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.

JOHN KNOWLES
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?

LEO LERMAN
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.

DOMINICK DUNNE
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!

GEORGE PLIMPTON
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.

BOB COLACELLO (writer)
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.

PETER MATTHIESSEN (writer)
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!”

HERB CAEN
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

PIEDY LUMET
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.

NORMAN MAILER
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.

JOHN KNOWLES
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.

HAROLD PRINCE
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.

LEE RADZIWILL
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.

ARTHUR SCHLESINGER, JR (historian)
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.

ALFRED KAZIN
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.”

NORMAN MAILER
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…!

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.
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.

AILEEN MEHLE
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.”

HERB CAEN
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

NORMAN MAILER
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  

Capote In Kansas: An Interview With Ande Parks

 

I first read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in high school when Ted Bundy was repeatedly in the news from death row and we all were a bit true crime crazy in Florida. The only thing I really remember from the book is how shocked I was that the same person could write Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When I was 18 this was cause for disappointment, as I got older I realized that it was actually quite an impressive feat. When I heard that Oni Press had a graphic novel coming out based on Capote, I decided to reread In Cold Blood in anticipation of my review of the new book. As a much older and wiser reader all I can say is “whoa” — and maybe also “ick”. I’ve decided that true crime is not my genre of choice, which made getting through Capote’s masterpiece a little tough at times. I can still appreciate good writing when I see it, and also the amazing literary experiment that In Cold Blood truly was.

The book’s story is basic and brutal. In November 1959, the four member Clutter family — only two children remained living at home — were in their Kansas house having a peaceful, normal evening when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith arrived looking for money. They were following a tip from a former employee that suggested Mr. Clutter kept a large sum in the house. They found little, but they left four bodies behind. Smith and Hickock were later caught, convicted and put to death for the crime. The murders would always have been awful, still have been brutally sad, but easily slipped into history if Truman Capote had not decided to travel to Kansas and write a book about the crime and the criminals. In Cold Blood is an acknowledged modern classic and as Ande Parks addresses in his new graphic novel, Capote in Kansas, the book is responsible for keeping the Clutter story alive and vital almost fifty years later.

Parks has been a fan of Truman Capote since he was a kid and also remembers reading him first in high school. He has always been fascinated by the idea of Capote coming from New York City to small town Kansas (which in 1959 would have seemed like traveling between distant galaxies) and yet finding a way for the locals to trust him. “I never got that out of my head,” writes Parks in a recent e-mail, “and it was something I naturally wanted to explore as I began to consider writing historical fiction graphic novels.”

What Parks has done with Capote in Kansas is craft a fictionalized biography of one period in the famous writer’s life, the time from when he decided to go to Kansas and research the Clutter killings until the book’s publication (after Smith and Hickock were executed) seven years later. While staying true to facts of that period (and even quoting verbatim from Capote interviews at times), it is still Parks’s vision of what it was like for Capote to immerse himself in the stories of the Clutters, Hickock and Smith. It’s a tricky thing that Parks has done here.

One of the people that Parks wanted to include in his book was Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend and the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee traveled with him and served as assistant researcher for several months. “I, like most people,” writes Parks, “was not aware of the remarkable coincidence that he [Capote] grew up with Harper Lee and she accompanied him to Kansas. That is just mindblowing — possibly America’s two greatest writers at the time, working together on what would become a masterpiece.” Parks acknowledged in his Afterword that he shortened Lee’s contribution to the effort by only including her for a few days in the book, something he “still feels a twinge of guilt about.” But the scenes between the two writers are fascinating, as Capote struggles to find a way to connect with the locals and Lee reminds him that what he is doing is a painful thing to the people who knew and loved the Clutters, and not, as Capote later told George Plimpton in an interview, a situation where there was “nothing really exceptional about it; one reads items concerning multiple murders many times in the course of a year.” Parks wanted to explore how difficult it was for Capote to fit in with the townspeople, and to find the voice he needed to write the novel. He used Lee and her relationship with Capote to illustrate this point.

In the course of writing the story, Parks struggled to find a way to set it apart, “to make it more than just a dry re-telling of what Truman had already done so brilliantly.” Ultimately, he made the very unorthodox decision to include 16-year old Nancy Clutter in the plot as Capote’s ghostly muse. Including one of the Clutters in the storyline was a necessary component to the love triangle that Parks “wanted to create between Truman, Perry (who I felt it was obvious Truman had fallen in love with), and one of the victims.” Parks wasn’t sure that Nancy would be that victim at first, but eventually decided she was the perfect person to expose Capote’s own conflicts over humanizing men responsible for a senseless murder.

Capote’s relationship (both real and imagined) with Perry Smith has been the subject of much discussion over the years. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott writes, “Perry Smith and Truman Capote found in each other an orphaned soul mate even as they angled to take advantage of that spiritual kinship. Theirs was a homoerotic bond, an incestuous overlapping.” In Plimpton’s 1998 book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, KBI agent Harold Nye stated that the two men actually had a physical relationship during Capote’s visits to the penitentiary. Whatever the nature of their friendship, it is obvious from In Cold Blood that Capote felt an enormous amount of sympathy and affection for Smith. Parks wanted to explore this further and determine how Capote’s feelings for Smith might have affected the author.

“I felt upon reading In Cold Blood for the first time that Truman had fallen in love with Perry as he worked on the book,” writes Parks. “I have thought about their relationship a lot, and tried to determine what the attraction was. No one can say, of course, but I felt there would have been a couple of factors. First, Perry was physically sympathetic. Truman remarked to Nelle [Harper Lee] upon first seeing Perry that he found Perry’s short legs hanging off of a chair without touching the floor, charming. Perry also had the irresistible puppy dog eyes, and the overall hound dog expression. More than that though was a kinship. I operated on the assumption that Truman might have seen in Perry, to some small extent, the man he might have been if he’d been born with a slightly different temperament and been left to less charitable care.”

Any examination of Perry Smith’s life exposes a childhood of outright neglect and serious abuse. Capote, as Parks showed in his book, suffered from the abandonment of his own father and although he found great success later in life, clearly would have been able to empathize with Smith’s background. Smith also showed a twisted sense of honor with Capote, explaining that Hickock intended to rape Nancy Clutter and Smith refused to allow that, albeit by killing her first.

Clearly, Capote felt some sort of intense connection with Smith that did not exist with Hickock. Parks shows this developing friendship through several visits between the author and murderer in his jail cell. In one of these conversations Smith points out that Capote intends to create a work of art with his novel, something that he has always dreamed of doing through pictures. The irony, which Smith feels quite keenly, is that from his crime Capote will create what Smith has never been able to do — and without Smith’s crimes, Capote would not have succeeded either. This conversation, which reveals so much about both men, was taken from an interview between Plimpton and Capote.

For Capote, the relationship with Smith was devastating. Although he did return to Kansas to see the men die, he was unable to watch Smith hang and fled from the prison. Also, although In Cold Blood brought him enormous fame and elevated his celebrity status into the stratosphere (the famous Black and White Ball is shown in the book’s final scenes), Capote was crushed, to a certain degree, creatively. “He loved Perry,” writes Parks, “but desperately wanted to finish his book… something that could not happen until Perry was dead.” To this already complicated emotional situation, Parks added the fictional ghost of Nancy Clutter, who interacts with Capote in the graphic novel and forces him to vividly consider where his heart’s alliance should truly lie.

Parks was faced with a serious challenge in developing Nancy’s role in the book. Although he wanted her to interact with Capote, (almost becoming his sounding board), he also felt a deep responsibility to her. “It was vital to me to treat the Clutters with respect,” writes Parks. “They are the true innocents in the story and they don’t deserve to be treated carelessly… I knew that I wanted to portray Nancy as a ghost, but I also knew that there would be nothing about her that was really ‘ghostly.’ She would have feelings, show vulnerability, whatever someone who had suffered a terrible loss might go through. In fact, I made rules for Nancy… she would not show anger, she would not physically affect anything outside her room, etc… I tried to always write her as equal parts real ghost and mere creation of Truman’s desperate mind. If I succeeded, her dialogue should sound half like a Kansas farm girl, and half like Truman thinks a Kansas farm girl should sound.”

I found the scenes between Nancy and Capote to be exceedingly well written; I liked Nancy, and she rang very true to me as an honest portrayal of a young woman who died violently and far too soon. The conversations between her and the author, where she talks about her family and the way in which they died, show how Capote processed the crime; how he came to understand it and consider it from both the perspective of victim and criminal. It would be very easy to write about his relationship with the killers; there is ample documentation both in his own book and later interviews, but it is hard to see what Capote thought about the victims. By allowing him to speak with Nancy, to consider her thoughts and feelings, Parks creates a very sympathetic character in Truman Capote.

Honestly, In Cold Blood must have been an incredibly difficult book to write, and even harder in some ways to complete. As any writer will tell you, it is not dreams of fame and fortune that will see you through to the end; you have to want to tell the story or it will never be written. Clearly, Capote thought the lives and deaths of the Clutter family was a story worth telling and as he befriends the ghost of Nancy Clutter, Parks shows that concern for the victims quite keenly. And the ending, the final couple of pages, are a love letter to Nancy Clutter. They are beautiful on every level, simply beautiful.

Because this is a graphic novel, the illustrations by Chris Samnee are vital to the book’s success. He does a great job here, particularly when it comes to the many different facial expressions of both Capote and other main characters. Samnee gives the people in Parks’ story fear, confidence, uncertainty, arrogance and most commonly, intense sadness, with such an understated brush of his hand that one person’s overwhelming grief can stand panel to panel with another’s confusion and despair. It would have been easy to make this story look bad; there is not a lot of big action to hide behind. Just as the words had to be carefully chosen, so did the faces. Samnee has done a first class job all the way and is most certainly someone to watch for.

As for Ande Parks, well I think he has accomplished something extraordinary with Capote in Kansas. The danger in reviewing this book is to fall for reviewing the book one expects it to be, or the one you wanted to write yourself. I could have been looking for a strict biography here, or for a story that would treat Capote and the people he wrote about as others have already treated them. I could have come into this review insisting that Parks hold forth to a set of standards for journalistic integrity that even Capote would find laughable; after all, he is the man who brought the nonfiction novel into the mainstream. None of this would have served Parks well, however, or treated him with the respect that he so clearly deserves for what he has done here. I will only say that Ande Parks has created a piece of art with Capote in Kansas. I hope it brings new attention to In Cold Blood both for Truman Capote and the Clutter family. And I most certainly hope that Parks will continue to write historical fiction because he really is very very good at what he does.

Capote in Kansas by Ande Parks and Chris Samnee
Oni Press 2005
ISBN 1932664297
120 pages

Published in: on September 3, 2007 at 5:42 am  Leave a Comment  

My Significant Other, Truman Capote (by Rich Grzesiak, 1987)

“Truman and I were never together — together people as most couples are. Such proximity would have killed us. We were always dreaming away from wherever we were, thus repeating the pattern that had commenced in childhood, when one’s need to escape from one’s own kind was so savage, so burning in its intensity, that had either of us stayed home, he would certainly have perished.”
— from Jack Dunphy’s Dear Genius: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote

Dear Genius tries desperately to show us the Truman that his lover’s personality can only struggle to know. In often uncomprehending, even stony tones, Dunphy artfully constructs his version of what Capote meant to him: we get juicy hot flashes of the Capote temperament, yet mainly we are surrounded by suffocating sections of invented characters and plot, most of which obscure the answer to the question readers want to know, what in the name of god was it like to live with Truman Capote, literary lion, one of this century’s most public personalities, darling to the best people, and, in his later years, addict and alcoholic — Dunphy weaves a vanilla prose which with rare instances almost threatens to bleed the life out of the Capote we really want to learn more about.

So, finding so little red meat in Dunphy’s bloodless book, I asked about the Capote the media had portrayed with a cruel honesty. The Public Broadcasting System, for example, recently aired an entry in its American Masters series which attempted in one hour to make sober sense of the late writer’s tangled life. The cinema verite style documentary was called “Unanswered Prayers,” a pun on TC’s seemingly unfinished novel of jet set scandal.

“I really think that the title of that damn show was terribly presumptuous!” Dunphy spat out, sounding angry, unsettled, as he often will in response to my questions: “If anybody’s prayers in this life were answered, Truman’s certainly were! Who the hell can say that he didn’t live a fulfilling life, with such beautiful books as he produced? That’s why the so-called professionals won’t appreciate my book on Truman. They want to get the dirty things or the gay life — whatever that is.”

But why does he want to withhold so much information on Capote’s life, I feel like asking, yet I can think only of the sad, sorry, almost grieving look on Dunphy’s face during his own telecast appearance on “Unanswered Prayers.” So we discuss instead what will eventually become the most elusive aspect of Dunphy’s own character, his feelings.

When Dunphy begins to talk during the documentary about the man he lived with for 30 years, the astute observer can see that it’s a painful process for him, that in fact his eyes begin to well up with tears. When I confronted him with that observation, Dunphy’s reaction was as typical as it was immediate: he became very defensive, explaining that he was ashamed to be on the “damn thing, as I don’t like TV, and if you saw tears there, as I said to George Plimpton, they were tears of shame from even being there. TV out-Hitlers anything Hitler ever did: it tells you what to do, what to buy.”

“Yet I used to like talking about Truman,” he admits, “especially to total strangers who would always interrupt me. Now I don’t know.” Reminiscing about his late friend “just gives me an emotional hangover unless of course I begin to talk about Truman as I do in the book, when it was a pleasure and fun” to be around him.

The late writer was a generous soul, as far as companion Dunphy was concerned. He deeded a house at Sagoponack, Long Island to him and, even more importantly, there were moments when, in the wild extravaganza that Capote’s life became after In Cold Blood, especially in the 1960’s, they shared many private, richly filled hours, in Manhattan, in Switzerland, and around the world.

And again, when I asked Dunphy what Capote was like when he first met him, his reaction typified our conversation: he became immediately defensive and, sniped at me with comments like, “Well, you want me to tell you things you already know, or should know if you read the book.”

But I want to hear about it in Dunphy’s own words, I counter. “Well, you make me feel like an old Billy Holiday record,” he says, sounding just like a bitter old queen.

Yet ultimately, as Dunphy freely admits, “talking about Truman really makes me very emotional and it’s difficult for me, I really can’t. I have to work myself up to it.” But what I encountered was just a front, a mask of a very difficult, seemingly avuncular man.

Perhaps that’s because that there is so much unpleasantness to hide. Capote could be very nasty to people, especially in his declining years. Dunphy claims that he was aware of the many sides to the writer’s personality, including the darker ones, but that these were held in check for the most part when they were together. He’s proud of the recollection “that I never lost myself in him, as so many people do in relationships: they tend to lose themselves in the other person, to become one, I was very different from him. He would always accuse me of never spending money, which he loved doing. Another thing that greatly helped” their thirty years together “is that I never wanted what Truman wanted. Although we lived together, we lived rather separate lives. For instance, I would like to go to a Shakespearean production,” yet Dunphy could never get his writer-friend to attend.

I told Dunphy that my major impression of his deceased companion was that he was a very emotional person, someone who found it easy to express his feelings for other people, yet tragically, ironically starved for affection in his own life. Very deliberately, I observed that “certainly he got that from you.”

“Did he? ” Dunphy asked me. “I really don’t know. I’m not a very outward person. For instance, my family never kissed or anything like that.” The most emotional thing Dunphy will admit from his own past relationships concerned the day when, very young and freezing from the snow, he entered his parent’s house and his mother, in a spontaneous burst of emotion, allowed him to put his freezing hands beneath her armpits.

I was startled by that admission, that self-knowledge of a type of personality I myself have always been drawn to but rarely understand: the self-assured, strong man who winds up being the protector in a relationship, but finds himself unable to show his feelings to significant others, even those closest to him. How did Capote, emotional person that he was, cope in a world where even his closest friend, his most intimate companion, the man he “only had eyes for,” found it difficult to give him even so much as a peck on the cheek?

Suddenly, the years of pain that Capote endured, the eventually endless treks in and out of addiction rehabilitation programs and hospitals, made a strange, sick, painful kind of sense.

Truman Capote, the tormented genius tortured by addiction. Not so mysteriously, Dunphy claims he hated “drunkenness in other people in a very, very subjective way. I’ve never met anyone who so hated it, probably because his mother was an alcoholic.”

Dunphy: “You know, there are whole stretches of Truman’s life that I don’t even know anything about. I was not like Frank Merlo, Tennessee Williams’ lover,” a gay man who implicitly encounters Dunphy’s derision for having “lost himself” in that great playwright’s feelings. No, Dunphy was “too egotistical, too self-centered for something like that.”

Today he realizes that Capote’s regard for him was so high that he placed him far above other people, so far in fact that had Dunphy realized it at the time “I would have been overwhelmed by it.”

I asked his lover why Capote was never successful in dealing with his addiction problems. His answer was typical, a long commentary on the complicated nature of addiction and the profitable commerce that keeps the liquor and drug companies going strong. He reminisced about the great English art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, whose wife was an alcoholic. For them and the outside world, the whole issue of her drinking was heavily linked with the attitude of denial: oh, we’re doing all right, oh yes, we’ll go back to what we were. I could almost hear Dunphy shuddering when he talked about Clark’s fetching a martini for his wife in the morning, something he claims he could never do for Capote. “Clark once said that he would rather have his wife drunk than grouchy, and yet I could never say that about Truman. He just couldn’t drink.”

There are sections in Dear Genius where Dunphy berates Capote for his drinking as well as poignant recollections of Capote’s entering this or that hospital, here and abroad, usually for exhaustion, fatigue or other imagined “illnesses,” all of them in the final analysis nothing more than symptoms of his unconquerable disease. What disturbs me about Dunphy’s behavior is that, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, his actions evidence very much those of a man codependent on Capote’s declining health. “I hated it that he was wrecking himself and all,” he says.

But was alcohol the only thing wrecking Capote? Dunphy: “I often thought of Truman who was, as an artist, someone who was truly classless and outside of society. He should have distanced himself from them, not let those people hurt him. Of course he didn’t,” and they caused him great pain.

The pain Dunphy refers to concerned high society’s reaction to Capote’s Answered Prayers, a scandalous semi-fictionalization of the jet set’s never ending comedy of manners. “Truman loved beauty: those people could always have the best. That’s what drew him to them.”

Were Capote’s painfully declining years really the result of his literary success coming at such an early age (his first short stories emerged when he was 18)? Dunphy dismisses that theory, claiming that with the exception of Verdi, whose last opera was produced when he was 80, the end of “all creative lives are miserable things. Your creative powers are declining, the things that you do best are harder to do. What greater misery can there be? ”

That misery must have intensified for Capote as the years grew, because he never really hid himself from the world. His frog like, ravaged face was all over the place, from The Tonight Show to the film Murder by Death, where he unashamedly throws his Southern fey/gay manner at the screen for all the world to see. According to Dunphy, that openness could not permit his embrace of things like the gay movement, because the two of them were openly contemptuous of things like that: it perhaps made them squirm to see so much sentiment in the air, even in a political context.

Finally, Dunphy seems not to have been very close to Capote in his last three years. He claims that Truman was very strong, had very “strong legs,” and his death (1984) took him totally by surprise. Is it any accident that he died in a house owned by one of Johnny Carson’s ex-wives, in California, a state where, in Capote’s words, “the wind through the winter says sleep”?

May he rest in peace.

(This was probably one of the most difficult interviews I ever conducted: my interviewee spoke to me with great reluctance. I’m referring to Jack Dunphy, Truman Capote’s “lover.” As you read this piece, bear in mind that Capote’s addiction issues were not widely discussed in the gay press with any degree of seriousness, let alone understanding, circa 1987. — RG

 

Published in: on September 3, 2007 at 3:43 am  Comments (1)