I light a candle for him every Sunday at mass," says Jack Dunphy, his closest companion for 35 years, first as a lover and longer as a friend.

"Even from the beginning, his life had the quality of desperation," says Conde' Nast editor Leo Lerman, who met him in the mid-'40s, right before the first onslaught of fame.

"I kept holding out this foolish hope that he'd hit bottom and come back up -- but he never did," says Joseph Fox, his editor at Random House for 24 years, from the glory of "In Cold Blood" through all the ruin of "Answered Prayers."

Truman Capote's ashes are sitting now on a shelf in a Manhattan apartment, inside a fake book with gold binding and this inscribed on the cover: T.C. 1924-1984. Somehow you get the feeling his spirit is savoring the small tackiness of that.

He was an American genius destroyed by what he aspired to. It is an old story, but there are twists. One thinks of other great and doomed 20th-century American genius-myths: Janis Joplin, Bix Beiderbecke, Diane Arbus, Hank Williams, who, like Truman Capote, was a lost and gifted son up out of the rural Deep South.

It was as if the wizard man, who had given him so much, also made sure he possessed that one perfect other thing to assure his undoing: unappeasable hungers for recognition, for celebrity, for the inconsequentialities of glitter -- whether that glitter was in a Lucite picture box, or a night at Studio 54, or, perhaps more insidiously, in a collection of impossibly wealthy and glamorous society friends. They had famous names like Vanderbilt and Paley and Agnelli and Radziwill, and in the end most of them broke his heart.

"I had to be successful and I had to be successful early," Capote once said. "The thing about people like me is that we always knew what we were going to do ... I was a very special person and I had to have a very special life. I was not meant to work in an office or something, though 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."

Truman Streckfus Persons, a rich and famous writer, died of natural causes on Aug. 25, 1984, in the home of a TV celebrity friend out Sunset Boulevard in sybaritic Los Angeles. He was one month shy of his 60th birthday and was, by his own accounting, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a homosexual and, of course, a genius. The Gypsies have a curse: May your dreams come true. With Capote they had, and then some.

This past fall, "the tiny terror with the invitational face," as someone once described him, was back to beguile us once more. There was a documentary on public television; there was a thick anthology of the lesser known work; there were three pathetic chapters of a shameless publishing venture called "Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel." But this time it all seemed to vanish overnight. And the so-called Proustian masterwork that the world had been hearing about for nearly two decades? Well, that was a little like reading air, bad air. It was just 177 pages long, and that turned out to be too much. "This shattered forlorn thing," critic Terrence Rafferty wrote in The New Yorker of the non-novel, of the almost non-anything, and that phrase could just about sum up the life as well.

What went wrong? There are various theories, including a bizarre one that nothing went wrong, that the missing parts of "Answered Prayers" are sitting in some as-yet-undiscovered locker in a Los Angeles bus terminal. But most of the larger explanations seem to converge at this: that the fierce need for recognition just ate Capote, devoured his life no less than it devoured his work.

This spring, a long-in-progress biography of Capote, by Gerald Clarke of Time, may tell us more. In the meantime one can't help believing that much of the answer to this sad riddle must go back to the spiritually dunned beginnings, to that once-and-ever wounded Alabama child who was all but abandoned not just by one parent but by two.

In one of the drafts of "Answered Prayers," Capote had quoted the poet Marianne Moore: "To be Captured: the price of being beautiful. Tropical fish go on long journeys only to end up in a tank." And in the preface to another book, "Music for Chameleons," he quoted Henry James: "We live in the dark, we do what we can, the rest is the madness of art."

What follows here is not theory so much as feeling -- the feeling of three people who knew best, who loved best, this small alluring writer whose journey was long.

Truman bad when I got to the apartment. He did not seem to realize that I had just come home from Switzerland. "Do you know me, Truman?" I said to him just now. He looked at me for a long time. "Of course I do. You're Jack," he said then. He appeared here in the library trying to button on a shirt. He said Cocteau had done the pillow on the sofa. I told him that it was the embroidery work of George Platt Lyons. I think he'd picked up a biography of Cocteau in the other room. He cried softly as if over the past, past glory, telling me how he admired me and always had. He was thinking of photographs of himself. Everything he saw made him sad. When I went into the bedroom, I saw he had wet the bed. It may be that's what made him cry. He knows he's mad. He knows I know it.

-- from the diaries of Jack Dunphy

The small wooden beach cottage stands at the end of a shrub-covered dirt lane, and to be let in through the kitchen, past the rust-stained fridge and the new Osterizer on the counter, is to get the immediate eerie impression that he didn't die at all, that there's been some terrible mistake, that he's going to reappear any second now, pop out, shimmering and fine, from beneath the surface of all his fabrications and legends and feints and poltergeists.

Maybe he just went in to Bridgehampton to get cigarettes, or a bar of some wicked chocolate.

"Don't ask me to explain, perhaps it's my museum to Truman now," says Jack Dunphy, unlatching the latch with a big set of keys. He has just led the way over from his own yard and cottage, which are about 100 feet from here, around a thick hedge and past the garage where Capote's Buick Riviera is parked, clean and gassed up. He was a sight, people say, piloting that green monster. Dunphy's 1964 red Mustang convertible is in there too.

"Why does this place have to be for anybody?" he says. "It's for me."

Jack Dunphy is the writer whom fame didn't kiss. He is 73 years old now, with a pink pate and flared white brows and a funny way of veering off in the middle of his thoughts to something else. He talks epigrammatically, but the pain is there. He is the son of a Philadelphia linotypist. He doesn't hang around with literary people. He doesn't go to parties -- just as Capote was ever magnetized by parties. He looks a bit like some old and lecherous unredeemed Irish priest. He is a devout Catholic, it turns out, and in a funny way this may explain part of Capote's attraction to him: a yearning for the good, for the seemingly whole and wholesome. He is the one who endured through Capote's affairs with married bankers, the flings with prison guards turned air conditioner installers.

In the end Capote always came back. The two lived together all over the world, from Switzerland to the island of Ischia -- which is off Naples -- to the 22nd floor of the U.N. Plaza. But the place they perhaps loved best -- and where they found some of their happiest, most stable moments -- was here in Sagaponack, on the eastern tip of Long Island, in these two adjoining, weatherboard cottages at the outskirts of what was once a potato farming community.

The painters were here just this morning, redoing the floor on the screened porch. Those are Capote's books on the shelves. That is his collection of hats hanging above the fireplace. Those are his drawings and watercolors tacked randomly to the walls. Those are his gold-framed snapshots (Oona and Charlie Chaplin, a spangled bullfighter, four or five others) on that cloth-covered table over in the corner. Those are his twin mouse-gray wicker chaise longues beneath that de'classe' floor-to-ceiling paneled mirror. You could almost swear he was sitting in one of them seconds ago. The cushions are even dimpled.

"I never come in here that I don't want to cry a little," says Dunphy, calling it in from another room. (He has invited you to wander on your own.) And then, again in a raised voice, "There's nothing as bad as love, is there?" And then, the tone shifting, his voice winding around a corner, "I asked him for the deed to my own place, you know. He ended up giving me both, this one in addition to mine. He said it was too much work to divide them." Dunphy is now the chief beneficiary of Capote's estate and receives 6 percent annually of all monies placed in a trust. This adds up to a considerable sum.

On the far side of the living room there is a garish yellow leather sofa. Perhaps it was purchased as a kind of private mock of that other sofa -- and the cream-skinned boy draped upon it like an odalisque -- portrayed on the back cover of "Other Voices, Other Rooms." That was in 1948, when Truman Capote was 23 and had just found, overnight, all the renown and filled-up feelings he craved. Those feelings weren't destined to last, of course. That same year, in the afterburn of "Voices," which is a novel about a lonely and beautiful Southern child named Joel Harrison Knox, Capote met Jack Dunphy.

He was 34 then, himself the author of a good first novel. (It was titled "John Fury" and was about a tormented Irish coal wagon driver in Philadelphia.) He was an ex-Broadway dancer -- in the original chorus line of "Oklahoma!" -- who'd recently broken up with his wife. On the night he and Capote met, Truman came in wearing a sheep-lined suede jacket, gray flannel slacks, rubber-soled sensible shoes. Jack was taken. So was Truman.

They wrote their separate books, they made their separate peace. Capote kept climbing toward literary myth, much of it of his own devising. Dunphy almost never talked about him with the reporters or would-be biographers who kept coming to the door; he has seldom talked with them since Capote's death. This past fall, when Capote's aborted novel and anthology and bio-documentary appeared, Dunphy published a 268-page memoir titled " 'Dear Genius ...' " It is the only piece of sustained writing he has done, or been willing to publish, that directly concerns the man he lived with for more than three decades.

" 'Dear Genius ...' " has not been well received. In many ways it is difficult to follow, which may suggest how much grieving still goes on inside its author. And yet there is an emotional power to the book. There are passages in it such as this:

Truman: "Somewhere there must be a place for me, a place that will take my problems away and leave me free to do as I please again -- and as I deserve. After all, who have I hurt? Nobody. Not really. Or anyway, not much."

"I'm funny," Dunphy is saying, just sort of tossing it off. "When a person hurts you -- I can't seem to touch them physically." He doesn't go on.

Capote once said in a letter to him, writing it in that tiny backhanded scrawl and signing it just "T," "You are the only good thing that ever happened to me." Dunphy has reproduced this letter and put it in his memoir. It doesn't seem like self-aggrandizement. It seems like the truth.

Wrote critic Diana Trilling in The Nation in 1948, just before Dunphy and Capote found each other: "Even if Mr. Capote were 10 or 20 years older than he is, his ability to bend language to his poetic moods, his ear for dialect and for the varied rhythms of speech would be remarkable. In one so young this much writing skill represents a kind of genius."

That was then. Dunphy is gesturing now toward the hideous yellow leather sofa across the room. "He could write anywhere," he says. Suddenly he is miming a very small person, scrinched up, scribbling very close to his nose. Dunphy has the most elegant freckled fingers. "Sometimes Truman wrote under a parrot at our place in the city, sometimes he wrote out here, on that sofa or somewhere else. Anywhere. He had a piece of paper and a pencil, that's all he ever needed. He wrote all over the world with his pencils and those small little dime store notebooks of his. He wouldn't be using a computer now, if he were here, I guarantee you that. He was a very serious and disciplined writer, no matter what else he was, what else he turned into. He was the least bullcrappy person that way I've ever known."

It seems finished. No. "Writing was one thing we never talked about very much. He did his, I did mine. We didn't talk things out that way, you know. To shreds. He liked a good deal of mine, actually."

Upstairs, in one of the two bedrooms (you ascend by a winding iron staircase, painted a rather stagy blue, as if this were the stairway to heaven in a hokey musical), there is a faded newspaper clipping affixed to the wall. It is from the Topeka Daily Capital, issue of Oct. 25, 1965, and someone has artfully ripped it down one side, so that what can be read now of the original headline is this: SCORE WITH CAPOTE. One can imagine a small impish hand, a small impish mind, sticking this clip on the wall, giggling at the double-entendre. The story beneath the headline is not about "scoring" at all, but rather about the publicity boon the state of Kansas was expecting from the then-imminent release of a true-life crime book, the story of a multiple murder, a book that, at that particular moment was being promoted -- and not least by its creator -- as a new American art form, a "nonfiction novel," combining the "persuasiveness of fact" with the "poetic altitude that fiction is capable of reaching."

That book, of course, was "In Cold Blood." And, of course, it needed no promoting at all. When it was published, in January of 1966, presto, there was Truman Capote, that round soft head, that curling little mouth, on the covers of national magazines.

He was easily the most famous writer in America. Later that year, in November, he gave a party at the Plaza Hotel for 540 of his closest friends. The food alone was said to cost $12,000. Capote had arranged every detail, down to the placing of flowers. The event was given in honor of Katharine Graham, then president of The Washington Post, and long before the actual night arrived, columnists routinely referred to it as the Party of the Decade.

"What I could do with an ad account hasn't been dreamed of," Capote purred to Johnny Carson in his much-mimicked, best talk-show voice, his tongue loitering at the outside curl of his strange little mouth.

"Memory. This whole thing of memory," Dunphy is saying. "Tennessee {Williams} had it too. I suppose it's very Southern. Tennessee would laugh and laugh about things in his childhood and then suddenly he'd look hollow. He'd be making fun of his mother, say, maybe he and Truman would be making fun of their mothers together, and everyone is laughing, and it's all a very good time -- but don't go too far, because it'll kill them, they'll turn on you with poison in their eyes."

Capote's mother, a semihysterical and eccentric one-time Miss Alabama whose name was Nina Faulk, committed suicide when her only child was 29. She was a character out of Tennessee Williams, actually. Before she abandoned Capote to his elderly and distant relatives in Monroeville, she used to lock him in New Orleans hotel rooms (he had been born in New Orleans) and go out, leaving him to his pounding and screaming. "I pounded and pounded on the door to get out, pounding and yelling and screaming," Capote once said. "That did something to me. I have a terror of being locked in a room."

In the tone of a man who doesn't really wish to go into it, because you could end up talking about it for an hour -- or for days -- Dunphy says: "He so wanted to be famous, didn't he? I think it's very bad for you. It dictates to you. It makes you start to lie, deceive everyone, but most of all yourself. Of course almost everybody wants it. Success. That bitch fame. And the less that last book worked, the more he had to talk of it. Proust, Proust, what was this thing with Proust all the time? And those, those ... people whose little court jester he was -- oh, never mind, oh, Christ, the hell with it."

And then, saying just this: "He was desperate, yes."

From Dunphy's diary:

Sagaponack, 15 May, 1981. Truman went to a hospital yesterday. He called me and said it was in upstate New York, someplace where the Hudson turns and narrows. As always he wants out, sounds withdrawn, says scarcely a word. I read where Rossini was afflicted with something doctors diagnosed as cyclothymia, highs and lows, euphoria followed by terrific depression, thoughts of death, etc. They might have said the same thing about Truman. Rossini was finally "cured." He no longer wrote opera, only light piano pieces.

"I don't think it's very interesting since he died, my diary," he says, laughing a little. "He'll have to come back, won't he? He'd come into the room where I was working and say, 'What are you writing down?' I'd say, 'Well, read it, my life is an open book, read it.' But, you know, I don't think he ever did. Funny, for such a gossip."

Softly: "It got out of control. I felt to continue like I always was was the best thing I could do for Truman. You know, something that really did stay and hold, when everything else was just slipping away. I thought if there was any chance of any cure at all, it would have to come this way. My whole feeling was: Don't interrogate him, don't threaten him. I guess it's very Irish. You know: Lower the blind, don't look at it. Too much was always happening. It was like you were going downhill very fast, seeing city after city on some strange tour. How could you talk about anything you saw back there? Oh, I was rough enough, don't worry. We had some scenes. I said to him once, 'Truman, you are turning me into a scold and that's something I will never forgive you for.' "

And then: "We didn't used to sleep in the same bed. But sometimes we'd lie together, he'd insist on it, and we'd then talk on into half the night. He worshiped sleep, you know. It was a way out."

You miss him pretty badly, don't you?

"Who, Truman? Oh, yeah." He is winding the sleeve of his sailor shirt. "There," he says. "There's the handle for your story. But it isn't true. It's a mixture of things, what I feel."

And then: "We had a good life. He lived pretty long. He didn't die so young, actually."

On a downstairs wall in Dunphy's gray-shingled cottage, just across the lawn, there is a picture of two young men, taken in Italy. Truman's left hand is in his pocket; Jack is holding a drink. They look very happy.

Dunphy was in Sagaponack when Capote died. Joe Fox, Capote's editor at Random House, drove over to tell him the news. But Dunphy had already heard. Perhaps he'd heard it on the radio -- that part isn't clear now. In any event, he had gone upstairs immediately afterward and fallen into a quick deep sleep. A little while later Fox was standing outside Dunphy's screened door, beneath the grape trellis, shifting his feet. "I have some bad news for you," he said.

Jack Dunphy's face collapsed. He had remembered.

What seems so sad about Truman Capote's life in retrospect is not that a great 20th-century writer failed to produce his last great work, but that he had to keep on pretending through the better part of two decades -- to himself, to his friends, to the wider world -- that he was right on the verge of producing it. How many talk shows did Capote go on during the last dozen years of his life and intimate that? To how many reporters in the middle and late '70s did he baldfacedly announce that he was finished, or all but finished, and that the novel -- three times the size of all his other books combined -- would be appearing within six months to a year? In how many tasteful apartments did he sit on inebriated Manhattan evenings and tell longtime friends or newfound sycophants -- sometimes with a black notebook cradled at his breast -- that he'd just that very day finished such-and-such a chapter, section, passage, scene?

Even at his death, the obituaries and appreciations routinely said things like: "He died hours after working on the final chapter of what he hoped would be his final book."

Capote had first signed a contract for "Answered Prayers" on Jan. 5, 1966. In May 1969 that contract was superseded and a new delivery date for the completed manuscript was set for January 1973. In mid-1973 the deadline was moved to January 1974; six months later it was moved again, to September 1977. In the spring of 1980 the contract was rewritten, with a delivery date now demanded of March 1, 1981. The advance was $1 million, to be paid only on receipt of the work.

The work was not received.

The conventional wisdom about Capote is that he was devastated in the mid-1970s by his decision to publish in Esquire magazine several sections of what he'd thus far written of "Answered Prayers," and that it was the outrage over these, and the subsequent ostracism by the fabulously wealthy people whose company he coveted but whom he had savaged anyway -- particularly in a nasty little chapter called "La Co~te Basque, 1965," wherein he named real names and told supposedly true, defamatory stories -- that brought on his terrible block and decline, his long night's journey into Valium and Tuinal and all those sanitariums with the famous names: Smithers, Hazelden, Silver Hill.

There is truth in that, certainly. But what now seems the more complete truth is that there was never a book at all, not really, it was all just fiction, but the wrong kind, from nearly 1957 onward, when he'd first begun to plan and talk of it. And that the publication of those few pitiful and barely connected parts in Esquire 20 years later -- which constitute nearly all we now have or know of the novel -- was just one more index of a man's seizing panic and guilt. His inner landscape must have been a paranoid's nightmare -- for so long.

And yet this question nags: Is it possible there once was more? Could Capote have deliberately destroyed at some point most of what he'd done, knowing it was terrible? Did an enraged ex-lover make off with some of the book?

Anything is possible, of course, but all the evidence and intuition run counter. And these speculations and theories and recurrent rumors seem almost obscene, set against the quality of the desperation the man surely felt. One can almost hear, even now, the silent scream of that desperation curling from his tiny shade.

After Esquire published the first installment of "Answered Prayers" in 1975, Publisher Arnold Gingrich told friends: "We gave the impression the mountains were parturiating, and out came this little mouse."

Viewed in this light, "Answered Prayers" seems a gigantic parable on the simple morality of trying to tell the truth.

So consider these two voices.

The first belongs to an elderly man with a white beard and purple socks over swollen ankles. He is sitting now in a small book-lined office on the 14th floor of a Manhattan office tower. His name is Leo Lerman, and he knew Truman Capote for 40 years. They used to go to Schrafft's together, at 88th and Madison, and fish nickels from their pockets for hot tea, and sit all afternoon plotting their glory, literary and otherwise. Lerman went on to become a well-known New York magazine editor, although he never quite became famous. In the fall of 1984 he spoke movingly at a Capote memorial service in New York. Last fall, in Vogue, he wrote a beautiful piece about his old friend. It was titled "A Capote Memory."

Classical music is playing. An ivory-knobbed cane is leaning against a wall. And Lerman, who looks almost rabbinical, and talks a little that way too, and has nothing at all any longer to sell, says:

"I think his wound was always there. His impoverished childhood. Read Dickens. In Dickens, impoverished people are just dying to be famous. It was an insatiable hunger in him ... But I want you to remember this: There was always a tremendous quality of caring in Truman. This is one of the pure ingredients about him. One of his chief expressions, you know, was 'little darling.' That tells you something. If you were really his friend, then you were his friend for life.

"What happened? I don't know what happened, exactly. He overextended himself. He forgot the proportions. He never could be Proust. Never. He possibly could be Flaubert, on a certain scale. He reached his -- I'm thinking of the word zenith, it's wrong -- with 'In Cold Blood.' Because there, you see, he could apply his real and genuine American storytelling gift. He understood the anatomy of that book. He could take it from there to there and apply his amazing gift.

"But, you see, he would have had to have been a social historian of the new money, say, from 1880 to the present, in an Edith Wharton sense, to get that other book down. Truman magpied a lot, but I'm not sure there was any real literary foundation there. He wanted badly to write a book about the world of society, which he thought was so glamorous, and there was a great book there, but in a sense he lived out that book -- on one night in 1966. I'm talking about his party for Mrs. Graham. In effect, he got everything together in that one room at the Plaza. He not only assembled them, he transformed all the elements. He put masks on his guests. That was his deeply creative act about overwealthy and famous people.

"Yes, I suppose that losing the intimacy with Babe Paley, say, or Lee Radziwill, helped destroy him. Really, he destroyed himself. I think these people turning from him did much. But more than this, I think it was the realization that he wasn't going to be ever again the extraordinary writer he always was. The world told him he was an extraordinary writer at the age of 23 -- and how do you quite sustain that? I suppose the pure absolute strain of it, walking on that kind of high wire. And again, I go back to the wound.

"Will Truman be around? I think he'll be around. Perhaps finally more as a symbol than as a writer, he will be around. Rather like Fitzgerald. Which is kind of sad, isn't it? He had extraordinary instincts. He had loyalty, curiosity, a sense of fun, a loving heart, a great sense of storytelling. And he also had, sadly, this thing the wicked fairy said: 'You must be self-destructive.'

"And, you know, having told you all this, some small part of me believes there must be more of his book. At least I prefer to think so."

That is one voice. Here is the other. It belongs to Joseph Fox. In his office at Random House, which is only a few blocks from Lerman's office, there are many pictures of Capote, including one taken a few months before he died. He had got his weight back down a little by then but his eyes looked vacant.

And Fox, who worked with him from 1960 until his death, and who has written the sad, eloquent foreword to the published version of "Answered Prayers," and who has certain regrets, even guilt, that he is not shed of yet, says:

"I remember coming home once to my apartment building and there was Truman staggering into the building. He was going to dinner with some friends in another apartment in the building. And to my shame I loitered outside until he had gotten up in the elevator.

"Yes, I was very aware he was lying to me. It was very hard to look him in the eye toward the end. I never really confronted him, and I guess I wish I had. Partially, you see, it was because we'd have these drunken lunches and he'd recount for me so vividly what he said he'd been writing that very day. There was this one chapter, 'A Severe Insult to the Brain.' I heard about that chapter so much. We'd walk out into the sunshine after one of these extended drunken lunches. 'I'll send it over tomorrow, Joe,' he'd say. 'I swear.' Sometimes I'd even call him the next day. He'd promise again. 'I swear.' But he never did send it. I think if Truman hadn't put this noose around his neck by promising how great the book was going to be -- it was a pressure he couldn't live up to.

"I think he assumed his fame and his gift could go together -- and they did, to a certain extent. I mean, it's the chicken and the egg, isn't it: Did he start drinking and drugging because he couldn't write? Or was it the other way around? I don't know. And, my God, if he really didn't write any of it at all -- other than these few parts we now have -- well, then, no wonder he became an alcoholic.

"I went out to Kansas with him one time. The remarkable thing about Truman was that he was so utterly unself-conscious. They all knew he was a homosexual in Holcomb, Kansas. It made no difference. He had this violet scarf, as big as he was, bigger, and he'd wrap it around him two or three times and parade the sidewalks. Everyone knew him. That little town was just bursting with pride for Truman. Those were glorious moments.

"He had the constitution of an ox. I knew he couldn't go on. The tension was unbearable sometimes. The last time I spoke to him was six or seven days before he died. He said he was going to California and I could reach him at Joanne Carson's. He sounded cheerful. No, not the old Truman, but some kind of Truman. He said he was planning his 60th birthday party, and that I just had to come out.

"And then I heard he had died."