A silent movie with Andy Warhol and Truman Capote signing and selling Interview Magazine at Fiorucci store NYC 1977.
It’s a time-honored literary tradition for a writer to bite the hand that feeds him. It is also a time-honored literary tradition that when their scalded source material cuts them at parties writers always seem surprised.
This is certainly the case with Truman Capote, who raised ingratitude to an art form. The chapters of his work-in-progress “Answered Prayers” published in Esquire in 1975 and 1976, and now republished as a book, were a betrayal that left the smart set shaken if not stirred. Only three of the four chapters have been included here; Capote put the fourth into his 1980 collection “Music for Chameleons” instead. Of the offending material, the first chapter, “Unspoiled Monsters,” introduces the narrator, P. B. Jones, Capote’s dark doppelganger, who skids between high life and low life, working as a male prostitute to finance a promising first novel. The second, “Kate McCloud,” introduces the odious Mr. Jones to an impossible love object, a mysterious society woman isolated by her sinister, rich husband. The third, “La Côte Basque,” features Jones lunching a deux with a distressed Park Avenue matron who unloads her marital intimacies in a sodden aria of indiscretion.
It was the transparent identities in this last that did Capote in. Even to this day it is fashionable in fashionable circles to take the line that poor Truman lost his marbles when he let out that bit of his awful seedy little novel set in La Côte Basque. “What did they expect?” bleated Truman when the social world turned on him. “I’m a writer, and I use everything. Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?” Thereafter he blamed his failure to finish the novel on a crisis of form. It was not the unsettling public reaction that paralyzed him, he said, but the problem of how to mix on the same palette everything he had learned from film scripts, plays, reportage, poems, novellas and novels. This, he claimed, was what kept aborting his attempt to be the American Proust.
It was humbug, of course. The Capote of this period was adept at inventing elaborate highbrow Angst as a red herring when in fact his creative problem was simple. Reading the fragments published now, it is clear that Capote had the raw material for a best-selling nonfiction book and should have written it as just that. It could have been the definitive portrayal of the witches of East Side, gleaned from his 20 years as their walker in chief. Capote knew he had that material but he also felt it was unpublishable. Even if he managed a path through the libel laws, his revelations would kiss goodbye the ladies who lunch. In 1959 Norman Mailer made this perceptive comment about Capote: “I would suspect he hesitates between the attraction of society which enjoys and so repays him for his unique gifts, and the novel he could write of the gossip column’s real life, a major work but it would banish him forever from his favorite world. Since I have nothing to lose I hope Truman fries a few of the fancier fish.”
Mr. Mailer was right about Capote’s psychological inhibitions, though I think he was wrong about the proper vehicle for Capote’s raw material. I have always felt that the journalist in Capote was stronger than the novelist, and that the discipline of fact saved him from his fiction’s tendency to wallow in charm or yield to malice. That’s why “In Cold Blood” is a greater work than all the fiction put together. The trouble with “Answered Prayers” is that Capote at this stage was not amenable to the demands of nonfiction. He was out of control in his life and in his art. The nonfiction constraints of libel, taste and feeling were just what he needed at a time when his internal editor seems to have collapsed. Such constraints might have forced him to report with the fine calibrations of “The Muses Are Heard” and “In Cold Blood” instead of indulging himself in the worst solution of all, a rubbishy roman a clef. All that mixing real names with obvious composites achieves is a socio-pornographic “Ragtime” rife with the low cackle of camp. Peggy Guggenheim is “a long-haired Bert Lahr.” Sartre is “walleyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued” with “his spinsterish moll, De Beauvoir.” Gertrude Stein is “a Diamond Jim Brady personage, a big-bellied show-off.” In fact, it’s Capote himself who is the braggart. Dishing the sacred monsters is just another form of showing off. And what it confirms is how dependent he’d become on them all. “Answered Prayers” reveals the seduction of Capote the artist by Capote the socialite. He had become a sacred monster himself. Even as he burned his bridges he still fantasized the rich, still retained the outsider’s thrill at being on the inside track. There is admiration latent in the sneer. All his hard reporting, all his prison visits, only served to excite his romance with the beau monde.
Nonetheless, out of this conflict Capote could occasionally create art. Between the cloudbursts of malice there are flashes of prose in “Answered Prayers” that bring the aching reminder of a more whole writer, prose that makes the heart sing and the narrative fly. Some of the character riffs are inspired. Consider this description of a homosexual cosmetic king’s first sight of a boy he covets: “When he saw Denny, it must have been as though a collector of antique porcelain had strayed into a junkshop and discovered a Meissen ‘white swan’ service: the shock! the greedy chill!” Only a social journalist as knowing as Capote could have come up with the first part of the sentence; only a master writer could have achieved the conclusion’s thrill.
The narrator of “Answered Prayers” says in a conversation about Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”: “If he had been absolutely factual, it would have been less believable, but . . . it might have been better. Less acceptable, but better.” It’s the right epitaph for the book the American Proust didn’t write.
Stood Up By The Dutchess
“Carissimo!” she cried. “You’re just what I’m looking for. A lunch date. The duchess stood me up.” “Black or white?” I said. “White,” she said, reversing my direction on the sidewalk.
White is Wallis Windsor, whereas the Black Duchess is what her friends call Perla Apfeldorf, the Brazilian wife of a notoriously racist South African diamond industrialist. As for the lady who also knew the distinction, she was indeed a lady – Lady Ina Coolbirth, an American married to a British chemicals tycoon and a lot of woman in every way. Tall, taller than most men, Ina was a big breezy peppy broad, born and raised on a ranch in Montana.
“This is the second time she’s canceled,” Ina Coolbirth continued. “She says she has hives. Or the duke has hives. One or the other. Anyway, I’ve still got a table at Côte Basque. So, shall we? Because I do so need someone to talk to, really. And, thank God, Jonesy, it can be you.”… The Cristal was being poured. Ina tasted it… “I do miss Cole. And Howard Sturgis. Even Papa; after all, he did write about me in Green Hills of Africa. From “Answered Prayers.”
By TINA BROWN
Truman Capote, one of the postwar era’s leading American writers, whose prose shimmered with clarity and quality, died yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 59.
Mr. Capote died at the home of Joanna Carson, former wife of the entertainer Johnny Carson, in the Bel-Air section, according to Comdr. William Booth of the Los Angeles Police Department. ”There is no indication of foul play,” he said, adding that the county coroner’s office would investigate the cause of death.
The novelist, short story writer and literary celebrity pioneered a genre he called ”the nonfiction novel,” exemplified by his immensely popular ”In Cold Blood.” He died apparently without having completed his long- promised ”masterwork,” an extensive novel called ”Answered Prayers.”
Mr. Capote’s first story was published while he was still in his teens, but his work totaled only 13 volumes, most of them slim collections, and in the view of many of his critics, notably his old friend John Malcolm Brinnin, he failed to join the ranks of the truly great American writers because he squandered his time, talent and health on the pursuit of celebrity, riches and pleasure.
”I had to be successful, and I had to be successful early,” Mr. Capote said in 1978. ”The thing about people like me is that we always knew what we were going to do. Many people spend half their lives not knowing. But I was a very special person, and I had to have a very special life. I was not meant to work in an office or something, though I would have been successful at whatever I did. But I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to be rich and famous.” Success, both as a writer and as a celebrity, came early, when he was 23 years old and published his first novel, ”Other Voices, Other Rooms.” It was a critical and financial success, and so were most of the volumes of short stories, reportage and novellas that followed, including ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” ”The Muses Are Heard,” ”The Grass Harp,” ”Local Color,” ”The Dogs Bark” and ”Music for Chameleons.”
Claim to Literary Fame
But the book that perhaps solidified his claim to literary fame was ”In Cold Blood,” his detailed, painstakingly researched and chilling account of the 1959 slaying of a Kansas farm family and the capture, trial and execution of the two killers.
Published serially in The New Yorker and then as a book in 1965, ”In Cold Blood” consumed more than six years of his life. But it won him enthusiastic praise, mountains of publicity, millions of dollars and the luxury of time to work on ”Answered Prayers.”
But he accelerated the speed of his journey to celebrity, appearing on television talk shows and, in his languid accent, which retained its Southern intonation, indulged a gift for purveying viperish wit and scandalous gossip. He continued to cultivate scores of the famous as his friends and confidants, all the while publishing little and, he said later, developing a formidable ”writer’s block” that delayed completion of ”Answered Prayers.”
To keep alive the public’s interest in the promised work, in 1975 he decided to allow the magazine Esquire to print portions of the unfinished novel. The decision was catastrophic to the grand social life he had cultivated because, in one of the excerpts, ”La C~te Basque,” Mr. Capote told apparently true and mostly scandalous stories about his famous friends, naming names, and in so doing forever lost their friendship and many other friendships as well.
Alcohol and Drug Problems
Soon his long-simmering problems with alcohol and drugs grew into addictions, and his general health deteriorated alarmingly. The once sylphlike and youthful Mr. Capote grew paunchy and bald, and in the late 1970’s he underwent treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse, had prostate surgery and suffered from a painful facial nerve condition, a tic doloreux.
In ”Music for Chameleons,” a collection of short nonfiction pieces published in 1980, Mr. Capote, in a ”self-interview,” asked himself whether, at that point in his life, God had helped him. His answer: ”Yes. More and more. But I’m not a saint yet. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius. Of course, I could be all four of these dubious things and still be a saint.”
Named Truman Streckfus Persons after his birth in New Orleans on Sept. 30, 1924, he was the son of Archulus Persons, a nonpracticing lawyer and member of an old Alabama family, and of the former Lillie Mae Faulk, of Monroeville, Ala. Years later he adopted the surname of his stepfather, Joe Capote, a Cuban-born New York businessman.
Mr. Capote’s mother, who eventually committed suicide, liked to be called Nina and was not, according to her own testimony as well as her son’s, temperamentally suited to motherhood. Living with her husband in a New Orleans hotel, she sent Truman to live with relatives in Monroeville when he was barely able to walk, and for the first nine years of his life he lived mostly in Alabama under the supervision of female cousins and aunts.
‘A Spiritual Orphan’
In that period, he said years later, he felt like ”a spiritual orphan, like a turtle on its back.”
”You see,” he said, ”I was so different from everyone, so much more intelligent and sensitive and perceptive. I was having fifty perceptions a minute to everyone else’s five. I always felt that nobody was going to understand me, going to understand what I felt about things. I guess that’s why I started writing. At least on paper I could put down what I thought.”
Most summers the boy returned to New Orleans for a month or so, and accompanied his father on trips up and down the Mississippi aboard the riverboat on which Mr. Persons worked as a purser. Truman learned to tap dance, he said, and was proud of the fact that he once danced for the passengers accompanied by Louis Armstrong, whose band was playing on the steamboat.
Many of his stories, notably ”A Christmas Memory,” which paid loving tribute to his old cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, who succored him in his childhood loneliness, were based on his recollections of life in and around Monroeville. So were his first published novel, ”Other Voices, Other Rooms,” his second, ”The Grass Harp,” and the collection of stories, ”A Tree of Night.”
Character in ‘Mockingbird’
The young Truman’s best friend in Monroeville was the little girl next door, Nelle Harper Lee, who many years later put him into her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” in the character of the precocious Dill Harris. (He had earlier used Miss Lee as the prototype for the character of Idabel Tompkins in ”Other Voices, Other Rooms.”)
After his mother’s divorce from Mr. Persons and her marriage to Joe Capote, she brought her son to live with them in New York. He was sent to several private schools, including Trinity School and St. John’s Academy in New York, but he disliked schools and did poorly in his courses, including English, although he had taught himself to read and write when he was 5 years old.
Having been told by many teachers that the precocious child was probably mentally backward, the Capotes sent him to a psychiatrist who, Truman Capote said triumphantly some years later, ”naturally classified me as a genius.”
He later credited Catherine Woods, an English teacher at Greenwich High School in Connecticut, with being the first person to recognize his writing talent and to give him guidance. With her encouragement he wrote poems and stories for the school paper, The Green Witch. He did not complete high school and had no further formal education.
At the age of 17, Mr. Capote wangled a job at The New Yorker. ”Not a very grand job, for all it really involved was sorting cartoons and clipping newspapers,” he wrote years later. ”Still, I was fortunate to have it, especially since I was determined never to set a studious foot inside a college classroom. I felt that either one was or wasn’t a writer, and no combination of professors could influence the outcome. I still think I was correct, at least in my own case.”
First Stories and Novel
In a two-year stay at The New Yorker, Mr. Capote had several short stories published in minor magazines. ”Several of them were submitted to my employers, and none accepted,” he wrote later. In the same period, he wrote his first, never-published novel, ”Summer Crossing.”
Mr. Capote made his first major magazine sale, of the haunting short story ”Miriam,” to Mademoiselle in 1945, and in 1946 it won an O. Henry Memorial Award. (There were to be three more O. Henry awards.)
The award led to a contract and a $1,500 advance from Random House to write a novel. Mr. Capote returned to Monroeville and began ”Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and he worked on the slim volume in New Orleans, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and in North Carolina, finally completing it on Nantucket. It was published in 1948.
The novel, a sensitively written account of a teen-age boy’s coming to grips with maturity and accepting his world as it is, achieved wide popularity and critical acclaim and was hailed as a remarkable achievement for a writer only 23 years old.
In 1969, when ”Other Voices, Other Rooms” was reprinted, Mr. Capote said the novel was ”an attempt to exorcise demons: an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt, for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions, of its being in any serious degree autobiographical. Rereading it now, I find such self-deception unpardonable.”
Famous Dust-Cover Photograph
The book’s back dust cover received almost as much comment as the novel itself, and for years was the talk of the literary set. The jacket was a photogragh of an androgynously pretty Mr. Capote, big eyes looking up from under blond bangs, and wearing a tattersall vest, reclining sensually on a sofa. The striking, now-famous dust-jacket photograph may have been prophetic, because Mr. Capote, for the remainder of his life, assiduously sought personal publicity and celebrity and said he had ”a love affair with cameras – all cameras.”
In the pursuit of literary celebrity in succeeding years, the writer was photographed in his homes in the Hamptons on Long Island, in Switzerland and at United Nations Plaza. He was photographed escorting well- dressed society women who seemed always to tower over Mr. Capote, who was only 5 feet 4 inches tall. He was also photographed, for dozens of magazines and newspapers, when he gave a much-publicized masked ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966 for some 500 of his ”very closest friends.”
For many of the postwar years Mr. Capote traveled widely and lived abroad much of the time with Jack Dunphy, his companion of more than a quarter-century. He turned out short- story collections and nonfiction for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Esquire and The New Yorker, which first published ”The Muses Are Heard,” a 1956 book chronicling a tour of the Soviet Union by a company of black Americans in ”Porgy and Bess.”
”I conceived the whole adventure as a short comic ‘nonfiction novel,’ the first,” Mr. Capote said. ”That book was an important event for me. While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.”
Praise for ‘In Cold Blood’
The result of Mr. Capote’s discovery was ”In Cold Blood,” which was almost universally praised. John Hersey called it ”a remarkable book,” for example, but there were dissenters. Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic, sniped at ”In Cold Blood,” saying ”this isn’t writing, it’s research” – a sly borrowing from Mr. Capote’s witty thumbnail critique, years earlier, of the rambling books of the late Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac: ”This isn’t writing, it’s typing.”
The critic Kenneth Tynan took Mr. Capote to task for being too strictly a reporter and not making an effort to have the killers’ lives spared.
Many readers were struck by Mr. Capote’s verbatim quotations of long, involved conversations and incidents in his book. He explained that this came from ”a talent for mentally recording lengthy conversations, an ability I had worked to achieve while researching ‘The Muses Are Heard,’ for I devoutly believe that the taking of notes, much less the use of a tape recorder, creates artifice and distorts or even destroys any naturalness that might exist between the observer and the observed, the nervous hummingbird and its would-be captor.” He said his trick was to rush away from an interview and immmediately write down everything he had been told.
Mr. Capote was co-author of the movie ”Beat the Devil” with John Huston and wrote the screenplay for a film of Henry James’s ”The Innocents.” Mr. Capote turned his second novel, ”The Grass Harp,” into an unsuccessful Broadway play and, with Harold Arlen, wrote the 1954 musical, also unsuccessful, ”House of Flowers.” Mr. Capote also adapted a number of his stories, including ”A Christmas Memory” and ”The Thanksgiving Visitor,” for television.
Critics noted his deft handling of children as characters in his work, his ability to move from the real to the surreal, and his use of lush words and images. In 1963, the critic Mark Schorer wrote of Mr. Capote: ”Perhaps the single constant in his prose is style, and the emphasis he himself places upon the importance of style.”
By ALBIN KREBS
“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
Famed for his books Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, his socializing with high society and celebrities, and his legendary Black and White Ball, Truman Capote ended up an alcoholic and drug addict with his reputation in shreds and his friends ostracizing him. Now he’s returned to the spotlight with the success of the recent movie Capote; another one, Infamous, due out in September; and a just-published book about the Black and White Ball plus Christie’s re-creation of the ball in March. The Capote legend lives on as people who knew him, including some in Greenwich, share their recollections. In 1966,the second time we met, Truman Capote invited me to what became the most talked-about party of all time. The invitation was prompted as much by guilt as by friendship. He was going to miss a writing deadline.
As the editor of McCall’s magazine, I had admired his story “A Christmas Memory” and hoped he would write more in that vein. Over drinks in his new United Nations Plaza apartment, flushed with the success of In Cold Blood, he expansively outlined another childhood adventure with his beloved cousin, Sook, to be called “The Thanksgiving Visitor.” I savored the sunset from his wide-screen view of Manhattan and left in a glow of anticipation.
Summer came. Our November issue loomed. “The Thanksgiving Visitor” did not appear. Truman suggested lunch.Across an expanse of linen, crystal and silver, he beamed at me the slyly excited look that always suggested he was about to disclose a wonderful secret. “I’m giving a party,” he said. “I’ve just been to Tiffany’s to order invitations. Will you come?”
I said yes and, all through lunch, waited to ask if “The Thanksgiving Visitor” would be arriving before or after the invitation. But he was clearly obsessed with plans for his party: a dance at the Plaza, men in black tie, women in white or black gowns, wearing masks until midnight. That was where all his creativity was going. Ah, well, there would be another November issue next year.
At the peak of his powers as a self-publicist, Truman kept the gossip flowing all fall. Who would attend? Who wouldn’t? A mutual friend told me he had called to ask about my wife. Was she … attractive? He was inviting only spouses who passed muster on appearance.
He called often with Black and White bulletins. “People are leaving the country,” Truman giggled, “so no one will know they weren’t asked.” (That was prescient. In an act of delicious malice, the New York Times the day after the ball published a list of the 540 who had been invited, thereby exposing all those who had claimed to have declined because “We’ll be away.”)
During another call, he said, “People are offering thousands of dollars for an invitation.”
“I’m not one of your rich friends, Truman. Would you mind if I sold mine?” He whooped with pleasure.
Setting out for the Plaza that rainy Monday night, my wife and I, dime-store masks in her purse, were hailing a taxi when a neighbor smiled at the tux and white gown.
“I know where you’re going,” she sighed.
“I saw it on the six o’clock news.”
In everything he did, Truman had a storyteller’s way with the truth. His writing and even his casual conversation abounded in astonishments, wondrous coincidences and weird juxtapositions. He would tell colorful tales, unlikely but not necessarily untrue, often at the expense of macho figures: how Marlon Brando tried to get him into bed after an all-night interview in a Japanese hotel; how during the filming of Beat the Devil, he bested Humphrey Bogart, who persisted in calling him Caposy, at arm-wrestling for $150 and sealed the humiliation of the actor, known for his nightclub brawls, by using judo to put him flat on his back.
The ball was another work of Truman’s imagination. He set black and white figures — like those in his friend Cecil Beaton’s Ascot scenes for My Fair Lady — in the Plaza ballroom against candlelit scarlet and pink decor overflowing with roses. He mixed the rich and powerful, the talented and famous, his publishing and show business friends, the Kansas townspeople of In Cold Blood and, for security, off-duty detectives in tuxedos.
Two orchestras took turns playing while the Champagne flowed. Everybody danced except the maharajah of Jaipur and a dour Frank Sinatra, who told my wife “I don’t dance,” as he watched his wife, twenty-one-year-old Mia Farrow, with one energetic partner after another.
Truman’s guests basked in the glow of what Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s dowager daughter, called “the most exquisite of spectator sports,” self-validation. I danced with my colleague on McCall’s, Lynda Bird Johnson; gabbed with Lillian Hellman and Gloria Steinem; watched Lauren Bacall and Jerome Robbins do a passable imitation of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; and observed with disbelief as George Plimpton and John Kenneth Galbraith played a touch football game with a top hat.
The next day, Charlotte Curtis, a merciless critic of social preening, gave Truman’s production a rave review in the Times, declaring that the guests, “as spectacular a group as has ever been assembled for a private party in New York, were an international Who’s Who of notables.”
Truman had staged a small social masterpiece to go with his books, short stories, plays and movie scripts, taking the public’s fascination with fame, wealth and power — and his own — to a new level.
Later he wrote an account of that night for me, replete with his usual tales, including one about the movie star who called days later to tell him a man she had danced with and taken home was just leaving her apartment. “I thought he was one of the detectives,” she said, “but it turned out he was an elevator boy!” When Truman asked if it made any difference, she “laughed her famous smoky laugh” and answered, “No, I don’t suppose it does. It was the most beautiful party I’ve ever been to.”
Winter came and went. Truman and I talked on the phone, had lunch, but the story he had promised me did not appear.
I sent him a slim leather-bound book with blank pages and, in gilt along its spine, “The Thanksgiving Visitor by Truman Capote,” along with a note: “Here’s a book I’d love to read. Wouldn’t you?” He called with that delighted laugh of his. “I’ll write the story in the book, and we’ll sell it for a fortune at Sotheby’s!”
The manuscript came soon afterward, neatly typed. It was a lovely story, full of longing for the childhood sweetness seldom seen in his later life or work. By the time it appeared in the November 1967 McCall’s, I was no longer editor of the magazine.
Truman took me to dinner. My successor wanted an interview with him, and the publisher had asked him to be guest of honor at a party for advertisers. After the book and the ball, he was, ugh, a hot property.
“I’m going to tell them to go to hell,” he said. “I wrote the story for you.”
His willingness to forego publicity was touching, but I persuaded him to agree to the interview and the party. Later I learned, not from him, that he had tried to get his friend Bill Paley, the head of CBS, to hire me.
In a sphere where mutual use passes for friendship, I felt Truman was genuinely my friend and I his, albeit in a daytime way. While there were too many differences for true intimacy, as outsiders in a world where being “in” is everything, we could count on each other.
When the movie of In Cold Blood was planned, he told me he wanted Richard Brooks to direct it. I asked why.
“Because he has no style of his own.”
“Bad reason,” I said. “If he just puts your book on the screen, it will turn out flat. You should risk a director with as distinctive a voice as your own to translate it into film.”
Brooks made the movie, and, after a screening for his friends, Truman backed me into a corner.
“The actors were perfect, and it had just the right look.”
He kept staring.
“Overall it was a little too ham-handed for me.”
He was silent for a moment. “Will it get good reviews?”
“Mostly, but mixed.”
His eyes narrowed. “Will it make money?”
He touched my forearm and walked away. It was like telling a friend his child was brain-damaged.
After the book and the ball, Truman was on top of the world, but soon, in the throes of writer’s block, drugs and alcohol, his life started to fall apart.
He wrote a few pieces for me when I returned to edit McCall’s in 1972. This time they were scribbled in dime-store notebooks, and he urged me to keep them. “Someday,” he said wistfully, “they may be worth something.”
He would disappear for months, into rehab clinics or his own private darkness, then call to make a lunch date.
We usually met alone but, on one occasion, he showed up with a man and gave me a glimpse into his other life. All through drinks and the meal, Truman was giddy, telling stories and glancing sidewise at his companion, whose expression remained impassive, a mask of confidence in his sexual power over my friend.
After lunch they persuaded me to go with them to a shop called the Pleasure Chest, where they pored over “sexual aids,” Truman exclaiming every once in a while about some item. Finally, he eyed me and said, “These things don’t interest you?” I said no and left.
His life got worse after three swatches from his novel Answered Prayers appeared in Esquire, one with him on the cover in a black hat and cloak, paring his fingernails with a stiletto. Inside was a thinly veiled version of a messy sexual episode involving Bill Paley. The Paleys cut him dead. So did their friends. All the bejeweled ladies, his “swans,” who had glided through the Black and White Ball, turned and swam away.
We were at his front table in La Grenouille, but no one stopped by for air kisses and gossip.
“What did they expect?” he asked plaintively. “They knew I was a writer.”
Truman’s endless obsession with the rich had started to unravel his life. He had once told a friend he wanted to write a book about them like The Origin of Species.
“You’re not kidding yourself,” the friend asked, “that all you’re up to is a little research? Did you ever hear of anyone rattling the pearly gates trying to get out?”
The last time I saw Truman was a disaster. Early in 1980, he wrote from California: “I was very aware of how considerate you were during all my trials and travails. I’m returning to Answered Prayers shortly, and I think you might like the chapter I’m working on. It’s really quite an invention — though it seems to puzzle some people.”
The fact that McCall’s had advanced him a modest amount of money was weighing on him.
“Maybe we could do a question and answer. Who are the world’s ten most attractive women? Why do so many society women have two husbands (a legal husband, who is straight, and a playmate husband, who is gay)? Why has that figure of the twenties, the gigolo, been resurrected? Why do all Elizabeth Taylor’s old friends dislike her current husband? Ask the questions, and I’ll answer them. I’m full of new and sassy opinions.”
I said no because I was saddened by the recycling of his old outrageousness, the self-parody that was surfacing in lectures and on TV to produce painful headlines. Even so, our last project together, which had been my idea, ended badly.
When Jacqueline Kennedy, the media’s sainted widow, married Aris-totle Onassis, she unleashed all the suppressed venom that underlies extravagantly admired celebrity. There were books, articles and even an atrocious movie to tear her down. I wanted an article on all this “Jackie Trash” and asked Truman to write it.
He had not seen the movie The Greek Tycoon, so I set up a screening. When I picked him up, he looked awful. Under huge dark glasses, his eyes were clouded, his skin was pasty and he could barely speak between low moans. I wanted to reschedule, but he insisted he was all right.
The movie was a striking reminder of Truman’s lost life — lavish yachts, exquisite Mediterranean hideaways, gilded doings — but it was garbage. Halfway through, he leaned to my ear: “I have to go. Please.”
I helped him to the door. I stayed to the end and told our hosts: “Mr. Capote was taken sick. I don’t think it was the picture that did it.”
Truman did not write the piece (the theme of falling from publicity grace would have been too painful), and I never saw him again.
At his funeral in 1984, there were readings from his works and music ranging from Mozart to Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” Friends spoke feelingly about him, but, as usual, Truman was ahead of them. He had left his own mordant epitaph in a collection of pieces he wrote, a couple of them for me, while struggling vainly with Answered Prayers.
In the last piece in that last book, he summed himself up: “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius.”
Anyway, enough of that! Let’s move on to Truman Capote. The first person that called my attention to Capote was Robert Lynscott, an editor of ours who I had met when I was selling books in Boston. He was a top editor at Houghton Mifflin. We became friends, and I tried for years to lure him down to New York and finally succeeded. He was with us for quite a long time. One blessed day he read or somebody told him about a story that had appeared in Mademoiselle Magazine, called “Miriam” by an unknown called Truman Capote.
That was the first story that Capote ever did?
Yes. And what a fine story it is! It has such depth and haunting quality! We asked Truman Capote to come and see us.
Well, that was a day when Truman arrived at Random House! He had bangs in those days. He’s, to put it mildly, not the usual type. Nobody could believe it when this young prodigy waltzed in. He was a child. He was about eighteen.
He looks so young.
Well, can you imagine what he looked like when he was eighteen? That was over twenty years ago. He was gay and happy and absolutely assured. We said that we wanted to publish anything that he wrote. He was writing a novel, and we made a contract for it immediately. It was called Other Voices, Other Rooms.
It was an immediate success. Everybody knew that somebody important had arrived upon the scene–particularly Truman! My wife Phyllis adopted Truman immediately. He then already was exhibiting that charm which has proved so irresistible. Today he’s a society favorite. Truman decides what yacht he’s going to spend a vacation on or what house he’s going to honor with his company and people are overjoyed to have him.
What is the charm though?
It’s irresistible. I’ll tell you about that as he developed.
Other Voices came out and we used the now-famous photograph of him, reclining with his bangs on a couch. It was great publicity. It’s ludicrously simple to get publicity for Truman Capote. To give you an example, about a week before Other Voices was published–mind you, this was his first book–my friend Richard Simon from Simon and Schuster called me up and said, “How the hell do you get a full-page picture of an author in Life Magazine before his first book comes out?” I said, “Do you think that I’m going to tell you? Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?” Dick said, “Come on. How did you wrangle that–to get a full-page picture of an author whose novel is not yet published?”
I said, “Dick, I have no intention of telling you.” He hung up in sort of a huff; and I hung up too and cried, “For god’s sake, get me a copy of Life.” This was the first that I knew about the whole affair! That, in a nutshell, explains Truman Capote. He managed to promote for himself a full-page picture in Life Magazine. How he did it, I don’t know to this day, but that was Truman.
When his book came out, Truman immediately developed a feud with another ridiculously young author named Gore Vidal, a feud which has persisted over the years. I remember one of Truman’s famous lines, which won him another burst of publicity. He said, “Gore Vidal calls himself a boy genius. Nonsense! He’s twenty if he’s a day.” Now they both have become great successes but they still pick away at each other.
Gore has often said, “I’ll come to Random House if you get rid of Capote.” When Truman gets fancy, I say, “We’re going to sign up Vidal,” and he goes into a mock rage. You know, he’s half kidding, but he’d really be furious if we ever did sign Gore Vidal.
Well, the book came out, and the next time that I saw Truman wafting into the office he said that Vogue Magazine had called him up; they wanted him to go to Hollywood for two weeks to write his impressions of Hollywood–by a young writer who had never been there. They offered him $2,000 and expenses for two weeks. Truman demanded cash immediately. He wanted twenty one-hundred-dollar bills. Truman is that way. He brought them in. He had them rolled up with a rubber band around them, and he rolled them across the desk to me. He said, “Look what I’ve got.” He said, “Wait until they see the expense account that I’m going to run up.” He went to Hollywood for the first time. I couldn’t wait to hear his story because by this time we had adopted Truman. He was just beginning to know people. Everybody who met him adopted him immediately. He came back after his two weeks in Hollywood and reported to me. He said, “I’ve got my expense account made out. It’s a whopper, too, but I actually didn’t spend a cent in Hollywood.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I spent the first week with Greta Garbo and the second week with Charlie Chaplin.” I said, “Truman, I know what a liar you are after knowing you for several months, but this one’s too much.” Truman indignantly said, “Check for yourself.” It was absolutely true. He got to Hollywood. He had a letter of introduction to someone who had a party that night. Greta Garbo met Truman Capote there and took him right home with her! She said, “You’re not going to a hotel. You’re going to stay with me.” After a week, at another party, he met Charlie Chaplin, who kidnapped him from Greta Garbo, and he spent the second week living with Charlie Chaplin.
This is a typical story of Truman Capote. He met Mrs. William (Babe) Paley in similar fashion. Babe immediately invited him somewhere they were going. When Bill Paley met Truman for the first time, he reacted like a lot of men do. He was rather startled by this strange little fellow, but it took Truman about three hours to make Bill Paley his life-long friend and admirer. Today, Babe Paley considers Truman her greatest friend, and this is true of one famous person after another.
At the moment, his great protege is Lee Radziwill. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We think that it is even possible that they’ll get married one day. She is absolutely wild about Truman, and Jackie Kennedy is furious at Truman because he has transferred his affections from Jackie to her sister. There is great rivalry between these sisters.
To go on with Truman–as he became more and more popular and knew more and more society people, who all adopted him, we had to keep him trying to write because he was so busy going to parties and being the town’s most eligible extra man. He’s the greatest gossip in the world. He knows everything that’s going on, and what he doesn’t know he makes up. You never know whether he’s telling the truth or lying but you listen in fascination. If you catch him in a lie, he laughs happily. He doesn’t care. He admits that he gets carried away with his stories. He’s a mischief-maker. He does much of this with sheer malice aforethought. He loves to get people involved and cause trouble. This is part of his joy. Everybody forgives him of course so he’s become a spoiled little boy.
But talented beyond belief…and proved that he was not only a good novelist but one of the great reporters when he wrote The Muses Are Heard, which is the often hilarious story of the Porgy and Bess troupe in Russia. It was another big success.
Yes, but all of his books before In Cold Blood had never really gotten…
You’re wrong. Breakfast at Tiffany’s hit really the popular note. Now Truman was famous, not only for his books but for his personality because he was a gossip columnist’s delight. He is always up to something that makes good copy.
The party that he gave last year was the social event of the last ten years. The New York Times put in the complete guest list, and to be invited to that party was to be considered having arrived. People who weren’t invited were outraged. People came from Italy, France, Hollywood for this damned party. It was the greatest party of its kind ever given, and Truman was beaming. It cost him a fortune, but he couldn’t have cared less.
We try to keep Truman’s money intact. We dole it out to him in pretty short doses because the minute he gets it he spends it. We kept him from buying a helicopter once. We kept him from buying a house in Long Island that he has as much use for as I have for the Taj Mahal. But it’s very hard to keep tabs on Truman. He’s like Moss was. They have the real philosophy. They believe that money is to be spent.
Maybe they are right.
They are absolutely right.
What’s going to happen tomorrow we don’t know.
Truman lives it up. Oh, boy, does he live it up.
How did you keep him writing when he was busy all of the time?
You can’t keep him from writing. He is a born writer– a pro! He will spend a day on a word. Truman’s a perfectionist, in contrast to John O’Hara, who will stop in the middle of a sentence at night and pick up exactly where he left off the next day. John is that kind of a great writer. Truman’s the kind who must have the perfect word and will spend a day searching for it. I’ve known him to do it. When he has a book finished, it is a gem–a polished gem.
There’s never any editing, is there?
It never needs any. It’s perfect. Of course we’ll catch him on a mistake of fact once in a while or some sentence that we think is a little awkward, but Truman is virtually perfect. Oh, he’s a joy to handle. He’s a professional to his fingertips.
Now let me tell you the story of In Cold Blood. I had lectured at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. I was there for two days. Besides lecturing, I had spent a day with the English classes. I do that sometimes. I became a great friend of the president of Kansas State–a man named James McCain. He succeeded Milton Eisenhower, who had made Kansas State a top university. He really pulled it up to where it’s better I think than the University of Kansas today.
Jim McCain, when I left–I had made a lot of friends in those two days–said, “We’ve enjoyed having you here; and if ever I can do anything for you, you just let me know.” I laughed merrily and said, “What can you ever do for me in Manhattan, Kansas?” and gaily, off I went.
Well, shortly after that came the murder of the Clutter family–a man and his wife and two children murdered in cold blood in Garden City, Kansas. It was a front-page story all over the country. Local police were going crazy because they had no clues. It was an inside job obviously because the murderers knew where to hide their automobile, how to get into the house and exactly where the wall safe was located. So they figured it must be somebody in the town of Garden City, Kansas. The whole town was suspect.
One day Truman walks into my office and says, “The New Yorker is sending me out to cover that murder case.” I said, “You? In a west Kansas hamlet?” This was the first reaction of everybody–this elegant Mr. Capote going to this small town in Kansas. He got quite indignant at my surprise. He said, “I don’t know a soul in the whole state of Kansas. You’ve got to introduce me to some people in Kansas.” This is what a publisher is for, I guess! Well, this was once that I could deliver the goods. I immediately remembered my friend Dr. McCain at Kansas State. I called him up and I said, “You remember that you said that if I wanted something I should come to you?” He said, “Yes. And I remember your laughing at me too.” I said, “Well, Jim, I apologize. You maybe can do me a great favor. Did you ever know the Clutter family in Garden City?” Jim said, “The Clutters were my close personal friends. I know everybody in Garden City, Kansas.” I said, “You’re an answer to a maiden’s prayer. One of our authors is coming out to write a series of stories for The New Yorker, and I hope that it will be a book. Can he stop off on the way and visit you?” He said, “Who is the author?” I said, “Truman Capote.” Jim McCain echoed me, “Truman Capote? Coming to Kansas?” I said, “Yes.” He thought for a minute. He said, “I’ll make a deal with him. If he’ll spend one night talking to the English department, I’ll give him letters to half the people in Garden City.” I said, “I accept for Truman right now. Great! He’s bringing a young assistant with him. She’s a girl who will have to be put up too. I’ve never met her. I think she may be some distant relation of Truman. Nobody ever heard of her.” It was…
The To Kill a Mockingbird girl–Harper Lee.
Correct! But she was still unknown at this time. I told Jim, “Before you spring Truman Capote on your English faculty, for god’s sake, tip them off. Their first inclination will be to laugh at him. Tell them to listen carefully, and in one hour they will be at his feet. Don’t worry about that. Don’t let that first impression fool you. He will capture your faculty with the ease of somebody capturing butterflies.”
Truman and Harper Lee went out to Manhattan. Two days later Jim called me up. He said, “I want to report on the visit of Mr. Capote and the little girl that was with him. They are both great. It’s lucky you warned me about Truman, though, because he came waltzing in with a pink velvet coat on and announced, ‘I bet I’m the first man that has ever come to Manhattan, Kansas wearing a Dior jacket.'” McCain said, “I’ll go you one better, Mr. Capote. You’re the first man or woman who ever came to Manhattan, Kansas wearing a Dior jacket.”
McCain continued, “I took him in to meet the faculty. I had told them what you said. I must now tell you that Truman left this morning with Miss Lee on the Santa Fe to go to Garden City, and the entire faculty got up to see him off at 6:30 this morning.” I said, “I told you.” He said, “I might as well finish my confession. Mrs. McCain and I got up too.” At six o’clock in the morning they all got up to see Truman off!
He got out to Garden City, where the head of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was a man named Al Dewey. He was going crazy trying to solve this case. He had turned up nothing and people were getting angrier and angrier at him. Suddenly he looks up, and to add to his troubles here’s little Truman Capote arrived to cover the case. Dewey tried to throw him out of Garden City. Two weeks later, Truman was living at the Dewey house. Today Truman Capote is seeing the two Dewey kids through college, and the Deweys and everybody else
in Garden City adore him. Of course Al Dewey has become nationally famous because of that book, and Truman provided valuable help in solving that whole case.
The minute that the two boys who were guilty were captured, who became their best friend in the world? Truman Capote. Before they died, Perry, the one who was a poet, gave Truman his whole collection of books and all of his poetry. He was the one who insisted that Truman be the witness. Each man was allowed one witness at the execution. Truman had to go to that double hanging. By this time, Truman had become very close with his new editor at Random House after Linscott retired. That was Joe Fox. Joe Fox today is one of Truman’s closest friends. He made Joe come out to go with him to the execution. Joe was horrified, but he had to do it. The scene is all depicted in the movie, as you know. You’ve seen the picture, haven’t you?
No. I’ve read the book though.
Just before the execution, Perry demanded that Truman come over and say good-bye to him on the scaffold; and he threw his arms around Truman and kissed him good-bye and said, “I’m so sorry.” Truman collapsed, as I or anybody else would have. Joe had a time later with Truman. Both of them were in a state of collapse.
Would you say that some of the charm of Capote is that he has such a heart? The word isn’t heart. You said that he’s seeing the Dewey children through college.
Oh, this is Truman.
This is something that I don’t think that people necessarily know. Even I don’t. How do you explain the affection he inspires in so many busy and important people?
Irresistible charm. When Truman comes up to our house alone, as he sometimes does in the summer, I announce very angrily that I am not going to sit up all night listening to his gossip, half made up and mostly shocking. I say to Phyllis, “You sit up if you want. At one o’clock, I’m going to go to bed.” Phyllis says, “All right. You go to bed. I’ll sit up with him.” I never go to bed. I can’t tear myself away. I’m always afraid that I’m going to miss something. Truman starts in usually at dinner, waving his arms around and telling his scandalous stories about everybody under the sun. I can’t tear myself away. Nor can anybody else.
Often the people that carry the stories, the gossips… it’s usually about all of the other people that they know and they make their enemies.
He has no enemies.
That’s it. Why is that?
To show you how close he is…after In Cold Blood came out and was, of course, a sensation…and the four installments in The New Yorker.
Oh, I was just glued to it. We got The New Yorker the next two weeks.
We were outraged that so many people were reading it in The New Yorker.
It didn’t make any difference.
Well, it was The New Yorker editors‘idea. They started it.
I don’t think that it hurt the sale. Do you?
Sure it did.
I think that more people who read the magazine pieces wanted to read the book.
The book was an enormous, number one best-seller from the day that it was published, and the first two or three weeks sold about 50,000 copies a week. You never saw anything like it. Truman basked in all this. Oh, how he loved the publicity. He knew precisely how to handle it. He’s superb at publicizing himself.
You were going to try to tell me how people get close to him. What do you mean?
He winds himself into your heart, and he begins telling you stories about things that you like to hear. Suddenly you find yourself telling him things that you shouldn’t.
But he is dependable. Phyllis says that if you tell him something that really is in confidence, you can count on him. I don’t know, but she says that you can. She says, “I’ve done it. I’ve told him a few things that I haven’t even told you, testing him. When Truman tells you that he’s going to keep a confidence, he can and does.”
Do you think that women get closer to him than men?
The funny thing about Truman is that he wins both women and men.
That’s funny. I don’t understand.
He’s the type of fellow who does get close to women, but he does it with men too. You see, I love him too. Bill Paley loves him too. He certainly is closer to Babe Paley and my wife than he is to Bill and me, but we both love him. When Truman comes to the house, I am always delighted to see him although he sometimes annoys me by his throwing his arms around me and calling me “Great White Father” and “Big Daddy” and all of that stuff. I say, “For Pete’s sake, cut that out.” But I rather like it anyhow when Truman does it. I love him.
You would think that a man might be repulsed by him a bit or that a woman might.
Not when you know him.
Well, some time In Cold Blood came out, Truman brought the whole Garden City contingent to New York City. Being Truman, he arranged a series of parties for them. Truman is now at the point where he can call up Phyllis and say, “You’re giving a party on Wednesday, December 19 and these are the people that you’re going to have.” Then he’ll call up Babe Paley and say, “You’re giving the party on the thirteenth and these are the people that you are going to have. This is the seating arrangement.” It’s the great Mr. Capote talking: They religiously obey him. We had this party for the Deweys, and he dictated who came and who sat with whom. Everybody gave parties when Truman ordered them, and that’s when he gave his famous ball at the Plaza himself. At this time he was still living in a house in Brooklyn Heights and the schedule proved arduous even for Mr. Capote–going home every night at about 2:30 a.m. so that for these two weeks he lived in our house in our guest room. The people from Garden City were in an absolute daze. They were meeting everybody from the President of the United States down. Mrs. Kay Graham, head of Newsweek and the Washington Post, gave the big party for them in Washington by order of Truman. All they met down there was the President, the Secretary of State, and every other V.I.P. under the sun.
One night Phyllis said to him, “Truman, even you can’t stand this pace.” Truman said, “Well, I am tired. Tomorrow night I’m packing them off to the theater.” He ordered somebody to give them a theater party for some show that he had seen about six times. He said, “I’m going to bed. I’m going over to Brooklyn Heights and I’m going to sleep for fifteen hours.” The next afternoon, I watched him going off with his little bag to “go home to sleep for fifteen hours.” I said to Phyllis, “What do you bet that something is going to happen and he’s not going to bed?” Phyllis said, “Do you think I’m crazy? Of course something is going to happen. It’s Truman.” Well, Truman went off to his home in Brooklyn Heights. The next night we met at one of the parties. I said, “How much sleep did you get last night?” He giggled happily and said, “Well, I didn’t get much.” Here’s what happened. He arrived home and there was a girl waiting for him in his house, a girl who had a key to his apartment, and was upstairs painting when he arrived, waiting for him to come home. That girl was Jacqueline Kennedy. It was just about the anniversary of the assassination–two years or three years–I’ve forgotten which–after the assassination. She was very low. Who did she turn to? Her great friend Truman Capote. As Phyllis said, “That was one place where she knew she was safe alone.” The Secret Service were in a car waiting below. Truman went to the icebox and found two bottles of the best champagne on ice. The two of them together killed these two great big bottles of champagne and sat up practically all night talking. At about five in the morning, Jackie went down to her car and went home with the Secret Service people.
That’s the life of Truman Capote. Isn’t that fantastic. Think of it. Going home and finding sitting there calmly painting, completely at home, of all people in the world, Jacqueline Kennedy;
Is he working on anything now?
He is indeed. He’s writing a novel called Answered Prayers, which is a wonderful title. He’s great at titles– Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood. They’re perfect titles. But the “answered prayers” comes I think from St. Theresa, who said that the worst kind of prayers are answered prayers. This is really a story of three or four girls who started with very little except magnificent faces and bodies– very smart girls–who today are reigning society queens, married to millionaires. Knowing Truman, he would know the models. I said, “Truman, some of your best friends aren’t going to talk to you after this.” Truman said, “Oh, I’m too smart for that.” He’ll have them all mixed up so that each one will know who it is except themselves. Of course they all know he’s doing it, and they’re waiting with some trepidation.
Did he ever suggest…? I know that Harper “Lee was published by Lippincott.
She didn’t want to come to Random House.
You never saw the book?
I never saw the book because she thought that we’d take it just to please Truman and she wanted to make it on her own. Damn it all, she took it to Lippincott:
But apparently that book had a lot of work done on it too.
Yes. As a matter of fact, if she had brought it to us, it may not have turned out as well as it did. It would have depended on who became the editor. I think that it’s one of the finest novels of recent years.
Of course Truman is in it. There is a little boy who comes up from New Orleans and makes up great tales about all of the famous people that he’s met. It’s Truman, obviously Truman. When you’ve met Truman and read this book again, you realize that it’s absolutely accurate and a faithful picture of him as a little boy. He’s been that way all of his life. He tells about some of his early years in Other Voices, Other Rooms.
His mother is a perfectly plain, normal person and so is his step-father. They live on Park Avenue. She can’t understand how she produced something like Truman Capote. Of course he treats her with amused tolerance.
Have you ever felt when reading Capote’s work–I think maybe with the exception of In Cold Blood–that his treatment of women…I mean, even in “Miriam,” every one is making fun of the women and the role.
No. I don’t agree with you. As a matter of fact, Holly Golightly is a very charming girl in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If you remember the way that Audrey Hepburn played it in the movie, it was with utter charm.
Of course when David Merrick tried to make a musical of it, it was a disaster. It never even came to New York, as you know. That happened with the next Merrick show too, Mata Hari. I saw him the other night and said, “How is the show that you’re bringing in Thursday, Happy Times?” Very defensively he said, “At least I’m going to open it.” I hear that it’s not very good. Well, I guess we’ve devoted enough time to Mr. Capote.