Born September 30, 1924, in New Orleans, LA; name legally changed; died of liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication, August 25, 1984, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Archulus Persons (a nonpracticing lawyer) and Lillie Mae (Faulk) Persons Capote; adopted by Joseph G. Capote. Education: Attended Trinity School and St. John's Academy, both in New York, NY, and public schools in Greenwich, CT.
Writer. Worked for New Yorker magazine as a newspaper clipper and cartoon cataloger, c. 1943-44; also moonlighted as a filmscript reader and freelance writer of anecdotes for a digest magazine. Appeared in motion picture Murder by Death, Columbia, 1976.
National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Won first literary prize at age ten in Mobile Press Register contest, for short story "Old Mr. Busybody"; O. Henry Award, Doubleday & Co., 1946, for "Miriam," 1948, for "Shut a Final Door," and 1951; National Institute of Arts and Letters creative writing award, 1959; Edgar Allan Poe Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1966, and National Book Award nomination, 1967, both for In Cold Blood; Emmy Award, 1967, for television adaptation A Christmas Memory.
Other Voices, Other Rooms (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1948, reprinted with an introduction by the author, 1968.
A Tree of Night, and Other Stories (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1949.
Local Color (nonfiction sketches), Random House (New York, NY), 1950.
The Grass Harp (novel; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1951.
The Grass Harp, and A Tree of Night, and Other Stories, New American Library (New York, NY), 1956.
A Christmas Memory (first published in Mademoiselle, December, 1956; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
The Muses Are Heard: An Account (first published in New Yorker), Random House (New York, NY), 1956, published as The Muses Are Heard: An Account of the Porgy and Bess Visit to Leningrad, Heinemann (London, England), 1957.
Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories, Random House (New York, NY), 1958, published as Breakfast at Tiffany's, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1959).
(Author of commentary) Richard Avedon, Observations, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1959.
Selected Writings, introduction by Mark Schorer, Random House (New York, NY), 1963.
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (nonfiction novel; first serialized in New Yorker), Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
The Thanksgiving Visitor (first published in McCall's; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1968, with illustrations by Beth Peck, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
Miriam (first published in Mademoiselle; also see below), Creative Education, Inc. (Mankato, MN), 1982.
Music for Chameleons: New Writing, Random House (New York, NY), 1983.
One Christmas (first published in Ladies Home Journal), Random House (New York, NY), 1983.
Answered Prayers: The Partial Manuscript (first serialized in Esquire), edited by Joseph Fox, Random House (New York, NY), 1986, published as Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel, Random House (New York, NY), 1987. I Remember Grandpa, Peachtree, 1987.
"The Thanksgiving Visitor," "One Christmas," "A Christmas Memory," Modern Library (New York, NY), 1996.
A House on the Heights introduction by George Plimpton, Little Bookroom (New York, NY), 2002.
The Collected Stories of Truman Capote, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2004.
The Grass Harp: A Play (based on novel of the same title; produced on Broadway, 1952; produced as a musical on Broadway, 1971), Random House (New York, NY), 1952.
(With Harold Arlen) The House of Flowers (libretto; based on short story of the same title; produced on Broadway, 1954; revised version first produced off-Broadway, 1968), Random House (New York, NY), 1968.
(With John Huston) Beat the Devil, United Artists, 1954.
(With William Archibald and John Mortimer) The Innocents (based on the novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1961.
(With Eleanor Perry) Trilogy (also see below; adapted from Capote's short stories "Miriam" and "Among the Paths to Eden" and the novella A Christmas Memory), Allied Artists, 1969.
A Christmas Memory (based on novella of same title), American Broadcasting Company (ABC-TV), 1966.
Among the Paths to Eden (adapted from short story of the same title), first produced in 1967.
The Thanksgiving Visitor (based on book of same title), ABC-TV, 1968.
Behind Prison Walls, 1972.
(With Tracy Keenan Wynn and Wyatt Cooper) The Glass House, 1972.
(Author of introduction) The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1966.
(With E. Perry and Frank Perry) Trilogy: An Experiment in Multimedia, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
A Capote Reader, Random House (New York, NY), 1987.
Marilyn Monroe: Photographs, 1945-1962, Norton (New York, NY), 1994.
(Essay) Marlon Brando: Portraits and Film Stills 1946-1995, edited by Lothar Schirmer, Stewart, Tabori and Chang (New York, NY), 1996.
Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
Also author of Then It All Came Down: Criminal Justice Today Discussed by Police, Criminals, and Correction Officers, With Comments by Truman Capote, 1976. Contributor to numerous anthologies, including Five Modern American Short Stories, edited by Helmut Tischler, M. Diesterweg, 1962. Author of Esquire column "Observations," beginning 1983. Contributor to national magazines, including Vogue, Mademoiselle, Ladies' Home Journal, Esquire, and New Yorker. Many of Capote's books have been translated into foreign languages, including French, German, Spanish, and Italian.
Capote made a sound recording of his short story "Children on Their Birthdays" for Columbia, c. 1950s; Breakfast at Tiffany's was filmed by Paramount, 1961; In Cold Blood was filmed by Columbia Pictures, 1967; A Christmas Memory was filmed for television in 1968; "Handcarved Coffins" was optioned for film by Lester Persky Productions, 1980.
A masterful stylist who took great pride in his writing, Truman Capote was also a well-known television personality who was openly obsessed with fame. In addition to literary recognition, the flamboyant, Southern-born writer sought social privilege and public celebrity, objectives he achieved in 1948 with the appearance of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. That book—published with a provocative dust-jacket photo of the author that far overshadowed the literary merit of the work—was the start of what Capote later termed "a certain notoriety" that kept step with him over the years. Believing that fame would not affect his art, Capote cultivated an entourage of rich and celebrated friends, observing their foibles with a watchful eye and inspiring confidences he would later betray. By 1959, he had already embarked on Answered Prayers—the never-to-be-finished roman à clef that precipitated a personal and professional crisis. Then he decided to put it "temporarily" aside while he explored something more serious—"a theme," as he explained to Newsweek contributor Jack Kroll, "not likely to darken and yellow with time." His idea was to bring "the art of the novelist together with the technique of journalism" to produce a new genre, the nonfiction novel. Over six years in the making, the resulting book, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, was not only an enormous critical and commercial success, but also a seminal work of new journalism that remains the highlight of Capote's career.
Though the nonfiction novel was his most original contribution to the literary world, Capote also produced conventional writing of top quality. In short stories, plays, straight reportage, television adaptations, and filmscripts, he demonstrated what Los Angeles Times contributor Carolyn See called "the uncanny gift of putting a world or a scene together in a few perfect details." Among his other talents were "his patience for fact-collecting, his faithfulness to the true nature of his subject and his consummate
gift as a storyteller," according to New York Times Book Review contributor Lis Harris. He was, in, the words of David Remnick in the Washington Post, "a writer of brilliance, capable of economical, evocative prose. His technique was mature, professional in the best possible sense."
Though his style of writing evolved over the years, falling into what Capote himself considered four different phases, his poetic voice was distinctive right from the start. "Truman had an odd and personal perspective on experience that only real writers have," James Dickey explained in the New York Times. "A lot of writers sweat and labor to acquire that, but Truman Capote had it naturally. He was maybe a little heavy on the Southern gothic side of things, a little bit willfully perverse. . . . But at his best, he had a very great sensitivity and linguistic originality." In the same New York Times article, John Knowles expressed a similar view, saying of Capote's voice that "it was like no one else's—precise, clear, sometimes fey, lyrical, witty, graceful."
Capote himself often suggested that his originality was pervasive, influencing not just his writing but every aspect of his life. "The thing about people like me is that we always knew what we were going to do," the writer once told New York Times Magazine contributor Anne Taylor Fleming. "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 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." According to Fleming, "looking at the boy he must have been, the slender, pretty, high-voiced boy. . . , it seems easy to see, too easy maybe, how the kind of fame he coveted would someday become too heavy."
A Troubled Childhood among Relations
Born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana, Capote had a childhood that, by all accounts, was difficult. His mother, a former Miss Alabama who later committed suicide, considered herself temperamentally unsuited to motherhood and sent him off to be raised by relatives in Monroeville, a small Alabama town. When he was four years old, his parents ended their marriage in a bitter divorce: his mother went north to New York, his father south to New Orleans, and young Truman became "a spiritual orphan," in Fleming's words. Though he frequently summered with his father, traveling up and down the Mississippi on the family-owned Streckfus Steam Boat Line, the two were never close, and Capote considered him "a bounder and a cad." The Monroeville years were difficult for Capote, comprising a time when he felt "like a turtle on its back. You see," he explained to Fleming, "I was so different from every one, 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."
Capote's closest friends at this time were an elderly cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, whom Fleming describes as "the archetype of the aging innocent, the best of the simple people with an inarticulate wisdom and a childlike capacity for joy and strange imaginings," and a neighboring tomboy, Harper Lee, who helped young Truman type his manuscripts and eventually became an award-winning author herself, writing To Kill a Mockingbird. Both personalities appear in Capote's early fiction, his cousin in autobiographical stories, such as "A Christmas Memory," and his friend in his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms.
His mother, meanwhile, had remarried Cuban-born New York businessman Joe Capote, and when, after a series of miscarriages, she realized she could have no more children, she sent for Truman. He was nine years old. Legally adopted by his stepfather, the young author attended school in Manhattan, then enrolled at Trinity, and, at age thirteen was sent to live at St. John's Academy, a military boarding school. "I was lonely and very insecure," Capote told Playboy interviewer Eric Norden about his schooling. "Who wouldn't be? I was an only child, very sensitive and intelligent, with no sense of being particularly wanted by anybody. . . . I wasn't neglected financially; there was always enough money to send me to good schools, and all that. It was just a total emotional neglect. I never felt I belonged anywhere. All my family thought there was something wrong with me."
In fact, Capote's grades were so low that, over the years, his family began to worry that he might be retarded. But when a special group of WPA researchers came to his school to conduct intelligence tests, Capote received the highest score they had ever seen. "I had the highest intelligence of any child in the United States," Capote told Washington Post reporter David Remnick, "an IQ of 215." Nonetheless, he had little use for formal schooling and, though he did graduate from high school—a fact he obscured for many years—Capote told Norden he was "determined never to set foot inside a college classroom. If I was a writer, fine; if I wasn't, no professor on earth was going to make me one."
In place of formal education, Capote substituted experience, landing a job with the New Yorker when he was seventeen years old. "That job wasn't very glamorous, just clipping newspapers and filing cartoons," Capote told Norden, but it marked the beginning of a long association with the magazine that would serialize his best-known work and, to some extent, shape his writing style. Initially, however, his stories were rejected by the magazine. Instead, he made his first big sale shortly after leaving the New Yorker, when Mademoiselle bought a short story, "Miriam," which later garnered an O. Henry Award. According to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Craig M. Goad, "Miriam" "typifies the early Capote manner. It is a story of isolation, dread, and psychological breakdown told in rich, precisely mannered prose. There is little technical or thematic experimentation in 'Miriam' and the other Capote stories that appeared regularly in the postwar years. The shadow of Edgar Allan Poe floats over the surface of these stories, and their chief aim often seems to be only to produce a mild frisson."
A Startling First Novel
"Miriam" caught the attention of Random House editor Robert Linscott, who told Capote that he would be interested in publishing whatever the young author wanted to write. Capote had already begun work on Summer Crossing, "a spare, objective story with a New York setting," according to Capote, who acknowledged in the preface to the 1968 reprint of Other Voices, Other Rooms that "in order to complete the book . . . I took courage, quit my job, left New York and settled with relatives in a remote part of Alabama." But, once arrived, Capote began having doubts about his novel. "More and more," he wrote, "Summer Crossing seemed to me thin, clever, unfelt." While walking in the woods one afternoon, Capote was seized with a new vision, one inspired by childhood memories. He returned home, "tossed the manuscript of Summer Crossing into a bottom bureau drawer, collected several sharp pencils and a fresh pad of yellow lined paper and with pathetic optimism, wrote: Other Voices, Other Rooms."
The novel took two years to complete and was published in 1948 to mostly favorable reviews. However, it was the book's packaging rather than its literary merit that titillated the public's attention, for the dust-jacket photo portrayed the twenty-three-year-old author reclining on a couch, looking "as if he were dreamily contemplating some outrage against conventional morality," according to a report
in the Los Angeles Times. Because Capote, an open homosexual, had focused on the developing relationship between an effete transvestite and his young male cousin, "readers at the time suspected that Capote may have identified with the book's protagonist and that 'Other Voices, Other Rooms' was a confession of sexual deviation," explained George Ramos and Laurie Becklund in the Los Angeles Times. In retrospect, Capote was able to identify the book's many autobiographical elements—particularly, as he explained in his 1968 preface, the parallels between protagonist Joel Knox's quest for love and his own search for an "essentially imaginary" father—but he did not make the connection at the time. "Rereading it now, I find such self-deception unpardonable," Capote wrote.
What many conservative critics found "unpardonable" was not Capote's self-deception, but rather his aberrant theme. "For all his novel's gifted invention and imagery, the distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss," wrote the Time contributor. And, writing in the Nation, respected literary critic Diana Trilling expressed a similar view: "Even if Mr. Capote were ten or twenty years older than he is, his powers of description and evocation, his ability to bend language to his poetic moods, his ear for dialect and for the varied rhythms of speech would be remarkable. . . . On the other hand, I find myself deeply antipathetic to the whole artistic moral purpose of Mr. Capote's novel. I would freely trade eighty per cent of his technical virtuosity for twenty per cent more value in the uses to which it is put."
Some critics also reacted against the apparent self-consciousness of the writing. "Other Voices, Other Rooms is the novel of someone who wanted, with a fixed and single-minded and burning will, to write a novel," wrote Cynthia Ozick in a New Republic critique of the twentieth-anniversary edition. "The vision of Other Voices, Other Rooms is the vision of capital-A Art—essence freed from existence." What this artistic preoccupation led to, in the eyes of a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, was "the temptation to mystify for the sake of mystification." Noted Saturday Review contributor Richard McLaughlin: "If he had selected his material more carefully, shown more restraint, and had been less concerned with terrifying us out of our wits, he might have easily made a real and tenderly appealing story out of the experiences of thirteen-year-old Joel Knox and the people he meets during that long and lonely summer of his approaching maturity."
After the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote moved for a time to Europe, where he traveled widely with novelist Jack Dunphy, "the only man . . . with whom he has ever been in love," according to Fleming in the New York Times Magazine. During this ten-year period, which Capote described as the second phase of his development and which ended in 1958, the author experimented with various kinds of writing. There were nonfiction travel essays and portraits such as Local Color and Observations, short story collections A Tree of Night and A Christmas Memory, adaptations of two earlier fictions into the Broadway plays The Grass Harp and House of Flowers, and the scripting of the original films Beat the Devil and The Innocents. There was also "a great deal of factual reportage, most of it for the New Yorker," Capote recalled in the preface to Music for Chameleons. His most memorable assignments included a tongue-in-cheek profile of actor Marlon Brando and a wry account of a black theatrical troupe's production of Porgy and Bess in Russia, later published in book form as The Muses Are Heard.
Though Capote's version of the Porgy and Bess tour of Russia "didn't quite jibe with the way some other observers of the trip remembered it," according to Washington Post reporter Tom Zito, The Muses Are Heard was a critical success that "brilliantly utilized the literary forms of a fiction writer to present factual material." To achieve its effect of what Zito called "deadpan mockery," the book pokes gentle fun at a number of people, leaving "almost everyone touched by Mr. Capote's pen looking a little foolish," according to a reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor. The Muses Are Heard had "more to it than entrancing fun," as Atlantic Monthly contributor C. J. Rolo explained: "While Capote's eye and ear have a radar-like sensitivity to the incongruous and the hilarious, they also dig the significant. What is dingy and nasty in Soviet life is revealed subtly and shrewdly, with a telling selectivity."
That selectivity reflected Capote's approach to his subject. To research his chronicle, he had employed neither tape recorder nor note pad, relying instead upon his photographic memory, which he viewed as a journalist's stock-in-trade. He would write up his impressions at the end of the day, but never during an interview, for he felt note-taking put his subjects on guard. "Taking notes produces the wrong kind of atmosphere," he pointed out to Newsweek's Jack Kroll, explaining how he had trained his memory "by getting a friend to read me the Sears Roebuck catalog. I would have a tape recorder going at the same time. At first I could remember only forty per cent, then after three months sixty per cent. Now I can remember ninety per cent, and who cares about the other ten per cent," he said in 1966.
The Muses Are Heard, which was the first book Capote produced using this method, impressed theNew York Times reviewer as "a record made by a brilliant writer in a casual, almost flippant manner—but with such freshness, with such light strokes and subtle innuendo, that the book reads like a highly enjoyable, charming story." The technique was so successful that it prompted Capote to envision a new kind of 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," as he once explained to James Wolcott in the New York Review of Books. In his mind, he christened this new genre "the nonfiction novel" and he began looking for a suitable theme.
Success with Breakfast at Tiffany's
Before Capote found his subject, he published one more conventional novel, Breakfast at Tiffany's, later adapted into a popular film starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. The engaging story of Manhattan playgirl Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany's demonstrates a maturity lacking in Capote's early fiction—at least in the opinion of New Republic contributor Stanley Kauffmann, who wrote: "It was with Breakfast at Tiffany's . . . that . . . Capote began to see enough of life and love to be more interested in his material than himself and to reveal the humor that now seems basic to him." Breakfast at Tiffany's is set in Manhattan in 1943. It is a portrait of Holly Golightly, an impulsive, outspoken, young woman who is in some ways worldly—she has no trouble, for example, accepting fifty-dollar bills as "powder room change" from her escorts—but is fundamentally naive. Drawn to the social whirl of New York City, she lives in an apartment with a nameless cat and no furniture; bringing her gentleman friends home at all hours, she rings her neighbor's doorbells, seemingly oblivious to her acts of social indiscretion. Her story is related in the first person by her devoted friend, Buster, a struggling writer and a neighbor in her apartment building. Both Buster and an elderly bartender become deeply attached to Holly, who avoids all close relationships. What she does love is the luxury store Tiffany's, which is where she goes when she is depressed. It calms her down, she claims, and if she "could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name." While sharing with him her affection and appealing eccentricity, Holly ultimately draws Buster into trouble when she becomes embroiled with a criminal named Sally Tomato, a dope dealer whose exploits are depicted in a convoluted subplot.
Though Capote conceived of his story as a fiction, he was already drawing heavily from real life incidents, a point not lost on Kauffmann, who observed that "real names might conceivably be affixed to every character in Breakfast at Tiffany's and the whole published as a report on Manhattan life in the war years. If this is a restrictive comment, it is not meant to be condemnatory: because from her first appearance Holly leaps to life. Her dialogue has the perfection of pieces of mosaic fitting neatly and unassailably in place. The fey madness and extravagance, character qualities that easily throw fiction off the rails, always seem intrinsic, not contrived. . . . His fiction is strongest, most vital, when it resembles his best non-fiction." In the opinion of the Times Literary Supplement critic, the writing in Breakfast at Tiffany's "shorn of affection and the too-carefully chosen word," put Capote "in immediate sympathy with his characters" and placed "him at once among the leading American writers of the day."
Capote saw the second phase of his development as a writer come to a close with Breakfast at Tiffany's, and, after its publication, he turned his efforts "toward journalism as an art form in itself. I had two reasons," he explained in the preface to Music for Chameleons. "First, it didn't seem to me that anything truly innovative had occurred in prose writing . . . since the 1920s; second, journalism as an art was almost virgin territory." He began to search in earnest for a suitable subject, experimenting with several different ideas at this time. One project was a Proustian work, according to Julie Baumgold in New York, tentatively titled Answered Prayers. "Capote had the title since the 1950s," wrote Baumgold, and "began in 1958 with notes, a full outline, and an ending." Despite his commitment to the project—which he admittedly envisioned as his masterwork—Answered Prayers was "temporarily" shelved when Capote got a brainstorm. "One day," he recalled to Haskel Frankel in the Saturday Review, "it suddenly occurred to me that a crime might be an excellent subject to make my big experiment with. . . . Once I had decided on the possibility of a crime . . . I would half-consciously, when looking through the papers, always notice any item that had a reference to a crime."
A Crime in Kansas
On November 16, 1959, Capote found what he had been looking for. Briefly noted in a New York Times wire story was the multiple murder of a wealthy wheat farmer, his wife, and their two teenage children in a small Kansas town. "Almost instantaneously I thought, well, this is maybe exactly what I want to do, because I don't know anything about that part of the world," Capote told Frankel. "I've never been to Kansas, much less western Kansas. It all seems fresh to me. I'll go without any prejudices. And so I went."
Three days later, Capote arrived in Holcomb, Kansas, accompanied by his childhood friend Harper Lee, who assisted him with the initial research. The town was in the throes of a brutal unsolved slaying, its residents not only traumatized but also deeply suspicious, and the urbane little dandy from New York City was not well received. Capote recalled that it took about a month for his presence to be accepted and that after the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were apprehended, people finally began to open up to him. In addition to interviewing the townspeople, murderers, and anyone else even remotely connected to the Clutter case, Capote retraced the killers' flight, journeying south to Miami and Acapulco, renting rooms in the same cheap hotels. He did months of research on the criminal mind and interviewed a number of death row killers, "solely to give me a perspective on these two boys," as he explained to George Plimpton in the New York Times Book Review. Before he began writing, he had amassed over 6,000 pages of notes, explaining, "Eighty per cent of the research I . . . never used. But it gave me such a grounding that I never had any hesitation in my consideration of the subject." All told, the project, which Capote regarded as the third phase of his writing development, consumed almost six years. When it was over, Capote confessed to Frankel, "I would never do it again. . . . If I had known what that book was going to cost in every conceivable way, emotionally, I never would have started it, and I really mean that."
Some people attribute Capote's escalating physical and emotional problems to the acute stress he suffered during the project. Fleming reported that this was the period when he "began to take the tranquilizers to which he later became addicted." If he paid a high personal price, the financial compensations for In Cold Blood were generous, however, for the story was a commercial success even before it appeared in book form. Serialized in the New Yorker in four consecutive issues, In Cold Blood boosted the magazine's sales and netted Capote a rumored $70,000 in serialization rights. New American Library paid a reported $700,000 for paperback rights and Columbia Pictures spent almost a million dollars for filming rights. By 1983, according to the Washington Post, In Cold Blood had brought the author $2 million in royalties.
The book was also a critical success, described by New York Times Book Review contributor Conrad Knickerbocker as "a masterpiece—agonizing, terrible, possessed, proof that the times, so surfeited with disasters, are still capable of tragedy." In Cold Blood, according to the Time reviewer, "plays a light that illuminates the interior climate of murder with intense fidelity. Capote has invested the victims with a dignity and reality that life hitherto had confined only to the closed circle of their friends, and he has thrust the act of violence itself before the reader as if it were happening before his very eyes." David Remnick deemed certain "passages in it every bit as rhythmically spellbinding as Hemingway's famous opening to 'A Farewell to Arms,'" while F. W. Dupee extolled it as "the best documentary account of an American crime ever written," in the New York Review of Books.
Like any experimental literary work, In Cold Blood also had its share of detractors. Fellow novelist Norman Mailer, when asked his reaction to Capote's new genre, glibly dismissed it as "a failure of imagination," though as Capote took great pleasure in pointing out, Mailer later employed the same subject and technique in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Executioner's Song. "Now I see that the only prizes Norman wins are for the very same kind of writing," Capote later quipped to the Washington Post. "I'm glad I was of some service to him."
Capote, who told Norden that he had "undertaken the most comprehensive and far-reaching experiment to date in the medium of reportage," never doubted the originality of his contribution. But others, like Diana Trilling, were not convinced. "Works of autobiography such as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, works of history such as Cecil Woodham Smith's The Reason Why, works of journalism like James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are all at least as close to, or far from, proposing a new nonfiction form as Mr. Capote's In Cold Blood," she wrote in the Partisan Review. While admitting that "the form is not new or remarkable," the Times Literary Supplement reviewer acknowledged that "it is handled here with a narrative skill and delicate sensibility that make this re-telling of a gruesome murder story into a work of art." Capote "did not intend to be merely the novelist-as-journalist, writing diversionary occasional pieces," wrote Conrad Knickerbocker in the New York Times Book Review. "In the completer role of novelist-as-journalist-as-artist, he was after a new kind of statement. He wanted the facts to declare a reality that transcended reality."
Capote believed that in order for his nonfiction-novel form to be successful, it must be an objective account in which the author himself did not appear. "Once the narrator does appear," he explained to Plimpton, "he has to appear throughout . . . and the I-I-I intrudes when it really shouldn't." Capote's absence from the story was interpreted as a moral cop-out by some critics, including Cynthia Ozick, who complained that In Cold Blood "has excised its chief predicament, the relation of the mind of the observer to the mind of the observed, and therefore it cannot be judged, it escapes interpretation because it flees its own essential deed." Diana Trilling accused Capote of "employing objectivity as a shield for evasion. This is what is resented . . . the sense shared in some dim way by virtually all of Mr. Capote's audience of having been unfairly used in being made to take on the burden of personal involvement pridefully put aside by Mr. Capote himself. An unpleasant critical charge leveled against In Cold Blood is that it is itself written in cold blood, exploiting tragedy for personal gain."
No one familiar with Capote's involvement with the Clutter case leveled this charge, for he made his personal commitment clear. "I had to surrender my entire life to this experience," he told Norden. "Try to think what it means to totally immerse yourself in the lives of two men waiting to be hanged, to feel the passage of hours with them, to share every emotion. Short of actually living in a death cell myself, I couldn't have come closer to the experience." Though his sympathies were divided between one of the killers, Perry Smith, and the head of the investigation, Alvin Dewey, Capote worked openly to have the murderers' death sentences commuted. He became physically ill when they were hanged.
Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Craig M. Goad concluded that "the controversy about the nature and literary status of In Cold Blood can never be wholly resolved, for it hinges on the definition of art that the individual reader accepts, but there is little doubt that the book creates a vivid portrait of western Kansas and captures the manners and speech of the people who live there. . . . It explores the irony of the fact that the murder of the Clutters, apparently exactly the sort of crime that a prosecuting attorney can describe as being committed 'in cold blood,' was essentially a crime of passion, a brief explosion of repressed rage and hate, while the executions of Hickock and Smith were carried out cold-bloodedly after years of legal wrangling. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, In Cold Blood contains the detailed portraits of Hickock and Smith which continue to fascinate not only those with literary interests, but students of criminal psychology as well."
After the book was finished, Capote orchestrated a major promotional campaign, prompting further charges of impropriety, which he answered with one of his quips: "A boy has to hustle his book," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. He took a long vacation from writing and resumed his fast-paced social life, hosting a fancy dress ball for 540 friends in November of 1966. According to Fleming, "Capote worked on the party as if it were a book, laboring over flowers, colors, seating, food—which alone cost $12,000—scrawling details in a notebook in his tiny hand." Many of those closest to the author believed his quest for social acceptance was pathological, compensating for the emotional neglect of his childhood years. "It was harder to do than was the writing for him," Norman Mailer told Baumgold. "His talent was his friend. His achievement was his social life."
To capitalize on the success of In Cold Blood, Capote's publisher decided to release his story "A Christmas Memory," which had previously appeared in Mademoiselle magazine some ten years earlier, during the holiday season in 1966. The story revolves around the young boy Buddy and his elderly cousin, who remains unnamed. The elderly woman is not stupid, but she does not live her life according to an adult idea of what is sensible or practical. She has a sense of fun that appeals to the boy. Buddy is tolerant of his cousin's eccentricities, which Capote describes in detail and with affection. Her appearance, described in the story's second paragraph, marks her as an unorthodox person. She wears tennis shoes and a baggy sweater with a lightweight calico dress; her "remarkable" face is craggy yet delicate. Later, the narrator, the boy grown up, relates more facts about her. "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," Capote wrote. Then he tells us the things she does: "tame hummingbirds . . . tell ghost stories . . . so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas [a flowering shrub] in town, know the recipe for every sort of old-time Indian cure." The story provides fewer details about the little boy, but it is obvious he is a precocious child, something that inspires admiration in his cousin. She loves to have Buddy tell her the stories of the movies he sees; she will never go to a movie because she wants to save her vision for when she sees God. Buddy and his cousin create a happy world of their own. Incidents throughout the story underline their attachment to each other and their distance from the rest of their family. Because Buddy and his cousin have little money, most of their pleasures are improvised, from gathering pecans left on the ground after the harvest to making their own Christmas gifts and ornaments. They are enthusiastic about their various moneymaking schemes, from entering contests advertised on the radio to setting up their homemade museum, even though these schemes are more often failures than successes. They enjoy interacting with people outside of the world of their conventional relatives and neighbors—such as the bootlegger Haha Jones or the strangers and near-strangers to whom they send their Christmas fruitcakes. The old woman lets Buddy drink whiskey, which gets her in trouble with the rest of the family. And while the other family members give him disappointingly practical Christmas gifts, she gives him a kite. That is what Buddy gives her, too. The two cousins spend Christmas day flying the kites. It will be their last Christmas together; Buddy is sent to military school, where he later learns of his cousin's death. Helen S. Garson, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, compared A Christmas Memory with Breakfast at Tiffany's: "The stories have different settings, different time frames, and different characters. . . . Still, for all the dissimilarities, both works contain humor, tenderness, love, and an underlying sense of sorrow that is connected to irredeemable loss."
In 1966, Capote had taken a $750,000 writing advance in the form of stocks and was supposed to resume work on Answered Prayers, the nonfiction novel named from a quote by Saint Therese: "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." Instead, Capote wrote in the preface to Music for Chameleons, "for four years, roughly from 1968 through 1972, I spent most of my time reading and selecting, rewriting and indexing my own letters, other people's letters, my diaries and journals . . . for the years 1943 through 1965." Finally, in 1972, he resumed work on the book, entering what he viewed as the fourth and final cycle of his writing. He wrote the last chapter first, then produced several more chapters in random order. In 1975 and 1976, four chapters were published in Esquire magazine.
Capote's reasons for releasing a work in progress remain unclear. Fleming theorized that it was "to jolt himself out of his sadness." Albin Krebs hypothesized that he did it "to keep alive the public's interest in the promised work," while Mailer speculated that it "may have been Capote's deliberate effort to free himself" from the debilitating influence of his café society friends. Whatever his reasons, the results, according to Baumgold, were "social suicide."
In the work, which Capote likened to a contemporary version of French novelist Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, Capote divulges many of the scandalous secrets he had coaxed from his wealthy and powerful friends. "The first excerpt was called 'La Côte Basque,' after the New York restaurant frequented by many of society's more celebrated members," wrote Tom Zito in the Washington Post. "Many of the whispered stories and innuendoes he had heard over the years he now had the audacity to print, either factually or thinly veiled. It was as if he was metaphorically recreating what Perry Smith had said in In Cold Blood about the murder of Herbert Clutter: 'I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Softspoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.'" The reprisals were swift and immediate. Many of the circles in which Capote had traveled now became closed to him. His telephone calls went unreturned. Invitations fell off. Perhaps the most deeply felt repercussion was the loss of his relationship with Babe Paley, once an almost constant companion and friend.
This social crisis was paralleled by a creative crisis that struck Capote around 1977. Dissatisfied with the texture of his writing, Capote reread every word he had ever published and "decided that never, not once in my writing life, had I completely exploded all the energy and esthetic excitements that material contained. Even when it was good," he continued in Music for Chameleons, "I was never working with more than half, sometimes only a third, of the powers at my command."
In a 1978 television interview with Stanley Siegel, Capote appeared on the air under the influence of drugs and alcohol, confessing that he frequently mixed "them together like some kind of cocktail." Before the segment was cut, Capote attributed his substance abuse problems to "free-floating anxiety," developed as a child: "My mother was a very beautiful girl and only seventeen years old, and she used to lock me in these rooms all the time, and I developed this fantastic anxiety." He also alluded to his artistic problems with Answered Prayers, admitting "I'm pretty anxious about this new book of mine . . . really a great sense of anxiety about it."
A legendary fabricator, Capote may well have been exaggerating the hardships of his childhood, at least according to his aunt Marie Rudisill, who told Baumgold that "he might have locked his mother in rooms." Capote's penchant for exaggeration was also confirmed by playwright Tennessee Williams, who once told a reporter for the Washington Post, "Truman's a mythologist, baby, you know that. That's a polite way of saying he does fabricate. I love him too much to say he's a liar. That's part of his profession." In the case of Answered Prayers, however, the writer's block he alluded to was real.
The crux of the problem, as Capote explained in Music for Chameleons, was that "by restricting myself to the techniques of whatever form I was working in, I was not using everything I knew about writing—all I'd learned from film scripts, plays, reportage, poetry, the short story, novellas, the novel. A writer ought to have all his colors . . . available on the same palette for mingling. . . . But how?" The solution, he decided after months of contemplation, was to reverse the process of invisibility he had mastered for In Cold Blood and to set himself at "center stage" in his writing. From this vantage point, using dialogue, stage direction, narrative, and a variety of other literary techniques, he would report his tales. This is the approach Capote employed
in most of the selections published in his 1980 work, Music for Chameleons, which would be his last major work.
Publishes Music for Chameleons
A collection of stories and portraits, Music for Chameleons has as its centerpiece "Handcarved Coffins"—a 30,000-word "nonfiction account of an American crime." In an interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Wayne Warga, Capote attributed his ability to "get that story at that length" to the innovative techniques he was using. "The entire point of this whole book is stylistic compression. I want everything to be minimal," he explained. But in a Saturday Review critique of the work, John Fowles found that, "despite [Capote's] claims, the technique is (mercifully) innovatory only in one or two superficial and formal ways; in many more important ones it is a brave step back to older literary virtues. He now writes fiction increasingly near fact, and vice versa. In practice this means that he is very skillfully blending the received techniques of several kinds of writing."
Though Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Thomas Thompson dismissed Music for Chameleons as "fast food coated with snake oil," other reviewers reserved their criticisms for Capote's preface, with its self-conscious posturing about capital-A Art, rather than denouncing the work as a whole. As Anthony Quinton put it in the London Times, "Where he is a detached, neutral observer, as in the main item in this collection, there is brilliant force and economy to his writing." Less attractive, "and more conspicuous, is a kind of nervous blustering, only an inch away from self-pity that afflicts Capote when occupied with the topic of his own importance and achievements." Writing in the Village Voice, Seymour Krim also addressed this issue, noting: "Not one of these first-person vignettes is boring or without its humane and unexpected charm. And practically all the writing, it is true, is unstudied simplicity at its best, often so light that you can blow it around the room like a tissue-paper airplane. But as far as its living up to the burn-your-bridges trumpet call at the beginning of Music for Chameleons. . . , one has to conclude that the ringing peptalk is more important to the author than to the reader."
Like In Cold Blood, Music for Chameleons also raised the issue of fact versus fiction. Publicized as a true story, in which names and locations had been changed to protect identities, "Handcarved Coffins" was particularly scrutinized. "The details are so fuzzy and the murders so far-fetched that you begin to wonder whether fact and fiction aren't bubbling together in the same pot," wrote James Wolcott in the New York Review of Books. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, David Lodge attributed his skepticism to "the inherent implausibility of the discrete events narrated" as well as to "the very literary 'feel' of the whole text." Asked Time reviewer R. Z. Sheppard: "How much of this book can be called documentary truth? How much is a masterly synthesis of all the author has learned as a fiction writer, scenarist and journalist? It is impossible to be sure." According to Washington Post Book World contributor Noel Perrin, "the proper response is to ignore [Capote's] pronouncements and read his work. D. H. Lawrence's advice, 'Trust the tale and not the teller,' might have been composed with Capote in mind. . . . Trust these tales. They are brilliant renderings of some of the more bizarre aspects of human reality—and if they happen to be literal word-for-word transcriptions, well, no harm in that. Either way, they are superb reading."
Between the appearance of Music for Chameleons in 1980 and the author's death in 1984, Capote wrote some magazine pieces and published One Christmas, a twenty-one-page short story packaged as a book. His personal and health problems persisted, but he spoke frequently of the progress he was making on his masterwork Answered Prayers, telling a Publishers Weekly contributor in January of 1984 that he was "finishing my long-lost novel. . . . I hope it will be published in fall 1984." After his death, however, such remarks turned out to have been a smokescreen. Except for the portions published in Esquire, no manuscript of Answered Prayers was ever found. So convincing had been Capote's fabrications that several obituaries reported that the author was working on his book just hours before his death. Though the exact nature of that prose—whether magazine article, short story, or memoir—has not been determined, consensus is that it does not belong to Answered Prayers.
Because Capote had shown bits and pieces of his work in progress to associates and had actually read unpublished passages to friends over the telephone, some people speculate that Capote destroyed what he had written. Baumgold, for instance, alluded to the possibility of whole chapters being "rewritten out of existence in Capote's obsession with getting his work perfect." His editor, Joseph Fox, even remembered receiving an additional excerpt, which Capote subsequently took back and never returned. As Fox wrote in the editor's note to Answered Prayers, "There is only one person who knows the truth, and he is dead. God bless him."
A final version of the collected excerpts appeared in 1987 under the title Answered Prayers: The UnfinishedNovel. The slim volume contains only the three previously published parts, with chapter titles "Unspoiled Monsters," "Kate McCloud," and "La Côte Basque." The narrator of each is P. B. Jones, a struggling writer and sometime male prostitute who rises from humble orphan origins in the South to infiltrate the inner circles of the New York social elite. According to John Melmoth in the Times Literary Supplement, "Answered Prayers can be read as a historical novel bent on dismantling the glitz and depravity of a crummy ancien regime whose way of life was built on inconsequential sexual contacts made tolerable by cocaine and liqueurs and is now threatened by AIDS." Commenting on the unusual harshness of Capote's characterizations, Walter Nash wrote in the London Review of Books that "there is little innocent laughter in this book. The prevailing tone is the giggling of the vicious." Despite his egregious authorial indiscretion, as R. Z. Sheppard noted in Time, "Capote was on his way to a spectacular best seller, an irresistible piece of malicious mischief inspired by the traditional detective thriller and the National Enquirer."
Speculating on the cause of Capote's difficulty finishing the novel, New York Times Book Review contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt observed, "What he seems really to have wanted was to tell a deeper, more damning truth about himself and the world, a truth that would brand him a criminal and 'put me in prison for life.'" Sadly, as Charles True-heart remarked in the Washington Post Book World, Answered Prayers "is a coldly accurate memorial to the writer's worst days. It contains isolated examples of Capote at his keen-eared, story-telling best, and of Capote at his pickle-brained, gossipmongering worst—examples suspended in an aspic of undistinguished other stuff." As Shirley Ann Grau concluded in Chicago's Tribune Books, Answered Prayers "is quirky, annoying, sad, funny, brilliant, exasperating. . . . the sad relic of a talent, a faint echo from the brain of an extraordinary writer."
Despite protestations to the contrary while stalling on Answered Prayers, Capote may never have gotten over his writer's block, and that, in turn, may have contributed to his death. As Mailer told Baumgold, "He loved writing so much and had such pride of offering nothing but his best, that when he could no longer deliver, he lost much of his desire to live." Reflecting on Capote's life and work, Los Angeles Times contributor Armand S. Deutsch concluded: "The exhausting years of the alcohol and drug battles, the long hospital stays, the illnesses, are behind him. The celebrity, which was such an integral part of him, will soon vanish, but his writing will remain to speak brilliantly and strongly for him."
If you enjoy the works of Truman Capote
If you enjoy the works of Truman Capote, you may also want to check out the following books:
Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940.
Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song, 1979.
Jackson McCrae, The Bark of the Dogwood, 2002.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Algeo, Ann M., The Courtroom as Forum: Homicide Trials by Dreiser, Wright, Capote, and Mailer, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1996.
Berry, S. L., Truman Capote, Creative Education (Mankato, IL), 1993.
Bloom, Harold, editor, Truman Capote, Chelsea House (Philadelphia, PA), 2003.
Brinnin, John Malcolm, Truman Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Clarke, Gerald, Capote: A Biography, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1986.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 14, 1981, Volume 38, 1986, Volume 58, 1990.
Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, 1978; Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945-1995, First Series, 1997; Volume 227: American Novelists since World War II, Sixth Series, 2000.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Dunphy, Jack, Dear Genius: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote, McGraw Hill, 1987.
Garson, Helen S., Truman Capote, Ungar (New York, NY), 1980.
Garson, Helen S., Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne (New York, NY), 1992.
Goad, Craig M., Daylight and Darkness, Dream and Delusion: The Works of Truman Capote, Emporia State Research Studies (Emporia, KS), 1967.
Grobel, Lawrence, Conversations with Capote, New American Library (New York, NY), 1985.
Guest, David, Sentenced to Death: The American Novel and Capital Punishment, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MI), 1997.
Hallowell, John, Between Fact and Fiction: New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1977.
Inge, M. Thomas, editor, Truman Capote: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1987.
Malamud, Randy, Truman Capote, Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.
Malin, Irving, editor, Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood": A Critical Handbook, Wadsworth (Belmont, CA), 1968.
Moates, Marianne M., A Bridge of Childhood: Truman Capote's Southern Years, Holt (New York, NY), 1989.
Moates, Marianne M., and Jennings Faulk Carter, Truman Capote's Southern Years: Stories from a Monroeville Cousin, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1996.
Nance, William L., The Worlds of Truman Capote, Stein and Day (New York, NY), 1970.
Plimpton, George, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.
Reed, Kenneth T., Truman Capote, Twayne (New York, NY), 1981.
Reference Guide to American Literature, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Rudisill, Marie, and James C. Simmons, Truman Capote: The Story of His Bizarre and Exotic Boyhood by an Aunt Who Helped Raise Him, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
Short Story Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1989, Volume 47, 2001.
Stanton, Robert K., Truman Capote: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1980.
Waldmeir, Joseph J., and John C. Waldmeir, editors, The Critical Response to Truman Capote, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1999.
Windham, Donald, Lost Friendships: A Memoir of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Others, Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
America, January 22, 1966; October 4, 1980.
American Scholar, winter, 1955-56; summer, 1966.
Atlantic Monthly, March, 1948; January, 1957; March, 1966; September, 1980; May, 1983.
Book, November-December, 2002, David Bowman, "A Murder in Middle America," pp. 28-29.
Booklist, October 15, 1996, p. 419.
Book Week, January 16, 1966.
Canadian Forum, March, 1966.
Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1983; July 5, 1987.
Christian Century, May 15, 1985, Sam A. Portaro, Jr., "Lillian Hellman and Truman Capote: An Appreciation," pp. 494-496.
Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 1956.
Commentary, February, 1988, p. 81.
Contemporary Literature, winter, 1984, Robert Siegle, "Capote's Handcarved Coffins and the Nonfiction Novel," pp. 437-451.
Delta, November, 1980, Robert Davis, "Other Voices, Other Rooms and the Ocularity of American Fiction," pp. 1-14, and Nancy Blake, "Other Voices, Other Rooms: Southern Gothic or Medieval Quest?," pp. 31-47.
Detroit News, November 27, 1983.
Detroit News Magazine, September 7, 1980.
Entertainment Weekly, August 28, 1992, p. 76.
Esquire, June, 1966; April, 1988, p. 174.
Explicator, fall, 2002, Tison Pugh, "Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's," pp. 51-53.
Gentlemen's Quarterly, December, 1997, Thomas Mallon, "Too Good to Be Tru," pp. 134-136.
Grand Street, summer, 1994, Hilton Als, "The Women," pp. 95-108.
Harper's, February, 1966.
Horn Book, March-April, 1990, pp. 198-199.
Interview, May, 1982; July, 1982; November, 1989, p. 98.
Journal of Modern Literature, September, 1979, Jack De Bellis, "Visions and Revisions," pp. 519-536.
Library Journal, August, 1980; April 1, 1985, p. 144; October 1, 1987, pp. 94-95.
Listener, March 28, 1968.
London Review of Books, December 18, 1986, p. 19.
Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1980; November 28, 1983; September 2, 1984.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 3, 1980.
Midwest Quarterly, autumn, 1993, Brian Conniff, "Psychological Accidents," pp. 77-94.
Mississippi Quarterly, fall, 1998, William White, "Boundless Hearts in a Nightmare World," p. 663.
Modern Fiction Studies, autumn, 1987, Eric Heyne, "Toward a Theory of Literary Nonfiction," pp. 479-490.
Nation, February 7, 1966.
National Review, November 14, 1980.
New Criterion, June, 1985, Bruce Bawer, "Capote's Children," pp. 39-44.
New Republic, February 23, 1963; January 22, 1966; January 27, 1973; September 6, 1980; December 21, 1987, p. 30.
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Newsweek, January 24, 1966; August 11, 1980; May 30, 1988.
New York, August 18, 1980; October 29, 1984; November 26, 1984.
New Yorker, September 21, 1987, p. 113; November 27, 1989, p. 143; January 22, 1996, Hilton Als, "A Capote Legacy," p. 31; October 13, 1997, George Plimpton, "Capote's Long Ride," pp. 62-71.
New York Review of Books, February 3, 1966; September 25, 1980; December 17, 1987, p. 3.
New York Times, December 2, 1956; January 7, 1980; August 5, 1980; September 10, 1987.
New York Times Book Review, January 18, 1948; February 24, 1952; January 16, 1966; October 28, 1973; August 3, 1980; November 13, 1983; September 13, 1987, p. 13.
New York Times Magazine, July 9, 1978; July 16, 1978.
Observer (London, England), March 27, 1966, "The Guts of a Butterfly," p. 21.
Paris Review, spring-summer, 1957; spring, 1996, George Plimpton, "Truman Capote: Screenwriter," pp. 125-131.
Partisan Review, spring, 1966.
People, August 18, 1980; September 10, 1984, pp. 131-133; March 11, 1985, pp. 16-17; December 8, 1986, p. 22; June 20, 1988, pp. 28-29.
Playboy, March, 1968.
Publishers Weekly, June 27, 1980; January 21, 1983; January 6, 1984; September 26, 1986; January 16, 1987; July 17, 1987; September 30, 1996, p. 86.
Saturday Review, February 14, 1948; February 16, 1963; January 22, 1966; July, 1980.
School Library Journal, December, 1989, p. 98; December, 1996, p. 91.
Sewanee Review, summer, 1960, Albert Moravia, "Truman Capote and the New Baroque," pp. 473-481.
Southern Quarterly, winter-spring, 1995, Helen S. Garson, "From Success to Failure: Capote's The Grass Harp," pp. 35-43.
Southern Review, autumn, 1998, Myles Weber, "Other Voices: A Life in Gossip," p. 816.
Southwest Review, spring, 1962, Nona Balakian, "The Prophetic Vogue of the Anti-Heroine," pp. 134-141.
Spectator, March 18, 1966; March 29, 1968.
Studies in Short Fiction, fall, 1975, Lee Zacharias, "Living the American Dream: 'Children on Their Birthdays,'" pp. 343-350.
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Time, January 26, 1948; January 21, 1966; August 4, 1980; September 7, 1987, p. 65; May 30, 1988, pp. 60-61.
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Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1958, Paul Levine, "Truman Capote: The Revelation of the Broken Image," pp. 600-617; summer, 1996, William Swanson, "Murder, He Wrote," pp. 467-474.
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Publishers Weekly, September 7, 1984.
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Times (London, England), August 27, 1984.
Variety, August 29, 1984.*
Truman Capote (1924-1984) was one the most famous and controversial figures in contemporary American literature. The ornate style and dark psychological themes of his early fiction caused reviewers to categorize him as a Southern Gothic writer. However, other works display a humorous and sentimental tone. As Capote matured, he became a leading practitioner of "New Journalism," popularizing a genre that he called the nonfiction novel.
Because of his celebrity, virtually every aspect of Capote's life became public knowledge, including the details of his troubled childhood. Born in New Orleans, he seldom saw his father, Archulus Persons, and his memories of his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, mainly involved emotional neglect. When he was four years old his parents divorced, and afterward Lillie Mae boarded her son with various relatives in the South while she began a new life in New York with her second husband, Cuban businessman Joseph Capote. The young Capote lived with elderly relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, and he later recalled the loneliness and boredom he experienced during this time. His unhappiness was assuaged somewhat by his friendships with his great-aunt Sook Faulk, who appears as Cousin Sook in his novellas A Christmas Memory and The Thanksgiving Visitor (1967), and Harper Lee, a childhood friend who served as the model for Idabel Thompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms. Lee, in turn, paid tribute to Capote by depicting him as the character Dill Harris in her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). When Capote was nine years old, his mother, having failed to conceive a child with her second husband, brought her son to live with them in Manhattan, although she still sent him to the South in the summer. Capote did poorly in school, causing his parents and teachers to suspect that he was of subnormal intelligence; a series of psychological tests, however, proved that he possessed an I.Q. well above the genius level. To combat his loneliness and sense of displacement, he developed a flamboyant personality that played a significant role in establishing his celebrity status as an adult.
Capote had begun secretly to write at an early age, and rather than attend college after completing high school, he pursued a literary apprenticeship that included various positions at The New Yorker and led to important social contacts in New York City. Renowned for his cunning wit and penchant for gossip, Capote later became a popular guest on television talk shows as well as the frequent focus of feature articles. He befriended many members of high society and was as well known for his eccentric, sometimes scandalous behavior as he was for his writings.
Capote's first short stories, published in national magazines when he was seventeen, eventually led to a contract to write his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Set in the South, the novel centers on a young man's search for his father and his loss of innocence as he passes into manhood. The work displays many elements of the grotesque: the boy is introduced to the violence of murder and rape, he witnesses a homosexual encounter, and at the novel's end, his failure to initiate a heterosexual relationship with Idabel Thompkins, his tomboy companion, leads him to accept a homosexual arrangement with his elder cousin Randolph, a lecherous transvestite. Each of these sinister scenes is distorted beyond reality, resulting in a surreal, nightmarish quality. Despite occasional critical complaints that the novel lacks reference to the real world, Other Voices, Other Rooms achieved immediate notoriety. This success was partly due to its strange, lyrical evocation of life in a small Southern town as well as to the author's frank treatment of his thirteen-year-old protagonist's awakening homosexuality. The book's dust jacket featured a photograph of Capote, who was then twenty-three, reclining on a couch. Many critics and readers found the picture erotically suggestive and inferred that the novel was autobiographical.
Many of Capote's early stories, written when he was in his teens and early twenties, are collected in A Tree of Night and Other Stories. These pieces show the influence of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, all of whom are associated to some degree with a Gothic tradition in American literature. Like these authors, as well as the Southern Gothic writers Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor, with whom critics most often compare him, Capote filled his stories with grotesque incidents and characters who suffer from mental and physical abnormalities. Yet Capote did not always use the South as a setting, and the Gothic elements in some of the tales are offset by Capote's humorous tone in others. Critics often place his early fiction into two categories: light and sinister stories. In the former category are "My Side of the Matter," "Jug of Silver," and "Children on Their Birthdays." Written in an engaging conversational style, these narratives report the amusing activities of eccentric characters. More common among Capote's early fiction, however, are the sinister stories, such as "Miriam," "A Tree of Night," "The Headless Hawk," and "Shut a Final Door." These are heavily symbolic fables that portray characters in nightmarish situations, threatened by evil forces. Frequently in these tales evil is personified as a sinister man, such as the Wizard Man feared by the heroine in "A Tree of Night" or the dream-buyer in "Master Misery." In other instances evil appears as a weird personage who represents the darker, hidden side of the protagonist. The ghostly little girl who haunts an older woman in "Miriam" is the best-known example of this doubling device in Capote's fiction. In later years Capote commented that the Gothic eeriness of these stories reflected the anxiety and feelings of insecurity he experienced as a child.
In The Grass Harp (1951), Capote drew on his childhood to create a lyrical, often humorous novel focusing on Collin Fenwick, an eleven-year-old boy who is sent to live in a small Southern town with his father's elderly cousins, Verena and Dolly Talbo. At sixteen years of age, Collin allies himself with the sensitive Dolly and other outcasts from the area by means of an idyllic withdrawal into a tree fort. There, the group achieves solidarity and affirms the value of individuality by comically repelling the onslaughts of the ruthless Verena and other figures of authority. The novel, which achieved moderate success, is generally considered to offer a broader, less subjective view of society and the outer world than Capote's earlier fiction, and was adapted as a Broadway drama in 1952. A light and humorous tone is also evident in such works as the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's and the three stories published in the same volume, "House of Flowers," "A Diamond Guitar," and A Christmas Memory. Breakfast at Tiffany's features Capote's most famous character, Holly Golightly, a beautiful, waif-like young woman living on the fringes of New York society. Golightly, like the prostitute heroine in "House of Flowers," is a childlike person who desires love and a permanent home. This sentimental yearning for security is also evident in the nostalgic novella A Christmas Memory, which, like the later The Thanksgiving Visitor, dramatizes the loving companionship the young Capote found with his great-aunt Sook.
In some of his works of the 1950s, Capote abandoned the lush style of his early writings for a more austere approach, turning his attention away from traditional fiction. Local Color (1950) is a collection of pieces recounting his impressions and experiences while in Europe, and The Muses Are Heard: An Account (1956) contains essays written while traveling in Russia with a touring company of Porgy and Bess. From these projects Capote developed the idea of creating a work that would combine fact and fiction. The result was In Cold Blood, which, according to Capote, signaled "a serious new art form: the 'nonfiction novel,' as I thought of it." Upon publication, In Cold Blood elicited among the most extensive critical interest in publishing history. Although several commentators accused Capote of opportunism and of concealing his inability to produce imaginative fiction by working with ready-made material, most responded with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Originally serialized in The New Yorker and published in book form in 1965 following nearly six years of research and advance publicity, this book chronicles the murder of Kansas farmer Herbert W. Clutter and his family, who were bound, gagged, robbed, and shot by two ex-convicts in November, 1959. In addition to garnering Capote an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, In Cold Blood became a bestseller and generated several million dollars in royalties and profits related to serialization, paperback, and film rights. Written in an objective and highly innovative prose style that combines the factual accuracy of journalism with the emotive impact of fiction, In Cold Blood is particularly noted for Capote's subtle insights into the ambiguities of the American legal system and of capital punishment.
In the late 1960s, Capote began to suffer from writer's block, a frustrating condition that severely curtailed his creative output. Throughout this period he claimed to be working on Answered Prayers, a gossip-filled chronicle of the Jet Set that he promised would be his masterpiece. He reported that part of his trouble in completing the project was dissatisfaction with his technique and that he spent most of his time revising or discarding work in progress. During the mid-1970s he attempted to stimulate his creative energies and to belie critics' accusations that he had lost his talent by publishing several chapters of Answered Prayers in the magazine Esquire. Most critics found the chapters disappointing. More devastating to Capote, however, were the reactions of his society friends, most of whom felt betrayed by his revelations of the intimate details of their lives and refused to have any more contact with him. In addition, Capote's final collection of short prose pieces, Music for Chameleons (1983), was less than warmly received by critics. Afterward, Capote succumbed to alcoholism, drug addiction, and poor health, and he died in 1984, shortly before his sixtieth birthday. According to his friends and editors, the only portions of Answered Prayers he had managed to complete were those that had appeared in Esquire several years previously.
Critical assessment of Capote's career is highly divided, both in terms of individual works and his overall contribution to literature. In an early review Paul Levine described Capote as a "definitely minor figure in contemporary literature whose reputation has been built less on a facility of style than on an excellent advertising campaign." Ihab Hassan, however, claimed that "whatever the faults of Capote may be, it is certain that his work possesses more range and energy than his detractors allow." Although sometimes faulted for precocious, fanciful plots and for overwriting, Capote is widely praised for his storytelling abilities and the quality of his prose.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984, Gale, 1985.
Chicago Tribune, August 27, 1984.
Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1984.
Newsweek, September 3, 1984.
New York Times, August 27, 1984.
Publishers Weekly, September 7, 1984.
Time, September 3, 1984, September 7, 1988.
Times (London), August 27, 1984.
Washington Post, August 17, 1984.
Brinnin, John Malcolm, Truman Capote: Deat Heart, Old Buddy, Delacourte Press, 1986.
Clarke, Gerald, Capote: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 14, 1981, Volume 34, 1986, Volume 38, 1986, Volume 58, 1990.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 2, American Novelists Since World War II, Gale, 1978.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Gale, 1981.
Grobel, Lawrence, Conversations with Capote, New American Library, 1985.
Hallowell, John, Between Fact and Fiction: New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, University of North Carolina Press, 1977. □
Nationality: American. Born: Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana, 30 September 1924; took step-father's surname. Education: Trinity School and St. John's Academy, New York; Greenwich High School, Connecticut. Career: Worked in the art department and wrote for "Talk of the Town," The New Yorker, early 1940s; then full-time writer. Awards: O. Henry award, 1946, 1948, 1951; American Academy grant, 1959; Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, 1966; Emmy award, for television adaptation, 1967. Member: American Academy. Died: 25 August 1984.
A Capote Reader. 1987.
Other Voices, Other Rooms. 1948.
A Tree of Night and Other Stories. 1949.
Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories. 1958.
A Christmas Memory (story). 1966.
The Grass Harp. 1951.
Answered Prayers (unfinished novel). 1986.
The Grass Harp, from his own novel (produced 1952). 1952.
House of Flowers, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Capote and Arlen (produced 1954; revised version, produced 1968). 1968.
The Thanksgiving Visitor, from his own story (televised 1968). 1968.
Trilogy (screenplay, with Eleanor Perry), in Trilogy. 1969.
Beat the Devil, with John Huston, 1953; Indiscretion of an American Wife, with others, 1954; The Innocents, with William Archibald and John Mortimer, 1961; Trilogy, with Eleanor Perry, 1969.
Television Plays and Films (includes documentaries):
A Christmas Memory, with Eleanor Perry, from the story by Capote, 1966; Among the Paths to Eden, with Eleanor Perry, from the story by Capote, 1967; Laura, from the play by Vera Caspary, 1968; The Thanksgiving Visitor, from his own story, 1968; Behind Prison Walls, 1972; The Glass House, with Tracy Keenan Wynn and Wyatt Cooper, 1972; Crimewatch, 1973.
Local Color. 1950.
The Muses Are Heard: An Account of the Porgy and Bess Tour to Leningrad. 1956.
Observations, photographs by Richard Avedon. 1959.
Selected Witings, edited by Mark Schorer. 1963.
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. 1966.
Trilogy: An Experiment in Multimedia, with Frank and Eleanor Perry. 1969.
The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places. 1973.
Then It All Came Down: Criminal Justice Today Discussed by Police, Criminals, and Correction Officers with Comments by Capote. 1976.
Music for Chameleons. 1980.
One Christmas (memoir). 1983.
Conversations with Capote, with Lawrence Grobel. 1985.
Capote: Conversations, edited by M. Thomas Inge. 1987.*
Capote: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography by Robert J. Stanton, 1980.
The Worlds of Capote by William L. Nance, 1970; Capote by Helen S. Garson, 1980; Capote by Kenneth Reid, 1981; Capote by Marie Rudisill and James C. Simmons, 1983; Footnote to a Friendship: A Memoir of Capote and Others by Donald Windham, 1983; Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy by John Malcolm Brinnin, 1986, as Capote, A Memoir, 1987; Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke, 1988; Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career by George Plimpton, 1997.* * *
In the early 1940s Truman Capote left the provincial South to seek first the sophistication of New York and then the most worldly of wisdom in the "cold blood" of Kansas. From the beginning his stories were set in both New York and the likes of Admiral's Mill, Alabama. Indeed, most were set in the city. But this is mere physical place. The real provinces of Capote's stories are loneliness, dreams, and the unconscious. His characters' preeminent conflicts entail the struggle to connect with others, through love if possible. It is an aspiration generally overwhelmed by selfishness or narcissism. Frequently, however, his protagonists glimpse, in the course of their failings, the reasons for their shortcomings and ruined aspirations.
It is thus a legitimate commonplace that his stories may be divided not between geographical places but between the diurnal and nocturnal and, thence, between good and evil. Perhaps it is even better to say that his stories are either principally light or dark. These appropriately ambiguous terms dichotomize the body of his work both figuratively and literally. They capture the way those that are most amusing and social are enacted in daylight, while those that are most disturbing and psychological, whether grotesque or macabre, are enacted at night. Capote inclined to the dark variety. This and a certain effect of tour de force have provided him his share of detractors who find in his tales more that is facile than felicitous.
Capote did not write a great number of stories; nor did his talent in the genre really grow. He was skilled in the form and on a few occasions brilliant. But he was never better, either on the whole or in a single piece, than in his collection A Tree of Night. "Master Misery," "Miriam," and the title story are the dark tales here. The experiences recorded in these stories are essentially internal. The worlds circumscribing their protagonists exist only as mirrors of their interiority or as complements to a really psychic drama. Each story blends the macabre and the fantastic in an eerie ethos. "Master Misery" involves a lonely young woman's willingness to sell her dreams, at five dollars each, to a fabulous Mr. Revercomb. Strangely, this story has been attacked as meaningless, on the grounds that the exchange is inexplicable, a sheer gratuity. Surely we have here an allegorical romance for our times. (One needn't give it credence.) The youthful Sylvia (place of the "sylvan," the lovely natural) comes from Ohio to the big city and discovers her unalterable separation from others, save one lonely and passing drunk. Life being a flop, she sells her dreams and acquiesces in her miserable lot. They are purchased by Master Misery, the worse-than-reality principle. His name is Revercomb (comber, searcher among reveries, dreams). He is not a psychoanalyst, but a mythic figure. He rids Sylvia of any last illusion and leaves her about to be violated. The erosion of one's dreams by misery is common enough. Not happy, but a Capotean romance indeed. "Miriam" is similar. The aged and isolated Mrs. H.T. Miller speaks to a perfect-little-lady of a girl one night outside a theater. The child is surreal, but shows up at her apartment, finally inviting herself to stay. Capote grants neither that Miriam is real nor a figment of Mrs. Miller's imagination, though we don't really doubt the latter. Miriam is an alter-ego and version of the child Mrs. Miller probably was. Their bond is finally antagonistic, but indisputable and irreversible. The world outside the apartment is dark and dense with snow. Miriam is all that Mrs. Miller finally has to stave off the cold blackness of her future.
"A Tree of Night" is Capote's best story in this vein. Its eccentric characters and the palpable tackiness of the train car they inhabit convey a minimal reality that yields gradually to the story's symbolist core. The train moves through a night of metaphysical darkness, taking a young woman named Kay from an uncle's funeral toward an impossibly youthful sophomore year at college. With her in the car, which has the faded plush ambience of a coffin, rides a deathly old man who lives by doing a Lazarus trick in a carnival. He is the wizard of her childhood, the bogeyman in the human attic, with us for the long haul once we've made the acquaintance of death.
The light stories are "Children on Their Birthdays," "Jug of Silver," and "My Side of the Matter." These are rendered very colloquially in the first person. The first two are peppered with characters too cutely named, whose enterprises are the stuff of village legend. They are stereotypes of southern eccentrics, especially of youthful cut-ups and dreamers. The death of the wondrous quasi-child, Miss Bobbit, of "Children on Their Birthdays," is treated whimsically and seems a saccharin counterpoint to her transformation of the community she mesmerized for a year. These tales simply don't admit essential darkness to their milieux. "My Side of the Matter" strives for hilarity through a narrator who lies and gives offense on a big scale. He is a loafer, come to a hick town with his pregnant wife to freeload off her aunts. When he thieves from their savings, they take a stand against him. His tale is a grand and very funny rationalization of his whole person. To accuse Capote of not capturing a real voice here is to fail to measure this persona against the hyperbole the work intends. This fiction is after the manner of Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." and, like it, is exempt from any phonographic litmus test. It is the epitome of Capote's diurnal mode.
The later stories come closer to reality. "Among the Paths to Eden" and "Mojave" explore, pessimistically, the prospects of marital well-being. If Eden stands for the blissful state of the human couple before the fall from grace, this Eden is a sad retort. The setting is a graveyard where a widower finds himself happier alone than he had been in his marriage. Yet he experiences loneliness and is tempted by the strange allurements of a woman for whom the cemetery is a virtual dating service. She looks to the obituaries to find a decent man and follows up by going to the cemetery when widowers make their annual visits. Her imitation of the songstress Helen Morgan tests Mr. Belli to the limit, but he goes his isolated and preferred way, while she turns hopelessly, we know, to the "new pilgrim, just entering through the gates of the cemetery."
In "Mojave" the desert serves as a metaphor for estrangement in marriage. In his youth George Whitelaw had met a blind man left on the desert by a wife who had decided on a younger one. George's wife, Sarah, would never do that to him. Instead she has affairs and arranges George's liaisons with other women. Neither person has any satisfaction, but the bond they have built is solid—and sterile. All they have together is the shred more than the nothing emanating from relationships that make them feel even lonelier than their marriage does. That Sarah had never seen George as more than a version of her father explains a little. But Sarah's judgment seems right when she says, "We all, sometimes, leave each other out there under the skies, and we never understand why." This seems a story poised at the end of a body of work always pointed toward it. Its truest antecedent is the most realistic story from the first collection, "Shut a Final Door," wherein Capote charted the dead-end course of a perfect narcissist through one exploitive relationship after another. That seems his judgment on our times.
—David M. Heaton
See the essay on "Other Voices, Other Rooms."
Born September 30, 1924 (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Died August 25, 1984 (Los Angeles, California)
Truman Capote was an author who became famous as much for his eccentric personality as for his writing. Capote initially wrote dark, mystical fiction but later shifted toward nonfiction. He preferred writing more about people and places than about issues or ideas. Capote's professional reputation was established when he helped create a new literary form known as the nonfiction novel in 1966 with his book In Cold Blood about the brutal murder of a Kansas family. It is a style of writing that combines literature, with its creative license, and journalism, which adheres to the facts.
"We will never know the reasons for what eventually happened, why he did what he did, but I still hurt thinking of it. It was such a waste."
Persons to Capote
Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons on September 30, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, and his father, Archulus Persons, had a stormy relationship finally divorcing in 1931. Lillie Mae left Truman with relatives in a rural Alabama town called Monroeville when he was almost six years old.
Surrounded by adults, Truman spent a great deal of time alone and began writing stories. Lillie Mae moved to New
York and changed her name to Nina. In 1932 she married Joseph Garcia Capote, a wealthy Cuban American businessman. Truman went to New York to live with his mother and stepfather in 1935 when he was ten years old. Joseph adopted him that year and his name changed to Truman Garcia Capote.
Truman attended Episcopal Trinity School, a private boys' school in New York, for three years. He was not a good student and his parents switched him to St. John's Military Academy in Ossining for three months. When the family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, Truman attended Greenwich High School. There his English teacher, Catherine Wood, recognized his talent and encouraged his writing. He dropped out of school at seventeen but completed his senior year in 1942 after the family returned to New York. While finishing his diploma, Truman found a part-time job as a copy boy at the New Yorker magazine.
Breakfast at Tiffany's
After graduating, Capote moved back to Monroeville and began working on an autobiographical book called Other Voices, Other Rooms. During the three years he spent on the project, Capote continued to write and submit other stories for publication. They began to appear in magazines, winning him several prizes. Capote's literary career was assured in 1948 when Random House published Other Voices, Other Rooms.
The success of Other Voices, Other Rooms brought Capote invitations to the best parties, clubs, and restaurants by the time he was twenty-five years old. He loved celebrities and the life of the socially prominent. Capote used these experiences with his new circle of friends to write the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was published in 1958. The book became an instant hit and was made into a highly successful Hollywood movie, starring Audrey Hepburn (1929–1993) as the main character, Holly Golightly.
Capote experimented as a playwright, essay journalist, and screenplay writer with varying degrees of success. He even wrote a book and the lyrics for a musical comedy called House of Flowers in 1954. With his fame came endless invitations to dinners, parties, and social engagements. He was always invited because he was witty, charming, and loved to gossip. During these years he enjoyed the glamour and travel, but he also developed an addiction to alcohol and drugs. They would eventually take their toll on his health and his work.
In Cold Blood
Capote had been researching the topic of his next book when he came across a headline in the New York Times in 1959. A wealthy and prominent rancher, his wife, and teenage son and daughter had been brutally murdered in Holcomb, a suburb of Garden City, Kansas. Capote made arrangements to do a series on the murders for the New Yorker and within days had moved to Kansas to write his book.
The result of Capote's investigation was In Cold Blood, a new type of novel involving true crime (see sidebar). Capote divided the book into four sections, moving the narrative back and forth between the criminals and their victims, and then between the detectives and the criminals. Capote used film techniques of flashbacks and close-ups to create maximum tension in the novel.
In Cold Blood was first serialized in the New Yorker and then released in book form by Random House in 1965. It sold out and created quite a sensation before being produced as a Hollywood movie in 1967. Capote celebrated his success by throwing a party at New York's Plaza Hotel in 1966, inviting five hundred friends to attend.
Ever since there have been criminals, there has been public interest in their crimes. People want to know why other people behave as they do, especially when it involves murder. There is widespread interest in what motivates killers to act, as well as curiosity about the details of what happens to the victims. The public will follow a case from the initial investigation by law enforcement officials, to the resulting trial and ultimate sentencing of the accused.
In the early twenty-first century, several television programs feature reenactments of actual criminal cases that have been solved. On these shows participating law enforcement officials and survivors are interviewed to show how criminals are brought to justice. Some programs give details of unsolved cases, asking viewers for help in apprehending offenders, while other television programs present fictionalized accounts of how modern technology is used in real crime scene investigations, especially for homicides.
Internet web sites and daily newspaper accounts follow current cases of true crime that capture the public's attention because they are either close to home or sensational in nature. During the 1990s, media coverage of the latest killing by a celebrity,or one that was especially gruesome, created such public interest that a new type of book emerged. These written accounts give instant gratification to people who want to read about existing true crimes, but are often published before trial results are even in.
In 1965 Truman Capote helped introduce a new style of writing, which is now called "literary nonfiction." His novel, In Cold Blood, was based on facts, but he did not deliver them in a journalistic fashion. Instead he used a storytelling technique that made the book read like suspense fiction. Capote spent six years studying the 1959 murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas. He lived with the townspeople, interviewing them over the years, while he recorded how they coped with the loss of four members of their community.
Capote maintained the suspense of his story by first talking about the community's response to the murders. He kept the details about how the Clutters died until after the killers were captured. Capote interviewed the two young drifters who confessed and were tried for the murders. He devoted the final chapter of his book to giving extensive details about their trial and prison life. Capote developed an emotional attachment to the criminals during his time interviewing them, and he witnessed their hanging at the Kansas state penitentiary in April 1965. Capote's in-depth novel was a great success and the popularity of true crime stories increased as a result.
For several years after In Cold Blood was released, Truman was seen as an authority on the criminal justice system. Journalists sought his opinion on prisons and capital punishment. In 1976 he wrote Then It All Came Down, which also dealt with crime and criminal justice.
Fall from grace
Capote earned large advances for his next project, a book and movie deal of a projected novel called Answered Prayers. The book was supposed to be a gossipy account of his jet-setting lifestyle and the famous people he knew. The first few chapters caused quite a scandal when they appeared in a 1975 copy of Esquire magazine. Capote was socially shunned by many of his former friends and acquaintances and the book was never finished.
The alienation sent Capote into a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse that lasted throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. His substance abuse problems affected his writing but Capote continued to make the rounds on television talk shows. His flamboyant personality was still considered a novelty in the entertainment business. He even made a cameo appearance in the murder mystery movie Murder By Death (1976). In 1977, he gave a reading of his works at a Maryland booking, but became so incoherent he had to be led off the stage.
After suffering from hallucinations and blackouts, Capote tried Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and rehabilitation hospitals but always went back to his old habits. Shortly before his sixtieth birthday, Capote arranged to spend several weeks in Los Angeles with his friend and longtime supporter Joanne Carson. He died at her home on August 25, 1984.
For More Information
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. New York: Random House, 1965.
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1980.
Moates, Marianne M. A Bridge of Childhood:Truman Capote's Southern Years. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1989.
"American Masters: Truman Capote." Public Broadcasting Service.http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/capote_t.html (accessed on August 15, 2004).
Born: September 30, 1924
New Orleans, Louisiana
Died: August 25, 1984
Los Angeles, California
Truman Capote is one of the most famous and controversial writers in contemporary American literature. He is best known for In Cold Blood, a nonfiction novel about the murder of an American family. Because of his style and themes, reviewers of his early fiction categorized him as a Southern Gothic writer (a style of fiction that uses gloomy settings and has mysterious events). Other works, however, display a humorous and sentimental tone.
The young man
Truman Streckfus Persons was born on September 24, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His parents, Archulus Persons and Lillie Mae Faulk, were divorced when he was four years old. He lived with relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, while his mother and her second husband, Cuban businessman Joseph Capote, lived in New York.
His closest friends at this time were an elderly cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, and a neighboring tomboy, Harper Lee (1926–). She later became an award-winning author herself, writing To Kill a Mockingbird. Both friends appear as characters in Capote's early fiction.
When Truman was nine years old, his mother brought her son to live in Manhattan, New York. He then took on his adopted last name, Capote. He continued to spend summers in the South. He did poorly in school, even though psychological tests proved that his Intelligence Quotient (IQ) was above genius level. Truman developed an outgoing personality to hide his loneliness and unhappiness.
Truman began secretly writing at an early age. When he completed high school, he worked for The New Yorker. There he wrote articles and short stories. He also made important social contacts and later became a frequent guest on television talk shows. When he was seventeen, several magazines published his short stories. That exposure eventually led to a contract to write his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Set in the South, the novel centers on a young man's search for his father and his loss of innocence as he passes into manhood. Many critics and readers believed that the novel was autobiographical (a story about himself).
Many of Capote's early stories were written when he was in his teens and early twenties. Collected in A Tree of Night and Other Stories, these stories show the influence of Gothic writers such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804– 1864), and William Faulkner (1897–1962). Many of the stories are filled with bizarre incidents and characters suffering from mental and physical disorders. Yet some of the tales have a humorous tone. Critics often place his early fiction into two categories: light stories or bizarre stories. In later years Capote commented that many of those stories reflected the anxiety and feelings of insecurity he experienced as a child.
In some of Capote's works of the 1950s, his attention is turned away from traditional fiction. In Local Color he wrote a collection of pieces retelling his impressions and experiences while in Europe. In The Muses Are Heard: An Account he wrote essays about his travels in Russia with a touring theater company that presented the play Porgy and Bess.
Before Capote found his main subject, he published one more traditional novel, Breakfast at Tiffany's. It was an engaging story of Manhattan playgirl Holly Golightly. In 1952 the novel was adapted as a Broadway drama. Critics believe Breakfast at Tiffany's is a good example of a maturity lacking in Capote's early fiction. Though Capote conceived his story as fiction, he was already drawing heavily from real life incidents. Capote saw the second phase of his development as a writer come to a close with Breakfast at Tiffany's. He turned his efforts toward writing as an art form.
From these projects Capote developed the idea of creating work that would combine fact and fiction. The result was In ColdBlood. Originally, chapters of the book appeared in several issues of The New Yorker and the work was later published in book form. This book describes the murder of Kansas farmer Herbert W. Clutter and his family in November 1959. Capote and Harper Lee, his childhood friend, went to Holcomb, Kansas, to research the case. The town residents were not only emotionally shocked and upset about the murders, but they were also deeply suspicious of Capote and his motives. He retraced the killers' flight to Miami, Florida, and Acapulco, Mexico. He did months of research on the criminal mind and interviewed a number of death row killers. Before he began writing, Capote had gathered over six thousand pages of notes. All told, the project, which Capote regarded as the third phase of his writing development, took almost six years. In Cold Blood, published in 1965, became a bestseller. Capote received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
In the late 1960s Capote began suffering from writer's block. He spent most of his time revising or throwing out his works in progress. During the mid-1970s he published several chapters of Answered Prayers in Esquire magazine. It was a gossip-filled chronicle of society's jet set (an international group of wealthy people who lead expensive, social lives). The stories revealed intimate details about his society friends. Most critics found the chapters disappointing. His friends felt betrayed and refused to have contact with him.
Television personality and later years
During his youth, Capote developed a flashy and humorous style. He often became a frequent guest on television shows. He admitted that he was obsessed with fame. He constantly sought social privilege and public celebrity, objectives he achieved back in 1948 with the appearance of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Throughout his life Capote made friends with the rich and famous, observing their weaknesses with a watchful eye and developing trust and close friendships he would later betray.
Final years and career assessment
In 1983, Music for Chameleons, a final collection of short prose pieces, was published. Capote approached his writing by setting himself at "center stage." It included using dialogue, stage direction, narrative, and a variety of literary techniques. Critics gave less than warm reviews of Music for Chameleons.
Afterward, Capote took to alcohol, drug addiction, and suffered poor health. He died in Los Angeles, California, on August 24, 1984, shortly before his sixtieth birthday. According to his friends and editors, the only portions of Answered Prayers he had managed to complete were those that had appeared in Esquire several years before.
Critical assessment of Capote's career is highly divided, both in terms of individual works and his overall contribution to literature. Though the nonfiction novel was his most original contribution to the literary world, Capote also produced short stories, plays, straight reportage, television adaptations from books or plays, and film scripts. His main faults were overwriting and creating strange plots. Most praise his storytelling abilities and the quality of his prose.
For More Information
Brinnin, John Malcolm. Truman Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy. New York: Delacorte Press, 1986.
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Grobel, Lawrence. Conversations with Capote. New York: New American Library, 1985.