Four years ago, I wrote a paper on Truman Capote. Disclaimer: You don’t have to read it.
The mid-twentieth century was a time for lavish parties, significant people, and luxury beyond reach. With a lifetime behind them, most people could not say they wrote acclaimed books or entertained the highest Hollywood royalty. However, Truman Capote can say all of these things about himself (Lagace). During his time, most writers were focused on creative fiction and original stories, but Capote had established a new genre—the non-fiction novel—and in the process, he changed the way literature was viewed.
Capote’s lifestyle was filled with encounters with socialites, rivalries, and rehab. The way he thought and the way he presented himself was different and off-color, but Capote managed “to develop fame not just into an art form, but finally into a substitute for art itself” (Reed). After many misunderstandings, he was fired from his copyboy job at The New Yorker—this proved to be Capote’s turning point because it led to creating the novels, the essays, and the letters that established himself as a writer. His childhood influences, the people he met, the places he saw, they were all involved with some of the most celebrated and beloved novels of the 20th century.
Although parts of Capote’s early childhood were shaky, his fascination with writing showed how his adolescent years were an important influence. He was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana on September 30, 1924. Capote’s seventeen year-old mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, and his father, Arch Persons, were unfaithful and irresponsible. Capote was neglected by his mother and raised by his elderly aunts and cousins in Monroeville, Alabama, his favorite being the eldest whom he called Sook. He found a friend in his next door neighbor, Harper Lee—a future acclaimed author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee frequently stood up for her colorful friend, and Capote enjoyed her company. After a few years, in 1933, Lillie Mae moved with her son to New York City to live with her new husband, Joseph Capote, a Cuban textile broker. Joseph officially adopted him in 1935, changing his name to Truman Garcia Capote.
In 1939, they relocated to Greenwich, Connecticut where he attended high school, often writing for the school literary journal—The Green Witch—and the school newspaper. Capote claimed he started writing at the age of eight or nine, but at the age of 11, he took an overwhelming fascination with it. He would come home from school and write in three-hour sessions; he described it as his passion—“in the sense that other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano or whatever, I used to go home from school every day and I would write […] I was obsessed by it” (Clarke 37). When he moved back to New York in 1942, Capote attended Dwight School in the Upper West Side where an award is now given annually in his name. However, like before, Lillie Mae had married a con-artist—Joseph turned out to be an embezzler and after many financial mishaps, the family had to move out of Park Avenue. As a child, he lived an abandoned life but turned to writing as consolation (“About the Author”).
Loneliness was nothing new to Capote; his interactions with his mother illustrated how her influence on him affected his writing. Even in his enjoyment with Sook and his friends in Millbrook, Capote “lived with the knowledge that things were not right at home” (Clarke 59). His mother, changing her name to Nina, had a horrible and excessive alcohol problem. Even though Capote’s friends that visited his home acknowledged that she was a welcoming, caring mother, they all managed to notice something uncomfortable about her relationship with her son. It was definitely strained at times, almost as if she did not want to play the role of the mother, only the friend. As described by close friends, Nina could be:
[…] protective and loving, but also cruel and degrading; [Capote] returned her ambivalence with an ambivalence of his own. Just as she loved him, he loved her, and just as she hated him, he hated her. No one made him as happy as she could and no one got under his skin the way she could. It was the kind of relationship that would make teams of psychiatrists happy for years. (Clarke 60)
Joe Capote believed that they had this tension because of the way the young Capote behaved, and he knew his wife had speculated that her son was homosexual. In one of her drunken raids, she screamed at him, tore up his manuscripts, and threatened that he would end up in the streets. Capote felt the rage, the embarrassment, and the confusion in regard with his mother’s actions; still, at the age of fifteen, he picked up his mother’s habit, raiding her stash of bourbon and Saki in the house, thoroughly enjoying every drink with his friends.
Following many accusations, Nina had tried to change Capote’s personality through force. She once drove him to a doctor to get male-hormone shots and Capote had forced her to stop the car and they had an argument. He clearly said he was homosexual and that he intended to do what he wants. After that, she never really brought it up, but she mentioned it any time she could to friends. By his mid-teens, Capote had developed a few relationships with other boys at his school; he had an intimate connection with one and was devastated when they had to end their relationship. His close friend, Phoebe Pierce, had stuck by him through these times, but their relationship became strained as well. These experiences led him to a different direction, and now, “with no qualms or second thoughts, he began to follow it” (Clarke 64).
Constantly aiming for the best, Capote’s career had first been influenced by failure. After graduation, he took a job for The New Yorker where he sorted through cartoons and newspaper clips, essentially not the job he craved for. He never wanted to study in college, so he was grateful, but he did not want to spend his life sorting and choosing covers—he wanted to write. He had written many short stories and submitted them, but they were all denied (Krebs). While attending a conference, Capote impersonated as the editor of the magazine; poet Robert Frost was doing a reading when Capote got up from his seat to stretch his legs, but Frost took it as him sneaking out as well as an insult. From the misunderstanding, he was fired from his job and coincidentally his writing career had begun; this event eventually became Capote’s turning point.
Obviously not realizing it at the time, his manager, William Shawn, had done him an unintentional favor that night; he did not have to worry about following guidelines and restrictions; he was able to find his true outlook on writing. Capote had started developing his writing:
[…] he had a distinctive style; if he stayed [at The New Yorker] and moved up, he might have been tempted, perhaps without even knowing it, to trim his increasingly luxuriant prose to the more muted, understated pattern favored by the magazine. Such a mutation, a kind of protective coloration, has been the fate of other spirited young talents, certainly, at The New Yorker and elsewhere; an embrace, if it comes with strings and conditions, can be more damaging than a rejection, and at that age even [Capote] might have been flattered into The New Yorker’s genteel conformity. (Clarke 78)
As Capote was beginning to recover from losing his job, ideas seemed to rush out of his head. After his job at The New Yorker, he wrote several short stories that were published in other well-known literary magazines. Between 1943 and 1946, these short stories were seen in various magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and The Atlantic Monthly. In 1946, Capote began his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. The characters and the story itself has many parallels to Capote’s own life, including the addition of the protagonist’s best friend, Idabel, who is based on his lifelong friend Harper Lee. Capote remained very close with Lee, and she based her character of Dill Harris in her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, on Capote. Rumors also circulated that he wrote a majority of To Kill a Mockingbird himself. Although Capote implied that the main point of Other Voices, Other Rooms was a boy’s search for his father, it started much controversy over the content and the very infamous promotional photograph; Capote is seen reclining on a chair and staring into the camera, almost too intimately. The uproar of the photo mainly accused Capote of being to suggestive, again bringing up Capote’s sexuality. Actually, many—if not most of the major critics—dismissed the novel as “an over spiced gumbo of rape, murder, homosexuality, disease, madness and transvestism” (Mendelsohon). Many artists, writers, and poets were homosexual during the time, but it was not spoken about openly; he was one of the few prominent people completely comfortable with who he was and how he acted.
Capote’s celebrity ultimately started with the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms where the public was fascinated with the new writer. Most people “attributed the commercial success of the novel to the photograph. Others dismissed the book as though it were a freakish accident” (Capote xiii); ten years later, Capote published Breakfast at Tiffany’s and a few short stories and essays. With its uptown setting in New York City and the loveable Holly Golighty,Breakfast at Tiffany’s became an instant best-seller. One of his earlier novels,Summer Crossings, was written in 1943 and he claimed that he destroyed it, but it resurfaced in 2004 and was published posthumously by Random House in 2005. The story goes that it was stolen by a house sitter in 1966, even though Capote overlooked it as a lost work. With Capote’s next major novel, In Cold Blood, his career was solidified as a prominent writer.
Observing Western Kansas as an outsider, it seems like a dull, dry, and plain place. The news about the unexpected murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, intrigued and inspired Capote to spend six-years investigating the case for himself. “To Capote, the killings in western Kansas seemed less commonplace” (Knickerbocker); it was a new adventure, the project that caused a commotion. Capote spent six years interviewing the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. For several years, he introduced:
[…] journalism as an art form in itself—it didn’t seem that anything truly innovative had occurred in prose writing, or in writing generally, since the 1920’s. Also, journalism as art was almost virgin terrain, for the simple reason that very few literary artists ever wrote narrative journalism, and when they did, it took the form of travel essays or autobiography. [He] wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry. (Capote xiv)
As the town of Holcomb felt uneasy about Capote’s research, they did not understand the strange little man that asked so many questions, and his manner didn’t fit in with the Kansas atmosphere (“The Tiny Terror”). However, when he finally published the novel, his writing style of In Cold Blood had emphasized his interpretation of a non-fiction novel and was praised as Capote’s best work to date. He wanted to prove that a “factual narrative could be just as gripping as the most imaginative thriller; The narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art was nevertheless immaculately accurate” (Plimpton). In the end, the information he found and the time spent travelling was comprised into one of the most famous novels in his lifetime.
As his life was in the spotlight all day and every day, Capote loved every minute of it. His lifestyle was filled with extravagant parties and gossip-filled rendezvous. He often dined with his favorite socialites whom he called “the swans: an apt description because they were usually gorgeous, graceful creatures with beautiful plumage” (Davis 33). He was the confidante, the perfect man whom everyone wanted to be friends with. He still cherished his roots in Monroeville, but changed a little after his relationship with Harper Lee went sour—Lee felt betrayed that she was not acknowledged with all the work she did in assisting Capote with In Cold Blood.
Capote was able to maintain his influential status for quite a long time—he was famous for being famous; he would stop at nothing if it meant getting into the papers. To celebrate the success of In Cold Blood and publisher Katharine Graham, Capote hosted a huge event at the Plaza Hotel in November of 1966; he called it The Black and White Ball. Everyone who was anyone attended the event, elaborately dressed in black and white, masquerade masks, and headdresses. Among those on the guest list were newlyweds Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, the Kennedys, Gregory Peck, Tennessee Williams, and Babe Paley, one of his many elite swans. News of the gala had spread throughout the city of New York and ended up being covered on many newspapers and magazines soon following.
With his high-society friends and privileged acquaintances, Capote often had chances to add more fuel to the fire. Because he was a great source of information, he also became quite reclusive with the secrets. He started to work on his next book, Answered Prayers; the book was drawn from his lifestyle associated with the socialites he entertained. He claimed to have started the planning process in 1958 and its set date to publish was in 1968. Many of Capote’s lifelong friends had become detached because of his idea of the book. It had created so much anxiety within the social elite because his wealthy female friends did not know which stories to expect about them. Capote continued to “cultivate scores of the famous as his friends and confidants, all the while publishing little and, he said later, developing a formidable ‘writer’s block’ that delayed completion of Answered Prayers” (Krebs). Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel was published posthumously in 1987, three years after his death.
Capote’s influences from childhood had greatly affected his later years. His mother’s abandonment and the friendships and hardships he had to struggle through had come back to haunt him. In September of 1977, Capote suffered a nervous breakdown. Once again, he got highly involved with alcohol and experimented with drugs; he often appeared on camera under the influence (“The Tiny Terror”). As Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke wrote, “to his tired eyes, everything now looked stale. He had, as he often said, used up the world” (Davis 255). Capote was frequently in the company of Joanna Carson, ex-wife of Johnny Carson, and she stayed with him till the very end. Capote had finally realized, “the moment in 1966—when glamour was the rule instead of the exception, when celebrity was earned, and when Truman Capote was the man of the hour—was gone forever” (Davis 255). He had endured one too many physical and mental breakdowns, and one too many drinks, and died on August 25, 1984 at the age of fifty-nine, ending a legacy of charm and eloquence.
After more than forty years as a writer, Capote has accomplished goals people usually want to achieve in their dreams. He has been regarded as a literary celebrity known for his flamboyant behavior and awkward, high-pitched voice. Still, he managed to take anything he could find and turn it into the kind of art he felt like creating. His struggles with bitter rivalries, friends, drugs, and alcohol only slowed him down, not really put an end to his genius—if anything, they just developed more opportunities. Unfortunately, Capote never got to see the originalAnswered Prayerspublished, which he claimed to be his greatest masterpiece. His contribution to literature, art and film has greatly left an impact; he inspires, amazes, even confuses those that follow him, but he will forever be remembered as the writer that broke boundaries and made success out of failure. He dedicated himself to writing with conviction and style—to write for the sake of writing. He is remembered by friends as witty, funny, and an entertainer. After struggles to prove himself through his art, Capote successfully established that he was an insightful yet flamboyant writer and he believed “failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”