When Truman Capote died in 1984, just before his sixtieth birthday, his life had been in a shambles for years. The phenomenal success of In Cold Blood (1966) fulfilled all his dreams, but at that moment he began inexplicably to implode. His crack-up was as public and spectacular as any in recent history. Suffering from what is known as free-floating anxiety, he ingested heroic amounts of alcohol and patronized all the pill-pushing Dr. Feelgoods who flourished in New York during the Sixties and Seventies. He derived no benefit from his frequent stays in clinics and hospitals, often returning to the bottle the very evening of his release. Increasingly detached from his longtime partner, Jack Dunphy, who had been a stabilizing force for him, he embarked on a series of inappropriate relationships, culminating in one with a suburban heterosexual bank official, John O’Shea: this was an insane mésalliance that turned into an orgy of mutual abuse.
The 1975 publication in Esquire of a chapter from his work in progress, Answered Prayers, made him a social pariah: his rich and beautiful friends went mad with rage when they read the thinly disguised, deeply hurtful descriptions of themselves by the adorable little man they had come to think of as a favorite household pet, an ami de la maison. How could he ever have thought he would get away with it? What demon of perversity, what layers of self-delusion could have persuaded him that he could write such things without causing offense?
During his last few years, Capote’s appearances in the gossip columns and magazines were pathetic, featuring pictures of him being led off the stage incoherently drunk at a reading, being carried comatose from his apartment after an overdose, snorting coke with Steve Rubell and Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. He had become a grotesque to the younger generation, a terrible example for their elders, who could remember the great talent of the young Capote and comprehend the tragedy of its destruction. “Something in my life has done a terrible hurt to me,” he said, at a loss to explain his own despair, “and it seems to be irrevocable.”
In honor of what would have been Capote’s eightieth birthday, Random House and its subsidiary, the Modern Library, are doing an important service for their troublesome but lucrative author by bringing out a collection of his letters, edited by his biographer Gerald Clarke, and by producing new editions of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and The Complete Stories of Truman Capote. It is a stunning experience to reread this fiction—mostly written when he was in his early twenties—and to realize how very golden this golden boy was. The image of the unhappy middle-aged clown dissolves; we are in the presence of a tremendous talent, and a fully mature technique as well. Norman Mailer’s judgment that Capote was the most perfect writer of their generation—“he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm”—seems true and just.
Capote decided upon his literary vocation in early childhood and never looked back. “How did it happen? That’s what I ask myself,” he said to his biographer. “My relatives were nothin’, dirt-poor farmers. I don’t believe in possession, but something took over inside me, some little demon that made me a writer.” Capote is the perfect illustration of his own belief that education can neither make nor break a novelist. His own was sketchy, to say the least; he barely finished high school, with grades so bad that some teachers considered him subnormal.
Though Capote never wrote an autobiography, parts of his childhood are quite faithfully recorded in his novel The Grass Harp and his stories “A Christmas Memory,” “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” and “One Christmas,” all included in this anthology—and also in his childhood friend Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, where he appears as the strange little Dill. He was the progeny of a small-town con-man, Arch Persons, and Lillie Mae Faulk, an ambitious girl itching to get out of Monroeville, Alabama. Their marriage was brief, its break-up stormy. Southern Gothic, as so many examples have proved, is not a literary affectation so much as a literal representation of local life, and one of Capote’s most outrageous pieces of fiction, the short story “My Side of the Matter” (1945), is not in fact an imitation of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” as one might think at first, but a perfectly truthful portrait of Arch and Lillie Mae’s absurd honeymoon.
The custody battle over little Truman was ugly and prolonged, but in truth neither parent really wanted the responsibility of caring for him. Eventually Lillie Mae won the tussle; she was a marginally more responsible person than the hopeless Arch. She embarked on a series of jobs, adventures, and love affairs, dragging the child along for the ride; his earliest memories were of being locked in hotel rooms while she went out on the town or slept with various transient boyfriends. “I had an intense fear of being abandoned,” he later said, “and I remember practically all of my childhood as being lived in a state of constant tension and fear.” Finally, just before his sixth birthday, his worst fear came true, when his mother dumped him with the eccentric Faulk family in Monroeville: an elderly brother and his three sisters. When, if ever, would Lillie Mae come back? “Imagine a dog, watching and waiting and hoping to be taken away. That is the picture of me then.” His emotional state, if not the literal circumstances that created it, is reproduced in that of the young Joel Harrison Knox in Other Voices, Other Rooms.
The years in Monroeville were blighted by his feelings of abandonment, but the small town, and the unchanging Faulk family, provided a stability that was sadly lacking in his earlier and subsequent life, and it is no accident that so much of his best fiction revolves around that quiet place. The Faulks loved the precocious little boy—“He is the sunshine of our home,” said one of the old cousins—and he formed a strong bond with the odd Miss Sook Faulk, who was later to make an unforgettable appearance as “my friend” in “A Christmas Memory.” Capote later acknowledged that it would probably have been better for him if his mother had simply let him spend the rest of his childhood there.
Lillie Mae had moved up in the world: married to a Cuban businessman, Joe Capote, she had changed her name to Nina and now lived on Park Avenue. Truman left the Faulks to become a part of the Capote household, at least on sufferance. Joe was a kind stepfather, adopting Truman and giving his name, but Nina never really loved or accepted him: she was disgusted by Truman’s effeminacy, already evident in childhood, his affected manner, and his almost dwarfish stature (his adult height was only 5’3”), and she was evidently immune to his charm.
After Truman spent a spell at Trinity School in New York, Nina conceived the idea of sending him to military school, perhaps with the idea of making a man out him. The project proved disastrous: Truman, as might have been predicted, made irresistible sexual prey for older, rougher boys. Eventually the Capotes moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, and Truman attended the upscale Greenwich High, where he began to grow into the unconventional and decidedly attractive “character” that would soon ravish literary New York. “Truman brought happiness into our lives,” remembered one Greenwich friend. “He said, ‘Let’s do it! Don’t be afraid!’ He created the fun, and if we got bored, he would come up with an idea of how we could get unbored.”
Truman had too many other interests to bother with schoolwork; he failed to graduate with his class and, since the Capotes were returning to Manhattan, he was enrolled in a school that catered to students who couldn’t make the grade elsewhere. That same year (1942) he took a job as a copyboy at The New Yorker. The magazine’s editors expected their copyboys to perform their tasks silently and invisibly so that the resident geniuses could get on with their work in peace: hiring the likes of Truman, surely the least silent and invisible copyboy in New Yorker history was, as Gerald Clarke has said, truly an act of wartime desperation. “For God’s sake! What’s that?” the ultra-masculine Harold Ross demanded, catching a glimpse of Truman drifting down the hall.
He had begun writing short stories, some of which he submitted to The New Yorker, but they were not considered: “Very good. But romantic in a way this magazine is not,” said the rejection slip. They found a warm welcome, however, at Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle, which, hard as it is to believe today, published some of the best and most innovative new fiction of that period. The first of Capote’s stories really to make a hit was “Miriam” (1945: Capote was twenty years old), a creepy little tale about an aging spinster whose life is taken over by an evil, controlling child who just might be a projection of her own mind or soul. “Miriam” made a huge impression (at that time in New York, new short stories were as eagerly gobbled up and discussed as movies are today) but now it seems the least interesting of his early tales: his own later judgment that it was “a good stunt and nothing more” is probably correct.
But the general level of these early stories is remarkably high, and the magazines were soon avidly competing for his favors. “Harper’s and Mademoiselle turned into temples which the cultist[s] entered every month with the seldom fulfilled hope that the little god would have published a new story there,” recalled the critic Alfred Chester. Howard Doughty, a new friend, described the stories as showing “uncanny talent—almost frightening. He seems to have had practically no education except the back-files of the little magazines and is almost entirely unencumbered with ideas except on the practice of his art, but a mediumistic voice speaks through him in the most impeccable of accents. It’s a long time since I’ve read anybody with such a specific gift for writing—like a musician’s for music.” Ideas that Capote were to articulate a decade later in his Paris Review interview are well illustrated by even his earliest stories: “Writing has laws of perspective,” he said, “of light and shade, just as painting does, or music.” He also expressed his belief that a story “can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence—especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.”
At this magic moment of his life, Capote carried all before him. He was already adept at the art of publicity, to be sure, but his charm, by now legendary, was very real. It was based on an entirely original wit and eccentricity, his tiny stature and “baby seal’s voice,” his enveloping warmth. He had a puppyish desire for love—surely a result of his parents’ emotional neglect—that most people found irresistible. Christopher Isherwood, meeting him at about this time, remembered that “Something happened which one wishes occurred far more often in life: I loved him immediately.” Humphrey Bogart said, “At first you can’t believe him, he’s so odd, and then you want to carry him around with you always.”
At Yaddo, where he spent several weeks during the summer of 1946 working on Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote cut a swath that has never quite been equaled. As one fellow-guest recorded in his diary:
Spontaneous when others are cautious, he has a child’s directness, a child’s indifference to propriety, and so gets to the heart of matters with an audacity strangers find outrageous, then delightful. Yet nothing he says or does accounts for the magnet somewhere in his makeup that exerts itself like a force beyond logic; he’s responsible for turning the summer into a dance of bees. His slightest movements throughout the mansion, about the grounds, or on the side streets of Saratoga are charted and signaled by sentries visible only to one another. Schemes to share his table at dinner are laid at breakfast, sometimes by single plotters, sometimes by teams united in shamelessness. There’s always laughter at his table, echoing across the moat of silence in which the tables around it are sunk.
Not everyone responded with such enthusiasm. It was back in the 1940s, for instance, that he and Gore Vidal began their lifelong feud; Vidal bitterly resented Capote’s easy usurpation of a role he believed was rightfully his, that of Most Promising Young Novelist in America. (“How can you call anyone talented who’s only written one book at twenty-three?” Vidal spluttered. “I’ve written three books, and I’m only twenty-two!”) And Capote had uneasy relations with various other southern writers who jealously guarded their literary turf, as indeed he did himself. He and Carson McCullers, who had started out a close friend, soon drifted apart. Tennessee Williams forgave him for countless transgressions, even Answered Prayers, where he was depicted as a washed-up, squalid queen reduced to hiring call-boys to walk his dog.
Other Voices, Other Rooms was one of those books that seemed almost to write itself. “It is unusual, but occasionally it happens to almost every writer that the writing of some particular story seems outer-willed and effortless; it is as though one were a secretary transcribing the words of a voice from a cloud. The difficulty is maintaining contact with this spectral dictator.” The final pages had not gone quite as smoothly as the rest, presaging a difficulty he would have with endings throughout his career. “But these last few pages!” he moaned. “Every word takes blood, I don’t know why this should be, especially since I know exactly what I’m doing.”
The novel’s publication was almost upstaged by its jacket photo, which showed Capote, who appeared barely pubescent, lolling provocatively on a sofa like some male Lolita. Still, its reception was everything—or almost everything—he could have hoped for. Orville Prescott in The New York Times pronounced the young writer “gifted, dangerously gifted,” and urged him to “ponder long on how he intends to use his exceptional talents.”
He used them, for the next decade and more, well. Many think of Capote as having squandered his gifts, but he devoted his youth, and early middle age, to hard and sustained labor, holing up for months in quiet spots in both Europe and America to work on whatever project he was embarked upon. Jack Dunphy, with whom he joined forces in 1948, was also a writer and shared his commitment to his art.
Capote’s second novel was to be a story of contemporary New York, but he dropped this project, which he had come to see as rather brittle and artificial, when old Alabama memories began to resurface. He started The Grass Harp in 1950 and worked on it with steady focus. “It is very real to me,” he wrote to his Random House editor, Robert Linscott; “[I]t keeps me in a painful emotional state: memories are always breaking my heart, I cry—it is very odd, I seem to have no control over myself or what I am doing. But my vision is clear, and if I can half execute that vision it will be a beautiful book.”
Communicating intense emotional states was always Capote’s strong suit, and readers of The Grass Harp (1951) were as affected by the material as he was himself. When a Broadway producer suggested that The Grass Harp be turned into a play, Capote responded with an enthusiasm that eventually proved misguided. His adaptation flopped on Broadway but garnered enough enthusiasm to keep him plugging away at theater and films; over the course of the next few years, he wrote another play (a musical based on his story “House of Flowers,” also a failure) and worked on the scripts for several movies. All this work was respectable and even rather good, but it proved to be a misdirection of his energies, as Linscott tried to persuade him: “It’s my hunch that a talent, delicate and evocative as yours, would illuminate more deeply from the printed page than in a theater, where coarser effects are perhaps essential and where you are at the mercy of the interpreters.” This was undoubtedly true, but Capote’s showbiz moonlighting and the new world it revealed led him into what we now call the “new” journalism, of which he was to be one of the foremost practitioners. Two New Yorker pieces from this period, a profile of Marlon Brando (“The Duke in His Domain”) and a long account, subsequently published in book form, describing a black American theatrical troupe’s tour of the Soviet Union (“The Muses are Heard”) are among the finest pieces of writing Capote ever produced.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published in 1958. Probably the best-read and loved of all Capote’s books, it strikes me as the least interesting as well, and not even original: character by character, situation by situation, it is a nearly exact imitation of Isherwood’s “Sally Bowles,” although no one ever mentions this fact—including Isherwood himself, who stayed more or less pals with Capote for the rest of their lives. Holly Golightly remains, however, a more synthetic creation than Sally, perhaps because while Sally was based on a real character, Holly was an idealized composite of a number of girls-about-town Capote knew, an abstraction—and an idealization, which Sally was not—rather than a human being.
In November, 1959 Capote noticed a newspaper item about the murder of the Clutter family of Garden City, Kansas. This was the beginning of a six-year creative odyssey and, ultimately, a mental and emotional ordeal. It would send Capote straight to the top of the literary heap while simultaneously upsetting his emotional equilibrium, which had never been anything but shaky.
Artistically, he knew he was doing something quite new. “Journalism,” he commented, “always moves along on a horizontal plane, telling a story, while fiction—good fiction—moves vertically, taking you deeper and deeper into character and events. By treating a real event with fictional techniques … it’s possible to make this kind of synthesis.” Since then, many others have adopted this idea of the “nonfiction novel,” but few have crafted it with Capote’s integrity: while he performed painstaking research, meeting and corresponding with the drama’s participants until every detail of the events was familiar to him, subsequent imitators have tended to treat facts as though, being “fictionalized,” they are changeable and dispensable.
Capote immersed himself in the grisly material until it tainted every part of his life—the more so since he found himself powerfully identifying with one of the killers, Perry Smith. (Norman Mailer called Capote’s Smith one of the great characters of American fiction, a plausible judgment.) “Every morning of my life I throw up because of the tensions created by the writing of the book,” Capote said. “But it’s worth it; because it’s the best work I’ve done.” While the murderers were swiftly convicted, their execution dates were postponed again and again as various appeals worked their way through the legal system. Capote found himself in an unhappy position; he could not finish the book until Smith and Hickock were executed, but he dreaded the actual event, and correctly: it haunted him forever, he said, like the echo in the Marabar Caves in Forster’s Passage to India.
“Before I began [In Cold Blood], I was a stable person, comparatively speaking. Afterward, something happened to me. I just can’t forget it, particularly the hangings at the end. Horrible!” But his demons were temporarily suppressed with the ecstatic reception of In Cold Blood, which in 1966 appeared in four consecutive issues of The New Yorker, breaking all sales records for the magazine. There had in fact been nothing like it since, over a century before, New York readers of The Old Curiosity Shop waited at the piers and shouted to a ship arriving from England, “Is Little Nell dead?” “My wife read each New Yorker as it came, tearing it out of the postman’s hand,” wrote one representative reader, a Lutheran minister from California. “Now we will re-read all of them; the first time we gobbled them down, glub-glub!”
Capote was the cynosure of literary New York and of worldly New York as well, when the famous black-and-white ball he threw at the Plaza late in 1966 was dubbed the party of the century. (Its guest book read “like an international list for the guillotine,” joked Leo Lerman.) But the signs of instability were more evident. When In Cold Blood failed to win the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, Capote let the snub bother him much more than he should have done—for how often have the best books ever won the big prizes?
His sense of self, always frail since the insecurities and abandonments of his childhood and further harmed by the suicide of his unloving mother in 1954—the ultimate withdrawal—began slipping dangerously. For years he had been obsessed with wealth and glamour. “Style is what you are,” he said, and he appeared really to believe this. His deepest friendships, as he entered middle age, were with café-society types like Babe and Bill Paley, Lee Radziwell, and Slim Keith. Capote’s confusion was nowhere more evident than in his sincere worship of these peacocks (as the dyspeptic Dunphy called them) and their values, or lack thereof, and then in his apparently unconscious attack on them in Answered Prayers. While he claimed that the ultra-rich led charmed lives, and certainly toadied to them as though he thought that was the case, he portrayed them in the segment of Answered Prayers that appeared in Esquire as lost souls. That he could have been unaware of this double-think—unaware even that, in writing, he had done anything to offend—shows the true degeneration of his mental state. As John O’Shea said time and again, it was not a drying-out clinic he should have been taken to when he began drinking, but a really serious psychiatric hospital. His 1984 death was probably the result of an overdose—essentially a suicide, like his mother’s.
Too Brief a Treat, the new collection of Capote’s letters, is a disappointment. Capote turns out to have been a surprisingly mediocre letter-writer; perhaps wisely, he saved his best efforts for his fiction. One feels that his natural medium of communication was the telephone rather than the pen, and when he did write he tended to do so swiftly and carelessly and to reuse his material when he could. Another problem is that the letters in this volume are addressed to only a few recipients, a small portion of his circle of acquaintance. There are hardly any letters to Jack Dunphy and few or none to the Paleys, Lee Radziwell, Carson McCullers, Nina Capote, Joanne Carson, Christopher Isherwood, or his old pals from their teenage years—Oona O’Neill Chaplin, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Carol Marcus Saroyan Matthau.
Clarke’s explanatory footnotes are maddeningly inadequate. One is constantly running up against some intriguing item like “poor Greta [Garbo]—but a great deal of it is her own fault” or “Darling, isn’t this ironic about Christopher [Isherwood]? I told you so” without any explanation whatsoever, so that the reader is continually frustrated. And yet Clarke explains other things needlessly, for example adding “[Williams]” after a reference to “Tennessee” (has there ever been another Tennessee?). Also, he has appended no cast of characters, which would have been easy to do and extremely useful. All of this is especially surprising in light of Clarke’s previous achievement: his 1988 Capote: A Biography is one of the finest biographies in the last couple of decades—superbly written and well documented.
But while the letters will only appeal to true enthusiasts, Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Complete Stories of Truman Capote should be as widely distributed as possible. Nowadays most people know Capote only through Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, which are fine, but Capote started out as a different type of writer who might have developed in a different, and equally exciting, way.
The appearance of Capote’s early books in Modern Library editions led me to hope that his work has definitively entered the canon. This morning my hope was fulfilled when, as I strolled through my Brooklyn neighborhood, I noticed a large banner for the benefit of tourists that read: “Brooklyn Heights: Home of Truman Capote.” This is fame indeed: fame, one hopes, that will outlive the mere notoriety of his final years.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 10
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