"Truman has always loved tales with surprise endings. Sometimes it seems that he wants his own life to be an O. Henry short story, except that he's always casting about for some way to change the ending."
BRENDAN GILL, a former colleague of Truman Capote at The New Yorker
Truman Capote is seated at a table in La Petite Marmite, a swanky little restaurant just across the street from his U.N. Plaza apartment in New York City. He is the only man in the restaurant not wearing a tie, though this absence is perhaps offset by the burgundy-colored beret atop his head. No one else in the restaurant is wearing a beret. But then, Truman Capote is not known for covention; he is known for invention. "Without mystery," he says, "all of life would be so dull."
Whether he is gossiping about the rich and famous, writing about them in "Answered Prayers," expounding on the circumstances surrounding his departure from Vanity Fair, or lapsing into a paranoid snit, the truth often seems as elusive as Capote himself. Fact becomes fiction; fiction fact. And he is usually no help in providing clues or keys. Capote is a writer who often seems to be acting out his stories, as if his life is a metaphor for his work. And sometimes, in both, he tends to excess.
On this particular day, Capote is drinking a Stolichnaya and grapefruit juice. He talks sibilantly, slowly, wheezing out the voice of a spoiled child, sometimes closing his puffy eyes and rubbing them with the backs of his fingers:
"Robert Frost made me quit my job at The New Yorker," he says, launching into a tale which, depending on the source of the story, has varied endings. "I had been sent by the magazine to cover the Bread Loaf writer's convention for The Talk of the Town, and had been introduced to Mr. Frost. As he was giving his lecture, a bee kept trying to sting my leg. Have you ever had a bee trying to attack you? It's not very pleasant. I kept trying to get rid of the bee. It wouldn't leave me alone. Apparently this was getting Mr. Frost rather upset. He finally looked down at me and said, "If this is what The New Yorker thinks of my work, I might as well stop right now. And then he walked off the stage. Well, you'd think I had been attacking him personally. Frost wrote this note, accompanied by 30 letters from old librarians, to Mr. [Harold] Ross, the late editor of the magazine. Ross sent me a memo that said, "Capote, what the f--- is this all about?" Well, he didn't even have the courtesy to come and discuss it with me personally. So I sent him a memo that said, "Ross, what the f--- do you think this is all about? But if I have to be questioned, I quit.""
Well, that's Truman, says Phyllis Cerf Wagner, widow of Capote's late publisher, Bennett Cerf. "He's always embellishing things. When he told me that story, he said he had the hiccups, and that was what upset Frost."
As far as he can recall, says Brendan Gill, "Capote wasn't ever sent to Bread Loaf by Ross. We were purposely parochial in those days, and never would have covered something like that out of the city. I don't think that Capote ever wrote anything for Talk of the Town. Actually, none of us around here knew that he could write. He was the office boy in the art department. I remember, though, when that first book, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," came out, we were startled. Wolcott Gibbs was the biggest cynic of us all, and he just wandered around the office for days, muttering, "The kid can write. The kid can write . . . " But I don't think that Capote quit; I think he was fired."
Ohhhhhh, Brendan Gill, says Capote. "He absolutely HATES me. I swear to you on a stack of Bibles that it's a true story."
Forty years later, fact and fiction are still entwined:
With great bravado several months ago, Vanity Fair announced it had hired Capote to write a montly gossip column. How clever, reckoned the literary world.Who could be better suited to chronicle the whims and fancies of glossy personages than the very man who had outraged New York's caviar and calla lily crowd with thinly veiled fictions of their peccadilloes, scandalously revealed in four excerpts from a novel in progress called "Answered Prayers," published in Esquire seven years ago? What a brilliant coup!
Or so it seemed. With considerably less fanfare. Vanity Fair decided not to run Capote's columns, and lo and behold, a few weeks ago, it was announced that the work would begin appearing in the March issue of Esquire.
Now this change of venue not only reflects Capote's mercurial mystique; it is also a shimmering example of how his perceptions are often at odds with those of the people around him. To put it more bluntly: "Truman is a marvel, but he [didn't] stick to the truth," said his aunt, Mary Ida Carter, about the publication of one of his childhood memories. Richard Locke, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, refuses to discuss the matter of Capote's column, except to issue a statement through the protective public relations department of the Conde Nast empire, claiming that the work didn't quite fit the style of his magazine.
And so he killed it, the editor says.
Nonsense, says the author.
He wasn't fired; he quit.
"I didn't hear from Mr. Locke for weeks and then one day this messenger boy shows up at my apartment with my copy and there are red pencil marks everywhere! You can't rewrite a stylist. So I just sent it over to Esquire. They don't touch my copy there. I hope nobody every attributes Vanity Fair to anybody but Thackeray."
Such has been the very stuff of Capote's existence. To crack open the book of his life is to read over chapter after chapter with ever-changing points-of-view, impossible to separate fact from fiction, literary creation from personal testimony.
Nonetheless, it is a great read. As Robert Linscott, an editor at Bennett Cerf's Random House, noted in 1947, after finishing the manuscript of "Other Voices, Other Rooms":
"This book is Truman; his personal predicament and his view of life. Acute, poetic and highly stylized (too highly at times); it has the dreamlike and brightly colored fascination of those miniature landsacpes at which we used to gaze as children through the pinhold in the end of an Easter egg."
Capote is back at La Petite Marmite for another lunch. This time he is drinking milk instaed of vodka, and seems the picture of health: the puffiness is gone from his face; his cheeks are pink; he looks younger than his 58 years; his conversation is animated.
Although he takes certain poetic liberties with the world that appears in his work, he is a stickler for accuracy when it comes to his own life:
"I was walking past Scribner's the other day," says Capote, whose elfin demeanor is enhances as he sips from the glass of milk, "and the window was filled with this new book, "Truman Capote: The Story of His Bizarre and Exotic Boyhood by an Aunt who Helped Raise Him," a woman named Marie Rudisill. If there are 20 words of truth in it I will go up on a cross to save humanity . . . This woman says that my mother had a child when she was 16 and she threw it out the window. WELL, THAT CHILD WAS ME AND I DID NOT GET THROWN OUT OF ANY WINDOW! ! Then there is Gordon Lish's "Dear Mr. Capote." This book is simply not to be believed. It's supposed to be some tour de force about a man who's murdering all these people and pretending to be Truman Capote! Do I look like I have a mean bone in my body? Don't answer that.
"I'm quite happy with the Esquire piece," Capote says. "It's out now and I hope that it just drives Mr. Locke up a wall. The next one is even better. I'm writing about Sunny von Bulow, and how she could have put herself in a coma. I used to see her take drugs all the time. And I'm writing about how I was invited to this fabulous party in Vancouver.
"I would hardly describe this as a gossip column, though. Believe me, I really don't know what's happening these days. Well, some things. If you read the column, you know I think Meryl Streep should be hanged. The actress I think is really good these days is Jodie Foster. Of course, I may be prejudiced: she wants to remake "Breakfast at Tiffany's' the way I always wanted it done. I though Audrey Hepburn was completely wrong for that role. But really, I lead a very boring life. I go to bed at 9 and get up at 4 and start writing. I lie on my couch under my parrot and write in pencil on yellow legal pads. I eat dinner at 6:30. I don't go to Studio 54 anymore. It does seem to me that people are staying home and having a lot more parties these days. I must get five invitations a day. Mrs. Jock Whitney is giving a grand dinner party and to my astonishment I received an invitation after my falling out."
This falling out, as Capote puts it, followed the publication of the Esquire excerpts from "Answered Prayers," a long novel that he envisioned as a contemporary "Remembrance of Things Past." "You remember Marcel Proust?" asks. "Well, we haven't had an American one."
"Answered Prayers" is written as a memoir being told by a character named P. B. Jones, who has traveled in the highest circles of society and now finds himself down and out in the New York YMCA. In several of the excerpts, P. B. did not seem all that unlike T. C., who spent years having lunches with the wealthiest wives in New York.
The first excerpt was called "La Cote Basque," after the New York restaurant frequented by many of society's more celebrated members. The dining room of La Cote Basque is appointed as a quiet dockside cafe looking out over the harbor of St.-Jean-De-Luz. Sloops are moored in the harbor; but in Capote's telling, they became boats beating against the current: 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."
"He had been the lap dog of these women," says Capote's friend, the author Judith Green, "and now he had made poopoo on their designer dresses. Truman once said to me, "You have a quality that I have. It will make you very unhappy in life but it will make you a good writer: you see too closely.""
Perhaps as a reaction to a childhood spent among what he characterizes as the poor and dull, Capote was absolutely fascinated by the rich and famous. It was not really a new obsession. As early as 1951, he wrote a letter to publisher Cerf that contained the genesis of "Answered Prayers":
"I've concocted the most scandalous parlor game. It's SO educational; and you can slander people right and left, all in the interest of le sport. It's called IDC, which stands for International Daisy Chain. You [imagine] a chain of names, each one connected by an affair with the person previously mentioned; the point is to go as far and as incongruously as possible. For example: this one is from Peggy Guggenheim to King Farouk. Peggy Guggenheim to Lawrence Vail to Jeanne Connolly to Cyril Connolly to Dorothy Walworth to King Farouk. See how it works? Peggy Guggenheim had an affair with L. Vail who had an affair with J. Connolly, etc. Here is another and much more difficult, not to say raffine, example: From Henry James to Ida Lupino. As follows: Henry James to Hugh Walpole to Harold Nicholson to the Hon. David Herbert to John C. Wilson to Noel Coward to Lewis Hayward to Ida Lupino . . . ."
It was classic Capote, blurring the line between fact and speculation. Cerf responded:
"Your letter caused great hilarity in this office this morning. I called up John Gunther immediately to read the chain in which he is involved and he is so delirious about it he is coming down to the office later this afternoon just to make a copy. I am warning him to be careful lest the whole bunch of us end up in the libel courts."
"I've tried and tried to work that letter into the book," says Capote. "With words it's easy, but writing it, it doesn't have the kind of wit and charm that one strives for."
It struck me that all these people were the same person, and what they did, what happened to them, was the same story; emotional homicides inflicted in the name of love.
P. B. JONES in "Answered Prayers"
"The reason all this happened, where they all made their mistake," says Capote, "is that they thought I was their friend. "Answered Prayers' is about people -- and they go out. I set out to do this book the same way I set out to do "In Cold Blood." I lived with murderers, I lived with these society people... I told them all along that I was writing a book. One night I even said, "I'm a writer; never trust a writer under any circumstance." But they forgot I was a writer. I was a celebrity, and they liked having me around. My personality has always been a mystery to me. It came as a surprise to me when I became a celebrity, because to me I was always just me. But to them I was a celebrity -- until they got reminded that I was a writer."
They lashed back, however. Capote was no longer invited to lunches or dinner parties, and he took it hard. He was in and out of hospitals for alcohol and drug abuse. He appeared drunk on the lecture circuit and national television. He flaunted his homosexuality in a way he never had before, as if to make a mockery of himself.
"I responded pretty strongly to their reactions," he says. "I think at one point I may have said that I might take my own life accidentally. But I was never really worried that I would die. I was depressed. And I was a man with a very serious drinking problem."
"I think there have been times in Truman's life when it has been difficult for him to differentiate between himself and the public's expectations of him," says Norman Mailer. "It leads to a lot of confusion. It's almost impossible not to if you arrived [on the contemporary literary scene] as early as Truman... We've always felt this funny bond, Truman, Gore Vidal and I.We arrived very early and were well-known before we had a chance to live out our own lives."
After the Esquire debacle, Capote decided that he needed a couple of quotes to set the tone for "Answered Prayers." He now has them typed into the front of the manuscript, which is stuffed away in a box in a cupboard in the room where he writes:
One never says a quarter of what one knows. Otherwise, all would collapse. How little one says, and they are already screaming.
To be Captured: The price of being beautiful. Tropical fish go on long journeys only to end up in a tank.
"I grew up in this little town called Monroeville, Alabama," says Capote, who has spent perhaps 30 minutes characterizing in great detail each of the items on the restaurant's menu. "You'll never have snails the way they prepare them here, unless you go to Burgundy. I know a great deal about cooking. Not that I'm going to cook you a great Christmas dinner, but, OH, I can make a souffle, that you have to fold poached eggs into. It is absolutely divine. Once James Beard was eating at my house, and it was so rich he nearly had a heart attack. I was all ready to call 911 . . ."
"Down in Monroeville, Harper Lee [author of "To Kill a Mockingbird"] was my best friend because she was my age. She was the only person in this little town in Alabama who could understand what I was talking about. Everybody else could only talk about creole. It was a town of 1,100, of which there were four intelligent people. I won't say who they were, "cause I'll leave the other two out. By the age of 10 we had read every book in that town. Now a child comes home from school at 2:30. I would write for three hours like a child does piano lessons. It wasn't a pleasure; it was an obsession. When I was 8 years old I got my first typewriter. I mean, writing with a pencil is just the pits. I got Harper interested in writing because she typed my manuscripts on my typewriter. It was a nice gesture for her, and highly convenient for me.
"My mother was this total knockout girl. She was absolutely perfect, except that she had a very, very good mind. She reminded me so much of Willa Cather. Actually, something about Willa reminded me of my mother. She was one of the most glorious girls in this town who had the best toiletries from Paris. One day this man from New Orleans saw her crossing the street and stopped the car. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. He asked her to marry him. She didn't really want to marry him; but she wanted so desperately to get out of that town. And he was a very rich gentleman. I was born in New Orleans. My parents got divorced when I was 4 and I was sent to live with relatives in Monroeville. My mother married again and moved to New York. And then for some reason that I don't want to discuss, she committed suicide at a very young age.
"My name was Truman Streckfus Persons. My father's family owned the Streckfus Steam Boat Line, which went up and down the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis. Sometimes I'd go aboard on weekends. I used to tap dance with Louis Armstrong's band, and then go around with my sailor's cap and make people give me money. I was adopted by my mother's second husband, Joseph Capote. He was a Cuban."
Capote's experiences as a child, raised by various relatives, recur regularly in his writing: as the fictional Joel in "Other Voices, Other Rooms," who must ultimately confront a father he does not know; and as himself, in the story, "Dazzle," recounting a visit with a fortuneteller to whom he admits that his great wish in life is to be a girl.
"If you want to understand me," says Capote, his blue eyes dripping with sarcasm, "you must read this wonderful book by my aunt. And then Gerald Clarke has been writing this book about me for almost six years. He's a good reporter. He found out that I actually graduated from high school. I always lied about that. I wanted people to think I was a genius who dropped out of high school. I mean, when I was 8 years old, I decided I was going to be a writer and that was it. When I was 17, I went to work at The New Yorker in the art department."
One of Capote's tasks in the art department, according to Brendan Gill, was to keep tabs on James Thurber, the New Yorker artist who was blind by the time Capote joined the staff. Thurber and his wife lived in the Algonquin Hotel across the street from the magazine's offices. The proximity of his wife, however, apparently did not restrict Thurber's amorous adventures. And one day, Gill recalls, a troubled call came into the art department: Thurber had been abandoned in a strange hotel room by one of his liaisons, and couldn't find his clothes. Capote was dispatched forthwith to rescue the blind artist, dress him and return him to the office. Capote was roundly congratualted by the staff members for this merciful act. But, recalls Gill, each time he was praised, Capote would whisper to his admirers: "I put his socks on inside out so his wife would know."
"One hundred percent true," says Capote, "except that it wasn't in a hotel at all; it was at this woman's house, and I had to take Thurber there and wait in the living room while they went to bed." Not content to leave it at that, Capote escalates: "I had to do that once with Marilyn Monroe and Bobby Kennedy, too, and they stayed up all night! Anyway, I had this sudden marvelous inspiration about Thurber's socks . . .
"The next day he came to work and shoved me against the wall. He wasn't completely blind. "You f---ing son of a bitch," he said. "How could you have done that to me?"
""What about your socks?"
""You turned them inside out, so my wife would know!"
""It seems to me that your socks don't have enough character to be defined as inside out or right side in.""
Shortly after leaving The New Yorker, Capote published in Mademoiselle a story called "Miriam," which caught the eye of editor Robert Linscott. Linscott told Capote that Random House would be interested in publishing anything he wanted to write; Capote returned to New Orleans and immersed himself in work on "Other Voices, Other Rooms." The book appeared in 1948, when the author was 24. He subsequently took up residence in Italy, and began to work on his second novel, "The Grass Harp." Random House correspondence, which is archived in the Columbia University Library, reveals various aspects of Capote's personality: the brazen young man filled with himself ("Pay no attnetion to -------; she is a loathesome bitch . . . she's a sucker for syrup and I poured it on . . . "); the humble artist, so thankful for praise ("Oh thank you for the letter! Here in island isolation, arrival of mail is the sole event . . ."); the master of humor ("Dear Sir, want you to know that, at a cost to Random House of $10.82, I just received 10 copies of "Invisible Man; by Ralph Ellison in Japanes!"); the level-headed market of himself, who knew how not to overstate his own case ("Bob, please let's not use that same biography again -- about river boats and fortunetellers and God knows what all . . ."); the insecure artist with a tender ego (A memo about advances from Linscott to Cerf: Capote "originally insisted on $10,000 because he had been told that Eudora Welty got this for "Ponder Heart" and Helen Eustis for "The Fool Killer." I was able to prove to him that the advance on the former was exactly half what he had been told on "unimpeachable authority" and that the Eustis advance was at least considerably less than $10,000 . . ."); and the paranoid artist with a strong sense of retaliation:
I understand that in a new musical "Guys and Dolls," there is a song called "A Bushel and a Peck" (I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck). On page 84 of "Other Voices, Other Rooms," you will find this: "I love you Joel, I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck." It's quite my own line . . . I intend to bring suit.
Ever ready to cool Capote's litigious jets, Cerf fired back:
This morning, at approximately 10:53 1/2 a.m., I read your letter about "A Bushel and a Peck." I was just in the process of digesting it -- about 10:59 3/4 -- when your mother called up to tell me to disregard everything you had to say on the subject. As she has no doubt informed you by this time, she says that "A Bushel and a Peck" is an old southern rhyme that she distinctly remembers crooning to you when you were but a babe in her arms. And so, as Ed Gardner would say on the radio program called "Duffy's Tavern," "leave us forget the entire thing."
In 1958, Random House published "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a novella about a woman named Holly Golightly that originally had appeared in Esquire magazine. In 1959 Random House, Capote and Esquire were all sued by a woman named Bonnie Golightly on grounds of libel and invasion of privacy. Although the suit was eventually dismissed, it was for Capote the beginning of a series of controversies that would follow him for the rest of his life. Two years earlier he had published in The New Yorker a series of articles called "The Muses Are Heard," which chronicled the visit of a Porgy and Bess troupe through Russia. Capote called the work a "short comic novel," and in it he quite brilliantly utilized the literary forms of a fiction writer to present factual material. This too raised some hackles: Capote's version didn't quite jibe with the way some other observers of the trip remembered it. Capote himself admitted that he had not taken contemporaneous notes of what was going on; he had trained himself years ago, he said, to remember 90 percent of a conversation by getting a friend to read him the Sears Roebuck catalogue and then repeating it back.
He was intrigued by the process of joining fictional techniques with journalism. And in November of 1959, he was reading The New York Times when he came upon a four-paragraph story about the murder of a family in Holcomb, Kan. He suggested a piece about the murder to William Shawn, who had replaced Harold Ross as editor of The New Yorker. Shawn agreed it would be a good topic for Capote. Neither realized that "In Cold Blood" would consume the next five years of Capote's life and bring him $2 million in royalties.
More recently, in the pages of Interview magazine, and later reprinted in the book "Music for Chameleons," Capote published a strange murder story called "Handcarved Coffins." It is set in an unspecified place, wherein Capote and an investigator named Jake together come to unravel a series of gruesome murders. There are murders effected by amphetamine-injected rattlesnakes; there are murders by decapitation; in each instance, the victim first receives a snapshot of himself, mailed inside a small coffin carved from balsa wood. Film rights to the story were bought for $500,000 by producer Lester Persky. A screenplay has been written by Judity Roscoe, who scripted the film "Endless Love"; the film will be directed by Jonathan Demme, who made "Citizen's Band" and "Melvin and Howard."
"I could tell you where this happened," says Capote, "but I won't. I will tell you that the man who investigated these murders, Jake, was also involved in investigating the murders in "In Cold Blood." I've met with Quinn, the murderer, twice since the piece was published.You'd have to know him. If he hadn't done these things, you'd find him quite beguiling and normal, but there's a twisted side to him. Of course, he claims that I'm out of my mind."
"Did anybody even think Quinn could be Truman?" asks Lester Persky. "What a disturbing thought! Could all this have happened on the East Side of New York . . . There is that piece of balsa wood in his apartment. And all those stuffed rattlesnakes!"
Yes, it does seem hard sometimes to sift through Truman Capote's life and figure out what's real and what's not. Here he is talking about a burglary at his beach house in the Hamptons:
"When I got to the house the thieves had been there with a moving van and simply stripped the place. They'd taken the refrigerator and washing machine and the furniture. Everything. I called the police. While I was waiting for the police I saw lying on the ground a camera. I picked it up. It was one of those cheap little Instamatic cameras somebody had left at my house accidently during the summer. It was tucked in a drawer and I'd never thought anything about it. But I looked at it and noticed that all of the films had been used up. When the police arrived I handed them the camera. On a hunch the police developed the film and lo and behold the thieves had taken photographs of themselves hauling away all of my furniture . . . I recognized one of them . . ."
Truman: I wrote the last chapter first. I always do that. I also write the last paragraph or page of a story first. That way I always know where, what I'm working toward.
Bob: You just said that you start writing the last paragraph first. In a sense, isn't that what you were always trying to do with your life? -- anticipating the end first and then working toward it?
-- Truman Capote and Bob Collacello, discussing "Answered Prayers" in Interview magazine.
"There are three things you need in your life," says Truman Capote. "Someone you really love and two who are really rich in case you lose one."
"I've been doing some more work on "Answered Prayers." I don't know when it will be published; I hate to give it up. Oddly enough, it hass a happy ending -- one of the happiest endings I can think of. But I'm not telling what it is."
What, he is asked, is the best way to know Truman Capote, this man always reinventing himself? Where should one look for a clue to understanding him?
He is in his bedroom now, lying on a quilt-covered wicker bed, and the phone rings.Down below, in the East River, a huge barge is moving south. "One minute," he tells the caller, and covers the mouthpiece of the receiver.
"Look under the doormat," he says. "That's where all the best keys are found." CAPTION: Pictures l and 2, "I told them all along that I was writing a book. One night I even said, "I'm a writer; never trust a writer under any circumstance." But they forgot I was a writer. I was a celebrity, and they liked having me around. My personality has always been a mystery to me. It came as a surprise to me when I became a celebrity, because to me I was always just me. But to them I was a celebrity -- until they got reminded that I was a writer.", Photos by Tom Zito