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.
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.
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!