‘Then It All Came Down’: Truman Capote Interviews Bobby Beausoleil. San Quentin, 1973.

Scene: A cell in a maximum-security cell block at San Quen­tin prison in California. The cell is furnished with a single cot, and its permanent occupant, Robert Beausoleil, and his visitor are required to sit on it in rather cramped positions. The cell is neat, uncluttered; a well-waxed guitar stands in one corner. But it is late on a winter afternoon, and in the air lingers a chill, even a hint of mist, as though fog from San Francisco Bay had infiltrated the prison itself.

Despite the chill, Beausoleil is shirtless, wearing only a pair of prison-issue denim trousers, and it is clear that he is satisfied with his appearance, his body particularly, which is lithe, feline, in well-toned shape considering that he has been incarcerated more than a decade. His chest and arms are a panorama of tattooed emblems: feisty dragons, coiled chrysanthemums, uncoiled serpents. He is thought by some to be exceptionally good-looking; he is, but in a rather hustlerish camp-macho style. Not surprisingly, he worked as an actor as a child and appeared in several Hollywood films; later, as a very young man, he was for a while the protege of Kenneth Anger, the experimental film-maker (Scorpio Rising) and au­thor (Hollywood Babylon); indeed, Anger cast him in the title role of Lucifer Rising, an unfinished film.

Robert Beausoleil, who is now thirty-one, is the real mys­tery figure of the Charles Manson cult; more to the point­and it’s a point that has never been clearly brought forth in accounts of that tribe-he is the key to the mystery of the homicidal escapades of the so-called Manson family, notably the Sharon Tate-Lo Bianca murders.

It all began with the murder of Gary Hinman, a middle-aged professional musician who had befriended various members of the Manson brethren and who, unfortunately for him, lived alone in a small isolated house in Topanga Can­yon, Los Angeles County. Hinman had been tied up and tortured for several days (among other indignities, one of his ears had been severed) before his throat had been mercifully and lastingly slashed. When Hinman’s body, bloated and abuzz with August flies, was discovered, police found bloody graffiti on the walls of his modest house (“Death to Pigs!”)­graffiti similar to the sort soon to be found in the households of Miss Tate and Mr, and Mrs. Lo Bianco.

However, just a few days prior to the Tate-Lo Bianco slayings, Robert Beausoleil, caught driving a car that had been the property of the victim, was under arrest and in jail, accused of having murdered the helpless Mr. Hinman. It was then that Manson and his chums, in the hopes of freeing Beausoleil, conceived the notion of committing a series of homicides similar to the Hinman affair; if Beausoleil was still incarcerated at the time of these killings, then how could he be guilty of the Hinman atrocity? Or so the Manson brood reasoned. That is to say, it was out of devotion to “Bobby” Beausoleil that Tex Watson and those cutthroat young ladies, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Hooten, sallied forth on their satanic errands.

RB: Strange. Beausoleil. That’s French. My name is French. It means Beautiful Sun. Fuck. Nobody sees much sun inside this resort. Listen to the foghorns. Like train whistles. Moan, moan. And they’re worse in the summer. Maybe it must be there’s more fog in summer than in winter. Weather. Fuck it, I’m not going anywhere. But just listen. Moan, moan. So what’ve you been up to today?

TC: Just around. Had a little talk with Sirhan.

RB (laughs): Sirhan B. Sirhan. I knew him when they had me up on the Row. He’s a sick guy. He don’t belong here. He ought to be in Atascadero. Want some gum? Yeah, well, you seem to know your way around here pretty good. I was watching you out on the yard. I was surprised the warden lets you walk around the yard by yourself. Somebody might cut you.

TC: Why?

RB: For the hell of it. But you’ve been here a lot, huh? Some of the guys were telling me.

TC: Maybe half a dozen times on different research projects.

RB: There’s just one thing here I’ve never seen. But I’d like to see that little apple-green room. When they railroaded me on that Hinman deal and I got the death sentence, well, they had me up on the Row a good spell. Right up to when the court abolished the death penalty. So I used to wonder about the little green room.

TC: Actually, it’s more like three rooms.

RB: I thought it was a little round room with a sort of glass sealed igloo hut set in the center. With windows in the igloo so the witnesses standing outside can see the guys choking to death on that peach perfume.

Tc: Yes, that’s the gas-chamber room. But when the prisoner is brought down from Death Row he steps from the elevator directly into a “holding” room that adjoins the witness room. There are two cells in this “holding” room, two, in case it’s a double execution. They’re ordinary cells, just like this one, and the prisoner spends his last night there before his execu­tion in the morning, reading, listening to the radio, playing cards with the guards. But the interesting thing I discovered was that there’s a third room in this little suite. It’s behind a closed door right next to the “holding” cell. I just opened the door and walked in and none of the guards that were with me tried to stop me. And it was the most haunting room I’ve ever seen. Because you know what’s in it? All the left­overs, all the paraphernalia that the different condemned men had had with them in the “holding” cells. Books. Bibles and Western paperbacks and Erle Stanley Gardner, James Bond. Old brown newspapers. Some of them twenty years old. Unfinished crossword puzzles. Unfinished letters. Sweet­heart snapshots. Dim, crumbling little Kodak children. Pa­thetic.

RB : You ever seen a guy gassed?

TC: Once. But he made it look like a lark. He was happy to go, he wanted to get it over with; he sat down in that chair like he was going to the dentist to have his teeth cleaned. But in Kansas, I saw two men hanged.

RB: Perry Smith? And what’s his name-Dick Hickock? Well, once they hit the end of the rope, I guess they don’t feel anything.

TC: So we’re told. But after the drop, they go on living-fifteen, twenty minutes. Struggling. Gasping for breath, the body still battling for life. I couldn’t help it, I vomited. ns: Maybe you’re not so cool, huh? You seem cool. So, did Sirhan beef about being kept in Special Security?

RB: Sort of. He’s lonesome. He wants to mix with the other prisoners, join the general population.

RB: He don’t know what’s good for him. Outside, some­body’d snuff him for sure.

TC: Why?

RB: For the same reason he snuffed Kennedy. Recognition. Half the people who snuff people, that’s what they want: recognition. Get their picture in the paper.

TC: That’s not why you killed Gary Hinman.

RB: (Silence)

TC: That was because you and Manson wanted Hinman to give you money and his car, and when he wouldn’t-well …

RB: (Silence)

TC: I was thinking. I know Sirhan, and I knew Robert Ken­nedy. I knew Lee Harvey Oswald, and I knew Jack Kennedy. The odds against that-one person knowing all four of those men-must be astounding.

RB: Oswald? You knew Oswald? Really?

TC: I met him in Moscow just after he defected. One night I was having dinner with a friend, an Italian newspaper cor­respondent, and when he came by to pick me up he asked me if I’d mind going with him first to talk to a young American defector, one Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald was staying at the Metropole, an old Czarist hotel just off Kremlin Square. The Metropole has a big gloomy loRB y full of shadows and dead palm trees. And there he was, sitting in the dark under a dead palm tree. Thin and pale, thin-lipped, starved-looking. He was wearing chinos and tennis shoes and a lumberjack shirt. And right away he was angry-he was grinding his teeth, and his eyes were jumping every which way. He was boiling over about everything: the American ambassador; the Russians-he was mad at them because they wouldn’t let him stay in Moscow. We talked to him for about half an hour, and my Italian friend didn’t think the guy was worth filing a story about. Just another paranoid hysteric; the Moscow woods were rampant with those. I never thought about him again, not until many years later. Not until after the assassina­tion when I saw his picture flashed on television.

RB: Does that make you the only one that knew both of them, Oswald and Kennedy?

TC: No. There was an American girl, Priscilla Johnson. She worked for U.P. in Moscow. She knew Kennedy, and she met Oswald around the same time I did. But I can tell you some­thing else almost as curious. About some of those people your friends murdered.

RB: (Silence)

TC: I knew them. At least, out of the five people killed in the Tate house that night, I knew four of them. I’d met Sharon Tate at the Cannes Film Festival. Jay Sebring cut my hair a couple of times. I’d had lunch once in San Francisco with Abigail Folger and her boyfriend, Frykowski. In other words, I’d known them independently of each other. And yet one night there they were, all gathered together in the same house waiting for your friends to arrive. Quite a coincidence.

RB (lights a cigarette; smiles): Know what I’d say? I’d say you’re not such a lucky guy to know. Shit. Listen to that. Moan, moan. I’m cold. You cold?

TC: Why don’t you put on your shirt?

RB: (Silence)

TC: It’s odd about tattoos. I’ve talked to several hundred men convicted of homicide-multiple homicide, in most cases. The only common denominate- I could find among them was tattoos. A good eighty percent of them were heavily tattooed. Richard Speck. York and Latham. Smith and Hickock.

RB: I’ll put on my sweater.

TC: If you weren’t here, if you could be anywhere you wanted to be, doing anything you wanted to do, where would you be and what would you be doing?

RB: Tripping. Out on my Honda chugging along the Coast road, the fast curves, the waves and the water, plenty of sun. Out of San Fran, headed Mendocino way, riding through the redwoods. I’d be making love. I’d be on the beach by a bonfire making love. I’d be making music and balling and sucking some great Acapulco weed and watching the sun go down. Throw some driftwood on the fire. Good gash, good hash, just tripping right along.

TC: You can get hash in here.

RB: And everything else. Any kind of dope-for a price. There are dudes in here on everything but roller skates.

TC: Is that what your life was like before you were arrested? Just tripping? Didn’t you ever have a job?

RB: Once in a while. I played guitar in a couple of bars.

TC: I understand you were quite a cocks man. The ruler of a virtual seraglio. How many children have you fathered?

RB: (Silence-but shrugs, grins, smokes)

TC: I’m surprised you have a guitar. Some prisons don’t allow it because the strings can be detached and used as weapons. A garrote. How long have you been playing?

RB: Oh, since I was a kid. I was one of those Hollywood kids. I was in a couple of movies. But my folks were against it. They’re real straight people. Anyway, I never cared about the acting part. I just wanted to write music and play it and sing.

TC: But what about the film you made with Kenneth Anger-Lucifer Rising?

RB: Yeah.

TC: How did you get along with Anger?

RB: Okay.

TC: Then why does Kenneth Anger wear a picture locket on a chain around his neck? On one side of the locket there is a picture of you; on the other there is an image of a frog with an inscription: “Bobby Beausoleil changed into a frog by Kenneth Anger.” A voodoo amulet, so to say. A curse he put on you because you’re supposed to have ripped him off. Left in the middle of the night with his car-and a few other things.

RB: (narrowed eyes): Did he tell you that?

TC: No, I’ve never met him. But I was told it by a number of other people.

RB (reaches for guitar, tunes it, strums it, sings): “This is my song, this is my song, this is my dark song, my dark song …” Everybody always wants to know how I got together with Manson. It was through our music. He plays some, too. One night I was driving around with a bunch of my ladies. Well, we came to this old roadhouse, beer place, with a lot of cars outside. So we went inside, and there was Charlie with some of his ladies. We all got to talking, played some together; the next day Charlie came to see me in my van, and we all, his people and my people, ended up camping out together. Brothers and sisters. A family.

TC: Did you see Manson as a leader? Did you feel influenced by him right away?

RB: Hell, no. He had his people, I had mine. If anybody was influenced, it was him. By me.

TC: Yes, he was attracted to you. Infatuated. Or so he says. You seem to have had that effect on a lot of people, men and women.

RB: Whatever happens, happens. It’s all good.

TC: Do you consider killing innocent people a good thing?

RB: Who said they were innocent?

TC: Well, we’ll return to that. But for now: What is your own sense of morality? How do you differentiate between good and bad?

RB: Good and bad? It’s all good. If it happens, it’s got to be good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be happening. It’s just the way life flows. Moves together. I move with it. I don’t question it.

TC: In other words, you don’t question the act of murder. You consider it “good” because it “happens.” Justifiable.

RB: I have my own justice. I live by my own law, you know. I don’t respect the laws of this society. Because society doesn’t respect its own laws. I make my own laws and live by them. I have my own sense of justice.

TC: And what is your sense of justice?

RB: I believe that what goes around comes around. What goes up comes down. That’s how life flows, and I flow with it.

TC: You’re not making much sense-at least to me. And I don’t think you’re stupid. Let’s try again. In your opinion, it’s all right that Manson sent Tex Watson and those girls into that house to slaughter total strangers, innocent people­

RB: I said: Who says they were innocent? They burned peo­ple on dope deals. Sharon Tate and that gang. They picked up kids on the Strip and took them home and whipped them. Made movies of it. Ask the cops; they found the movies. Not that they’d tell you the truth.

TC: The truth is, the Lo Biancos and Sharon Tate and her friends were killed to protect you. Their deaths were directly linked to the Gary Hinman murder.

RB: I hear you. I hear where you’re coming from.

TC: Those were all imitations of the Hinman murder-to prove that you couldn’t have killed Hinman. And thereby get you out of jail.

RB: To get me out of jail. (He nods, smiles, sighs-compli­mented) None of that came out at any of the trials. The girls got on the stand and tried to really tell how it all came down, but nobody would listen. People couldn’t believe anything except what the media said. The media had them pro­grammed to believe it all happened because we were out to start a race war. That it was mean niggers going around hurting all these good white folk. Only-it was like you say. The media, they called us a “family.” And it was the only true thing they said. We were a family. We were mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son. If a member of our family was in jeopardy, we didn’t abandon that person. And so for the love of a brother, a brother who was in jail on a murder rap, all those killings came down.

TC: And you don’t regret that?

RB: No. If my brothers and sisters did it, then it’s good. Everything in life is good. It all flows. It’s all good. It’s all music.

TC: When you were up on Death Row, if you’d been forced to flow down to the gas chamber and whiff the peaches, would you have given that your stamp of approval?

RB: If that’s how it came down. Everything that happens is good.

TC: War. Starving children. Pain. Cruelty. Blindness. Prisons. Desperation. Indifference. All good?

RB: What’s that look you’re giving me?

TC: Nothing. I was noticing how your face changes. One moment, with just the slightest shift of angle, you look so boyish, entirely innocent, a charmer. And then-well, one can see you as a sort of Forty-second Street Lucifer. Have you ever seen Night Must Fall? An old movie with Robert Mont­gomery? No? Well, it’s about an impish, innocent-looking de­lightful young man who travels about the English country­side charming old ladies, then cutting off their heads and carrying the heads around with him in leather hat-boxes.

RB: So what’s that got to do with me?

TC: I was thinking-if it was ever remade, if someone Amer­icanized it, turned the Montgomery character into a young drifter with hazel eyes and a smoky voice, you’d be very good in the part.

RB: Are you trying to say I’m a psychopath? I’m not a nut. If I have to use violence, I’ll use it, but I don’t believe in killing.

TC: Then I must be deaf. Am I mistaken, or didn’t you just tell me that it didn’t matter what atrocity one person com­mitted against another, it was good, all good?

RB: (Silence)

TC: Tell me, Bobby, how do you view yourself?

RB: As a convict.

TC: But beyond that.

RB: As a man. A white man. And everything a white man stands for.

TC: Yes, one of the guards told me you were the ringleader of the Aryan Brotherhood.

RB (hostile): What do you know about the Brotherhood?

TC: That it’s composed of a bunch of hard-nosed white guys. That it’s a somewhat fascist-minded fraternity. That it started in California, and has spread throughout the American prison system, north, south, east, and west. That the prison authori­ties consider it a dangerous, troublemaking cult.

RB : A man has to defend himself. We’re outnumbered. You got no idea how rough it is. We’re all more scared of each other than we are of the pigs in here. You got to be on your toes every second if you don’t want a shiv in your back. The blacks and Chicanos, they got their own gangs. The Indians, too; or I should say the “Native Americans”-that’s how these redskins call themselves: what a laugh! Yes sir, rough. With all the racial tensions, politics, dope, gambling, and sex. The blacks really go for the young white kids. They like to shove those big black dicks up those tight white asses.

TC: Have you ever thought what you would do with your life if and when you were paroled out of here?

RB: That’s a tunnel I don’t see no end to. They’ll never let Charlie go.

TC: I hope you’re right, and I think you are. But it’s very likely that you’ll be paroled some day. Perhaps sooner than you imagine. Then what?

RB (strums guitar): I’d like to record some of my music. Get it played on the air.

TC: That was Perry Smith’s dream. And Charlie Manson’s, too. Maybe you fellows have more in common than mere tattoos.

RB: Just between us, Charlie doesn’t have a whole lot of talent. (Strumming chords) “This is my song, my dark song, my dark song.” I got my first guitar when I was eleven; I found it in my grandma’s attic and taught myself to play it, and I’ve been nuts about music ever since. My grandma was a sweet woman, and her attic was my favorite place. I liked to lie up there and listen to the rain. Or hide up there when my dad came looking for me with his belt. Shit. You hear that? Moan, moan. It’s enough to drive you crazy.

TC: Listen to me, Bobby. And answer carefully. Suppose, when you get out of here, somebody came to you-let’s say Charlie-and asked you to commit an act of violence, kill a man, would you do it?

RB (after lighting another cigarette, after smoking it half through): I might. It depends. I never meant to … to … hurt Gary Hinman. But one thing happened. And another. And then it all came down.

TC: And it was all good.

RB: It was all good.

Published in: on May 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

A silent movie with Andy Warhol and Truman Capote signing and selling Interview Magazine at Fiorucci store NYC 1977.

Published in: on June 6, 2008 at 10:38 pm  Comments (2)  

Goodbye to the Ladies Who Lunch (New York Times – September 13, 1987)

Truman's brave and real.

It’s a time-honored literary tradition for a writer to bite the hand that feeds him. It is also a time-honored literary tradition that when their scalded source material cuts them at parties writers always seem surprised.

This is certainly the case with Truman Capote, who raised ingratitude to an art form. The chapters of his work-in-progress “Answered Prayers” published in Esquire in 1975 and 1976, and now republished as a book, were a betrayal that left the smart set shaken if not stirred. Only three of the four chapters have been included here; Capote put the fourth into his 1980 collection “Music for Chameleons” instead. Of the offending material, the first chapter, “Unspoiled Monsters,” introduces the narrator, P. B. Jones, Capote’s dark doppelganger, who skids between high life and low life, working as a male prostitute to finance a promising first novel. The second, “Kate McCloud,” introduces the odious Mr. Jones to an impossible love object, a mysterious society woman isolated by her sinister, rich husband. The third, “La Côte Basque,” features Jones lunching a deux with a distressed Park Avenue matron who unloads her marital intimacies in a sodden aria of indiscretion.

It was the transparent identities in this last that did Capote in. Even to this day it is fashionable in fashionable circles to take the line that poor Truman lost his marbles when he let out that bit of his awful seedy little novel set in La Côte Basque. “What did they expect?” bleated Truman when the social world turned on him. “I’m a writer, and I use everything. Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?” Thereafter he blamed his failure to finish the novel on a crisis of form. It was not the unsettling public reaction that paralyzed him, he said, but the problem of how to mix on the same palette everything he had learned from film scripts, plays, reportage, poems, novellas and novels. This, he claimed, was what kept aborting his attempt to be the American Proust.

It was humbug, of course. The Capote of this period was adept at inventing elaborate highbrow Angst as a red herring when in fact his creative problem was simple. Reading the fragments published now, it is clear that Capote had the raw material for a best-selling nonfiction book and should have written it as just that. It could have been the definitive portrayal of the witches of East Side, gleaned from his 20 years as their walker in chief. Capote knew he had that material but he also felt it was unpublishable. Even if he managed a path through the libel laws, his revelations would kiss goodbye the ladies who lunch. In 1959 Norman Mailer made this perceptive comment about Capote: “I would suspect he hesitates between the attraction of society which enjoys and so repays him for his unique gifts, and the novel he could write of the gossip column’s real life, a major work but it would banish him forever from his favorite world. Since I have nothing to lose I hope Truman fries a few of the fancier fish.”

Mr. Mailer was right about Capote’s psychological inhibitions, though I think he was wrong about the proper vehicle for Capote’s raw material. I have always felt that the journalist in Capote was stronger than the novelist, and that the discipline of fact saved him from his fiction’s tendency to wallow in charm or yield to malice. That’s why “In Cold Blood” is a greater work than all the fiction put together. The trouble with “Answered Prayers” is that Capote at this stage was not amenable to the demands of nonfiction. He was out of control in his life and in his art. The nonfiction constraints of libel, taste and feeling were just what he needed at a time when his internal editor seems to have collapsed. Such constraints might have forced him to report with the fine calibrations of “The Muses Are Heard” and “In Cold Blood” instead of indulging himself in the worst solution of all, a rubbishy roman a clef. All that mixing real names with obvious composites achieves is a socio-pornographic “Ragtime” rife with the low cackle of camp. Peggy Guggenheim is “a long-haired Bert Lahr.” Sartre is “walleyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued” with “his spinsterish moll, De Beauvoir.” Gertrude Stein is “a Diamond Jim Brady personage, a big-bellied show-off.” In fact, it’s Capote himself who is the braggart. Dishing the sacred monsters is just another form of showing off. And what it confirms is how dependent he’d become on them all. “Answered Prayers” reveals the seduction of Capote the artist by Capote the socialite. He had become a sacred monster himself. Even as he burned his bridges he still fantasized the rich, still retained the outsider’s thrill at being on the inside track. There is admiration latent in the sneer. All his hard reporting, all his prison visits, only served to excite his romance with the beau monde.

Nonetheless, out of this conflict Capote could occasionally create art. Between the cloudbursts of malice there are flashes of prose in “Answered Prayers” that bring the aching reminder of a more whole writer, prose that makes the heart sing and the narrative fly. Some of the character riffs are inspired. Consider this description of a homosexual cosmetic king’s first sight of a boy he covets: “When he saw Denny, it must have been as though a collector of antique porcelain had strayed into a junkshop and discovered a Meissen ‘white swan’ service: the shock! the greedy chill!” Only a social journalist as knowing as Capote could have come up with the first part of the sentence; only a master writer could have achieved the conclusion’s thrill.

The narrator of “Answered Prayers” says in a conversation about Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”: “If he had been absolutely factual, it would have been less believable, but . . . it might have been better. Less acceptable, but better.” It’s the right epitaph for the book the American Proust didn’t write.

Stood Up By The Dutchess

“Carissimo!” she cried. “You’re just what I’m looking for. A lunch date. The duchess stood me up.” “Black or white?” I said. “White,” she said, reversing my direction on the sidewalk.

White is Wallis Windsor, whereas the Black Duchess is what her friends call Perla Apfeldorf, the Brazilian wife of a notoriously racist South African diamond industrialist. As for the lady who also knew the distinction, she was indeed a lady – Lady Ina Coolbirth, an American married to a British chemicals tycoon and a lot of woman in every way. Tall, taller than most men, Ina was a big breezy peppy broad, born and raised on a ranch in Montana.

“This is the second time she’s canceled,” Ina Coolbirth continued. “She says she has hives. Or the duke has hives. One or the other. Anyway, I’ve still got a table at Côte Basque. So, shall we? Because I do so need someone to talk to, really. And, thank God, Jonesy, it can be you.”… The Cristal was being poured. Ina tasted it… “I do miss Cole. And Howard Sturgis. Even Papa; after all, he did write about me in Green Hills of Africa. From “Answered Prayers.”


Published in: on June 6, 2008 at 10:34 pm  Comments (1)  

Truman Capote Is Dead at 59; Novelist of Style and Clarity (New York Times – August 28, 1984)

Truman Capote never really died.

Truman Capote, one of the postwar era’s leading American writers, whose prose shimmered with clarity and quality, died yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 59.

Mr. Capote died at the home of Joanna Carson, former wife of the entertainer Johnny Carson, in the Bel-Air section, according to Comdr. William Booth of the Los Angeles Police Department. ”There is no indication of foul play,” he said, adding that the county coroner’s office would investigate the cause of death.

The novelist, short story writer and literary celebrity pioneered a genre he called ”the nonfiction novel,” exemplified by his immensely popular ”In Cold Blood.” He died apparently without having completed his long- promised ”masterwork,” an extensive novel called ”Answered Prayers.”

Mr. Capote’s first story was published while he was still in his teens, but his work totaled only 13 volumes, most of them slim collections, and in the view of many of his critics, notably his old friend John Malcolm Brinnin, he failed to join the ranks of the truly great American writers because he squandered his time, talent and health on the pursuit of celebrity, riches and pleasure.

”I had to be successful, and I had to be successful early,” Mr. Capote said in 1978. ”The thing about people like me is that we always knew what we were going to do. Many people spend half their lives not knowing. But I was a very special person, and I had to have a very special life. I was not meant to work in an office or something, though I would have been successful at whatever I did. But I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to be rich and famous.” Success, both as a writer and as a celebrity, came early, when he was 23 years old and published his first novel, ”Other Voices, Other Rooms.” It was a critical and financial success, and so were most of the volumes of short stories, reportage and novellas that followed, including ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” ”The Muses Are Heard,” ”The Grass Harp,” ”Local Color,” ”The Dogs Bark” and ”Music for Chameleons.”

Claim to Literary Fame

But the book that perhaps solidified his claim to literary fame was ”In Cold Blood,” his detailed, painstakingly researched and chilling account of the 1959 slaying of a Kansas farm family and the capture, trial and execution of the two killers.

Published serially in The New Yorker and then as a book in 1965, ”In Cold Blood” consumed more than six years of his life. But it won him enthusiastic praise, mountains of publicity, millions of dollars and the luxury of time to work on ”Answered Prayers.”

But he accelerated the speed of his journey to celebrity, appearing on television talk shows and, in his languid accent, which retained its Southern intonation, indulged a gift for purveying viperish wit and scandalous gossip. He continued to cultivate scores of the famous as his friends and confidants, all the while publishing little and, he said later, developing a formidable ”writer’s block” that delayed completion of ”Answered Prayers.”

To keep alive the public’s interest in the promised work, in 1975 he decided to allow the magazine Esquire to print portions of the unfinished novel. The decision was catastrophic to the grand social life he had cultivated because, in one of the excerpts, ”La C~te Basque,” Mr. Capote told apparently true and mostly scandalous stories about his famous friends, naming names, and in so doing forever lost their friendship and many other friendships as well.

Alcohol and Drug Problems

Soon his long-simmering problems with alcohol and drugs grew into addictions, and his general health deteriorated alarmingly. The once sylphlike and youthful Mr. Capote grew paunchy and bald, and in the late 1970’s he underwent treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse, had prostate surgery and suffered from a painful facial nerve condition, a tic doloreux.

In ”Music for Chameleons,” a collection of short nonfiction pieces published in 1980, Mr. Capote, in a ”self-interview,” asked himself whether, at that point in his life, God had helped him. His answer: ”Yes. More and more. But I’m not a saint yet. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius. Of course, I could be all four of these dubious things and still be a saint.”

Named Truman Streckfus Persons after his birth in New Orleans on Sept. 30, 1924, he was the son of Archulus Persons, a nonpracticing lawyer and member of an old Alabama family, and of the former Lillie Mae Faulk, of Monroeville, Ala. Years later he adopted the surname of his stepfather, Joe Capote, a Cuban-born New York businessman.

Mr. Capote’s mother, who eventually committed suicide, liked to be called Nina and was not, according to her own testimony as well as her son’s, temperamentally suited to motherhood. Living with her husband in a New Orleans hotel, she sent Truman to live with relatives in Monroeville when he was barely able to walk, and for the first nine years of his life he lived mostly in Alabama under the supervision of female cousins and aunts.

‘A Spiritual Orphan’

In that period, he said years later, he felt like ”a spiritual orphan, like a turtle on its back.”

”You see,” he said, ”I was so different from everyone, so much more intelligent and sensitive and perceptive. I was having fifty perceptions a minute to everyone else’s five. I always felt that nobody was going to understand me, going to understand what I felt about things. I guess that’s why I started writing. At least on paper I could put down what I thought.”

Most summers the boy returned to New Orleans for a month or so, and accompanied his father on trips up and down the Mississippi aboard the riverboat on which Mr. Persons worked as a purser. Truman learned to tap dance, he said, and was proud of the fact that he once danced for the passengers accompanied by Louis Armstrong, whose band was playing on the steamboat.

Many of his stories, notably ”A Christmas Memory,” which paid loving tribute to his old cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, who succored him in his childhood loneliness, were based on his recollections of life in and around Monroeville. So were his first published novel, ”Other Voices, Other Rooms,” his second, ”The Grass Harp,” and the collection of stories, ”A Tree of Night.”

Character in ‘Mockingbird’

The young Truman’s best friend in Monroeville was the little girl next door, Nelle Harper Lee, who many years later put him into her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” in the character of the precocious Dill Harris. (He had earlier used Miss Lee as the prototype for the character of Idabel Tompkins in ”Other Voices, Other Rooms.”)

After his mother’s divorce from Mr. Persons and her marriage to Joe Capote, she brought her son to live with them in New York. He was sent to several private schools, including Trinity School and St. John’s Academy in New York, but he disliked schools and did poorly in his courses, including English, although he had taught himself to read and write when he was 5 years old.

Having been told by many teachers that the precocious child was probably mentally backward, the Capotes sent him to a psychiatrist who, Truman Capote said triumphantly some years later, ”naturally classified me as a genius.”

He later credited Catherine Woods, an English teacher at Greenwich High School in Connecticut, with being the first person to recognize his writing talent and to give him guidance. With her encouragement he wrote poems and stories for the school paper, The Green Witch. He did not complete high school and had no further formal education.

At the age of 17, Mr. Capote wangled a job at The New Yorker. ”Not a very grand job, for all it really involved was sorting cartoons and clipping newspapers,” he wrote years later. ”Still, I was fortunate to have it, especially since I was determined never to set a studious foot inside a college classroom. I felt that either one was or wasn’t a writer, and no combination of professors could influence the outcome. I still think I was correct, at least in my own case.”

First Stories and Novel

In a two-year stay at The New Yorker, Mr. Capote had several short stories published in minor magazines. ”Several of them were submitted to my employers, and none accepted,” he wrote later. In the same period, he wrote his first, never-published novel, ”Summer Crossing.”

Mr. Capote made his first major magazine sale, of the haunting short story ”Miriam,” to Mademoiselle in 1945, and in 1946 it won an O. Henry Memorial Award. (There were to be three more O. Henry awards.)

The award led to a contract and a $1,500 advance from Random House to write a novel. Mr. Capote returned to Monroeville and began ”Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and he worked on the slim volume in New Orleans, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and in North Carolina, finally completing it on Nantucket. It was published in 1948.

The novel, a sensitively written account of a teen-age boy’s coming to grips with maturity and accepting his world as it is, achieved wide popularity and critical acclaim and was hailed as a remarkable achievement for a writer only 23 years old.

In 1969, when ”Other Voices, Other Rooms” was reprinted, Mr. Capote said the novel was ”an attempt to exorcise demons: an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt, for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions, of its being in any serious degree autobiographical. Rereading it now, I find such self-deception unpardonable.”

Famous Dust-Cover Photograph

The book’s back dust cover received almost as much comment as the novel itself, and for years was the talk of the literary set. The jacket was a photogragh of an androgynously pretty Mr. Capote, big eyes looking up from under blond bangs, and wearing a tattersall vest, reclining sensually on a sofa. The striking, now-famous dust-jacket photograph may have been prophetic, because Mr. Capote, for the remainder of his life, assiduously sought personal publicity and celebrity and said he had ”a love affair with cameras – all cameras.”

In the pursuit of literary celebrity in succeeding years, the writer was photographed in his homes in the Hamptons on Long Island, in Switzerland and at United Nations Plaza. He was photographed escorting well- dressed society women who seemed always to tower over Mr. Capote, who was only 5 feet 4 inches tall. He was also photographed, for dozens of magazines and newspapers, when he gave a much-publicized masked ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966 for some 500 of his ”very closest friends.”

For many of the postwar years Mr. Capote traveled widely and lived abroad much of the time with Jack Dunphy, his companion of more than a quarter-century. He turned out short- story collections and nonfiction for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Esquire and The New Yorker, which first published ”The Muses Are Heard,” a 1956 book chronicling a tour of the Soviet Union by a company of black Americans in ”Porgy and Bess.”

”I conceived the whole adventure as a short comic ‘nonfiction novel,’ the first,” Mr. Capote said. ”That book was an important event for me. While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.”

Praise for ‘In Cold Blood’

The result of Mr. Capote’s discovery was ”In Cold Blood,” which was almost universally praised. John Hersey called it ”a remarkable book,” for example, but there were dissenters. Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic, sniped at ”In Cold Blood,” saying ”this isn’t writing, it’s research” – a sly borrowing from Mr. Capote’s witty thumbnail critique, years earlier, of the rambling books of the late Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac: ”This isn’t writing, it’s typing.”

The critic Kenneth Tynan took Mr. Capote to task for being too strictly a reporter and not making an effort to have the killers’ lives spared.

Many readers were struck by Mr. Capote’s verbatim quotations of long, involved conversations and incidents in his book. He explained that this came from ”a talent for mentally recording lengthy conversations, an ability I had worked to achieve while researching ‘The Muses Are Heard,’ for I devoutly believe that the taking of notes, much less the use of a tape recorder, creates artifice and distorts or even destroys any naturalness that might exist between the observer and the observed, the nervous hummingbird and its would-be captor.” He said his trick was to rush away from an interview and immmediately write down everything he had been told.

Mr. Capote was co-author of the movie ”Beat the Devil” with John Huston and wrote the screenplay for a film of Henry James’s ”The Innocents.” Mr. Capote turned his second novel, ”The Grass Harp,” into an unsuccessful Broadway play and, with Harold Arlen, wrote the 1954 musical, also unsuccessful, ”House of Flowers.” Mr. Capote also adapted a number of his stories, including ”A Christmas Memory” and ”The Thanksgiving Visitor,” for television.

Critics noted his deft handling of children as characters in his work, his ability to move from the real to the surreal, and his use of lush words and images. In 1963, the critic Mark Schorer wrote of Mr. Capote: ”Perhaps the single constant in his prose is style, and the emphasis he himself places upon the importance of style.”


Published in: on June 6, 2008 at 10:20 pm  Comments (1)  

The inside story of Truman Capote’s masked ball (from The Independent; 25 April 2006)

Truman dancing with Princess Lee Radziwill at the Black & White Ball  

He invited 500 friends but made 15,000 enemies. When the author Truman Capote threw a lavish masked ball to celebrate the phenomenal success of ‘In Cold Blood’, everyone who was anyone vied for an invitation. Deborah Davis tells the story of the party that united – and divided – the élites of politics, showbusiness and money

One morning in June 1966, while Truman was still riding the wave of adulation, he realised that he had money in his pockets and time on his hands. This was an unusual state of affairs for a writer who was generally overworked and overextended. He wanted a reward for his hard work, especially the long, difficult years he had devoted to In Cold Blood. To celebrate his good fortune, he decided to host a party, his “great, big, all-time spectacular present” to himself.

Truman decided exactly what he wanted to do. He decided to throw a Black and White Ball. And he selected a gimmick that was sure to galvanise and amuse his guests and magnetise the media. He would invite the most famous people in the world – his friends – and impertinently ask them to hide their fabulous and photographed faces behind masks.

Cecil Beaton was appalled when he heard that Truman was planning a big party and candidly expressed his misgivings in his tell-all diary. “What is Truman trying to prove?” he wrote. “The foolishness of spending so much time organising the party is something for a younger man or a worthless woman to indulge in, if they have social ambitions.” Truman insisted this was not the case – his party had nothing to do with publicising his book or self-aggrandisement. But Beaton, who knew his friend very well, suspected otherwise.

“They rolled off the assembly line like dolls,” Enid Nemy wrote of the guests in The New York Times, “newly painted and freshly coiffed, packaged in silk, satin and jewels and addressed to Truman Capote, the Plaza Hotel.” Ball-goers who had attended dinner parties beforehand arrived in small congenial groups. As Truman had hoped, they were in excellent spirits because the earlier part of the evening served as a warm-up, priming them for the festivities.

Many of the guests were surprised by the banks of cameras awaiting them at the hotel. “I didn’t know it would be like this,” said one guest when faced with the flashbulbs. After all, it was supposed to be a private party.

The crowd was not content to watch silently as the guests paraded past the flashing cameras. They were a lively group, quick to applaud and just as quick to make barbed comments. “Oh, dear, what a catastrophe,” remarked one critic (who turned out to be a maskmaker eager to belittle the handiwork of his competitors). “They should have made the masks bigger to cover their entire faces,” he whined. When one effeminate young man called the masked Senator Jacob Javits “the Lone Ranger”, the senator replied by saying sarcastically, “Thank you, ladies.” The actress Joan Fontaine, draped in an elegant fishnet gown and a matching mask, overheard a woman say, “The only people I can’t recognise are those with their masks off.” Frank Sinatra remarked to the Washington Post gossip columnist Suzy Knickerbocker: “I don’t know how anyone can recognise Mia with her mask on.” Suzy responded: “I think it has something to do with her haircut, Frank, honestly I do,” referring to the boyish new style Mia Farrow Sinatra had gotten for Rosemary’s Baby. Those who did recognise her speculated – incorrectly – that her white Directoire dress might be concealing a little secret.

People who were not famous were ignored by the media. Truman’s writer friends had to tell reporters their names. “Gunther, you know, I’m a writer,” insisted John Gunther, the acclaimed author of Death Be Not Proud. John Knowles, the author of A Separate Peace, said: “They turned on the [Klieg] lights and looked at us. Nobody. The lights went off again.” The literary bad boy Norman Mailer was an exception. Because he was well known, there was all the more reason to criticise him for wearing a rumpled trench coat. Reporters tried to bait him about In Cold Blood outselling his books, but Mailer retorted good-naturedly: “It just shows that I’m no longer the biggest thief in America.” Asked to identify himself, the movie producer Darryl F Zanuck said: “If you don’t know, you shouldn’t be here.”

For the most part, women seemed to enjoy wearing their masks. Some dutiful ladies even complied with Truman’s request to carry fans, although it was difficult to hold a mask and a fan at the same time. Predictably, most of the men were not as keen on covering their faces. Like disobedient children, they guiltily dispensed with their masks as soon as possible. “It itches and I can’t see,” grumbled Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt about his cat mask. George Plimpton, author of Paper Tiger, had a different complaint. The inside of his mask was covered with glue that gave off intoxicating fumes, and he was dizzy until it finally occurred to him to take it off before he passed out. Andy Warhol outsmarted everyone with his ingenious solution to the mask problem: he simply didn’t wear one.

The CBS television crew scrambled to film the guests as they arrived. Truman asked them to leave the coat-check area – he had strong feelings about uninvited press intruding on his evening – but he did not persist when they refused to move. Charles Kuralt, a young, folksy CBS newsman, stood in the hallway leading to the coat check, microphone in hand. As the Beautiful People walked by, he told his viewers: “This is how the other half lives… we know you were not rich, social, or beautiful enough to be invited, or you wouldn’t be up watching the news.” He added: “The ‘Henrys’ are here, Ford and Fonda… but not the ‘Edwards’… ” meaning the Duke of Windsor and Kennedy, both of whom declined their invitations.

Kuralt was filming in colour, but the footage appeared to be in black and white because of the guests’ attire. Occasionally, there was a splash of red or brown from a coat or a mink stole. Late-night viewers – the show was on at 11pm – observed that it was a night of high hair. Women wore multiple hairpieces, teased, tamed, and twisted by the hands of Kenneth Battelle – known as “The Mr Cool of the Haute Coiffure” – to create fantasy styles. None of it was supposed to look real. On the film, the women were young and beautiful. Leo Lerman told the Life photographer Henry Grossman that he “had never seen so many beautiful women in one place at one time “. Some of the loveliest – Babe Paley and Marion Javits, for example – were escorted by husbands who appeared prosperous, powerful, and older. Both men and women were awkward in front of the cameras, unused to being on live television. Many sailed right past the press, while a few mugged for the cameras.

CBS missed the arrival of Lynda Bird Johnson, who came with her McCall’s editor, Robert Stein, and a dozen sombre Secret Service men, all wearing black masks. When asked by a Washington Post reporter to name the designer of her checkerboard-patterned gown, the President’s daughter coyly retorted: “That’s the last thing I’ll tell you. I’m just here to have fun.” Yet they did catch Tallulah Bankhead, Henry and Shirlee Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Babe and Bill Paley, Gloria Guinness, and Carol Bjorkman in her feathery Halston gown and headdress.

Truman and Kay Graham [publisher of The Washington Post] stood at the entrance to the ballroom for two hours, shaking hands, air-kissing, and embracing the people who stopped to greet them. Since Kay did not know many of the guests, Truman had to make introductions. According to Eugenia Sheppard, at 11pm he mopped his brow and said: “Whew, we’re working hard.” Truman was delighted to see his characters – the names he had inscribed on his list with such care – come to life.

Spectacular masks, such as the golden-curled unicorn head that Gene Moore created for the interior designer Billy Baldwin, received special praise from the appreciative host. “Oh, Billy, that’s fantastic,” Truman congratulated him. Isabella Eberstadt’s fanciful black and white entwined swans, fashioned by the multi-talented milliner, writer, and photographer Bill Cunningham, created a sensation, as did the cartoonist Charles Addams’s grim executioner’s mask.

The hit of the evening, though, was the ingénue Penelope Tree. More naked than dressed in her flowing black tunic and form-fitting tights, Tree caught the eye of every person in the room. Jean Harvey Vanderbilt, the wife of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, described Tree’s ensemble as “stark, like a Halloween ballet costume”. Her entrance signalled the presence of a new generation at the ball. Tree was discovered by the fashion world that night. Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon were so enchanted by her unspoiled beauty that they conspired on the spot to turn her into a cover girl – which is what she soon became.

At one point, Truman halted the receiving line to introduce a very special guest to Kay. “Here’s Jack,” he said, presenting his longtime companion, Jack Dunphy. A few of Truman’s society friends knew Jack, but Dunphy was a cantankerous and reclusive figure who preferred to be on his own in Switzerland or in the Hamptons, where Truman had given him a little house on his property. Never one to appreciate high society, which he thought was a bad influence on Truman, Jack had his doubts about the entire evening but appeared nonetheless.

Upon entering the ballroom, Truman’s guests were escorted to their tables. Frank Sinatra told his friends: “I’ll get the table for us ’cause I know all the waiters,” and he commandeered one of the best tables in the room right by the stage. A happy Joe Evangelista was his waiter for the night. The Sinatras were joined by Pamela and Leland Hayward, Bennett and Phyllis Cerf, Claudette Colbert, Steven and Jean Kennedy Smith, and the playwright Harry Kurnitz.

Mia did not spend much time sitting – she danced with energetic young partners such as Christopher Cerf, while her husband (“Frank never dances,” said Pamela Hayward) talked and table-hopped. Joe Evangelista saw to it that there was always a bottle of Wild Turkey, Frank’s favourite drink, within reach.

The evening was off to a fabulous start, although the historian Arthur Schlesinger commented knowingly: “History begins after midnight.” The room “was always shimmering” said the producer David Merrick, who thought the ball deserved “a rave review”. Jean Harvey Vanderbilt compared the party to the court of Louis XV because “people promenaded around the perimeter of the room in their finery, looking at each other”. One guest commented: “It’s weird, there are only black and white and red in this room, and yet everything’s so … so colourful.” Everyone was in constant motion, walking around and around to the strains of Peter Duchin’s intoxicating music.

Vogue reported that the newspaper editor Clifton Daniel “jitterbugged with an expertise that increased one’s respect for The New York Times,” and Norman Mailer and his wife, Beverly, made up a dance that mimicked walking on a tightrope. Ann Birstein danced all night with various partners, once memorably with Al Dewey [the detective who led the In Cold Blood investigation], while Kansas’s dashing banker Odd Williams proved to be an indefatigable hoofer. The UN Plaza doorman twirled Kay Graham around the floor and thanked her for “the happiest evening of my life”. McGeorge Bundy [President Johnson’s special assistant for national security] showed off his waltz. And the former professional dancer Jack Dunphy dazzled even world-weary Gloria Guinness with his fancy footwork. “You cut a mean rug,” she told him admiringly.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith was a sensation on the floor, mainly because he was tall (six feet eight and a half inches) and fiercely independent in his moves. He even danced alone.

Lauren Bacall rarely had a moment to sit. When she danced with the choreographer Jerome Robbins “in a fashion that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers might have envied”, Truman said, all eyes were upon them.

Don Bachardy did not dance, because he was alone and felt a little shy about finding a partner. An artist, he appreciated the beautifully lit room and was “happy to observe rather than participate”. His only problem was his perfect mask. Bachardy had no idea how painful a mask could be until he had worn his for an hour. He wanted to rip it off his face but dutifully kept it on until the proper moment.

Photographers shot Truman dancing with Kay Graham; Gloria Guinness; Lee Radziwill (who gave up because beads from her gown showered the dance floor); Kay’s daughter, Lally Weymouth; and Kay Wells. But Truman was too busy being the host to spend a lot of time on the dance floor. Instead, he hopped, skipped, and jumped from table to table, saying: “Aren’t we having the most wonderful time? I love this party.”

When the midnight supper was served, including the Plaza’s famous chicken hash, Truman was not one of the appreciative diners. There were too many people to admire and too many stories to tell. He was his usual impish self, whispering to Joan Axelrod, the wife of the playwright and screenwriter George Axelrod, the name of the woman whose husband had wangled an invitation by telling Truman his spouse had threatened to commit suicide if she didn’t get one.

When the Soul Brothers had their turn at the bandstand, the dancers proved they knew their stuff. The leader Benny Gordon said that the party was ” out of sight” and was “surprised there were so many hip people (especially the oldsters) in society”. Songs like “Twist and Shout” and “Up and Down” had everybody on their feet boogalooing. One of the Brothers had a single appreciative word for Babe Paley: “Wow!”

As predicted, crashers stormed the gates. One pleasant, well-dressed couple was caught and politely turned away. A not-so-well-dressed woman managed to intrude and spoke to Truman. “I’m sorry… I just wanted so much to see what it would look like,” she explained.

Truman softened at her words and invited her to enjoy a glass of champagne, at which point she became surly. “Spending all this money,” she criticised, “when there are people all over the world starving to death. ” He called over a security guard and instructed him to ask the interloper to dance and then to waltz her out of the room.

Despite Truman’s eagle eyes, two trespassers eluded him. Susan Payson, a beautiful young public relations executive at Bergdorf Goodman, and her date, Jerry Jones, an up-and-coming staffer at McKinsey, sat by the Plaza fountain after having left an unexciting party at a nearby hotel. A plucky young woman who excelled at athletics and loved a challenge, Susan mentioned to Jones that she’d love to go to Truman Capote’s party at the Plaza, and he said: “You’ll never get in,” – words guaranteed to spark mischief.

“Watch,” said Susan.

Following her, Jones walked into the lobby of the Plaza, where they joined a group of latecomers. Susan thought they would drift into the dance with the others – she was dressed appropriately in a black scoop-necked gown and Jones was wearing a tuxedo – never imagining that Truman himself would be standing guard at the door. He saw them, and it appeared they would be the couple committing social suicide by getting publicly removed from the ballroom. Instead, Truman greeted them warmly. He feigned familiarity, then ushered them to a table. Payson and Jones were astonished that they had engineered such a coup – they had actually crashed the Black and White Ball.

Truman seated them with the personable Kansas contingent. Susan did not make the connection that the tall man sitting next to her was Al Dewey until she asked his profession and he answered: “Detective.” In fact, the guests from Kansas did not look any different from Truman’s other friends. Time described them as “chic, bright, attractive people of quick humor and engaging charm” and said that “only their regional accents… certainly not their clothes or manners, set them apart from the New Yorkers.” One thing they had in common was that they were Truman’s greatest fans. Vi Tate told Time, “I think there’s nothing Truman can’t do. He writes like an angel, he’s the dearest and most understanding friend – and now this party, the most superb thing I’ve ever seen.”

Noteworthy scenes occurred throughout the ballroom. The daughters of three presidents, Lynda Bird Johnson, Margaret Truman Daniel, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, traded White House stories. Longworth, who called Truman ” one of the most agreeable men I know,” was delighted to learn that her domino mask cost four cents less than her host’s 39-cent bargain. Gloria Guinness, who wore only pricey accessories, complained that her diamond and ruby necklaces were so heavy, she would have to stay in bed the next day, a comment that made Truman laugh out loud.

Truman introduced Rose Kennedy to Brendan Gill, the editor of The New Yorker. Gill politely led the 76-year-old Kennedy matriarch to the dance floor. When the number was over, they sat together and found common ground in their lives, specifically large families: Gill and his wife, Catholics like the Kennedys, had seven children. Mrs Kennedy marvelled that all Gill’s children were alive and talked about her own sad experiences with death.

Norman Mailer exchanged harsh words about Vietnam with McGeorge Bundy. Mailer was offended because Bundy, who had worked in government until taking charge of the Ford Foundation, implied condescendingly that the writer didn’t know much about the war. Mailer wanted to take their conversation outside to the street, but good manners prevailed.

Beautiful Benedetta Barzini, who was wearing a Kenneth Jay Lane necklace as a mask, had an uncomfortable moment when Lane attempted to introduce her to the producer Sam Spiegel. Both men were surprised when she rudely snubbed the man responsible for the Oscar-winning Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Later, she explained to Lane that Spiegel had been one of the first people she visited when she moved to America at age 17. Even though she had presented a letter of introduction to Spiegel from her father, an old friend, he tried to seduce her. Benedetta was not planning on talking to him that night or any other.

One famous actress danced the night away with a tuxedoed young man, mesmerised by his brawny good looks. Truman did not have the heart to tell her she had fallen under the spell of his elevator man from the UN Plaza. But Cupid refrained from shooting an arrow at the young film-maker Al Maysles. Al circled the room, not knowing that his future wife, Gillian Walker, was one of the lovely women at the ball.

At about 2:45, Sinatra asked the people at his table if anyone wanted to join him at Jilly’s, his favourite bar. Truman begged him not to leave the party, knowing that its high wattage would be diminished, but Sinatra was ready to move on. He tipped Joe Evangelista with a hundred-dollar bill, called on the Secret Service men for help, and made a speedy escape, leading Mia, the Haywards, and Herb and Theresa Caen through back passageways to the street below. As Joe cleared Sinatra’s table, he vowed that he would save the bill to commemorate the wonderful night.

By 3am, the ball was winding down, but Truman’s guests lingered even as their host resumed his position at the entrance. He and Kay said good evening to each departing guest.

For some, the night was just beginning. Gianni Agnelli and his cronies proceeded to Elaine’s restaurant for a game of poker. The fun-loving Kansans were the last to leave. They helped a forlorn woman find a pearl that had fallen off her shoe and decided to continue their festivities by going to a nightclub in Greenwich Village. Bandleader Peter Duchin, a veteran of many late nights, headed home, too wired to even think about sleep.

When Truman finally closed his eyes that morning in his Plaza suite, memories of the ball “whirled like a flurry of snowflakes” inside his head. Random images stood out: the Maharani of Jaipur dressed in gold and emeralds; John Kenneth Galbraith, “tall as a crane but not as graceful”; Babe Paley, “floating in a dress of the sheerest white chiffon”; a “galaxy of masked black and white guests” having the best time in the most beautiful room in the city. “It was just what it set out to be,” Truman had told reporters at the end of the evening: “I just wanted to give a party for my friends.”

This is an edited extract from ‘Party of the Century’ by Deborah Davis (John Wiley & Sons, £16.99). Readers can order it for £15.99 (including post and packaging) from Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

On the menu

Recipe for Plaza chicken hash (serves 4-5)

4 cups finely diced cooked
chicken (white meat only)
11/ 2 cups heavy cream
1 cup cream sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/2 cup Hollandaise sauce

Mix chicken, cream, cream sauce and seasonings in a heavy skillet. Cook over moderate heat, stirring often, for about 10 minutes. When moisture is slightly reduced, place skillet in a moderate oven (350F), and bake for 30 minutes. Stir in sherry and return to oven for 10 minutes. Lightly fold in Hollandaise sauce and serve at once.

The chosen few: a selection from Capote’s guest list

Mr and Mrs Gianni Agnelli, Count Umberto Agnelli, Edward Albee, Mrs W Vincent Astor, Mr and Mrs Richard Avedon, James Baldwin, Miss Tallulah Bankhead, Cecil Beaton, Mr and Mrs Harry Belafonte, Marisa Berenson, Candice Bergen, Mr and Mrs Irving Berlin, Sir Isaiah and Lady Berlin, Mr and Mrs Leonard Bernstein, Mr and Mrs Benjamin Bradlee, Mr and Mrs William Buckley, Mr and Mrs Richard Burton, Prince Carlo Caracciolo, Lord Chalfont, Dr and Mrs John Converse, Noël Coward, Mr and Mrs Walter Cronkite, Mr and Mrs Sammy Davis Jr, Oscar de la Renta, Marlene Dietrich, Elliott Erwitt, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Mrs Marshall Field, Mr and Mrs Henry Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Mr and Mrs Henry Ford 2nd, Mr and Mrs John Kenneth Galbraith, Greta Garbo, Ambassador and Mrs Arthur J Goldberg, Mr and Mrs Samuel Goldwyn, Henry Golightly, Hamish Hamilton, Ambassador and Mrs W Averell Harriman, Mr and Mrs William Randolph Hearst Jr, Mr and Mrs Henry J Heinz 2nd, Miss Lillian Hellman, Elizabeth Hilton, Horst P Horst, Christopher Isherwood, Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur, Senator and Mrs Jacob K Javits, Lynda Bird Johnson, Philip Johnson, Senator and Mrs Edward M Kennedy, Mrs John F Kennedy, Mrs Joseph P Kennedy, Senator and Mrs Robert F Kennedy, Alfred Knopf, Mr and Mrs Joseph Kraft, Mrs Patricia Lawford, Mr and Mrs Irving Lazar, Harper Lee, Vivien Leigh, Mr and Mrs Jack Lemmon, Mr and Mrs Alan Jay Lerner, Mr and Mrs Alexander Lieberman, Mr and Mrs Robert Lowell, Mr and Mrs Henry Luce, Shirley MacLaine, Mr and Mrs Norman Mailer, Mr and Mrs Joseph Mankiewicz, Mr and Mrs Walter Matthau, Mr and Mrs Robert McNamara, Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, Mr and Mrs James Michener, Mr and Mrs Arthur Miller, Mr and Mrs Vincent Minnelli, Mr and Mrs Samuel I Newhouse Sr, Mrs Stavros Niarchos, Mike Nichols, Lord and Lady David Ogilvy, Mr and Mrs Gregory Peck, George Plimpton, Prince and Princess Stanislas Radziwill, Mr and Mrs Jason Robards Jr, Governor and Mrs Nelson A Rockefeller, Philip Roth, Baroness Cecile de Rothschild, Baron and Baroness Guy de Rothschild, Theodore Rousseau, Mr and Mrs Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Mrs David O Selznick, Mr and Mrs Irwin Shaw, Mr and Mrs Frank Sinatra, Steve Sondheim, Sam Spiegel, Mr and Mrs John Steinbeck, Gloria Steinem, Mr and Mrs William Styron, Mr and Mrs Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Ambassador and Mrs Llewellyn E Thompson, Penelope Tree, Mr and Mrs Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Mrs T Reed Vreeland, William Walton, Mr and Mrs Edward Warburg, Andy Warhol, Mr and Mrs Robert Penn Warren, Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney, Mr and Mrs Billy Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Mr and Mrs Edmund Wilson, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Darryl Zanuck…

Published in: on September 9, 2007 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

“A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote


Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

“I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.”

The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unraveled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard’s legs. But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And there’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.” The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.

We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.

But before these Purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money); or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings. Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It’s just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested “A.M.”; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan “A.M.! Amen!”). To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we’d borrowed it); the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.

But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend’s bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal; for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show. My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: “I’d rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn’t squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.

Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man’s eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies. Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures; we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13. “I do hope you’re wrong, Buddy. We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.” This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.

Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha’s business address, a “sinful” (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river. We’ve been there before, and on the same errand; but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha’s wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we’ve never laid eyes on her husband, though we’ve heard that he’s an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he’s so gloomy, a man who never laughs. As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river’s muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by. People have been murdered in Haha’s cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There’s a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha’s is shabby and deserted. I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: “Mrs. Haha, ma’am? Anyone to home?”

Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It’s Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn’t smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: “What you want with Haha?”

For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: “If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”

His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. “Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”

“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking. ”

This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.” Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: “Two dollars.”

We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. “Tell you what,” he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, “just send me one of them fruitcakes instead.”

“Well,” my friend remarks on our way home, “there’s a lovely man. We’ll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake.”

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.

Who are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o’clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.

Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone; yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We’re broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating—with two inches of whiskey left in Haha’s bottle. Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We’re both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwedup expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don’t know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters’ ball. But I can dance: that’s what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls; our voices rock the chinaware; we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips. Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. Show me the way to go home.

Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: “A child of seven! whiskey on his breath! are you out of your mind? feeding a child of seven! must be loony! road to ruination! remember Cousin Kate? Uncle Charlie? Uncle Charlie’s brother-inlaw? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”

Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.

“Don’t cry,” I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering despite my flannel nightgown that smells of last winter’s cough syrup, “Don’t cry,” I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet, “you’re too old for that.”

“It’s because,” she hiccups, “I am too old. Old and funny.”

“Not funny. Fun. More fun than anybody. Listen. If you don’t stop crying you’ll be so tired tomorrow we can’t go cut a tree.”

She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed (where Queenie is not allowed) to lick her cheeks. “I know where we’ll find real pretty trees, Buddy. And holly, too. With berries big as your eyes. It’s way off in the woods. Farther than we’ve ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there: carry them on his shoulder. That’s fifty years ago. Well, now: I can’t wait for morning.”

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two-bits” cash for that ol tree.” Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.

A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candylike light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn’t far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze “like a Baptist window,” droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can’t afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime. So we do what we’ve always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper. I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too (because they’re easy to draw), some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey bar tin foil. We use safety pins to attach these creations to the tree; as a final touch, we sprinkle the branches with shredded cotton (picked in August for this purpose). My friend, surveying the effect, clasps her hands together. “Now honest, Buddy. Doesn’t it look good enough to eat!” Queenie tries to eat an angel.

After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie-dye scarves for the ladies, for the men a homebrewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting.” But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly. I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries (we tasted some once, and she always swears: “1 could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could—and that’s not taking his name in vain”). Instead, I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on several million occasions: “If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don’t ask how. Steal it, maybe”). Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite—the same as last year and the year before: the year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me. For we are champion kite fliers who study the wind like sailors; my friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn’t enough breeze to carry clouds.

Christmas Eve afternoon we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher’s to buy Queenie’s traditional gift, a good gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge. Her excitement is equaled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer’s night. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.

“Buddy, are you awake!” It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. “Well, I can’t sleep a hoot,” she declares. “My mind’s jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?” We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you. “Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you’re grown up, will we still be friends?” I say always. “But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy”—she hesitates, as though embarrassed—”I made you another kite.” Then I confess that I made her one, too; and we laugh. The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences. Possibly we doze; but the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water: we’re up, wide-eyed and wandering while we wait for others to waken. Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors. One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t. First, a gorgeous breakfast: just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.

Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that’s her best present. She is proudest, however, of a white wool shawl knitted by her married sister. But she says her favorite gift is the kite I built her. And it is very beautiful; though not as beautiful as the one she made me, which is blue and scattered with gold and green Good Conduct stars; moreover, my name is painted on it, “Buddy.”

“Buddy, the wind is blowing.”

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we’ve run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I’m as happy as if we’d already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’11 wager it never happens. I’11 wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—”just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

This is our last Christmas together.

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. (“Buddy dear,” she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, “yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones….”). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me “the best of the batch.” Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: “See a picture show and write me the story.” But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather! ”

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

Published in: on September 6, 2007 at 4:03 am  Comments (1)  

Why Did Truman Capote Write ‘Answered Prayers’? (by William Todd Schultz)

Click to read at http://www.psychobiography.com/articles/capote.html

Published in: on September 4, 2007 at 7:50 am  Leave a Comment  

Truman and TV (from TIME magazine)

 When Truman Capote first viewed the TV adaptation of his autobiographical tale, A Christmas Memory, he broke down and wept. Viewers across the country also found it one of the most affecting dramas ever seen on U.S. television. Then Capote wrote The Thanksgiving Visitor, another chapter in his portrait of the artist as a young boy. As before, Frank and Eleanor Perry, the husband-and-wife moviemaking team (David and Lisa), adapted and produced the film. And once again, the result, which ABC has scheduled for Thanksgiving night, is a rare, lyrical hour for television.

Thanksgiving Visitor, set in backwoods Alabama, elaborates on Capote’s glowing relationship with his only boyhood friend, an old spinster cousin named Miss Sook. She had no education and had never traveled beyond the county borders. She was “a poet of a kind but deeply suppressed. She might have been an Emily Dickinson in another culture.” In the simple TV tale, she coddles young “Buddy” (as Capote is called) and tries to shield him from his dour and insensitive relatives in the parentless household. The casting, supervised by the author, is impeccable. Geraldine Page, who won an Emmy award as Miss Sook in Christmas Memory, returns in what Capote calls “one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.” Michael Kearney, 13, is a touching and believable young Truman. The narrator is Capote himself—squeaky-voiced, but obviously authentic.

In the past two years, Truman Capote has become a strikingly successful light industry for the ABC network. His programs have won four Emmies and a Peabody award. Among the Paths to Eden, a bizarre, lovely tale set in a New York City cemetery, was on ABC last year (TIME, Dec. 29). Capote adapted Laura for the first (and farewell) TV performance of his friend Lee Bouvier Radziwill; it gained no Emmies, but good Nielsens. And Miriam, a TV film based on an early short story, will run next year.

Capote has also just written and directed a TV documentary on capital punishment, Death Row, U.S.A. This program was an ABC venture too, but the network has decided not to put it on the air. And that decision may well shatter the whole beautiful Capote-ABC collaboration, for hell hath no fury like a Truman scorned.

Prison Vignettes. What angers Capote most is the explanation from the ABC-TV president. The footage in Death Row, said Elton Rule simply, was “too grim.” “Well,” retorted Capote, “what were you expecting—Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?” Capote, who has since acquired rights to the $250,000 film, screened it for TV critics in Manhattan recently. There were chilling prison vignettes and fascinating interviews with condemned convicts, as well as a defense of capital punishment by Ronald Reagan. But the film lacked organization and a coherent point of view. With some favorable reviews to his credit, Capote obviously hopes that another network or syndicate will take the documentary and, if nothing else, embarrass ABC. It would serve them right, says Capote. “All I ever did for that damn company was win them a lot of Emmies and great distinction! What fools they’ve become!”

The author is also trying to square accounts with the network concerning another property: an ABC collaboration with Paramount Pictures on Holly Golightly, a TV pilot based on Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He always hated the movie version (“a mawkish valentine to Audrey Hepburn”) and predicts that a TV spinoff, starring Stefanie Powers (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) will be even more “jerky.” The fact that highly seasoned producing and writing talent is at work on the show fails to moderate Capote’s opinion. He insists that he will not stand for the TV version “if they give me all the money in Christendom.” Since Paramount already paid for the book’s movie rights, and interprets this to include TV rights as well, Capote may well lose that battle.

Paramount began shooting Holly Golightly party scenes on its Hollywood lot last week. Capote still threatens to get even with ABC. He is now toying with “three or four new television story ideas, one really amusing,” and all of them, he says, will go to some rival network.

Children Who Read. For all his seeming absorption with TV, Capote is no fan. As a boy, he used to feign illness so he could stay home from school and listen to radio soap opera. Television does not have that kind of clutch on him. He doesn’t even have a set in his Manhattan co-op apartment or his mountain lodge in Switzerland. There is one in his beach house on Long Island, but the area is so remote that “you can’t get anything.” He does keep a working set at his desert retreat in Palm Springs, but he says, “I never find anything on it.” He is contemptuous of adventure programs (“Fictionalized crime doesn’t interest me”) but thinks that TV violence is harmless: “Crime comes from people with a caged-up obsession, something locked up inside. Reading a dirty book doesn’t stir up a sex maniac. Just the opposite.”

Capote last watched TV at length during the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. He finds that this kind of coverage reaches “high artistic levels.” As for news in general, he prefers the newspapers. “Everyone,” he says, “gets his news from print.” There are no Nielsen families in the Capote crowd, and he doesn’t think that there is any such thing as a TV generation. “The general impression seems to be that children nowadays have abandoned print in favor of that small screen. But I think that this is untrue—numerous children of my acquaintance are great readers.”

Capote does recognize that TV has “a huge audience starving for quality,” but he has not wanted to do his own adaptations. “My primary thing,” he says, “is that I’m a prose writer. I don’t think film is the greatest living thing.”

But when Thanksgiving Visitor was being shot last December in Alabama, he was on hand. Joining him for a “beautiful” reunion were a dozen of his relatives. Miss Sook died in 1938, but two other members of the household were there. They had seen Christmas Memory on TV, and it was not what they had expected. But neither was Truman. The shy, companionless and seemingly unpromising boy whom they remembered was now, at 44, dressed in a Cardin cape-and-cap ensemble, and with him, in a pony-skin suit, was Princess Lee Radziwill.                                   

Friday, Nov. 29, 1968

Published in: on September 4, 2007 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Truman Capote: The Art of Fiction (from The Paris Review Interviews, I)

Click Here to read this very good interview.

Published in: on September 4, 2007 at 1:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Excerpt from “TRUMAN CAPOTE: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career” (by George Plimpton)

Plimpton's book.

Don’t you think Truman sat there in Monroeville Alabama, when he was about ten, deeply rejected and out of it, strange little outcast, even in his own house, and said that someday he would hire the most beautiful ballroom in New York City and he would have the most elegant and famous people in the world there?

The ball was one of his major works. As much a major work as some of his short stories. He sat there planning it all summer long. I came back from somewhere to find him surrounded by these notebooks. I wondered what work is he writing? It turned out to be this ball. One of the things he adored saying was “Well, maybe you’ll be invited and maybe you won’t.” He’d say things like “Well, are we going to have so-and-so?” Then he’d make little notes. He had the most marvelous time doing it. It was his reward for all those years he kept for himself. It was ostensibly for Kay Graham. It was for Truman.

Two years before Truman’s ball, on my tenth wedding anniversary, my wife, Lenny, and I gave a black-and-white ball where the ladies were asked to dress in black and white. We had a policy that no one could bring houseguests or anything because there was just limited space. At the last minute Truman called and said, “Yes, yes, I’m coming, I’m going to be there, but I’m bringing three guests.” Well, we didn’t have the nerve to say to him, “Well, you can’t bring them.” They turned out to be Alvin Dewey, the FBI agent, his wife, and a third person involved in the In Cold Blood case. It was a very glamorous affair, filled with film stars. These people from that little town in Kansas were absolutely awed.

I mean David Niven, Gina Lollobrigida, Natalie Wood, Loretta Young, Jennifer Jones, I mean it went on and on. That was 1964, the when Hollywood was still the kind of Hollywood that we fantasize about. We had our house totally cleared of furniture and off the library in the back there was this tent so huge that friends who had been coming to our house for years were disoriented, they didn’t know where they were. We had two bands. It was very beautiful, an extravagant waste of money. I mean, later in life I went broke, and that was a perfect example of why. Truman loved it. I have these incredible photographs of him dancing with Tuesday Weld, talking to Jennifer Jones. He was one of the last ones to leave. Then two years later he gave his great ball, the black-and-white ball, did the same thing, but he didn’t invite us!

Truman must have kept at his guest list all that summer, pruning, adding, mostly pruning, I suspect. I remember summer day at the Bennett Cerfs’ in Mount Kisco — the estate called the Columns because the money to build it had come the proceeds Bennett got for his syndicated columns — “Tradewinds,” “Cerfboard” among them. It was a hot day and I remember the luncheon guests gathered around the swimming pool that afternoon — Frank Sinatra, Mia, his young wife then, and Truman of course. Mia in a black bathing suit, as I remember, was lying on her back in the sun by the edge of the pool — just enchanting, and not really part of the conversation or anything, when suddenly a butterfly landed on the exposed part of her breast, above the line of the bathing suit. It was one of the large swallowtail variety, the kind that fans its wings absolutely straight up and holds them there motionless, a sail for an instant, and then fans them again. Absolutely beautiful, of course, obviously because it had picked Mia to land on, faunlike, childlike, and we all stared spellbound. Then Truman broke it, quite abruptly. “What about the Goetzes?” he called out quite loudly, or some such name. “Should I invite them, or consign them…”

R. COURI HAY (publicist)
Truman always claimed he invited 500 of his friends and made 15,000 enemies.

Truman did invite Andy Warhol to the black-and-white ball, but he couldn’t bring anyone, which for Andy in the sixties was a major agony.

Truman was kind of upset when I told him my book was going well and I didn’t want to break off to go to the black-and-white party. I explained that I would only get drunk and lose the drift of things for two or three days, but he was utterly unmollified. He was even more annoyed when Bill Styron stayed home, too, for the same reason. Bill had rung up to ask if I was going to Truman’s party, and when I said, “No,” he said, “Great! I’m not going, either!” As it turned out, we missed something wonderful, and Bill upbraids me every few years — “You talked us out of the best party in history!” Next time I saw Truman, he was still a little sulky. When I asked if I was forgiven, he burst out, “Cecil Beaton came all the way from London for my party, and you wouldn’t even come in from Sagaponack!”

MARIA THERESA CAEN (literary agent)
I flew from San Francisco to New York, carrying my mask. Literally everyone, porters at the airport, cabdrivers, strangers, it seemed like all of New York knew about the party. I couldn’t put my mask in my bag, it would have been all squashed and ruined. It was on a stick, covered in cellophane, and everyone knew I was going to Truman’s ball. They’d say, “Oh! You’re going to Truman’s party!” Not to “Capote’s party” but Truman’s party.” It was so intimate. For a while it looked like I was going to Truman’s ball with a bath towel and the mask because airline lost my bag with my dress. It finally arrived at the hotel hours before the ball. In the meantime, Geraldine Stutz sent over something I could wear from Bendel’s in case my dress didn’t arrive There was great excitement in the hotel. The maids would come running in and say, “Oh, your dress is here, your dress is here!”

It was the talk of New York. The elevator operators, the cab drivers, the doormen, as soon as they saw you with a mask or headdress, they said, “Going to Truman’s ball, huh?” New York had that funny small-town feel to it; they were all excited that you were going to the ball. That part was fun. It was like the Super Bowl. There was such a buildup that by the time the game was played, it didn’t amount to much.

November 28,1966: In Which the Band Strikes Up

We gave one of the dinners before the ball. We had the writers. Norman Mailer sat next to me; he said, “You ought to be an elevator operator. You just go up and down.” I don’t even want to think about what he meant by that.

I met Pat Lawford at dinner before the ball. Piedy Lumet gave the dinner. Lawford and I were seated next to each other. We got along like a house afire because we did nothing but insult each other all night. It was wonderful. She said, “I don’t know why I’m sitting next to you. I’ve heard you’re awful.” Or some extraordinary thing. I said, “Well, that just shows how dumb the people are that you know.” We’ve gotten along ever since.

I thought the masked ball was a hoot. I felt as if we were in Versailles in 1788. People were applauding us in the street as we walked in. We had our masks on. I thought next year it’ll be the tumbrels taking us out to Herald Square, but at the moment we were the last of the aristocrats. I remember arriving at the side entrance of the Plaza. There was a solid phalanx of news media. I forget exactly what group I was with but no stars were with us. We arrived and the klieg lights went on because we were masked. They turned on the lights and looked at us. Nobody. The lights went off again.

It was the last time we ever went to anything remotely like that. We were back out on the street within half an hour of arrival. Donald Brooks whipped up a feathered mask for my wife, Judy. I remember we were both rather uncomfortable about whole thing. At the Plaza Hotel I got a lot more uncomfortable because of the people on the street. The French Revolution came to mind and our place in the tumbrels. Of course, the receiving line was enormously cordial. Truman was enormously nice. But we sat down, we took one look around us, and we quietly left, out of comfort. I would lie if I didn’t say out of disapproval too. But went, didn’t we?

GORDON PARKS (photographer)
Everyone was looking at each other. I got the feeling that half the people there didn’t know the other half — at least as friends. Quite a lot of nervous bowing and greeting. I went with my second wife, Elizabeth. She spent a fortune getting a rhinestone mask made. We didn’t eat for two weeks. I didn’t wear a mask. With a mask people wouldn’t know that I was black. After all, I was there to make it a real black-and-white ball.

Everyone stood back when Jerry Robbins danced with Betty Bacall. When they started out in a corner, people were dancing everywhere, but the two of them were so superb the dance floor just cleared.

I saw Betty Bacall dancing out the floor. I’ve known her for years. So I went and started to cut in. She looked at me with considerable scorn and said, “Don’t you see whom I’m dancing with?” And I looked, and it turned out to be Jerry Robbins, whom I had never met. So I retired crestfallen.

The last time I was famous was when I was a guest at Truman Capote’s black-and-white ball. When someone asked him who I was, Truman kindly said that I had written a book called A Walker in the City and he said, “I think Alfred’s an artist.” Ah, artist or no artist, there I was…looking at Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy constantly replacing her makeup, John O’Hara joining in with his friends naming racehorses, and I thought, “Oh boy, I’m a celebrity.”

That night I had an altercation with McGeorge Bundy and invited him outside. We had an argument about Vietnam and at one point he put his hand on my arm very kindly and said, “Well, of course, you really don’t know much about it.” I said, “Let’s go downstairs.” I was very brave, because he was obviously in better condition than I was. I was dissolute and full of drink. But I’d have killed him that night, I was so angry: one night every three years you can win if you’re gonna have it. That was one of those nights. I had a terrible argument with Lillian Hellman as a result. Because she overheard it, she stopped it. She was always such a celebrity fucker. It must be said of Lillian that when the chips were down she’d always go for the guy who had the most clout. And there was no doubt in her mind that McGeorge Bundy had a good deal more than I did. So she turned on me right in front of him and said, “How dare you, Norman!” I said, “You get lost!” We had this huge fight…like an older sister and her kid brother. Then we didn’t speak for a year or two. I wasn’t going to speak to her ever again. Right in front of McGeorge Bundy. Anyway, Truman’s responsible for all of this. Now, multiply this by — there are only three of us — one hundred and thirty-three and the scenes you got…!

He was challenging everybody to fight. A lot of people were pretty lubricated that night, including Norman. In the semi-affectionate way in which we have always contended, he did seem that way with me. “Put up your dukes.” But there was nothing serious about it.

There was a wonderful, hectic gaiety about the whole party. Truman was the ringmaster. Kay was having a wonderful time, but I think it was all rather overwhelming for her. It was Truman who was really going all out. He would hop, skip, and jump from table to table and say, “Aren’t we having a wonderful time? Aren’t we having the most wonderful time? I love this party.”

About midnight, Sinatra was having a bad time. He was with Mia. He said, “Hey, let’s get out of here.” So we were sneaking out the door to go to one of his joints — Jilly’s, that awful bar he used to hang out in. Truman caught us at the door and tried to put a body block on us. I said, “No, we’re leaving, but we’ll come back.” He said, “No, you won’t. You won’t come back, I know you won’t come back.”

Well, we didn’t. I think he was hurt. It was one of those great parties that never got off the ground. People did what they always do — getting up and going into their little cliques and corners. If you’re not a part of the group — we being from the West Coast — we got that “who’s that?” look most of the time. Sinatra just hated the whole thing.

1966: In Which the Dancers Reminisce

Women’s Wear Daily gave me the award for the worst-dressed man at Truman’s ball. I was wearing a dirty gabardine raincoat with my black tie.

But I have good memories of the ball. It was one of the best parties I ever went to. So much action…so many people of a sort you’d never met before. For example, there was Talullah Bankhead! For twenty years she’d been enjoying the coup her public relations man had given her when as the legend had it, she said to me, “Oh, you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell ‘fuck.'” For those who are too young to know, it was because I had used “fug” in The Naked and the Dead. Of course we had never met. For me it was like a burr under a saddle. Of course I blew the opportunity to tell her off. She looked too attractive and, big surprise, too vulnerable.

It’s probably hyperbole to say that everything there felt anointed that night. Truman had certainly brought it off. It certainly was his greatest coup. For some, and I might be one of them, that party was even greater than any particular one of his books.

Excerpted from Truman Capote by George Plimpton. Copyright © 1997 by George Plimpton.

Published in: on September 3, 2007 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment