Truman Capote, whose real name was Truman Streckfus Persons, was born in New Orleans on 30th September 1924, and died at age fifty-nine, on 25th August 1984. Those two dates frame one of the most attractive and scandalous literary careers of his time. He was short (“I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy,” he commented), muscular, blond and had a high-pitch voice. He had a knack for making friends, and an equal knack for making enemies.
Although Capote’s literary value is well recognized in the United States, he is not as admired as he is in Europe or Latin America. Dorothy Potter Snyder, an American writer and translator explains the situation this way: "Three words occur to me to start understanding that phenomenon and they are: great, gay and Southern. You should never forget that large publishers in the United States are mostly — and during Capote’s time they were all — in New York, Boston and Chicago. Capote was unique, a rogue that pointed out the rarities and deficiencies of American culture, but the Anglo-Saxon corporate world did not accept his personality or his criticism. I think he falls in the same category as James Baldwin, who frequently does not appear in courses of American literature for that same reason, although in his case the three words were: great, gay and black. In my opinion it was not only racism and homophobia, but a prejudice against any criticism of the ruling classes and the assumption of their aesthetic, literary and cultural superiority."
Capote taught himself how to read and write and, when he was five, he was frequently seen around the house carrying a dictionary and his notepad. Since the age of eight he felt the need to become a writer, and at fifteen he began to send his writings to literary magazines. “Then one day I started writing, not knowing that I had chained myself for life to a noble but merciless master. When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation,” he wrote in the preface to Music for Chameleons.
When Capote was twelve years old, the school principal called his family and told them that, both in his opinion and that of his colleagues, Capote was "subnormal" and that they should send him to a school for mentally retarded boys. Instead, his parents decided to send him to a psychiatric clinic, where the outcome of the studies showed that his intellectual level was almost that of a genius. Capote’s reaction, as he said to interviewer Pati Hill in the The Paris Review (1957) was, "Ha, Ha! But as for me, I was exceedingly pleased – went around staring at myself in mirrors and sucking in my cheeks and thinking over my mind, my lad, you and Flaubert, or Maupassant, or Mansfield or Proust or Chekhov or Wolfe, whoever was the idol of the moment."
The acceptance of his short stories started very early. As he declared in the same interview with Patti Hill: "No writer forgets his first acceptance; but one day when I was seventeen, I had my first, second, and third acceptance, all in the same morning’s mail. Oh, I’m here to tell you, dizzy with excitement is no mere phrase!"
His quick rise to fame took place after the publication of his book Other Voices, Other Rooms. In the back cover of this book, Capote’s photograph shows him in a sexually suggestive pose. It is possible that in that book, published when he was only 24 years old, Capote admitted for the first time, through one of the characters of the novel, his homosexuality. The photo left a great impression on Andy Warhol, who was then 20 years old; he referred to it on several occasions and it made him one of Capote’s earliest admirers.
Capote was an extremely superstitious man. When asked about his personal quirks Capote answered, "I have to add up all numbers: there are some people I never telephone because their number adds up to an unlucky figure. Or I won’t accept a hotel room for the same reason. I will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses – which is sad because they’re my favorite flower. I can’t allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray. Won’t travel on a plane with two nuns. Won’t begin or end anything on a Friday. It’s endless, the things I can’t and won’t. But I derive some curious comfort from obeying these primitive concepts,” he told Hill.
Style and impact of his books
Capote had a simple but extremely pleasant style of writing, which made the reader eager to continue reading his stories. In the introduction to the book “Music for Chameleons” he wrote: "For starters, I think most writers overwrite. I prefer to underwrite. Simple, clear as a country creek."
In the interview with The Paris Review he gave his technique for writing a short story. "Since each story presents his own technical problems, obviously one cannot generalize about them on the two-times-two equals four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right."
Although all his books were generally well received by critics, two of them had a special impact, and for different reasons. Answered Prayers and In Cold Blood. In the first of those books, Capote tells a series of anecdotes about personalities from high society in New York. The title of this book is based on a quote from Santa Teresa de Ávila, who said: "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones."
In the book In Cold Blood, Capote relates the murder of the Clutter family in their Kansas home. He called it a non-fiction novel and the book immediately became an international best-seller. Capote spent several years on site doing research for this book. "Many people thought I was crazy to spend six years wandering around the plains of Kansas; others rejected my whole concept of the ‘nonfiction novel' and pronounced it unworthy of a 'serious' writer; Norman Mailer described it as a 'failure of the imagination,' meaning, I assume, that a novelist should be writing about something imaginary rather than about something real," he said.
He wrote that book with the help of his childhood friend and neighbor, Harper Lee, the author of the book To Kill a Mockingbird. However, after Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, the authors became distant from each other. After this book, Capote never wrote another.
Active social life
Capote had a special talent for forming relationships with the rich and famous. As Gore Vidal, the well-known American writer with whom Capote had a long-standing conflict once observed, “Truman Capote has tried, with some success, to get into a world that I have tried, with some success, to get out of.” As he developed an active social life, he collected observations about his friendships. In one of the stories of the posthumously published novel Answered Prayers he describes a lunch at the legendary New York restaurant La Côte Basque and his long conversation with a woman from New York’s high society.
In the book parade numerous known personalities, including: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radzwill; Gloria Vanderbilt and Carol Matthau, wife of the American actor Walter Matthau; William S. Paley and Babe Paley, among others. Capote wrote a series of devastating anecdotes that earned him more than one permanent enemy and got him banned from the same social circles that used to adore him. The rejection by his former friends led Capote to new levels of drug abuse and alcoholism which would be his undoing.
Capote had an extraordinary talent for the witty put down. In Dotson Rader’s book Tennessee: Cry of the Heart Tennessee Williams told an anecdote about Capote and a group of friends going out for dinner at a restaurant in Key West. They were all fairly inebriated. A woman got up from a nearby table and brought a menu for Capote to autograph. Afterwards, the woman’s husband came over and asked Capote, “Are you Truman Capote?” And Capote responded, “I was this morning!” The man unzipped his pants, and holding his penis on his hand told Capote, “Can you put your signature on this?” Capote looked down at the man’s penis and said, “I don’t know about my signature. But I can initial it!”
For many, Answered Prayers marks the social suicide of Capote and probably accelerated his death, overwhelmed by drugs and alcohol. He never recovered from the violent reaction toward him by those he had criticized in his writing, and on more than one occasion he said, "I am a writer. What did they think, that I was a court jester?"
Capote died in Bel Air, Los Angeles, accompanied only by his most faithful friend, Joanne Carson, ex-wife of the legendary figure of American television Johnny Carson. On learning of his death Gore Vidal said dryly, "It was a wise career move."