Capote, Truman Garcia

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CAPOTE, Truman Garcia

(b. 30 September 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana; d. 25 August 1984 in Los Angeles, California), flamboyant novelist, journalist, playwright, screen-writer, and short-story writer, known for the precision of his prose and his ostentatious lifestyle, who is often credited with creating the genre of the nonfiction novel with the publication of In Cold Blood (1966) .

Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons, the son of Archulus "Arch" Persons and Lillie Mae Faulk (later Nina Capote). As a child, Capote saw little of his parents. His father was frequently off chasing get-rich-quick schemes that never panned out. His mother was often away pursuing her fervent desire for a grander life, leaving Capote in the care of relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, where he became childhood friends with (Nelle) Harper Lee, who would eventually write the highly acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee was only the first of the famous people Capote would become acquainted with during the course of his life.

In 1931 Capote's mother moved to New York City to live with Joseph Garcia Capote, a successful businessman. She divorced Arch Persons, married Joe Capote, and discarded the name "Lillie Mae" for the more sophisticated "Nina." In 1932 Capote joined his mother and her new husband in New York. Joe Capote legally adopted Truman on 14 February 1935, and Truman Persons became Truman Capote.

Convinced at an early age that he wanted to be a writer, Capote was a disinterested student, and when the opportunity presented itself, he abandoned school for a position as a copyboy with The New Yorker. By the mid-1940s, he had begun to publish short stories in respected periodicals such as Harper's Bazaar and Mademoiselle. His work was well received, and in 1946 he won the O. Henry Memorial Award for "Miriam."

By the time Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, found print in 1948, literary circles in New York were already buzzing with rumors about his talent, and Capote, always the homme d'esprit (witty gentleman), had ingratiated himself into New York society's inner circle. Capote continued to publish fiction, essays, plays, and screenplays throughout the 1950s, but two events occurred in the 1960s that made that decade the pinnacle of his life and career.

The first was the result of a single-column story in the 16 November 1959 edition of the New York Times titled "Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain." The story about the murder of a farmer, his wife, and his two children in a small town in Holcomb, Kansas, took possession of Capote, and he was compelled to write about the incident. Originally planning to write a short piece for The New Yorker, Capote, accompanied by Harper Lee, traveled to the small town to interview people who had known the murdered family. After a rocky start, Capote managed to penetrate the small town culture of Holcomb, despite his boyish appearance, effeminate mannerisms, and high-pitched voice. When the two murderers were arrested in late 1959, Capote began adding their story to his work.

Obsessed with the story and aware of its potential to result in a literary masterpiece, Capote maintained an ongoing relationship with both killers until their executions in 1965. The resulting book, In Cold Blood, which was published in January 1966, was indeed hailed as a masterpiece and brought Capote both the critical and popular success he had imagined when he first began to write. It was Capote himself who coined the term "nonfiction novel" to describe what he considered a new literary form. Most literary scholars disagreed that it was a new genre, but that did not deter them from admitting the book's brilliance. Noel Coward called it a masterpiece, as did Conrad Knickerbocker in his review for the New York Times Book Review. Readers fought over copies. Irving "Swifty" Lazar smashed a glass over Otto Preminger's head at the 21 Club when the two fought after Lazar backed out of a promise to sell the film rights to Preminger for a Frank Sinatra vehicle. Capote's biographer Gerald Clarke put it succinctly when he wrote, "Nineteen sixty-six was … [Capote's] year."

The publication of In Cold Blood made Capote a household name—a widely recognized figure in American literature and culture, but the next monumental event in Capote's life during the 1960s doubled his fame and made him a legend. Partly as an offering to the hundreds of rich, famous, and influential people who had befriended him throughout his life, and partly to further his own more mature image, Capote planned and executed the single most important social event of the 1960s—the Black and White Ball in honor of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on 28 November 1966. Capote's planning was as meticulous as his writing. His exclusive guest list included some of the most influential people in the world: writers such as Norman Mailer, Edward Albee, Philip Roth, and Tennessee Williams; celebrities such as Tallulah Bankhead, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Andy Warhol, and Greta Garbo; a broad assortment of royalty; and a gathering of Vanderbilts, Rothschilds, and Rockefellers. The event drew so much attention that the New York Times printed the guest list on its front page.

For the remainder of the 1960s, Truman Capote was "omnipotent" (as Women's Wear Daily claimed). "His mere presence … virtually guaranteed the success of any event he attended," said Kay Meehan. A society reporter for the New York Times claimed that Capote's "name on an invitation … [was] as potent as a Rockefeller signature on a check."

Capote's fame turned to infamy in the 1970s. The main focus of his writing was Answered Prayers, a novel he had first imagined in 1958. Capote thought Answered Prayers would establish him as the American Proust, but despite the promise of the early chapters, Answered Prayers, a roman à clef that exposed the secrets of his high society friends, became his undoing. When chapters of the work in progress were published in Esquire in the mid 1970s, they prompted outrage from Capote's influential friends. Capote was shunned in many social circles. Despondent over the loss of most of his longtime affiliations, Capote sank further into alcohol and drug abuse and became a caricature of his former self. He died of a "cardiac rhythm disorder" as a "result of drug overload" in 1984, without completing what promised to be his greatest work. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered near his Long Island home.

Much relevant information about Capote's life in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s can be gleaned from his own A House on the Heights (reprinted 2002). The most comprehensive biography of Capote is Gerald Clarke, Capote (1988). See also George Plimpton, Truman Capote (1997); Lawrence Grobel, Conversations with Capote (2000); and Marie Rudisill with James C. Simmons, The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote (2000).

Kevin Alexander Boon