuce or spinach in her teeth, smiling, pretending it wasn’t there. We would dissolve into laughter, squealing, “Baba,” the name we called her. She cheered when my cousin Brooke directed us in elaborate skits performed for her guests after dinner.

My grandmother was tactile and affectionate. She always pulled me onto her lap, kissed the nape of my neck and told me what flavor she tasted — honey, marmalade, lavender. At bedtime, she used her long red manicured nails to compose imaginary paintings on my face. She let me try on all her jewelry, the two of us in front of her mirror, her graceful hands clasping necklaces around my neck, bracelets on my small wrists. She had fake versions of my favorite pieces made for me for Christmas, all perfectly arranged in a red lacquer box.

My grandmother was wounded by Capote taking the things she told him, changing them, betraying her confidence and her privacy, which she guarded fiercely. Now her life has been stolen and twisted again, posthumously, by the creators of “Feud,” including the executive producer Ryan Murphy, the writer Jon Rabin Baitz and the director Gus Van Sant. In the show, Babe is drawn as the ultimate victim: of her husband’s infidelity, Capote’s betrayal, her failing health. In victimhood, in her constant suffering, in the dramatic fabrications, she becomes one-dimensional, a woman defined by surfaces — a woman defined by men, reconstructing her life to suit their needs.

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