I thought about Sharon Stone in Casino when I saw Babe Paley in bed. Remember that scene where Ginger is just gleefully laying there, surrounded by trays and trays of gold Bulgari? Jewelry people are semi-obsessed with it.
The scene in episode two of Feud: Capote vs. the Swans is the same, but different. We are not in Vegas anymore. Paley, wearing a nightgown and a massive strand of pearls, has invited her friend Slim Keith for a visit. Paley, like Ginger, is surrounded by jewels, but these she says, are the bejeweled apologies after each of her husband Bill’s infidelities. “The affairs end,” Keith exclaims, “but the jewelry remains!” In Ryan Murphy’s series, she has been summoned to the Paley residence at 820 Fifth Avenue to choose the piece she wants after Babe, diagnosed with cancer, is gone. “The Verdura?” Lady Keith asks after spotting a rubellite Pebble bracelet on a tray. That one, Paley tells her, was to atone for an affair with Happy Rockefeller.
The scene itself might never have really happened, but the jewelry? That stuff is real. Paley and Keith both had plenty of it. There is the story of Keith’s legendary amethyst Tiffany cross brooch, the one she ordered after visiting his salon with her friend Diana Vreeland and buying a pair of oxidized cufflinks and wondering what he might do with some amethysts she had at home. Keith also several Verdura pieces ordered throughout her life.
As she says, “the jewelry remains!” A browse through the Verdura archives reveals that even as her husbands changed, Keith and Verdura played on. Paley too was was a devoted Verdura, Tiffany & Co, and Van Cleef & Arpels client. So what jewels could have realistically been in those trays all across Paley's bed had that scene actually played out?
The Schlumberger Fruit bracelet commissioned by Bill Paley for his wife? That turquoise-and-diamond Schlumberger necklace she wore to Eisenhower’s Inaugural Ball? The Schlumberger Starfish brooch she is wearing in that 1962 picture of her in the apartment, cigarette holder in hand? The shell powder case of gold and turquoise that Bill went back and forth on with Schlumberger, debating design and stone selection? Or could it be those black-and-white pearl Verdura bangles she has on in the portrait by Lord Snowdon? The 21-carat canary yellow diamond Verdura cocktail ring? Or would it be the Verdura Swan brooch with the hanging diamond briolette. Yes, she had one. A similar version can currently be found in the Verdura showroom at 745 Fifth Avenue on the 12th floor.
Did Babe Paley actually own the Verdura rubellite bracelet she gives to Slim Keith who then gives it to C.Z. Guest in the series (“The Verdura? Guest asks. “Why?). Not exactly. But as Truman Capote once said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” She did own a precursor to it, done in green tourmaline. But the bracelet shown in the series is, as they say, still the real Verdura. Similarly, the large Verdura Ceylon sapphire and turquoise ring she holds up, the one she says was made to Bill’s specifications, was not one she actually owned, but reflects both her penchant for what we like to call “volume jewelry,” as it does Mr. Paley’s involvement in the process. He had been introduced to Verdura by his first wife. Dorothy Paley, and there is a wonderful picture of him with Fulco di Verdura on a gondola in Venice. (There are some of Verdura vacationing with Babe later on.) Several Verdura pieces were loaned by the company to the production, a rarity in television given production schedules and reshoots, and the cost and insurance policies involved with using fine jewelry.
“From our first meeting,” says the series' costume designer Lou Eyrich, “Ryan was very precise that it had to be the real thing. This, he said, is about the jewelry.” For the bracelet in the bed scene, Eyrich says, “Murphy wanted ruby. It would look great in the box. Rubellite worked out perfectly. In the first episode you see her wearing the Verdura bracelet. In the next episode she is giving it away.”
Jewelry is central in Feud. It is worn in almost every scene, and there are frequent close ups of button earrings and bangle bracelets being removed and placed in charming little trays. The jewelry creates an economy of gestures for the Swans, the way they move through the world is influenced by it: the removal of an earring to pick up the phone, the movement of an arm to indicate a bracelet, the tuck of that Kenneth hair behind the ear, the way they move a Verdura polka dot ringed finger up against their chin. “These women,” says Eyrich, “would feel undressed without their jewelry. They dressed like this on a daily basis. They wouldn’t leave the house without it. It was part of their routine, and their status.” In the series, Paley wears Verdura earrings for chemo at Sloan Kettering.
The contrasting Thanksgiving scenes in episode two reflect the power of jewelry in setting the scene in Feud. Guest's Thanksgiving is all “opulence and grace,” Eyrich says. The Babe Paley character is in Verdura white coral net earrings, Guest is dripping in Verdura moonstones. Shift to Joanna Carson’s Mexican-themed Thanksgiving in California, and Truman Capote is greeted by Carson in a caftan and a room full of guests in colorful plastic beads. But don’t feel too badly for Carson, or Molly Ringwald who plays her: In episode three, which covers the Black and White Ball, she gets to wear a real Alexander Calder necklace. The jewelry pieces created mostly for friends by the artist are among jewelry collectors’ holy grails.
Button earrings and pearls appear in the series almost as often as the dining room of La Côte Basque. Pore over images of Capote’s Swans, as Eyrich did, and you will see why. Those styles dominate and express the “bold but understated chic,” Eyrich wanted to capture. Will the show set a button earring and pearl strand trend? Someone did call Verdura this week inquiring about a pair of white gold net earrings. Was it you?
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