On Truman Capote

The last time Truman Capote saw Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the ex-con killers whose slaying of a family in small town Kansas formed the subject of his most successful book, In Cold Blood, they were on their way to the gallows. Over the five and a half years Capote had spent preparing his ‘non-fiction novel’ he had grown surprisingly close to Perry Smith who provided a disquieting alter ego for him, a distorted reflection in a darkened mirror. Both men were short (Capote was 5’ 3”) and of stocky build and they shared similarly troubled childhoods at the hands of reckless, self-indulgent, neglectful mothers. For Capote it was an uncanny glimpse of what he could have become, only he hadn’t. He was a writer on the brink of the greatest success in his career, while Smith kissed him goodbye as he headed to his death. It is not surprising that the writing of In Cold Blood changed Truman Capote forever, that it provided a watershed moment in his career and that afterwards, his desire for manic distraction spiralled out of control.

Young Truman: A demonic Peter Pan

Truman Capote was the son of a social climbing lush and a petty fraudster. He spent his earliest years moving from place to place with his itinerant parents, left locked in hotel rooms each night while they went out on the town. Aged six, his mother finally dropped him off with her family in Alabama where he stayed for a few years, while she pursued other projects and other husbands. The young Truman was nothing if not different; pixie-faced, high-voiced and diminutive, precocious and flamboyant of personality, his saving grace seems to have been a genius for friendship. Not only did he manage to charm and entertain other people, sending up his own outrageousness without a moment’s hesitation, but he also managed to fall in with the talented, the rich and the powerful. His first best friend (and neighbour) was Harper Lee, who grew up to write To Kill A Mockingbird and who would eventually provide generous help and support to Capote while he researched In Cold Blood.

Capote knew from a very early age that he wanted to write although he never bothered much with the rest of his education. Honing his networking talents he landed a job as a copy boy at the New Yorker; it bored him, but he quickly made influential friends there, even if he alarmed others. There’s a nice story of the magazine’s publisher, Harold Ross, catching a glimpse of Truman racing through the office in an outsized cape and asking ‘What was that?’ When he was finally sacked for behaving disrespectfully at a poetry reading by Robert Frost, he took it as an opportunity to start writing in earnest. He returned to Alabama and wrote half an early novel that went nowhere. But he was also writing stories, and selling them to magazines, making friends and contacts as he did so. Very quickly he became a bright young thing on the literary horizon, and another new friend, Carson McCullers helped him to find an agent and a publisher. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms was published with a highly provocative picture of the unusual Capote on the back. That, and the buzz Capote had managed to create around his work through tireless self-publicity (and his celebrity-filled lifestyle) catapulted it onto the New York Times bestseller list and garnered a number of enthusiastic reviews. Capote had well and truly arrived.

Capote was nothing if not a diverse writer. When you look for him in the bookstores, there doesn’t seem to be much of his writing available – Other Voices, Other Rooms, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a novella, really) and In Cold Blood. He spent a lot of time writing other things: short stories, magazine pieces, screenplays, plays. In 1959, having noticed a small report in the newspaper about the Kansas killings, he persuaded the New Yorker to send him on assignment to cover the case. Truman turned his talent for charming people to work on the cagey inhabitants of Holcomb and eventually captivated the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey and his wife. And then, when the killers were tracked down, he added them to his willing cast list. Resistant at first, Capote made himself amenable to them at a time when they were cut off from all other social contact. Capote was obsessed with his story and fascinated by the prisoners, Smith in particular, with whom it was rumoured he was having an affair. His feelings for him were certainly complex, when he represented the wrong turn that Capote could have taken. But Smith also put him in a darker place. Capote suffered from depression but had always kept it at bay with a regimented lifestyle. Despite the hectic appearance of his socialising, his discipline at work was strong and tenacious. It might have been okay if the case had closed as quickly as had at first seemed it would. But an unexpected stay of execution meant another five years of uncertainty, when Capote really wanted a conclusion to his book. The subject was so upsetting and dark that he found himself unable to connect to his celebrity world, and he spent several years in semi-exile in Europe.

'Honestly, I've no idea who he is!'

But that talent for self-publicity rose again to the fore, and he returned to America to whet the appetites of the media and the public for the book he was writing. He had sold the film rights and magazine serialisation before it was even published. In an era before social networking and self-promotion became de rigueur for writers, Capote triumphed as a prince of that new phenomenon, hype. But inevitably there were dissenting voices from those who felt the hoopla to be much bigger than the book itself. New York Times called the book ‘the hottest property since the invention of the wheel.’ Although the same paper (in a move pre-empting the 21st century media circus) also described it as an inflated ‘Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon…[that] moves gigantically along the avenue to success.’ It didn’t matter what was said about the book; everyone was talking about it and the sales were outstanding. There were indications that Truman Capote was beginning to waver under the pressure of his own success; illnesses, sleeping pills and nervous anxiety were the flip side to his hectic lifestyle in the public eye. But in this, the defining moment of his career as a writer and as a socialite he threw his infamous black-and-white ball, a party that was to go down in history.

After that, the dark side came back and bit him. No longer could he find the discipline to work as hard as he partied. Drink and drugs and nervous breakdowns forced him into rehab. And something about that experience of writing a non-fiction novel undermined his literary talent. He kept writing stories that he sold to magazines, episodes of a longer work he promised to his public, but the stories were all such thinly-disguised accounts of the trials and tribulations of his society friends that they cut him off in horror. It seemed that the line between fact and fiction had been eroded, and his genius for networking went with it. In Cold Blood, his greatest book and the work that propelled him to the height of his notoriety, would also prove to have insidious effects on his health and well-being.

I wanted to find out the background to In Cold Blood for the readalong we’re having on the last weekend in July (and onwards if bloggers need a bit more time). Please do feel free to join in if you feel like it – there’s still plenty of time to read the book. The biographical details here come from Deborah Davis’ wonderfully gossipy book Party of the Century: The fabulous story of Truman Capote and his Black and White Ball, which I can also recommend as very light and accessible non-fiction. I’m really looking forward to reading Capote now!



15 thoughts on “On Truman Capote

  1. That’s a fascinating portrayal of Capote–and the ill-effects of his work. I know that I need some lightness in my books to carry me through when I’m writing them, and I crave even more for my next book.

  2. Ooo, thanks for the background for our readalong. I read a fascinating article about Capote a number of years ago in the NYT, but I needed a “refresher.” This did the trick (and also made me want to read this biography).

  3. You should really watch the movie, it is brilliant and captures exactly what you wrote about. It stays in your mind a long time afterwards.
    I read a few of his shorter pieces and got quite a few things here to discover but I found the whole story of In Cold Blood to bleak to be tempted to read it. It also made me feel uncomfortbale when watching the movie to see how much he projected on Smith, how much Smith was part of his shadow.

  4. I remember the Clutter murders. It was all over the news – non-stop. In my mind’s eye I can still see the photograph of the farmhouse which was on the front page of every paper, and the photographs of the family. It was the one event that, for me anyway, forever destroyed the calm reassurance that one was safe at home. I have never been able to bring myself to read In Cold Blood – or see the movie. Whereas the Tate-Labianca murders and the book, Helter Skelter, did not have the same impact – probably because of my age at the time. My remembrance of Truman Capote is mainly of his appearnaces on The Tonight Show. By that time, he appeared a bleary-eyed, bloated, sad little man who didn’t make much sense and slurred his speech. Once, he even seemed to fall asleep while talking with Johnny Carson. But I loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

  5. Pingback: Round-Up: Blogs, news, and other posts about books, part II. | Insatiable Booksluts

  6. I’ll be very interested in everyone’s posts on In Cold Blood, especially after this thought-provoking entry on Capote’s process around it. I read it 10 years ago or so and have to admit I was unimpressed…or, not exactly unimpressed, but I didn’t know how to read a “nonfiction novel.” The story itself, I think, was very shocking at the time, but not particularly so as an urban 18-year-old at the turn of the millennium. Capote’s style is, as I recall, very journalistic, and much of the historical and biographical interest surrounding the book (first “true crime” book, for example) was lost on me. At the time, my reaction was sort of a “so what?”—there was none of the aesthetic delight I got from Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the content seemed to me reportage rather than analysis. I would probably glean a much more nuanced reading now.

  7. I’ve enjoyed reading this fascinating post, litlove! And I must echo Caroline’s response: You should really watch the movie “Capote”. Maybe those in your readalong group to see it and discuss. It is the dramatization of what you’ve written here, intriguing and absorbing, with fascinating portrayal of Capote by Philip Seymour Hoffman. I can see how the writing of this book has drained him through and through, emotionally and physically.

    Recently I read Breakfast At Tiffany’s… and oh, what a difference in subject matter and style I suppose, even though I haven’t read In Cold Blood. Capote was definitely a versatile writer.

  8. I was looking at the Davis book not long ago, before you mentioned you were reading In Cold Blood–now I will have to go back and take a better look at it. I wondered how an entire book could be written about one party, but now I see how. I am nearing the end of the first section of In Cold Blood and I have to say it is almost shocking me–which I had not expected–I thought nothing could shock me anymore. I was reading it earlier at work on my break and I was very disturbed–my heart racing–I think I had not expected such viciousness, which Capote does not describe gruesome detail at all, but you can’t help but be shocked by the little detail he Does give. Maybe it’s the matter of factness of it that I find uncomfortable. I thought it was a chance robbery–hadn’t known it was so planned. His style of writing is very engrossing, however, I find I can’t put it down even when I really just want to look away.

  9. This was fascinating, Litlove. I’ve never read In Cold Blood, I just might have to do so now,although those kinds of books often give me nightmares. I can see how it would be all-consuming to research and write a book like that, especially for a character like Capote who was probably not the most emotionally stable of men.

  10. _Infamous_ is another film adaptation, from 2006, of Capote’s life mixed with imagined scenes, and dealing with _In Cold Blood_. To my mind the actor playing Capote does a better job than PSH (and that was pretty good).

  11. What a fascinating life. I kind of wonder whether he will be remembered more for the life than for the writing, or perhaps equally for both. I haven’t read him yet, so I couldn’t say, but I’m very curious, and as a lover of narrative nonfiction, I really need to read In Cold Blood!

  12. Lilian – when I was writing academic stuff, I used to sleep like a baby when researching Bataille or someone equally disturbing, and never had such bad dreams as when I was working on Yves Bonnefoy, who produces exquisitely beautiful poetry! So I thought I had this all cracked, until I tried to write about having chronic fatigue, which was just the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Now, yes, get all the lightness you can while dealing with dark material!

    Emily – I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about the book! So looking forward to reading your review.

    Caroline – I’m often not great with movies (I hate being shown things I didn’t want to see), but it would be so very interesting to see how Capote was portrayed. I was afraid In Cold Blood would be horrific, but I’m into it now and it’s fine – thankfully!

    Grad – big fan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s here – and I read about Capote’s drunken talk show appearances – sad. I can see how In Cold Blood could unsettle a tender mind. Nowadays I figure I am far more likely to make an ass of myself in front of the students than to get murdered in my own home, so those are the odds I run with. 🙂

    Stefanie – well you can imagine that that bit intrigued me, too!

    Emily – I was thinking about your comment as I began reading the book. There are certainly no aesthetic joys to be gleaned from the language, or indeed the tone, and I’m intrigued by the insidious sensationalism that creeps in. But I guess I’m okay with that given that there are so many other intriguing elements to it – the way the killers are portrayed, the sort of buttons Capote is trying to push – where he is in all of this. But I’ll also read Other Voices, Other Rooms as I am most curious to see him write something else.

    Arti – isn’t it interesting when writers write a lot of different things? I tend to think of the great classic authors as having a distinctive style or approach, but in some ways it’s the multi-faceted ones that really intrigue. I might get Capote screened first by my menfolk and if it’s not too violent, I’ll be keen to see how the biographical elements were represented. Now Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a film I love!

    Danielle – he really writes that last bit of the first section to knock the reader about, doesn’t he? No pulling punches there. It took me a while to get into it, but I’m trucking now and very gripped by it. The Deborah Davis is interesting, because she is so resolutely positive about Capote and is only really interested in him as a success story – his twenty year decline merits one brief chapter. I hadn’t noticed that the first time I read the book, but it’s making me really curious now.

    Becca – I completely sympathise with the nightmares, and although the end of the first section is shocking, I haven’t found the book too bad. You could always try the films that Arti and Caroline and Jeff are suggesting, as I know some people find film easier to digest (not me, alas, the visual stuff is far, far worse). But I have found it to be a strange and gripping book.

    JB- you know my limits with film, so I’m thinking this adaptation is good for me to watch, yes? How interesting it shouldn’t be as well known as the other, although perhaps better in some ways.

    Dorothy – still time to join in, hint, hint! 🙂 No, really, only if you have time and feel like it.

  13. I’ve never delved that deeply into Capote’s background. I never realized that he had such a tortured childhood. It makes sense now that he came to be so close to Smith, in spite of the fact that he was a cold-blooded killer. I suppose he could relate to him in many ways and that made him sympathetic. I really appreciate your research into Capote and sharing it with all of us. It seems a shame that Capote was never able to write anything else that came close to the greatness of In Cold Blood.

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