Reading: Two Trumans | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Two Trumans 

A fine new biography of Truman Capote leaves us contemplating the strange spectacle of the artist in a world of celebrity. Would Jane Austen have done the Tonight Show?

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In the 1960s it seemed there were two Truman Capotes: the eccentric, high-profile friend of the famous whose gala parties were of such magnitude that even I, a boy growing up in Crescent City, California (the lowest-profile, most unglamorous town imaginable), heard about them and the cold-eyed writer of that classic of investigative journalism, In Cold Blood. It was difficult, somehow, to imagine that they were the same person--as difficult as it was for the residents of Holcomb, Kansas (the site of the murders In Cold Blood explored) to believe this little lollipop, with his ridiculous southern accent and tres effeminate mannerisms, was the big-city writer sent to report on the death of the Clutter family. Capote won over the recalcitrant residents of Holcomb with his wit, his candor, and a stick-to-itiveness that the westerners admired; it was like the time Oscar Wilde went out west on a stagecoach and drank his detractors under the table. Similarly, Capote's literary achievements (of which In Cold Blood is probably the greatest) won over most of his critics and rescued his reputation from the bins marked "gadfly" and "character."

Gerald Clarke's fine new biography of the writer pays equal homage to both Capotes: the private artist and the public gossip. Clarke wisely values the importance of society and of loose talk in Capote's work as well as in his life; society was the water in which he swam and it informed some of his best pieces, fictional ("La Cote Basque, 1965") and non (The Muses Are Heard). It also makes good copy. A list of his acquaintances reads like a Who's Who of the times through which he walked and includes such luminaries as Tallulah Bankhead, Albert Camus (with whom he claimed to have slept), Carson McCullers, the Kennedys, and the Reagans. What drew such diverse people to him was his effervescent personality and his tongue; he was highly quotable, and Clarke, who interviewed Capote over nine years, makes good use of his witticisms. There was the time when, on David Susskind's show, Capote proclaimed Jack Kerouac's writing "isn't writing at all--it's typing." To the Russians who sniggered at him on a visit to the Soviet Union he proclaimed, "Laugh, you dreary people. But what will you do for laughs next week, when I'm gone from here?" And to a television executive who rejected a program on death row he'd scripted, saying it was too grim, Capote said, "Well, what did you expect--Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?" (Capote may have coined that rejoinder, as he did the unfortunate phrase "Jewish mafia," which he used to describe the east-coast literary establishment that never quite accepted him.)

But for all the airtime he gives Capote the acid-tongued raconteur, Clarke never loses sight of Capote the artist, whose natural and largely unschooled talent bloomed as suddenly and mysteriously as a hothouse flower. As instinctual as Capote's talent was, his dedication to his craft was unassailable; he rewrote to perfection and once tore up a finished manuscript of a novel he'd been working on for months because it just wasn't good enough. There was a serious, determined side to his nature, which served his career well.

Early on, with only one novel to his credit, he outlined his literary plans for the next two decades to his friends. "It was all in such detail that, naturally, I discounted it as fantasy," said Paul Bowles, who was present at this prophecy. "It seemed impossible that anyone could 'know' so far ahead what he was going to write. However, the works he described in 1949 appeared, one after the other, over the years that followed. They were all there in his head, like baby crocodiles, waiting to be hatched."

What Capote could not foresee was his own sloppy demise, a personal and professional downward spiral that began sometime after the publication of In Cold Blood in 1966, and ended with his death, due to a drug overdose, in 1984. His fall was every bit as precipitous as his rise had been meteoric--and nearly as inexplicable.

For decades he could do no wrong. He was the toast of literary Manhattan, his books sold well, and he possessed what few American writers have achieved: celebrity. But the same high society he celebrated (and derided) ended up shunning him, and the white-hot spotlight of fame shriveled his energy. Like the characters in his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, he got what he wanted, and it was too much to bear.

Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans on September 30, 1924. His mother had wanted an abortion; Truman only came into the world through the intervention of his father, Arch Persons, a flim-flam man and ace dissembler. Both parents were dissatisfied with their respective lots in life, and both knew that bigger things lay in store for them. His mother, born Lillie Mae Faulk, changed her name to Nina and carried on with an assortment of lovers, while her husband ran about the south, kiting checks and promoting sideshows. Their marriage was never conventional, and their priorities did not include their son. Capote was raised largely by his mother's family, a colorful and cantankerous bunch, who provided much fodder for his early fiction, not to mention his popular, perennial holiday story for television, "A Christmas Memory."

Disappearing and reappearing parents might inspire poignant fiction, but they also guarantee an unhappy childhood. While being raised by the Faulks in Monroeville, Alabama, Truman scarcely saw his parents; they would arrive in a whoosh of finery and unkept promises, then depart, leaving their dreamy son to his fantasies.

From the beginning, young Truman was regarded as strange--"sissy" was probably the nicest thing he was called--and his going was not easy. He protected himself with his imagination, armor that would serve him well. His childhood friend Harper Lee modeled one of her characters in To Kill a Mockingbird after him. "We came to know him as a pocket Merlin," wrote Lee, "whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies."

At the age of ten, Capote claimed, he got the notion to be a writer. Though his mother's family was unliterary, Clarke makes a good case for the story-telling Faulks being responsible for providing the boy with a "literary viewpoint, a way of looking at people as characters in a drama and a way of viewing life itself as a tale to be unfolded." These impulses flourished when Truman moved to New York to be with his mother and her second husband, Joe Capote, a well-to-do Cuban businessman and an indulgent stepfather. There, in a couple of good private schools, Capote pursued his literary and artistic interests. There he also awakened to his homosexuality, much to the consternation of his stringent, alcoholic mother. Even in that cosmopolitan environment the diminutive, flamboyant Capote stood out. Seeing him for the first time in the halls of the New Yorker, where he served a stint as a copyboy, editor Harold Ross exclaimed, "For God's sake! What's that?"

Little did Ross know that the same sprite was soon to be the talk of the town. Eschewing the staid New Yorker, which found his fiction too strange for its pages, Capote published a couple of short stories in what were then the breeding grounds of the best new American fiction: Mademoiselle and Harper's Bazaar. These two stories (the mysterious "Miriam" and the comic "My Side of the Story") caused a sensation in 1945 that is hard to fathom these days. Clarke writes: "Short stories attracted more attention in those days than they do now--people talked about them the way they might discuss a hit movie or a best-selling novel today--and the reaction was almost instantaneous, more satisfying than even Truman could have wished." Literary trend spotters saw in Capote the next big thing, and within a year he was contracted by Random House to write his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

The publication of that book in 1948 caused an even greater sensation, not so much for its story (which one of Capote's saber-tongued friends called "the fairy Huckleberry Finn") as for its jacket photo of the author. Capote had posed in a supine position, his hands dangerously close to his crotch, gazing seductively out at the camera; he looked for all the world like a male Lolita, ripe for the plucking. It was a calculated PR move on his part, and it was as controversial as John Irving's wrestling-shirt pictures would be decades later. Most important, it revealed Capote's penchant for self-promotion, even at that tender age. When it came to doing advertisements for himself, Norman Mailer had nothing on Capote.

From the beginning, Capote saw writing as a competitive, do-or-die racket. Years later he reflected, "Out of all those people who began publishing when I did, there are only three left that anybody knows about--Gore [Vidal], Norman, and me. There has to be some 'X' factor, some extra dimension, that has kept us going. Really successful people are like vampires; you can't kill them unless you drive a stake through their hearts. The only one who can destroy a really strong and successful writer is himself."

Spoken like a true Cassandra.

Capote's early career as a writer was blessed. His books were well received, and several of them, including The Grass Harp (1951) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), were adapted for the stage or screen. His forays into play- and screenwriting got mixed notices, though the two films he scripted (Beat the Devil and The Innocents, based on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw) stand as classics. With Beat the Devil he created a genre of his own: the modernist screwball comedy.

His private life (for Capote that may have been a contradiction in terms) was similarly rewarding. Throughout the 40s and 50s he had several long-term relationships, the first with Newton Arvin, a scholar and literary biographer, and later with Jack Dunphy, an actor and writer he remained close to throughout his life. Each of his romances is well documented here, and only occasionally do their various ups and downs become tiresome. Minutiae serve Clarke's subject well; the juicy anecdotes and literary feuds (with McCullers, Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Jacqueline Susann) were the stuff of life for Capote, and they compel the reader through this nearly 600-page book.

The turning point in Capote's life came with In Cold Blood. In The Muses Are Heard (an on-the-scene report of a traveling American production of Porgy and Bess in the USSR), Capote helped define what later came to be called New Journalism. He was one of the first important literary figures of our time to see the possibilities inherent in nonfiction. "I like the feeling that something is happening beyond and about me and I can do nothing about it," he told a reporter. "I like having the truth be the truth so I can't change it." Hooked on reality, Capote began to fish about for a story. "Suddenly the newspapers all came alive," he told his friend Glenway Wescott, "and I realized that I was in terrible trouble as a fiction writer."

This "terrible trouble" led him to the murders in Holcomb, where a God-fearing farming family was slaughtered for no apparent reason. For the next six years the story was his obsession: he infiltrated the townsfolk, became friends with the killers--and waited for their execution so he could finish his story. The results (first serialized in the New Yorker) were a sensation; people awaited each installment the way earlier generation's of readers had awaited the latest chapter from Dickens or Twain.

Already well known, Capote's name became a household word. He crowned his success with his Black and White Ball, a celebrity bash of Olympian proportions. "The guest list," his friend Leo Lerman joked, "reads like an international list for the guillotine." An apt and ironic aside, that, given that the reason for all this partying was the publication of a book that ended in the execution of two of its main characters--an execution that Capote had witnessed and had even wished for.

But the hangings effectively ended Capote's life; his biggest success proved to be his downfall. "No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me," he said. "It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me."

Capote had looked long and hard at the dark side of American life. He had witnessed, up close, a different kind of outsider than the ones he had known and been, and it shook his very foundations. In the end, as Michael Herr said of the Vietnam war, the story covered him.

The last 150 pages of this biography are not an easy read. In the decade and a half following the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote wasted his energies, though he did produce a handful of good stories, fictional and journalistic. With the publication of "La Cote Basque" in Esquire in 1976, he cut himself off from the rich and famous set that had so adored him. The story was a thinly veiled roman a clef starring the rich goddesses--Lee Radziwill, Babe Paley, Slim Hayward--he had befriended, and it cost him socially.

In the wake of the uproar, Capote became a caricature of himself, appearing on talk shows besotted, reading incoherently at colleges, being arrested for drunk driving. His final years are told in a litany of faceless lovers and detox clinics. When Capote finally died at Joanne Carson's house, it was a relief to everyone, especially himself.

Clarke does not force too many interpretations of Capote's motivations on us, much to his credit, and the little psychologizing he does about Capote's downfall (the abandoned child seeking approval, the hurt child lashing out at those who love him) seems fair. By and large, Clarke lets the reader draw his own conclusions.

In the end, we are left contemplating the place of the artist in the world of celebrity. Would Jane Austen have done the Tonight Show? Would Edith Wharton have appeared in films?

Years ago, the story goes, Norman Mailer was at a Hollywood bash, ostensibly researching The Deer Park, when a sullen Marlon Brando brushed past him, on his way out the door. "Mailer," Brando exclaimed, "what are you doing here? You should be home, writing your next book."

But then what would he have written about?

Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke, Simon & Schuster, $22.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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