The Capote Papers

By  Ray Schultz

It’s hard to believe that a half century has passed since the appearance of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But today is the 50th anniversary of Newsweek magazine’s cover story on Capote and his “non-fiction novel.”

That article revealed that Capote had already taken in $500,000 for the paperback rights, $500,000 for the movie rights and another million in royalties. Newsweek, which was published by Katherine Graham (the honoree at Capote’s Black and White Ball that autumn), called it “an extraordinary book by an extraordinary man.”

Given this milestone, it seems like a good time to revisit Truman Capote. Was he an overrated fraud whose main genius was for self-promotion, or a truly innovative author?

He certainly remains a famous one. His chronological peers, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, wrote dozens of books apiece. Yet a recent survey of Millennials shows that only a minority can identify these authors, whereas Capote, who had a much thinner output, is known because of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s onscreen portrayal of him.

And that’s part of the problem. The tiny Capote was an outsized celebrity and substance abuser. His work seemed to take a back seat at times.

So just how good was he?

Let’s start at the beginning: in 1948. Capote’s first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms is a dense account of how Joel, a boy like Truman, finds his identity in the Deep South. The prose is elegant, if slightly overdone in spots, but full of merciless insights like this one:

For long periods each day he studied his face in a hand mirror: a disappointing exercise, on the whole, for nothing he saw concretely affirmed his suspicions of emerging manhood, though about his face there were certain changes: baby-fat had given way to a true shape, the softness of his eyes had hardened: it was a face with a look of innocence but none of its charm, an alarming face, really, too shrewd for a child, too beautiful for a boy.

This moving and funny work  was followed by another fine childhood novel: The Grass Harp.  For me, though, Capote’s big leap forward  came in 1958, with his novella: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. From the Hamburg Heaven on Madison, to Joe Bell’s bar on Lexington, to the tiny studio apartment with its sofa and stuffed chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train, Capote captured the Upper East Side of New York, and the people who lived there in 1943.

As others have observed, Holly Golightly, a sort of American geisha, is Capote’s version of Isherwood’s Sally Bowles. In some scenes, she talks candidly about lesbianism and her sex life; in others she dances around the pillars of the Third Ave. El with Australian Army officers. There’s a new sharpness to the prose: One character discovers that he’d feel safer in diapers than he would in a skirt, and another that gin to artifice bears the same relation as tears to mascara. Norman Mailer praised the writing. And Edward Albee, who unsuccessfully rewrote the script of a musical stage version, called it a “tough little book.”

Youth Meets Age

Capote also evoked that Upper East Side neighborhood in the sketch he was writing the day before he died in 1984: about an encounter at age 19 with an older woman dressed in a sable coat outside the Society Library on East 79th St.. He offers to escort her home in a snowstorm, and they stop in Longchamps. She orders tea, he requests a double martini.

Whereupon I told her all about myself, he recalled. My age. The fact I was born in New Orleans, and that I was an aspiring writer.

Really? What writers did I admire? (Obviously she was not a New Yorker: she had a Western accent.) ‘Flaubert. Turgenev. Proust. Charles Dickens. E. M. Forster. Conan Doyle. Maupassant—‘

She laughed. ‘Well. You certainly are varied. Except. Aren’t there any American writers you care for?’

 “Like who?”

 She didn’t hesitate. “Sarah Orne Jewett. Edith Wharton—”

“Miss Jewett wrote one good book: The Country of the Pointed Firs. And Edith Wharton wrote one good book: The House of Mirth. But. I like Henry James. Mark Twain. Melville. And I love Willa Cather. My Antonia. Death Comes for the Archbishop. Have you ever read her two marvelous novellas—A Lost Lady and My Mortal Enemy?”

“Yes.” She sipped her tea, and put the cup down with a slightly nervous gesture. She seemed to be turning something over in her mind. “I ought to tell you—” She paused; then, in a rushing voice, more or less whispered: “I wrote those books.”

It never fails to get me, this meeting between Cather, an American master who powerfully depicted life on the Great Plains, and the young urbanite Capote.

Was it true as written? That’s besides the point. The teenage litterateur may well have known who Cather was on sight. But I prefer this charming version, which ends just as Capote is about to go to a dinner party at Cather’s Park Ave. apartment. Sadly, that’s as far as he got with this piece before he died.

Have I Said Something Wrong?

For me, some of Capote’s best writing was in his vicious unfinished novel Answered Prayers. The narrator and protagonist, P.B. Jones, is a failed writer and “Hershey Bar Whore” who can service both men and women. That book may suffer now because the notables portrayed in it are forgotten. Will a Millennial appreciate the interplay between Dorothy Parker and Tallulah Bankhead about Montgomery Clift, the tortured actor who has passed out at a dinner party?

…Miss Parker did something so curious it attracted everyone’s attention; it even silenced Miss Bankhead. With tears in her eyes, Miss Parker was touching Clift’s hypnotized face, her stubby fingers tenderly brushing his brow, his cheekbones, his lips, chin.

Miss Bankhead said: “Damn it, Dottie. Who do you think you are? Helen Keller?”

“He’s so beautiful,” murmured Miss Parker. “Sensitive. So firmly made. The most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.” She used a crude expression to denote that Clift was off limits to women.

Then, sweetly wide-eyed wide eyed with little girl naiveté, she said: “Oh. Oh dear. Have I said something wrong?”

And while the import seems clear, what will the PC Generations make of this line? Both Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton had, in effect, paid a million dollars to find out if other ladies were lying when they praised that kinky-haired piece of trade His Excellency the Dominican Ambassador Porfirio Rubirosa…

Of course, the most infamous chapter was Le Cote Basque (1965). As they lunch on Cristal champagne and Souffle Furstenberg, a spinach-cheese-poached egg concoction, at the famed restaurant,  a 40ish swan named Lady Ida Coolbirth (Slim Keith, maybe?) tells Jonesy about a gross and mortifying sexual encounter between the magnate Sydney Dillon (William Paley?) and the governor’s wife who is sitting a few tables away (Happy Rockefeller?). “Dill’s in his sixties now; he could have any woman he wants, yet for years he yearned after yonder porco.”

Capote reportedly published these chapters because he believed they proved he could still write. But one thinly disguised character committed suicide after it came out. And his society friends dumped him, including the most beloved one of all: the dying swan Babe Paley, whose husband supposedly was the subject of the central anecdote of Le Cote Basque. This contributed to Capote’s unraveling.

Truman Capote bashers gleefully point to the fact that he never finished the novel, although he took his first advance for it in 1966. All we have are the three sections published in Esquire in 1975 and 1976 (and later collected in book form). Still missing, perhaps never written, is the chapter titled Father Flanagan’s All-Night Nigger Queen Kosher Café. It’s not a café, but a state, “the cool, green, restful as the grave rock bottom,” a character says in Unspoiled Monsters.

But Capote had obviously had written more. The first chapter published in Esquire, Mojave, was later moved out of Answered Prayers and included as a short story in his uneven 1980 collection Music for Chameleons. In effect, he had completed at least four chapters by 1976. And a fifth, less robust section turned up a few years ago: Of Yachts and Things, about a cruise with a woman who resembles Katherine Graham. First, they meet the captain, attired in  a crisply tailored white uniform. He was a handsome man but his wind-weathered face was solemn, for he had solemn news to report. Alas, there had been a sudden death in the family of our host, and the family was in mourning: our host regretted so much his inability to forewarn us in time.

“Oh, dear, sighed Mrs. Williams. “First Adlai. Now this. Perhaps they ought to rechristen this ship The Bewitchedcraft.”

And my heart sank as well, for of course we assumed the cruise had been cancelled. But not at all! The captain’s orders were to continue the cruise as planned.

“Now that,” said Mrs. Williams, “is what I call class.”

It’s enough to go on. The opening chapters, Unspoiled Monsters and Kate McCloud, together add up to 136 pages, more than Breakfast at Tiffany’s in its entirety, as Gerald Clarke has noted. Le Cote Basque (1965) brings the total to 180 pages.

Maybe it isn’t Proust (Capote had originally hoped to write a modern Remembrance of Things Past). And it suffers by being incomplete. For example, what happened to Kate McCloud after all the hints of the disaster that loomed for her and J.B.? But it’s savagely funny, far more vivid than Dominick Dunne’s clunky writings about the same social class (including at least one episode featured by Capote). And it holds up 40 years later.

One thread that runs through these books is how much fun it was being an author. In the apartment described in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the narrator has books and “jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to be the writer I wanted to be.” His perfect evening is sitting up in bed with a glass of bourbon and the new Simenon. In Unspoiled Monsters, P.B. Jones describes living in Europe on his “various swindles and savings.” In Venice, he writes every day until 3 p.m., then goes out to walk in the winter mist. Towards evening, he shows up at Harry’s Bar and spends “$9 or $10 for martinis and shrimp sandwiches and heaping bowls of green noodles with sauce Bolognese.”

True Crime

For all that, Capote’s reputation may rest on his two crime novels: In Cold Blood and Handcarved Coffins.

In Cold Blood, about the murder of an entire Kansas family, contains some of the best prose Capote ever wrote. (“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there,’” it starts). Here is how he describes one of the killers: Perry Smith:

Sitting, he had seemed a more than normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight lifter. Weight lifting was, in fact, his hobby. But some sections of him were not in proportion to others. His tiny feet, encased in short black boots with steel buckles, would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady’s dancing slippers; when he stood up, he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child, and suddenly looked, strutting on stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported, not like a well-built truck driver but like a retired jockey, overblown and muscle-bound.

Pretty damned good. But critics charge that Capote overplayed the role of detective Alvin Dewey, one of many alleged inaccuracies, and that he withheld the details of the crime until later in the book to drive suspense.

None of that diminishes In Cold Blood, in my view. Sure, Capote focused on Alvin Dewey. He had access to him, and Dewey helped him. I hate to disillusion anyone, but that’s how it’s often done in journalism. Many non-fiction books have that sort of skew. Why should Capote be singled out? Nor was there anything untoward about his friendship and identification with the killer Perry Smith. Capote functions strictly as an anonymous narrator in this book—he never mentions himself. But he did bring his obsessions to the story, producing an idiosyncratic classic.

Maybe Newsweek had it right, when it called the book “super contemporary,” and likened it to the work of the French anti-novelists of that time.

Finally, there’s the charge that Capote made up a scene—the last one at the cemetery. That’s a no-no these days. But it was hardly unknown in journalism at that time. Think of Joe Mitchell’s composite characters, or of A.J. Liebling’s purported embellishment of Colonel John R. Stingo’s personality.

We live in a time when even memoirs are expected to be 100% factual, without the “stretchers” resorted to by Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. But I believe there’s room for a less stringent standard for some types of material—as long as you call it what it is.

An Open Coffin

That question is especially pertinent when it comes to Capote’s Handcarved Coffins. A mass killer murders several people in unusual ways—in one instance, by placing amphetamine-maddened rattlesnakes in their car. But before he kills them, he sends his victims photos of themselves and miniature hand-carved coffins.

A probe by journalists revealed that there was no such case, although a couple of elements had popped up—in some form—in other investigations. Capote apparently turned the detective Dewey into a fictional character, and inserted himself as a reporter. And if you believe him, he met and played chess with the suspected killer. Again, none of this ever happened.

Author Ron Rosenbaum, whose opinion I respect, says that the only problem with this work was in the labeling: It actually was an important Capote piece of fiction.

Yes. But I’d add that Capote should have published it separately as a novella, instead of burying it in Music for Chameleons. Made up of transcripts, daily updates and fast-moving episodes, it’s a stunning performance by a man who had only a few years left to live. He could have filled out the book with a few of the better pieces from Music for Chameleons—say, Mojave, the title story and Dazzle, in which the young boy Capote tells a fortune teller that he wants to be a girl. Breakfast for Tiffany’s had a similar format.

The prose style in Handcarved Coffins is more minimal than the one usually displayed by Capote. But there was a high polish to all of it. Take his description of the purported murderer, a wealthy ranch owner:

He sported expensive high-heel boots, but even without them the man measured over six feet, and if he had stood straight, instead of assuming a stooped, slope-shouldered posture, he would have presented a full fine figure. He had long simianlike arms, the hands dangled to his knees, and the fingers were long, capable, aristocratic. I recalled a Rachmaninoff concert. Rachmaninoff’s hands were like Quinn’s.

So how do I rate Truman Capote? Like many people, I, too, got tired of him at times. For years, he pontificated on talk shows on crime and capital punishment, and he seemed to support the latter despite having seen two men hanged. (I didn’t agree with that then, and I don’t now). And they were constantly recycling his holiday memories for TV specials and print edition (not that there was anything wrong with the stories themselves).

In the end, I see him as one of our best writers. He educated himself, and will never be mistaken for the more experimental authors of his generation (despite his labeling of In Cold Blood as the world’s first nonfiction novel). But he had his own niche: In various stories and formats, he plumbed the world of “Father Flanagan and his outcast of Thousands, him and all the other yids, nigs, spiks, fags, dykes, dope fiends and commies.”

In that sense, all his books are of a piece, even the Christmas stories. We come away understanding poverty, sex, cruelty and what it’s like to be the Other. And they’re wrapped in an exquisite style.

Indeed, you can enjoy Capote as I sometimes do, late at night, as literary comfort food. In that way, he’s on a par with F. Scott Fitzgerald: you sometimes want to read him only for the tone.

I suspect that Truman Capote would be perfectly happy with that.