More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. -- Saint Therese

That may have been Truman Capote's trouble in the end. The first of his prayers, the desperate prayers of his childhood for fame and literary reputation, were quickly answered.

He died two days ago, hours after working on the final chapter of what he hoped would be his final book. Capote wanted, like Balzac, to transform his extensive knowledge of high society into a work of both portraiture and imagination. And then, with his book complete, Truman Capote told friends he hoped to die.

This time his prayers were answered far too soon.

On Saturday, at about noon, Joanne Carson, Capote's host in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles, went to his room to wake him for a swim and "noticed he looked pale." There was no pulse. Further tests that will take a week to 10 days are required to determine the actual cause of death.

Capote lived his adult life in New York and on national television. He grew up in the small town of Monroeville, Ala., the son of Julian Persons, a New Orleans businessman, and Nina Faulk, a former Miss Alabama. The townspeople, Capote said, were "unprovided with any semblance of a cultural attitude" and his parents would sometimes lock him in a room while they went out. "I might as well have been a deaf mute growing up there," he once said. "I understood everything. I could see everything . . . I had the highest intelligence of any child in the United States, an IQ of 215."

Capote found his refuge in literature, in the crafting of sentences that gleam like the blues and golds in paintings by Vermeer. When he was 10 years old, he wrote a roman a clef called "Old Mr. Busybody" and entered it in a children's writing contest held by the Mobile Press- Register.

"The first installment appeared one Sunday under my real name, Truman Streckfus Persons," Capote told the Paris Review in the 1950s. "Only somebody suddenly realized I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second installment never appeared. Naturally, I didn't win a thing."

Within 13 years of "Old Mr. Busybody," Capote was famous. The publication of "Other Voices, Other Rooms" in 1948 when he was 23 drew notice not only for its haunting depiction of an odd, lonely boy named Joel Knox, but also for the dreamy, pouting jacket photograph of the young author lounging on a plush divan like a movie starlet. Fame and fortune and reputation -- all at once.

For decades he befriended the wealthy and powerful and was particularly close to Joanne Carson, who divorced talk show host Johnny Carson 12 years ago. Friday night, Capote was planning with her the guest list for his 60th birthday party on Sept. 30.

Late in the evening, Capote borrowed two pens from Carson and retired to his room to work in his spiral-bound notebook on the last chapter of "Answered Prayers," the novel-in-progress that has always promised to be as scathing to high society as "Old Mr. Busybody" was to Monroeville. When he published a portion of the book, "La Co te Basque, 1965," in Esquire nine years ago, several society women recognized unflattering portraits of themselves and never spoke to him again. Capote attributed his addiction to alcohol and his drug problems in part to their reaction to the excerpt.

Perhaps a skilled editor will do for "Answered Prayers" what Edmund Wilson did for F. Scott Fitzgerald's last novel, "The Last Tycoon." He will try to publish the book without imposing on it. Just as none of the various "comedians" who used to imitate Capote's high-pitched bitch sessions on television talk shows could mimic the pain beneath the parody, no one will be able to mimic his prose.

In the introduction to his last published book, "Music for Chameleons," Capote wrote about the beginning of his career: "One day I started writing, not knowing that I had chained myself for life to a noble but merciless master. When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation."

He may not have wanted it so soon, but Truman Capote finally has the one refuge there is. Refuge from his enemies, refuge from his own gift.

Capote was born Sept. 30, 1924, in New Orleans and his parents separated four years later. He always regarded his father as "a bounder and a cad." Capote's mother was a figure out of a Tennessee Williams drama, a once-beautiful southern belle plagued by a brittle loneliness and cheap liquor. When she could not have the children she wanted with her second husband, she killed herself.

Capote spent much of his childhood with various relatives, most notably with Miss Sook Faulk, an elderly great-aunt. He learned the power of imagination from Miss Sook Faulk who would later become a recurring character in his fiction, a silent but wandering figure who lives in the prison-house of her own ghosts and daydreams.

Capote never hid much about himself, least of all his homosexuality. He had a longstanding relationship with Jack Dunphy, a novelist from Philadelphia. They were lovers for 15 years and friends for 20 more. Capote said he had his first sexual experiences with older schoolboys when he was 8 years old. "I was always right out there," he told The New York Times Magazine. "I was really quite popular. I was amusing and I was pretty. I didn't look like anybody else and I wasn't like anybody else. People start out by being put off by something that's different, but I very easily disarmed them. Seduction -- that's what I do! It was: you think I'm different, well, I'll show you how different I really am. So it was layers of this thing building, this persona, and I didn't even realize I was doing it. I was totally self-created."

Tennessee Williams, who was a friend of Capote's for many years, once said, "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."

What was remarkable was how quickly Truman Capote had created his own myth. By the time he left high school and went to work at The New Yorker at the age of 17, his personality, his sense of himself as a contemporary Oscar Wilde was completely formed. He would wear three-piece Brooks Brothers suits and moccasins to work one day and a flowing, bright cape the next. He worked in the mailroom and, according to New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, took it upon himself to open envelopes stuffed with contributors' submissions and throw out those that did not meet his exacting standards.

Capote had a gift for the outrageous and for making enemies. One day in Bloomingdale's he jumped on the chest of one of his enemies and shouted, "I love you! I love you!"

Capote was fired from The New Yorker after he managed to enrage Robert Frost. He had taken a brief holiday at an inn in Vermont where Frost was to give a reading. The owner of the inn, hearing that Capote worked at The New Yorker, insisted he attend. Capote protested that he had the flu but came anyway, taking a seat in the back of the room. But he suddenly felt quite sick and tried to leave the room in the middle of Frost's performance. The poet was so angry that he stopped and threw his collected poems at the fleeing figure.

"Who the hell is this Truman Capote anyway!" fumed Harold Ross, the magazine's founding editor, when told of the incident the next day.

As for Frost, Capote told Esquire some years later that he "was the meanest man who ever drew breath, an old fake dragging around with a shaggy head of hair followed by pathetic old ladies from the Middle West."

Capote had already published stories in various magaazines and, after Ross fired him, he left New York for the South where he wrote "Other Voices, Other Rooms." Though critics called the prose "Gothic" and the media focused on the famous jacket photograph, it was immediately clear that the young Capote was a writer of brilliance, capable of economical, evocative prose. His technique was mature, professional in the best possible sense.

"I seem to remember reading that Dickens, as he wrote, choked with laughter over his own humor and dripped tears all over the page when one of his characters died," Capote said 30 years ago. "My own theory is that the writer should have considered his wit and dried his tears long, long before setting out to evoke similar reactions in a reader. In other words, I believe the greatest intensity in art in all its shapes is achieved with a deliberate, hard, and cool head."

Capote's crystalline writing style and his list of favorite authors -- Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, E.M. Forster, Rilke, Willa Cather and Katherine Anne Porter among them -- was wholly out of line with his increasingly flamboyant public life. Even before his famous appearances on television and the lecture circuit, Capote sharpened his razor in the literary parlors of New York.

At Tennessee Williams' apartment in 1949, Capote and Gore Vidal turned from friends to particularly catty enemies. "Gore told Truman he got all his plots out of Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty," Williams recalled. "Truman said, 'Well, maybe you get all yours from the Daily News.' "

"I'm never unkind to anyone," Capote explained in the Esquire interview. "I mean, except intentionally. My great fault is that I understand everything. When someone does something duplicitous to me, I always understand their motivations."

Capote fell out with Norman Mailer when Mailer called "In Cold Blood" a "failure of imagination." Capote later took great delight in pointing out the similarities between "In Cold Blood" and the subject and technique of Mailer's Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Executioner's Song."

"Now I see that the only prizes Norman wins are for that very same kind of writing," Capote said. "I'm glad I was of some service to him."

Capote thought "In Cold Blood" was his finest work. During the six years he spent researching the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., Capote never used a notebook and never tried to blend in with the locals. He wore his usual array of ascots and brocade vests and was never the least bit self-conscious about his widely imitated voice and postures.

The book was an artistic and commercial triumph and a boon to its initial publisher, The New Yorker -- to which he had long since returned as a writer, not a mailroom clerk. There are passages in it every bit as rhythmically spellbinding as Hemingway's famous opening to "A Farewell to Arms." Capote hated the "tiresome and cumbersome prose" of Faulkner -- "there is so much undergrowth and machete work that needs to be done" -- and chose instead to recreate the fear of a murderer on the run with economy and perfect detail:

He struck a match, intending to smoke a cigarette, but something seen by the light of the flaring match brought him to his feet and carried him across the barn to a cow stall. A car was parked inside the stall, a black-and-white two-door 1956 Chevrolet. The key was in the ignition.

Capote was deeply attached to both the chief investigator, Alvin Dewey, and the killers, Jack Hickock and Perry Smith. He visited Kansas for the execution of Hickock and Smith.

From the gallows, Perry Smith called down to Capote.

"Adios, amigos," he said.

Capote returned to New York and to nearly 20 years of celebrity. He befriended a coterie of wealthy socialites who confided in him. Grace Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, C.Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill and a ballroom full of others. Some of them will appear, thinly veiled, in "Answered Prayers." Most will not be amused.

"I told them I was a writer," he once said.

Capote also attended countless parties and threw a few himself. His most renowned gala was a masked ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966 given given in honor of Katharine Graham, who was then president of The Washington Post Co. and is now chairman of the board.

Like Hemingway, Capote did little to discourage the public caricature of himself. The difference between the two was that Capote created himself on national television. He grew ever more famous for his ready quiver of insults, insisting, for example, that Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was not writing but rather "typing." He fenced with Vidal and Mailer and seemed at times engaged in mordant self-parody or drunken rambles. In between phrases he would cock his pudgy, elastic face, and let the viewer and the host wait for his next mot juste. Capote's tongue would turn gently in his open mouth, dangling, sometimes, like a small fish in a loose net. His eyes would roll back in his head like a half-busted slot machine.

Sometimes he would appear on the air drunk or drugged. He frequently mixed alchohol with various medications. "I put them together like some sort of cocktail," he told talk show host Stanley Seigel in 1978.

The "cocktail" had brutal effects. There were seizures and ugly scenes. Last year, he pleaded guilty to drunken driving on Long Island and was also hospitalized in Montgomery, Ala., after tests showed a "toxic level" of Dilantin and phenobarbital in his system.

It was not hard at times to think that Truman Capote would be the next victim. It was not hard to imagine waking up to the news that he had died. But that he died so soon was not an inevitability. Certainly, it was not planned. His friend Lester Persky said Capote had been working hard and "living quietly" lately.

Joanne Carson said he ended his last session with "Answered Prayers" with these two lines:

There were flowers everywhere, masses of winter lilac, primrose, and lavender-edged roses. Beautiful bound books lined all the walls in the living room.

Capote was not fearful of death. He even wished for it. But not quite so soon. There was a novel to finish. And a party to attend.