Bennett Cerf on Truman Capote

 

Cerf:

Anyway, enough of that! Let’s move on to Truman Capote. The first person that called my attention to Capote was Robert Lynscott, an editor of ours who I had met when I was selling books in Boston. He was a top editor at Houghton Mifflin. We became friends, and I tried for years to lure him down to New York and finally succeeded. He was with us for quite a long time. One blessed day he read or somebody told him about a story that had appeared in Mademoiselle Magazine, called “Miriam” by an unknown called Truman Capote.

Q:

That was the first story that Capote ever did?

Cerf:

Yes. And what a fine story it is! It has such depth and haunting quality! We asked Truman Capote to come and see us.

Well, that was a day when Truman arrived at Random House! He had bangs in those days. He’s, to put it mildly, not the usual type. Nobody could believe it when this young prodigy waltzed in. He was a child. He was about eighteen.

Q:

He looks so young.

Cerf:

Well, can you imagine what he looked like when he was eighteen? That was over twenty years ago. He was gay and happy and absolutely assured. We said that we wanted to publish anything that he wrote. He was writing a novel, and we made a contract for it immediately. It was called Other Voices, Other Rooms.

It was an immediate success. Everybody knew that somebody important had arrived upon the scene–particularly Truman! My wife Phyllis adopted Truman immediately. He then already was exhibiting that charm which has proved so irresistible. Today he’s a society favorite. Truman decides what yacht he’s going to spend a vacation on or what house he’s going to honor with his company and people are overjoyed to have him.

Q:

What is the charm though?

Cerf:

It’s irresistible. I’ll tell you about that as he developed.

Other Voices came out and we used the now-famous photograph of him, reclining with his bangs on a couch. It was great publicity. It’s ludicrously simple to get publicity for Truman Capote. To give you an example, about a week before Other Voices was published–mind you, this was his first book–my friend Richard Simon from Simon and Schuster called me up and said, “How the hell do you get a full-page picture of an author in Life Magazine before his first book comes out?” I said, “Do you think that I’m going to tell you? Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?” Dick said, “Come on. How did you wrangle that–to get a full-page picture of an author whose novel is not yet published?”

I said, “Dick, I have no intention of telling you.” He hung up in sort of a huff; and I hung up too and cried, “For god’s sake, get me a copy of Life.” This was the first that I knew about the whole affair! That, in a nutshell, explains Truman Capote. He managed to promote for himself a full-page picture in Life Magazine. How he did it, I don’t know to this day, but that was Truman.

When his book came out, Truman immediately developed a feud with another ridiculously young author named Gore Vidal, a feud which has persisted over the years. I remember one of Truman’s famous lines, which won him another burst of publicity. He said, “Gore Vidal calls himself a boy genius. Nonsense! He’s twenty if he’s a day.” Now they both have become great successes but they still pick away at each other.

Gore has often said, “I’ll come to Random House if you get rid of Capote.” When Truman gets fancy, I say, “We’re going to sign up Vidal,” and he goes into a mock rage. You know, he’s half kidding, but he’d really be furious if we ever did sign Gore Vidal.

Well, the book came out, and the next time that I saw Truman wafting into the office he said that Vogue Magazine had called him up; they wanted him to go to Hollywood for two weeks to write his impressions of Hollywood–by a young writer who had never been there. They offered him $2,000 and expenses for two weeks. Truman demanded cash immediately. He wanted twenty one-hundred-dollar bills. Truman is that way. He brought them in. He had them rolled up with a rubber band around them, and he rolled them across the desk to me. He said, “Look what I’ve got.” He said, “Wait until they see the expense account that I’m going to run up.” He went to Hollywood for the first time. I couldn’t wait to hear his story because by this time we had adopted Truman. He was just beginning to know people. Everybody who met him adopted him immediately. He came back after his two weeks in Hollywood and reported to me. He said, “I’ve got my expense account made out. It’s a whopper, too, but I actually didn’t spend a cent in Hollywood.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I spent the first week with Greta Garbo and the second week with Charlie Chaplin.” I said, “Truman, I know what a liar you are after knowing you for several months, but this one’s too much.” Truman indignantly said, “Check for yourself.” It was absolutely true. He got to Hollywood. He had a letter of introduction to someone who had a party that night. Greta Garbo met Truman Capote there and took him right home with her! She said, “You’re not going to a hotel. You’re going to stay with me.” After a week, at another party, he met Charlie Chaplin, who kidnapped him from Greta Garbo, and he spent the second week living with Charlie Chaplin.

This is a typical story of Truman Capote. He met Mrs. William (Babe) Paley in similar fashion. Babe immediately invited him somewhere they were going. When Bill Paley met Truman for the first time, he reacted like a lot of men do. He was rather startled by this strange little fellow, but it took Truman about three hours to make Bill Paley his life-long friend and admirer. Today, Babe Paley considers Truman her greatest friend, and this is true of one famous person after another.

At the moment, his great protege is Lee Radziwill. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We think that it is even possible that they’ll get married one day. She is absolutely wild about Truman, and Jackie Kennedy is furious at Truman because he has transferred his affections from Jackie to her sister. There is great rivalry between these sisters.

To go on with Truman–as he became more and more popular and knew more and more society people, who all adopted him, we had to keep him trying to write because he was so busy going to parties and being the town’s most eligible extra man. He’s the greatest gossip in the world. He knows everything that’s going on, and what he doesn’t know he makes up. You never know whether he’s telling the truth or lying but you listen in fascination. If you catch him in a lie, he laughs happily. He doesn’t care. He admits that he gets carried away with his stories. He’s a mischief-maker. He does much of this with sheer malice aforethought. He loves to get people involved and cause trouble. This is part of his joy. Everybody forgives him of course so he’s become a spoiled little boy.

But talented beyond belief…and proved that he was not only a good novelist but one of the great reporters when he wrote The Muses Are Heard, which is the often hilarious story of the Porgy and Bess troupe in Russia. It was another big success.

Q:

Yes, but all of his books before In Cold Blood had never really gotten…

Cerf:

You’re wrong. Breakfast at Tiffany’s hit really the popular note. Now Truman was famous, not only for his books but for his personality because he was a gossip columnist’s delight. He is always up to something that makes good copy.

The party that he gave last year was the social event of the last ten years. The New York Times put in the complete guest list, and to be invited to that party was to be considered having arrived. People who weren’t invited were outraged. People came from Italy, France, Hollywood for this damned party. It was the greatest party of its kind ever given, and Truman was beaming. It cost him a fortune, but he couldn’t have cared less.

We try to keep Truman’s money intact. We dole it out to him in pretty short doses because the minute he gets it he spends it. We kept him from buying a helicopter once. We kept him from buying a house in Long Island that he has as much use for as I have for the Taj Mahal. But it’s very hard to keep tabs on Truman. He’s like Moss was. They have the real philosophy. They believe that money is to be spent.

Q:

Maybe they are right.

Cerf:

They are absolutely right.

Q:

What’s going to happen tomorrow we don’t know.

Cerf:

Truman lives it up. Oh, boy, does he live it up.

Q:

How did you keep him writing when he was busy all of the time?

Cerf:

You can’t keep him from writing. He is a born writer– a pro! He will spend a day on a word. Truman’s a perfectionist, in contrast to John O’Hara, who will stop in the middle of a sentence at night and pick up exactly where he left off the next day. John is that kind of a great writer. Truman’s the kind who must have the perfect word and will spend a day searching for it. I’ve known him to do it. When he has a book finished, it is a gem–a polished gem.

Q:

There’s never any editing, is there?

Cerf:

It never needs any. It’s perfect. Of course we’ll catch him on a mistake of fact once in a while or some sentence that we think is a little awkward, but Truman is virtually perfect. Oh, he’s a joy to handle. He’s a professional to his fingertips.

Now let me tell you the story of In Cold Blood. I had lectured at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. I was there for two days. Besides lecturing, I had spent a day with the English classes. I do that sometimes. I became a great friend of the president of Kansas State–a man named James McCain. He succeeded Milton Eisenhower, who had made Kansas State a top university. He really pulled it up to where it’s better I think than the University of Kansas today.

Jim McCain, when I left–I had made a lot of friends in those two days–said, “We’ve enjoyed having you here; and if ever I can do anything for you, you just let me know.” I laughed merrily and said, “What can you ever do for me in Manhattan, Kansas?” and gaily, off I went.

Well, shortly after that came the murder of the Clutter family–a man and his wife and two children murdered in cold blood in Garden City, Kansas. It was a front-page story all over the country. Local police were going crazy because they had no clues. It was an inside job obviously because the murderers knew where to hide their automobile, how to get into the house and exactly where the wall safe was located. So they figured it must be somebody in the town of Garden City, Kansas. The whole town was suspect.

One day Truman walks into my office and says, “The New Yorker is sending me out to cover that murder case.” I said, “You? In a west Kansas hamlet?” This was the first reaction of everybody–this elegant Mr. Capote going to this small town in Kansas. He got quite indignant at my surprise. He said, “I don’t know a soul in the whole state of Kansas. You’ve got to introduce me to some people in Kansas.” This is what a publisher is for, I guess! Well, this was once that I could deliver the goods. I immediately remembered my friend Dr. McCain at Kansas State. I called him up and I said, “You remember that you said that if I wanted something I should come to you?” He said, “Yes. And I remember your laughing at me too.” I said, “Well, Jim, I apologize. You maybe can do me a great favor. Did you ever know the Clutter family in Garden City?” Jim said, “The Clutters were my close personal friends. I know everybody in Garden City, Kansas.” I said, “You’re an answer to a maiden’s prayer. One of our authors is coming out to write a series of stories for The New Yorker, and I hope that it will be a book. Can he stop off on the way and visit you?” He said, “Who is the author?” I said, “Truman Capote.” Jim McCain echoed me, “Truman Capote? Coming to Kansas?” I said, “Yes.” He thought for a minute. He said, “I’ll make a deal with him. If he’ll spend one night talking to the English department, I’ll give him letters to half the people in Garden City.” I said, “I accept for Truman right now. Great! He’s bringing a young assistant with him. She’s a girl who will have to be put up too. I’ve never met her. I think she may be some distant relation of Truman. Nobody ever heard of her.” It was…

Q:

The To Kill a Mockingbird girl–Harper Lee.

Cerf:

Correct! But she was still unknown at this time. I told Jim, “Before you spring Truman Capote on your English faculty, for god’s sake, tip them off. Their first inclination will be to laugh at him. Tell them to listen carefully, and in one hour they will be at his feet. Don’t worry about that. Don’t let that first impression fool you. He will capture your faculty with the ease of somebody capturing butterflies.”

Truman and Harper Lee went out to Manhattan. Two days later Jim called me up. He said, “I want to report on the visit of Mr. Capote and the little girl that was with him. They are both great. It’s lucky you warned me about Truman, though, because he came waltzing in with a pink velvet coat on and announced, ‘I bet I’m the first man that has ever come to Manhattan, Kansas wearing a Dior jacket.'” McCain said, “I’ll go you one better, Mr. Capote. You’re the first man or woman who ever came to Manhattan, Kansas wearing a Dior jacket.”

McCain continued, “I took him in to meet the faculty. I had told them what you said. I must now tell you that Truman left this morning with Miss Lee on the Santa Fe to go to Garden City, and the entire faculty got up to see him off at 6:30 this morning.” I said, “I told you.” He said, “I might as well finish my confession. Mrs. McCain and I got up too.” At six o’clock in the morning they all got up to see Truman off!

He got out to Garden City, where the head of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was a man named Al Dewey. He was going crazy trying to solve this case. He had turned up nothing and people were getting angrier and angrier at him. Suddenly he looks up, and to add to his troubles here’s little Truman Capote arrived to cover the case. Dewey tried to throw him out of Garden City. Two weeks later, Truman was living at the Dewey house. Today Truman Capote is seeing the two Dewey kids through college, and the Deweys and everybody else

in Garden City adore him. Of course Al Dewey has become nationally famous because of that book, and Truman provided valuable help in solving that whole case.

The minute that the two boys who were guilty were captured, who became their best friend in the world? Truman Capote. Before they died, Perry, the one who was a poet, gave Truman his whole collection of books and all of his poetry. He was the one who insisted that Truman be the witness. Each man was allowed one witness at the execution. Truman had to go to that double hanging. By this time, Truman had become very close with his new editor at Random House after Linscott retired. That was Joe Fox. Joe Fox today is one of Truman’s closest friends. He made Joe come out to go with him to the execution. Joe was horrified, but he had to do it. The scene is all depicted in the movie, as you know. You’ve seen the picture, haven’t you?

Q:

No. I’ve read the book though.

Cerf:

Just before the execution, Perry demanded that Truman come over and say good-bye to him on the scaffold; and he threw his arms around Truman and kissed him good-bye and said, “I’m so sorry.” Truman collapsed, as I or anybody else would have. Joe had a time later with Truman. Both of them were in a state of collapse.

Q:

Would you say that some of the charm of Capote is that he has such a heart? The word isn’t heart. You said that he’s seeing the Dewey children through college.

Cerf:

Oh, this is Truman.

Q:

This is something that I don’t think that people necessarily know. Even I don’t. How do you explain the affection he inspires in so many busy and important people?

Cerf:

Irresistible charm. When Truman comes up to our house alone, as he sometimes does in the summer, I announce very angrily that I am not going to sit up all night listening to his gossip, half made up and mostly shocking. I say to Phyllis, “You sit up if you want. At one o’clock, I’m going to go to bed.” Phyllis says, “All right. You go to bed. I’ll sit up with him.” I never go to bed. I can’t tear myself away. I’m always afraid that I’m going to miss something. Truman starts in usually at dinner, waving his arms around and telling his scandalous stories about everybody under the sun. I can’t tear myself away. Nor can anybody else.

Q:

Often the people that carry the stories, the gossips… it’s usually about all of the other people that they know and they make their enemies.

Cerf:

He has no enemies.

Q:

That’s it. Why is that?

Cerf:

To show you how close he is…after In Cold Blood came out and was, of course, a sensation…and the four installments in The New Yorker.

Q:

Oh, I was just glued to it. We got The New Yorker the next two weeks.

Cerf:

We were outraged that so many people were reading it in The New Yorker.

Q:

It didn’t make any difference.

Cerf:

Well, it was The New Yorker editors‘idea. They started it.

Q:

I don’t think that it hurt the sale. Do you?

Cerf:

Sure it did.

Q:

I think that more people who read the magazine pieces wanted to read the book.

Cerf:

The book was an enormous, number one best-seller from the day that it was published, and the first two or three weeks sold about 50,000 copies a week. You never saw anything like it. Truman basked in all this. Oh, how he loved the publicity. He knew precisely how to handle it. He’s superb at publicizing himself.

Q:

You were going to try to tell me how people get close to him. What do you mean?

Cerf:

He winds himself into your heart, and he begins telling you stories about things that you like to hear. Suddenly you find yourself telling him things that you shouldn’t.

But he is dependable. Phyllis says that if you tell him something that really is in confidence, you can count on him. I don’t know, but she says that you can. She says, “I’ve done it. I’ve told him a few things that I haven’t even told you, testing him. When Truman tells you that he’s going to keep a confidence, he can and does.”

Q:

Do you think that women get closer to him than men?

Cerf:

The funny thing about Truman is that he wins both women and men.

Q:

That’s funny. I don’t understand.

Cerf:

He’s the type of fellow who does get close to women, but he does it with men too. You see, I love him too. Bill Paley loves him too. He certainly is closer to Babe Paley and my wife than he is to Bill and me, but we both love him. When Truman comes to the house, I am always delighted to see him although he sometimes annoys me by his throwing his arms around me and calling me “Great White Father” and “Big Daddy” and all of that stuff. I say, “For Pete’s sake, cut that out.” But I rather like it anyhow when Truman does it. I love him.

Q:

You would think that a man might be repulsed by him a bit or that a woman might.

Cerf:

Not when you know him.

Well, some time In Cold Blood came out, Truman brought the whole Garden City contingent to New York City. Being Truman, he arranged a series of parties for them. Truman is now at the point where he can call up Phyllis and say, “You’re giving a party on Wednesday, December 19 and these are the people that you’re going to have.” Then he’ll call up Babe Paley and say, “You’re giving the party on the thirteenth and these are the people that you are going to have. This is the seating arrangement.” It’s the great Mr. Capote talking: They religiously obey him. We had this party for the Deweys, and he dictated who came and who sat with whom. Everybody gave parties when Truman ordered them, and that’s when he gave his famous ball at the Plaza himself. At this time he was still living in a house in Brooklyn Heights and the schedule proved arduous even for Mr. Capote–going home every night at about 2:30 a.m. so that for these two weeks he lived in our house in our guest room. The people from Garden City were in an absolute daze. They were meeting everybody from the President of the United States down. Mrs. Kay Graham, head of Newsweek and the Washington Post, gave the big party for them in Washington by order of Truman. All they met down there was the President, the Secretary of State, and every other V.I.P. under the sun.

One night Phyllis said to him, “Truman, even you can’t stand this pace.” Truman said, “Well, I am tired. Tomorrow night I’m packing them off to the theater.” He ordered somebody to give them a theater party for some show that he had seen about six times. He said, “I’m going to bed. I’m going over to Brooklyn Heights and I’m going to sleep for fifteen hours.” The next afternoon, I watched him going off with his little bag to “go home to sleep for fifteen hours.” I said to Phyllis, “What do you bet that something is going to happen and he’s not going to bed?” Phyllis said, “Do you think I’m crazy? Of course something is going to happen. It’s Truman.” Well, Truman went off to his home in Brooklyn Heights. The next night we met at one of the parties. I said, “How much sleep did you get last night?” He giggled happily and said, “Well, I didn’t get much.” Here’s what happened. He arrived home and there was a girl waiting for him in his house, a girl who had a key to his apartment, and was upstairs painting when he arrived, waiting for him to come home. That girl was Jacqueline Kennedy. It was just about the anniversary of the assassination–two years or three years–I’ve forgotten which–after the assassination. She was very low. Who did she turn to? Her great friend Truman Capote. As Phyllis said, “That was one place where she knew she was safe alone.” The Secret Service were in a car waiting below. Truman went to the icebox and found two bottles of the best champagne on ice. The two of them together killed these two great big bottles of champagne and sat up practically all night talking. At about five in the morning, Jackie went down to her car and went home with the Secret Service people.

That’s the life of Truman Capote. Isn’t that fantastic. Think of it. Going home and finding sitting there calmly painting, completely at home, of all people in the world, Jacqueline Kennedy;

Q:

Is he working on anything now?

Cerf:

He is indeed. He’s writing a novel called Answered Prayers, which is a wonderful title. He’s great at titles– Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood. They’re perfect titles. But the “answered prayers” comes I think from St. Theresa, who said that the worst kind of prayers are answered prayers. This is really a story of three or four girls who started with very little except magnificent faces and bodies– very smart girls–who today are reigning society queens, married to millionaires. Knowing Truman, he would know the models. I said, “Truman, some of your best friends aren’t going to talk to you after this.” Truman said, “Oh, I’m too smart for that.” He’ll have them all mixed up so that each one will know who it is except themselves. Of course they all know he’s doing it, and they’re waiting with some trepidation.

Q:

Did he ever suggest…? I know that Harper “Lee was published by Lippincott.

Cerf:

She didn’t want to come to Random House.

Q:

You never saw the book?

Cerf:

I never saw the book because she thought that we’d take it just to please Truman and she wanted to make it on her own. Damn it all, she took it to Lippincott:

Q:

But apparently that book had a lot of work done on it too.

Cerf:

Yes. As a matter of fact, if she had brought it to us, it may not have turned out as well as it did. It would have depended on who became the editor. I think that it’s one of the finest novels of recent years.

Of course Truman is in it. There is a little boy who comes up from New Orleans and makes up great tales about all of the famous people that he’s met. It’s Truman, obviously Truman. When you’ve met Truman and read this book again, you realize that it’s absolutely accurate and a faithful picture of him as a little boy. He’s been that way all of his life. He tells about some of his early years in Other Voices, Other Rooms.

His mother is a perfectly plain, normal person and so is his step-father. They live on Park Avenue. She can’t understand how she produced something like Truman Capote. Of course he treats her with amused tolerance.

Q:

Have you ever felt when reading Capote’s work–I think maybe with the exception of In Cold Blood–that his treatment of women…I mean, even in “Miriam,” every one is making fun of the women and the role.

Cerf:

No. I don’t agree with you. As a matter of fact, Holly Golightly is a very charming girl in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If you remember the way that Audrey Hepburn played it in the movie, it was with utter charm.

Of course when David Merrick tried to make a musical of it, it was a disaster. It never even came to New York, as you know. That happened with the next Merrick show too, Mata Hari. I saw him the other night and said, “How is the show that you’re bringing in Thursday, Happy Times?” Very defensively he said, “At least I’m going to open it.” I hear that it’s not very good. Well, I guess we’ve devoted enough time to Mr. Capote.

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Published in: on May 10, 2007 at 6:07 am  Leave a Comment  

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