For a small man, Truman Capote cast a long shadow. From his semi-fictional appearance in Harper Lee's iconic To Kill a Mockingbird to his genre-bending examination of a brutal Midwestern murder in his own In Cold Blood to the infamous Black and White Ball (the party of the '60s), Capote refused to be ignored. And now there's a movie about how Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, came to write In Cold Blood. A movie about a writer writing? Hold on to your seat.
For those who prefer to read writing rather than watch it being written, the timely release of several works of Capoteana should satisfy appetites. Serving up a delicious dish of hurried prose and unwitting autobiography is the collection Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote (Vintage, $16). It begins with a terse letter that the 11- or 12-year-old wrote to his father, Arch Persons, announcing that he had changed his name after his stepfather had adopted him: "I would appreciate it if in future you would address me as Truman Capote, as everyone knows me by that name." It ends with a pleading, nearly poetic, telegram sent to his longtime lover, Jack Dunphy: "miss you need you cable when can i expect you." In between are gossipy missives to the likes of the British photographer Cecil Beaton, Katharine Graham -- he addresses the late publisher of The Washington Post and guest of honor at the Black and White Ball as "Precious KayKay" -- and writer William Styron.
Less exuberant are The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (Vintage, $14), most of them written early in his career. In "The Walls Are Cold," a society girl toys with a sailor who crashes a party; in "Miriam," a little girl insinuates herself into a widow's life; and in "A Christmas Memory," perhaps the best known of Capote's short stories, a boy's elderly cousin famously declares, "It's fruitcake weather!" Critics have long charged that Capote appropriated the style and substance of Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty -- some have pointed to the strong resemblance Capote's "My Side of the Matter" bears to Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." -- but in this slender collection of 20 stories, there's no mistaking his clear, precise style for anyone else's.
But how to reconcile the writer of the sweet "Christmas Memory" with the author of the bleak In Cold Blood with the high-society bon vivant? Gerald Clarke squares the circle in Capote: A Biography (Carroll & Graf, $17.95), originally published in 1988. In it, he describes Capote's disjointed childhood as the son of parents -- his father a "Svengali in a white linen suit," his mother a lascivious child bride -- who were grossly ill-suited to childrearing. Shunted off to live with older cousins in Alabama, Capote eventually ended up in Greenwich, Conn., with his mother and stepfather. From there, he launched a full-on assault on Manhattan, snagging a spot as a copy boy at the New Yorker and making a name for himself as a short-story writer before he'd barely left his teens.
From there, Capote charmed and chattered his way into society, devoting nearly as much time to social connections as he did to writing. But in 1959, when he was 35 years old, he spotted a brief news item in the New York Times about a Kansas family that had been bound, gagged and shot to death in their prosperous farmhouse. Capote seized on the event to use the devices of fiction to tell a true story. He spent five years writing the book, gathering material in Kansas up to the night that the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were hanged. "It was a terrible experience," he wrote to a friend, "and I will never get over it."
In Cold Blood nearly sucked the life out of Capote but proved a tremendous success. Serialized in the New Yorker, it broke records for newsstand sales. But though it happened relatively early -- he had just passed 40 when it was published -- it proved to be the highpoint of an erratic career. Afterward he popped pills and descended into alcoholism, all the while promising a "Proustian" novel of the rich folk he lived among. That book never fully materialized. Perhaps the writing of In Cold Blood is worth a movie after all.
-- Rachel Hartigan Shea