Chatty, gossipy remembrances of the deplorable history of Truman Capote’s last years may be read, in some instances, as revenge or payment-due for the dead author’s assaultive portraits of friends and enemies, although few of the interlocutors can command Capote’s talent for the vicious, villainous, vituperative adjective. George Plimpton has spent some years tracking down and taking down the remarks of those who crossed Truman’s journey to literary fame and to his unique crocodilian celebrity. The remarks are deftly arranged to avoid lumps of monologue piling up one after another like wood stacked for the winter. Instead the voices having their say about the charms and deficits of the absent one find Plimpton at the console professionally mixing the sound, as it were. His phrase for the effect is the unrehearsed, companionable exchange at a cocktail party. This is a large accommodation to raw opinion, to mincing literary judgments of hapless inappropriateness, to character analysis sweet as peaches or impugning as a jailhouse witness for the prosecution. It must be said that method and result have a suitability to the subject, since Capote himself, when not writing, was party-going, forever receiving and producing banter about feckless stumblings and torrid indiscretions.
He was born in 1924 in New Orleans and spent his early years in Monroeville, Alabama. His mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, married at seventeen a man named Arch Persons by whom she had the child, Truman. He was left in the care of relatives, maiden ladies of an eccentric turn useful to the Southern literature of Capote’s period. After a time his mother divorced and the son was brought to New York and to Connecticut where Lillie Mae, name now changed to Nina, married Joseph Capote, who adopted the child under the name of Truman Garcia Capote. Other Voices, Other Rooms was published when Truman was twenty-four years old and this happy beginning of his creative life was in pitiable contrast to his family life. His mother committed suicide five years later and two years after that Mr. Capote was sent to Sing Sing Prison for forgery and grand larceny.
So Truman was on his own and on his way. He was an early master of camp flamboyance and defiance. He was short, effeminate, with a very noticeable, high-pitched, whining voice. And pretty enough, if never quite as fetching as the photograph that enhanced the cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms. It appears that with his curious voice, his ways, he decided to brazen it out, to be himself with an ornamental courage and an impressive conceit. He was a figure, what old ladies used to call a “sketch,” and smart and amusing, ambitious as a writer and as a society darling, a coquette of wit at the great tables, on the yachts, in the splendid houses, in Italy, France, and Mexico. Southern accent, cascades of anecdote, boy genius, as all including himself conceded, and productive in the hours of the afternoon when the hostess was napping.
Other Voices, Other Rooms: the best of his down-home fictions, confidently written, picturing a small-town world in the South. Moth-eaten grandeur, garrulous ne’er-do-wells, colored-folk exchanges in the kitchen with the only souls who lift a hand and here named Missouri, called Zoo, and her Papadaddy, Jesus Fever, and others who enter the action with drag-queen names like Miss Wisteria and the hermit, Little Sunshine. It is a coming of age story for young Joel Knox, as the fictions of his closest Southern contemporaries are likely to be: Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. We might note that in these books the girls are as tomboyish as Capote’s Joel is girlish. Reading over these writers brings to mind the triumph of their contemporary Flannery O’Connor, painting a similar landscape and filling it not with cute hunchbacks and dwarfs but with predatory swamp rats, literally God-forsaken Bible salesmen intoning their handy lies in magical speech rhythms, all transcending the fictional clichés in the dramaturgy of the generation after Faulkner.
In Capote’s novel, Joel Knox, age twelve, has been left in the care of his relations after the death of his mother and the flight of his father. At last he is summoned by the father, now married to Miss Amy, to join him at Skully’s Landing, a run-down estate that will have no modern plumbing facilities or electricity, but the boy will discover that once in the parlor there were gold draperies, a gilded sofa of lilac velvet, and so on—all now covered with dust. Both the present decay and the parlor trumpery of a more glamorous past are not unexpected when the domestic scenery is to be assembled for a place called Skully’s Landing and in a Southern state.
The father does not appear nor is information given about him until later in the novel, and then we learn that he is upstairs, paralyzed, and communicating his needs by throwing tennis balls down the stairs. The plot is complicated by ghostly appearances, crazy down-South ways of passing the time, but we can find it held together by the sweetness of the boy’s nature and a lyrical generosity about the follies of grown-ups. And by the kindness of the black cook, Zoo, a sort of kissing cousin to Ethel Waters in the staging of The Member of the Wedding.
The most interesting of the “characters” living in Skully’s Landing is Cousin Randolph, a connection of the stepmother, Miss Amy. Randolph, a painter and sherry-drinking idler, has a history; he’s been around, studied abroad, and while in Madrid copying the old masters in the Prado he meets Dolores, a cold but somehow overwhelming beauty, and they become lovers. The two of them abandon Europe and land in Florida where Dolores takes up with Pepe, an impressively muscled boxer, mean, handsome, potent, and violent. Randolph, in a ferocious epiphany, discovers himself in love with Pepe and filled with a devastating longing.
I could not endure to see him suffer; it was agony to watch him fight…. I gave him money, bought him cream-colored hats, gold bracelets (which he adored, and wore like a woman), shoes in bright Negro colors, candy silk shirts….
The end of it was Pepe, drunk, destroying Randolph’s paintings, calling him “terrible names,” and breaking his nose. And then Pepe is off with Dolores, off no one knows where, but Randolph sends letters to random post offices here and there. “Oh, I know that I shall never have an answer. But it gives me something to believe in. And that is peace.”
Randolph is a nice, rather lachrymose fellow, a well-born “queer” of some cultivation and too many afternoon sips from the bottle, altogether a configuration at home in the little towns, and no doubt still there. Joel, the boy, is moved by Randolph’s confession and also moved to an awakening of his own nature. In a final scene they go to an old abandoned hotel, once a brothel, and in a somewhat murky rendering spend the night together.
Plimpton has printed a review of Other Voices, Other Rooms by the majorful Diana Trilling which was published in The Nation, January 31, 1948. Despite the “claptrap” she praises the compositional virtuosity of the novel and finds that such skill in one so young “represents a kind of genius.” However, she is morally distressed about Cousin Randolph, “a middle-aged degenerate aesthete,” and more dismayed by what she reads as the lesson of the plot.
At the end of the book the young Joel turns to the homosexual love offered him by Randolph, and we realize that in his slow piling up of nightmare details Mr. Capote has been attempting to recreate the emotional background to sexual inversion. What his book is saying is that a boy becomes a homosexual when the circumstances of his life deny him the other, more normal gratifications of his need for affection.
The devil made me do it. A shirking of moral responsibility, as she sees it, and in no way faithful to the text and to Joel’s relation with Randolph. One thing you can say about Capote is that the “closet” was never, never anything to him except a place to find bits of silver cloth, old faded snapshots, love letters, and trinkets.
The Grass Harp is blown about by the winds of whimsy, here, rocking the cradle in the treetop. The narrator is again a young boy once more sent to live with relations, two unmarried ladies who are sisters. They and others spend a good deal of the time picnicking and chatting in the house high up in a chinaberry tree. The tree house was fifteen or twenty years old, “spacious, sturdy, a model of a treehouse, it was like a raft floating in a sea of leaves…to sail along the cloudy coastline of every dream.” Up in the tree you can hear the grass harp “always telling a story—it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who have ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours, too.” The novel was composed while Capote was living in an “absolutely marvelous” villa in Sicily, named La Fontana Vecchia. It was, astonishingly, turned into a grandiose musical for Broadway, music by Virgil Thomson and sets by Cecil Beaton. Thomson describes the debacle:
The set which Cecil designed, particularly the one with the big tree, was so large and heavy that nobody ever saw it until the opening in Boston. There was no point in setting it up in New York for rehearsals…. On the Sunday afternoon before we left for Boston, there was a professional matinee…. Everybody wept buckets. Then we moved up to Boston, and, once we got into the set, nobody out there in the seats ever wept anymore. The set was too large and complicated—very grand, something for the Metropolitan Opera.
Well, no matter. Such was Capote’s celebrity that House of Flowers, a scrawny short story set in Haiti, was mounted as a Broadway musical with music by Harold Arlen, set by Oliver Messel, choreography by George Balanchine, and direction by Peter Brook. The A list for little Tru.
The South, the days of youth gone by, the downtown with its shops and taverns and their funny names, the collection of harmlessly deranged kinfolk were there to be called on by the writer as a sort of spécialité, like Key lime pie and conch fritters, to be exploited again and again in holiday postcards such as A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor.
Cousin Randolph, the tree house, and the rest of it will serve the muse for a time and then Capote will bring his fiction to New York City, that place Marianne Moore, in a poem, found “starred with tepees of ermine and peopled with foxes.” In his portmanteau, Capote will be carrying, like some revivifying patent medicine, a very useful stimulant in the composition of the very successful Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that is, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.
In Plimpton’s time capsule we have the wish of several young, or once young, ladies to be the inspiration for the beguiling Holly Golightly, the center of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Doris Lilly, identified as a gossip columnist and author, is as insistent as if she were the claimant in an inheritance battle.
There’s an awful lot of me in Holly Golightly. There’s much more of me than there is of Carol Marcus (who is now Carol Marcus Matthau) and a girl called Bee Dabney, a painter. More of me than either of these two ladies. I know.
Primogeniture does not adhere to any of the pals circling around the house in New York. Fortunately for the attractiveness of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) the model is the “Sally Bowles” section in Isherwood’s book of 1938. In both novellas, the first-person narrator is a young writer who finds himself living next door to an interesting young woman, Sally Bowles in a Berlin pension and Holly Golightly in a shabby New York townhouse broken up into small apartments.
Both girls are beautiful, each afloat and searching for a place to land with a man if not rich at least giving evidence of being in touch with money. They attach themselves to one man after another, only to find themselves abruptly dropped, an annoyance from which they bounce back in a way that reminds one of professional boxers, on the mat one minute and up the next, a little unsteady, but with fist in a salute. Among the many correspondences between Isherwood and Capote we have the fleeing man’s tendency to leave a letter.
Klaus to Sally Bowles:
My dear little girl, you have adored me too much…. You must be brave, Sally, my poor darling child…. I was invited a few nights ago to a party at the house of Lady Klein, a leader of the English aristocracy. I met there a very beautiful and intelligent young English girl named Miss Gore-Eckersley….
And so it goes.
José, a Brazilian diplomat making his escape from Holly Golightly’s radar:
My dearest little girl, I have loved you knowing you were not as others. But conceive of my despair upon discovering…how very different you are from the manner of woman a man of my faith and career could hope to make his wife…. I am gone home.
Sally Bowles gives herself a faux “county” background in a very amusing imitation:
Daddy’s a terrible snob, although he pretends not to be…. He’s the most marvellous business man. And about once a month he gets absolutely dead tight and horrifies all Mummy’s smart friends.
Holly Golightly, from Tulip, Texas, real name Lulamae Barnes, was a runaway starving orphan picked up by a country horse doctor whom she married at age fourteen, and ran away from to New York. The horse doctor turns up in New York hoping to reclaim his wife and providing one of Capote’s most inventive comic interludes. However, Tulip, Texas, does not always inhabit Holly Golightly’s conversational style—the rhythms of Sally Bowles perhaps overwhelming national boundaries. (There is a mention of French lessons given to smother Holly’s Texas defect in preparation for a film career.) Nevertheless here she is in a typical locution: “But, after all, he knows I’m preggers. Well, I am, darling. Six weeks gone. I don’t see why that should surprise you. It didn’t me. Not un peu bit.” At times her diction crosses to the Rhine. “I suppose I’ll sleep until Saturday, really get a good schluffen.”
The two stories come to an end on a postcard. Sally Bowles, off on her amorous journey, sends a card from Paris, another from Rome with no address.
That was six years ago. So now I am writing to her. When you read this, Sally, if you ever do—please accept it as a tribute, the sincerest I can pay, to yourself, and to our friendship. And send me another postcard.
Holly in a postcard goodbye from South America: “Brazil was beastly but Buenos Aires the best. Not Tiffany’s, but almost…. Will let you know address when I know it myself.” And the narrator reflects: “But the address, if it ever existed, never was sent, which made me sad, there was so much I wanted to write her.”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s has its own charms and if the astute Capote has done a transatlantic rearrangement perhaps we can think of it in musical terms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Something like that.
Christopher Isherwood, resident of Los Angeles, was present at Capote’s funeral and Plimpton publishes what the novelist John Gregory Dunne remembered about the moment. “And Chris did the most graceful thing of all. He said, ‘There was one wonderful thing about Truman. He always made me laugh.’ He started to laugh, turned around, and sat down. Perfectly graceful and gracious.” And then Carol Marcus Matthau, who in Doris Lilly’s deposition is definitely not the model for Holly Golightly, has some unpleasant things to say about Isherwood. (Unpleasantness about persons not the object of the enterprise in “oral biography” is a treacherous fallout of the indiscriminate form.) Truman Capote in his fiction never achieved anything as rich and beautiful as the stories in Goodbye to Berlin, of which “Sally Bowles” is only one, or as brilliant as Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Prater Violet. Not to the point here, since with a few exceptions, it appears that the only “brilliant writer” and “genius” the assembly is aware of is Truman Capote. No, mournful as it is to remember, there is another writer mentioned again and again in Plimpton’s pages, a writer who, like Capote, knew a lot of rich people and who wrote something herein called “Proustian.”
In November 1966 Capote gave in the Plaza Hotel in New York what you might call his “in-cold-blood party” for five hundred guests. As a sort of provenance for the fête, the calendar moves backward. The murder of the Clutter family, husband and wife and two teen-age children, occurred in November 1959, in the town of Holcomb, Kansas. After reading an account in the press, Capote soon took off for the site of the crime. Two young men were arrested a month later and in March 1960 convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. On April 14, 1965, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the convicted murderers of the Clutter family, were hanged in the Kansas State Penitentiary for Men in Lansing, Kansas. Six years had passed after the conviction, by way of legal appeals and stays of execution, before the author, Truman Capote, could write finis to In Cold Blood, his account of the killers, the detectives, the town, the trial. Six months after the hanging, the serialization in The New Yorker began and publication in book form soon followed.
At last it was Carnival time, with beads, masks, spikes of feathers in voodoo headdresses, bunny fur, witch wigs, and a band playing show tunes. The party at the Plaza acquired the fame of a coronation for the very successful book, still a work of riveting interest for its portrait of the misshapen bodies, language, highway felonies, and idiotic plans and dreams of two savage, talkative, rawhide murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.
After the publication of the book, Capote spent a good deal of time and thought on nomenclature, that is, his naming of the work a “non-fiction novel” and claiming to be the only begetter of the form. Sometimes in the discussion one might be reading about an eagle-eyed blind man, but that would have a greater philosophical interest. In most works of any length about crimes there is much that is not mere documentation; there is the setting of the scene: the neat little trailer before the blood-splattered walls, the dog at the garbage can with an arm in it, the handsome house, usually called a mansion, where the deceased was just putting night cream on her face when… There are scenes in Capote that appear to be “fiction”; one early chapter has Nancy Clutter, the daughter, at home on the day of her death, chatting on the phone, about a lesson in pie-baking, or about her boyfriend, Bobby. This is followed by Mrs. Clutter in a conversation with Jolene, the thirteen-year-old for whom Nancy was to give the lesson in pie-baking. The Clutters are dead and the reader supposes the quite banal chapter to be what the author would imagine to be the actions of a “normal” family living out their last hours in Kansas farm country. Not easy to enliven since the family is denied the bizarrerie of Alabama homesteads. However, in an interview, Capote seems to disclaim imagination and to place the origin of everything in the testimony of the living who overheard or took part in the conversations.
Perry Smith, thirty-one years old, and Dick Hickock, twenty-eight years old, are on parole from prison and, at the beginning of the composition, are making their journey to commit a robbery and kill whoever will frustrate the plan. They make their way to the house in Kansas and in the interest of “leaving no witnesses” slaughter the four family members. The case was solved when the police were told by a cellmate who had once worked for Mr. Clutter that he had given information about a safe in the house containing ten thousand dollars—given the information to Smith and Hickock as they gathered their meager belongings and abilities and were set free. There was no safe in the house and the cons came away with forty dollars, a radio, and a pair of binoculars.
On the way from birth to death, as it were, there is an appallingly rich lode of archival gold for Capote to shape and polish and send to market, all of which he does with a skillful hand. The detectives on their way to pawnshops and motels and the very striking confession of the killers about their wanderings before and after, their description of their gruesome destruction of each single Clutter; accounts of the early life of the killers by their relatives and their own summations given at the request of a court psychiatrist; Capote’s interviews, his visit to the holding cells where the two awaited execution, his claim of having corresponded with each twice a week for the five years between conviction and execution.
While both the condemned and the author were waiting out the “stays,” Capote made no secret of his qué sera sera impatience to get it over with. Quite a few remembered this curious bit of literary oral history. When the book was published it did occasion jokes and some serious memories which the pugnacious and vindictive Capote did not find amusing. On a TV show, William F. Buckley, Jr., said, “Well, we’ve only had a certain number of executions in the last few years—whatever it was—and two of them were for the personal convenience of Truman Capote.” The composer Ned Rorem at a party heard Truman say about his book, “But it can’t be published until they’re executed, so I can hardly wait.” Rorem, when the book came out, sent a letter to be published in a magazine, which said, among other things, “Capote got two million and his heroes got the rope.” (Needless to say, Rorem got his in Capote’s later book, Answered Prayers.)
Party-going with its temptation to social misdemeanors was also the ground of a confrontation between Capote and the English critic Kenneth Tynan. After hearing that the execution date had been irrevocably set, Capote, according to Tynan’s wife’s interview with Plimpton, said: “I’m beside myself! Beside myself! Beside myself with joy!” Tynan reviewed In Cold Blood for The Observer in London:
For the first time an influential writer in the front rank has been placed in a position of privileged intimacy with criminals about to die and, in my view, done less than he might have to save them…. No piece of prose, however deathless, is worth a human life.
Truman, in his reply to the paper, wrote that Tynan had “the morals of a baboon and the guts of a butterfly.”
Capote never showed an interest in political or moral debate, and perhaps that was prudent since ideas, to some degree, may define one’s social life and could just be excess baggage he didn’t need to bring aboard; and, worse, boring, like the ruins and works of art he declined to get off the yacht to see. In any case, he could not have “saved” Smith and Hickock, who had confessed; the appeals rested upon legal matters such as the competence of the state-appointed defense attorneys, whose summation took only ninety minutes—the jury before returning the death sentence “deliberated” only forty minutes.
Still, one might reflect about the book and wonder what a sentence of life without possibility of parole might have done for the execution of the non-fiction novel. Two alive central characters with plenty of time to become jailhouse lawyers would not have been useful to the author, publisher, or movie-maker. These are troublesome men. And then there is the actual hanging in the dreadful Kansas shed, “a cavernous storage room, where on the warmest day the air is moist and chilly”; and “The hangman coughed—impatiently lifted his cowboy hat and settled it again, a gesture somehow reminiscent of a turkey buzzard huffing, then smoothing its neck feathers—and Hickock, nudged by an attendant, mounted the scaffold steps.” Wouldn’t that have been missed?
There is a moment in In Cold Blood when Perry Smith says to his partner in the murders: “I just don’t believe anyone could get away with a thing like that.” In Answered Prayers, the unfinished non-fiction novel, using the actual names of a transcontinental cast of mostly well-known persons or, if disguised by a fictitious name, carefully designed to be identifiable, Capote made his own shackled step to the social gallows. The first of the scatological offenses to be published was “La Côte Basque,” a story or something, taking place in the fashionable restaurant of the same name. It is lunch time and the proprietor is seating or not seating according to the heraldic rankings of the metropolitan scene. Capote, under his nom de plume of P.B. Jones, or “Jonesy,” is lunching with “Lady Coolbirth” in the absence of the Duchess of Windsor, she having canceled because of a bout of hives.
Champagne is ordered which somehow promotes a scurrilous bit of anecdote about the composer Cole Porter. On and on to the supposedly overheard conversation of two identified nymphs about town. Across the way in the restaurant, dining with a priest, is the wife who in a famous court case was acquitted of having shot her well-born, rich husband. But she is not to escape the dossier proposed by Jonesy and Lady Coolbirth detailing her rise from a “country-slum” in West Virginia, real trash with a pretty face, who went on to a whirl on the continental carousel where she was known as “Madame Marmalade—her favorite petit déjeuner being hot cock buttered with Dundee’s best.” The woman in fact committed suicide a few days before “La Côte” appeared in Esquire magazine. Whether she knew the unveiling in store for her is not certain, but at least she was out of the way.
Others were still around to meet themselves in degrading tableaux, sometimes performing under an alias which was a pasted-on Woolworth’s mustache that failed to fool any tots in the playground. The chitchat proceeds: “Why would an educated, dynamic, very rich and well-hung Jew go bonkers for a cretinous Protestant size forty who wears low-heeled shoes and lavender water?” It seems the “porcine sow” was the governor’s wife and in a grotesque seduction on the Pierre Hotel sheets the gentleman was proving something, avenging the old days when even the most established Jews weren’t welcome in WASP country clubs, boarding schools, and so on. The gentleman in this unaccountably destructive and self-destructive portrait was everywhere quickly identified as the husband of the most ele-gant woman in the city. From what we read she had been for some years a true friend, the most valuable and perhaps most surprising trophy, solid silver, Truman had won, scored, in the field.
Capote had, like a leper with a bell announcing his presence, horrified those he most treasured and with many he was marked with the leper’s visible deformities, a creature arousing fear of infection. There is much ado about this in Plimpton: calls unanswered, intervention by friends unavailing. “Unspoiled Monsters,” another section of Answered Prayers, concerns itself with the chic homosexual world and what used to be called stars of stage, screen, and radio. P.B. Jones is again the narrator, about thirty-five, a writer, sponger, and wit: “Starting at an early age, seven or eight or thereabouts, I’d run the gamut with many an older boy and several priests and also a handsome Negro gardener. In fact, I was a kind of Hershey Bar whore—.”
Jonesy gets around, to a room in the YMCA, “work” as a prostitute masseur, and off to every grand spot in Europe. It’s not quite clear just how a back rub could get the little charmer from the Y to the Ritz in Paris, Harry’s Bar in Venice, everywhere. But he must move about in order to reveal all the habits, hangups, perversions, fears, unpaid bills of the slit-savoring bitches, muff-divers, whining masochists, drug addicts, patrons of Father Flanagan’s Nigger Queen Kosher Cafe. Woe to all who passed his way, with Capote toting their names, occupations, contorted faces, the passports of their public identities, material that makes Answered Prayers resemble the files of J. Edgar Hoover.
What was he thinking of? At times one is led to imagine him afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, a disease described in recent years with much sympathy by Oliver Sacks. It brings on facial tics, not unusual in other physical misfortunes; the true peculiarity of the symptoms is echolalia, endless talking characterized by an uncontrollable flow of obscenities. Still, Capote knew all there was to know about gossip and understood that in a gifted form it will not be about imagined persons but about real people, not about John Doe, but about Cecil Beaton, to name one of his many punitive divertissements.
In his own love life, about which he never wrote, the record seems to ally Truman with Cousin Randolph and his sudden devastating passion for the boxer, Pepe. First, the man who came to fix the air conditioner and was snatched away from wife and children, spiffed up with new clothes, dental rehabilitation, and taken along to the great palazzos in Venice, the yachts sailing in blue summer waters. The poor fellow gets very bad reviews at every port and perhaps to his credit returned them by taking off, leaving Truman “devastated,” in a “big collapse.”
And then there was John O’Shea, a sort of financial adviser, with wife and four children, and ready to abandon all for a luxe life with Truman. Vodka, gunplay, theft, and disappearance of O’Shea; heartbreak and atonement by Truman, who helped the O’Shea family and brought the attractive, honest daughter to stay in the flat in New York.
Capote himself wasn’t a pleasant vision in his last years of drugs and drinks, but he collected new friends who cared for him up until his death in Los Angeles, out West where new life, if you can hang on, begins. An unexpected fact from his last will and testament: in honor of Newton Arvin, a critic and professor of literature and an early friend of Truman and his writing, Capote endowed two handsome yearly prizes, one for fifty thousand dollars and the other for one hundred thousand dollars. They were to be given to writers of imaginative literary criticism.
January 15, 1998