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Truman Capote

He made his appearance on Planet Earth on September 30, 1924--a Roaring Twenties baby, a baby boomer on the heels of the first world war--in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The son of a salesman and a 16-year-old beauty queen, Truman Capote was born into a life of insecurity.  His father worked for a time as a clerk for a steamboat company, although he never stuck at any job for long and was always leaving New Orleans in search of new opportunities.  His mother, a retired beauty queen who was unhappy in her marriage, divorced Capote's father when the boy was only four.

Young Capote was brought up in Monroeville, Alabama.  He lived for a while with relatives, one of whom became the model for the elderly but loving spinster in a number of his novels, stories, and plays. 

"Her face is remarkable - not unlike Lincoln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind," wrote Capote in A Christmas Memory (1966) about his distant relative Sook (Nanny Rumbley Faulk) after spending time with her in the 1930s and 1940s.  Sook was sixty-something, "small and sprightly, like a bantam hen..."  Capote's mother, Lillie Mae, wrote letters and telephoned her son, often complaining that she had no money and no husband.  When she finally remarried, it was to a well-to-do businessman.  Capote moved to New York and adopted his stepfather's surname.

Even as a child, Capote wanted to be famous.  When he applied to the prestigious Trinity School, he was given an IQ test as an entrance exam, and he scored 215, the highest in the school's history. 

Of his intellectual capacity, Capote said, "I was having 50 perceptions a minute to everyone else's five.  I always felt nobody was going to understand me, going to understand what I felt about things.  I guess that's why I started writing."

In 1946, Capote's writing won him an O. Henry award for his novel, Shut a Final Door, and he began publishing his early stories in top magazines.  Another novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), detailed the life of a young boy growing up in the Deep South, where the protagonist falls into a relationship with a decadent transvestite.  The book gained wide success and stirred a lot of controversy because of its treatment of homosexuality.  Capote had already established his fame among cultural circles for his thinly-veiled lisp, his promise as a writer, and his quick quips.

The  following year, Capote went to Europe, where he wrote both fiction and nonfiction.  Among his major works was a profile of Marlon Brando.  Capote's travels accompanying a tour of Porgy and Bess in the Soviet Union produced The Muses Are Heart, which subtly mocked the whole presentation of the play.  His European years also marked the beginnings of his work for the theatre and films.  When director John Huston was making The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Capote met Marilyn Monroe, who acted in the film. 

"With her tresses invisible, and her complexion cleared of all cosmetics, she looked twelve years old, a pubescent virgin who had just been admitted to an orphanage and is grieving her plight." - from Marilyn Monroe: Photographs 1945-1962

In the 1950s, Capote wrote The House of Flowers, a musical set in a West Indies bordello.  Capote's lyrical style, melancholy, and whimsical humor left their mark on his novel, The Grass Harp (1951), in which a young boy and his elderly cousin defy the conventions of a materialistic society while discovering that some compromise is  necessary if people are to live together within a community.  The book was made into a 1996 movie, starring Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, and Walter Matthau.  Capote's first important film work was a collaboration with John Huston on Beat the Devil (1954), starring Humphrey Bogart.

Following his return to the United States, Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), in which Holly Golightly, a young woman, comes to New York seeking love and happiness.  All she knows about her mystery man is that he has a nameless cat and a brother named Fred.  The nameless narrator is an aspiring writer who has the same birthday as Capote (September 30) and who follows Holly's life, which is filled with colorful characters. 

"What I've found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's.  It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there..." - from Breakfast at Tiffany's

The book was made into a film, starring Audrey Hepburn and directed by Blake Edwards.  George Axelrod updated the story to the 1960s and later said, "Nothing really happened in the book.  All we had was this glorious girl - a perfect part for Audrie Hepburn.  What we had to do was devise a story, get a central romantic relationship, and make the hero a red-blooded heterosexual."

Capote's growing fascination with journalism and reportage led him to write an article for The New York Times about the gruesome murder of a wealthy family in Holcomb, Kansas.  Sponsored by the magazine, Capote and novelist/friend Harper Lee visited the area and interviewed local people to recreate the lives of both the murderers and their victims.  The research and writing took six years to finish.  Capote used neither tape recorder nor note pad but relied for accuracy upon an amazing memory.  At the end of the day, he'd go to his room and dump his interviews and impressions into notebooks he kept of his research.

Interestingly, while Capote was working on the Holcomb murders, Lee was preparing to use Capote as a model for one of her own novel's characters. 

"Dill was a curiosity.  He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duckfluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him.  As he told us the old tale his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead." - from To Kill a Mockingbird

During Capote's research, he grew close to the people of the community as they struggled to recover from the horrendous crime.  He compiled over 6,000 pages of notes on the event, four-fifths of which he threw away.  Eventually, he wrote his most famous work, In Cold Blood (1966), about the murders.  He got to know the two murderers well and worked for many years to have their death sentences reduced.  When the two men were hanged, Capote became physically ill. 

"I didn't want to harm the man.  I thought he was a very nice gentleman.  Soft-spoken.  I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat." - from In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood introduced the world to a new literary genre, the "nonfiction novel" or narrative nonfiction.  Capote received nearly two million dollars for the text and movie rights to the book.

Following the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote planned to write a Proustian novel to be called Answered Prayers, but failing health complicated by a dependence on alcohol and drugs--along with disputes with other writers such as Gore Vidal--drained what remained of the author's creative energies, and he never completed the work.

Three stories from novels appeared in Esquire in the 1970s, revealing that Capote's wittiness had turned into gossipy bitterness.  In 1986, the stories were republished as Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel, which further diminished Capote's reputation.  The unfinished autobiographical book followed the career of a writer of uncertain parentage to literary saloons, presenting real characters such as the Duchess of Windsor, Montgomery Clift, and Tallulah Bankhead.

Truman Capote spent most of his life craving--and acquiring--fame.  He loved to socialize and was a lively storyteller and charmer.  Although he was an unassuming figure—small and with a high lisping voice--he affected nearly everyone whose life he touched.  George Plimpton once said, "He knew he had to sing for his supper but, my God, what a song it was!"

Capote once said, "Life is like a moderately good screenplay with a bad third act."

Capote died in Los Angeles, California, on August 26, 1984, of liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication.


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