The Very Extra Book Club starts the year with generous helpings of the scandals that broke this author and his New York swans apart
Reading alone is great, but reading together can be even better. That’s what book clubs are for.
To author Margaret Atwood, book clubs are “the graduate seminar, the encounter group, and the good old-fashioned village-pump gossip session, all rolled into one.”
Socrates had a book club and in it were Artistophanes, Xenophon, and Plato, with whom, around 400 B.C., he butted heads over such everyday topics as life and human nature.
Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein had Stratford-on-Odeon, the pet name given by Joyce to the now famous Shakespeare and Company in its original location in Paris, where they used to hang out.
And then there were the Inklings, composed of writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who read each other’s works regularly at Lewis’ room in Oxford, England or at the pub The Eagle and the Child.
Book clubs even now are a-plenty. There’s Oprah’s Book Club. Florence Welch of the English indie rock band Florence + the Machine has one called Between Two Books. Emma Watson has Our Shared Shelf, Emma Roberts has Belletrist, and Reese Witherspoon has her Hello Sunshine Book Club.
So do I. Mine is called The Very Extra Book Club, and it’s extra in every way with members like Belle Daza, Farrah Mae Sy, Jae de Veyra Pickrell, Mariel Santos Po, Pauline Suaco Juan, Rajo Laurel, Rocio Olbes Ressano, and Stephanie Zubiri.
Ours isn’t very old, founded only a couple of years before the pandemic just as André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name was very hot owing to Luca Guadagdino’s film adaptation. Since then, we’ve read many books, classic or contemporary, fiction or non-fiction, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, Tara Westover’s Educated, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and Elena Ferrantes’ My Brilliant Friend.
What on God’s green earth is Anna Karenina or War and Peace or Madame Bovary, if not gossip? —Truman Capote.
The long pandemic lockdown beginning March 2020 was such a party pooper! We tried to do a discussion over wine on Zoom of The Immortalists, but Covid-19 proved to be such a distraction, even with the New York Times bestselling author Chloe Benjamin sending us a video message to help keep us focused.
Our first get-together since the pandemic, hosted by Rajo at Las Casas Acuzar in Quezon City, was last year, on Marga Ortigas’ The House on Calle Sombra, but I was in Vietnam, so I missed it. Which is why I moved heaven and earth to be around when our newest recruit, Alicia Sy, organized the very first dinner for The Very Extra Book Club for 2023 at her home.
Having devoured most books about the era like Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue, and Deborah Davis’ The Party of the Century, I was also hungry for the book we chose for this get-together—Laurence Leamer’s Capote’s Women. I had to move a flight out of Manila two times to make it to this dinner, as if it were Capote’s Black and White ball itself.
In fact, if we were to compare menus, our dinner at Alicia’s house was much better than what Capote served at the 1966 Black and White Ball. Instead of scrambled eggs with truffles, chicken hash with sherry, and spaghetti Bolognese, what we had for Capote’s Women was an elegant three-course menu prepared by The Village Artisan’s Noel de la Rama, starting with vichyssoise, a chilled creamy potato and leek soup first introduced in New York in 1917, followed by the mains, a sole meunnière with haricot verts with cauliflower purée and mixed baby greens with goat cheese crouton and Champagne vinaigrette, and wrapped up with petit madeleines and a grand marnier soufflé with crème Anglais.
That wasn’t all.
Before dinner, as we congregated in the living room, oohing and aahing at each grand arrival, we were served, along with the bubblies, with these lovely gougères and deviled eggs and a shrimp cocktail.
Capote’s swans, particularly Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness, would have drooled over the baby vegetables alone. After all, in “La Côte Basque,” an extract from Answered Prayers, Capote gushed about the most beautiful vegetables in the homes of his very rich friends, but he mentioned only the juveniles—“The greenest petits pois, infinitesimal carrots, corn so baby-kerneled and tender it seems almost unborn, lima beans tinier than mice eyes, and the young asparagus!”
The food, always themed to the book chosen for every dinner, wasn’t what made our Capote’s Women dinner extra, extra. On this evening, on which Rajo and I both decided to come as Truman—he as the Truman lionized by the New York upper crust in a tux and I as the Truman in the thick of writing In Cold Blood, although I forgot to put on suspenders to go with my hat—the toast was the suggestion of the presence of the swans.
Pauline, who spent the afternoon in the salon, her head stuck in probably the only vintage hair dryer left in town, came as Babe Paley. Jae came almost androgynously as Slim Keith, replete with the ever-askew necktie Gianni Agnelli, the stylish husband of another of Capote’s swans, Marella Agnelli, turned into a stylish quirk. Mariel mimicked C.Z. Guest’s Boston Brahmin-worthy elegance, understated and tasteful. Stephanie, oozing with hot Latin blood, wore the flair of Gloria Guinness in the latter’s favored black draped over her body in well-cut lines. Rocio also showed up as Gloria, an unlit cigarette in her mouth, her dress fluttering like a bird’s wings. Farrah wore a dress accessorized with a bolero jacket and Alicia welcomed us all in a caftan, both reminiscent of the spirit of the jet set that the swans upheld, with their vacation houses in Jamaica, the Cote d’Azur, Palm Beach, or Acapulco.
But we’re not The Very Extra Book Club for nothing. Going extra means going beyond appearances. While at these book club dinners, we do dress as we read and eat as we read, we also dive deep into the characters of the books we read, trying to see ourselves and others we know in them.
Capote’s Women is an account of betrayal dressed in Balenciaga, dripping with diamonds, and spending the right hours of the day with the right company at the right table by the entrances of New York’s most exclusive haunts like 21, The Colony, and La Côte Basque. Beneath those shiny exteriors lay deep sadness, loveless marriages, extreme jealousy, overreaching dreams, and infernal insecurities. Even the rich, the beautiful, and the powerful are not exempt from circumstances of lack, ugliness, and helplessness.
Because Capote’s Women is essentially about lives lived in a fishbowl, it did not only spark conversation, it also sparked gossip at our dinner. But all literature is gossip, as Capote declared. “What on God’s green earth is Anna Karenina or War and Peace or Madame Bovary, if not gossip?” he asked.
But I won’t share any of the juicy stuff with you, lest my swans kick me out of the club—like Capote was banished from the inner circles of New York—and never speak to me again.