Monday, August 2, 2010

Truman Capote: No Time to Write

Truman Capote died at age 59 on August 25, 1984. To mark the 26th anniversary of his exit from the world's stage, I present the following:

Truman Capote: No Time to Write

Throughout Conversations with Capote, Lawrence Grobel’s collection of interviews he conducted with Truman Capote in the last two years of the controversial author’s life, Capote is asked to comment on his contemporaries in literature and the arts, as well as those whose celebrity corresponded with his own. Is there anyone this man did not know?

“Cole (Porter) was one of my greatest friends . . . “

“Willa Cather was a great friend of mine.”

“Most of my lifetime friends, like Cecil B. DeMille, are gone.”

“Adlai (Stevenson) was a very good friend of mine. A very good friend.”

(On Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano): “I knew him very well.”

“I knew (Jean) Cocteau quite well.”

“I knew (William) Faulkner quite well. He was a great friend of mine.”

“I don’t think Camus, much as I liked him personally, will be remembered.”

“. . . Graham Greene is a great friend of mine, virtually a lifelong friend.”

“I knew (W.H. Auden) very well.”

“I knew (Yukio Mishima) very well.”

“Humphrey Bogart was a wonderful person. We were very good friends right up until he died.”

“Oh, (Montgomery Clift) was a great friend of mine.”

“(John Gielgud is) an old friend of mine.”

“I knew (Charlie Chaplin) since I was seventeen years old. . . “

“Yes, I knew (James Dean). I didn’t think much of him.”

“(Noel Coward) was a great friend.”

Greta Garbo: “She’s quite a good friend.”

“I used to be great friends with (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). I hate her.”

As for Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling star of Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, Capote says, “I didn’t know him that well. Altogether I only saw him three times in my life,” but they had an “evening together” that included sex.

Capote also knew John Lennon: “I knew him a little bit and I liked him a lot.” And Mick Jagger: “Mick is a bore . . . He’s about as square as you can possibly be.” He was also acquainted with Elvis Presley. “Elvis Presley gave me the only dinner party I’ve ever heard of his giving in Las Vegas . . . He lived very near me (in Palm Springs) and he was going to open at this big hotel in Las Vegas . . . and he invited me to come up to see it, ‘cause I had never seen him . . . He was nice, I sort of liked him.”

Capote also knew John and Robert Kennedy, and even JFK’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. “Highly neurotic. Certainly crazy,” Capote says of the man who he believes did pull the trigger that day in Dallas and acted alone. “I only saw him twice . . . In Moscow, just when he defected. I was living in Moscow.”

Oh, and Cary Grant and Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, who dropped acid together. Capote joined in once “just, basically, to please (Huxley) and Cary Grant. He used to take things with Cary Grant.”

Capote certainly knew fellow author Gore Vidal with whom he publicly feuded. “Of course, he’s jealous,” Capote said of Vidal. “Gore has never written anything that anybody will remember . . . he has not done the one essential thing: he has not written a book that was the turning point in either his or anybody else’s life.” In the 1980s, Vidal sued Capote for libel as a result of some comments Capote made in an interview concerning Vidal’s falling out with the Kennedy clan, to whom Vidal was very distantly related (his mother married Jackie Bouvier’s father, making the former first lady Vidal’s sort of stepsister). It was settled out of court when Capote issued a public apology (“I apologize for any distress, inconvenience, or expense which may have been caused you . . . I was not present at the event about which I was quoted in the interview . . .”)

Although Vidal is equally dismissive of Capote’s work as Capote was of his, Vidal contends their bitter feud began because “Capote lies.” Certainly, he’s not the only one who thinks so. John Huston, who Capote did, indeed, know from having worked on the screenplay of Huston’s 1954 film, Beat the Devil, spoke warmly of him but dismissed Capote’s claim that “(Huston) never wrote a word of Beat the Devil . . It was all mine . . . When I was working, he was sleeping. Actually, he was playing cards and drinking.” When interviewing Huston for Playboy, Grobel related Capote’s words to the director who simply said, “We wrote together.” Ray Bradbury is another book writer whose name appeared alongside Huston’s (on Moby Dick) whose recollections suggest Capote may have been truthful in regard to Huston’s work habits, but no matter. Capote had a reputation for twisting and stretching the truth, and the charge was even leveled against his work. Of In Cold Blood, Capote’s revered “nonfiction novel,” Harold Nye, a detective with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that solved the murders that inspired the book, called it “a fiction thing, and being a young officer, I took offense at the fact that he didn’t tell the truth.” Surviving members of the Clutter family also took issue with Capote’s portrayal of their mother, Bonnie, one of the four victims of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith’s night of savagery. In the film, Infamous, we see Harper Lee reprimanding Capote for his intention to use “fictional techniques” in telling the true story of the Clutters and their killers. “What fictional techniques?” she asks. “The parts you make up?”

Vidal believes Capote used “fictional techniques” when discussing his personal life, and especially the people he claimed to know.

“You could not mention anyone famous to him – ‘Oh, I knew him so well’ – and he’d start in,” Vidal said.

Vidal is a legendary name dropper himself, but in his memoir, Palimpsest, states that though he seems to have met everybody, he didn’t really know anyone. In fact, he made a conscious effort to avoid knowing people because his life was devoted to writing and reading books. Capote, however, with his constant claims to friendship with almost anyone his interviewer mentions, would seem to have scarcely had time to write anything. After In Cold Blood’s publication in 1965, Capote’s name appeared on a collection of magazine articles (“I’ve always done a lot of magazine pieces. What you do in the end is you just collect them together in a book”), but there was no major work to rival his masterpiece. And yet, in his interviews with Grobel, he always claims to be writing.

“. . . I manage to write about four hours a day,” he says. Of his novel, Answered Prayers, of which only four chapters surfaced, he claimed to have started it in 1972, its contents culled from journals, diaries, and letters he wrote between 1943 and 1965. When he died in 1984, the long rumored roman a clef could not be found. Director Frank Perry was one of many who believed that, except for the four chapters published in Esquire, Answered Prayers did not exist. On a visit to Capote’s home, Perry asked him how work was proceeding. “He pointed to his worktable and said, ‘Look at that, finished pages, two and a half inches. It’s wonderful.’” When Capote wasn’t looking, Perry wandered to the table to find what he called a “Missouri bankroll, which is to say, the top three pages had typewriting on them and the rest were blank. It was for show.”

Perhaps knowing so many people, if, indeed, he did know them, prevented Capote from writing anything but those magazine pieces he probably had to write to generate cash. Capote “simply wanted to be famous through writing,” Vidal said. He became famous with his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948 when he was only 27-years-old, but his fame expanded, along with his income and waistline, with the phenomenal success of In Cold Blood. He celebrated with his famous, and infamous, “black and white ball” at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
“Well, the whole party was a statement of art,” Capote said of the bash at which the guests wore masks. “It was really very beautiful, really was spectacular to see – what I had done with it visually, not just who was there, because I had everybody there.”

“Everybody” included Frank Sinatra and then wife Mia Farrow, William F. Buckley, Jr., Cecil Beaton, Candice Bergen, Norman Mailer, Charles Addams, Oscar de la Renta, Marisa Berenson, Lee Radziwell, a lot of New York society types whose names mean nothing to the world outside Manhattan, and Katherine Graham, published of The Washington Post in whose honor the party was supposedly given. “I felt a little bit that Truman was going to give the ball anyway and that I was part of the props,” Graham recalled.

The big shebang was highly publicized before and after it took place. “The guest list was published in The New York Times,” remembered Norman Podhoretz.

But what exactly was the point of it?

Podhoretz called it “some turning point in the cultural history, the social history of New York, even the United States in the sense that the confluence of the fashionable social world, and the literary world and the world of political power was embodied in that guest list.” These very separate worlds began to intersect with the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House due to the new commander-in-chief’s interest in culture and the arts, and now they met with full force. Capote, Podhoretz said, “dramatized the change by making that party’s guest of honor a Washington figure, Kay Graham.”

Author John Knowles offered a different take on Capote’s motives: “Don’t you think Truman sat there in Monroeville, Alabama, when he was about ten, deeply rejected and out of it, strange little outcast, even in his own house, and said that someday he would hire the most beautiful ballroom in New York City and he would have the most elegant and famous people in the world there?” (Plimpton 248)

If Capote is, as someone stated, the most famous writer in the world, alongside Ernest Hemingway, his status rests more on his penchant for attracting attention to himself rather than readers to his work. The man who, in 1979, told The New York Times that “I never had any problem being a homosexual,” was probably best known to the majority of Americans as the only rival to Liberace, the flamboyant pianist, as the world’s biggest queen thanks to his effeminate manner, queer appearance, and unusual voice which he regularly displayed on television beginning in 1968, the year he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Soon, he would also be appearing with the other chat hosts, Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin. The audience would titter as he emerged from behind the curtain, often wearing a flouncy hat that wouldn’t look out of place on a woman, and sunglasses. Once he was seated next to the host and spoke his first words, the audience always laughed and would giggle as he’d massage his eyes with his fist. If they were laughing at him, he would soon have them laughing with him as he shared amusing, sometimes bitchy, stories, or insulted someone, as he did Jacqueline Susann, the bestselling author of such trashy kitsch as Valley of the Dolls, who he said “looked like a truck driver in drag.”

For a man who repeatedly slammed people for what he saw as their cruelty or other unpleasant characteristics and even seemed to take their personalities into account when passing judgment on their work (“I don’t think anything Hemingway did was one of the best of anything. There was a mean man”), Capote could be heartless in his comments on others. “I caused Jacqueline Susann’s death!” he boasted to Grobel. “She was lying in bed dying of cancer. I didn’t know.” She saw the TV show in which Capote insulted her and, “She fell out of bed. (Laughs.) Her husband picked her up. She was coughing up blood and never recovered. She sued me for a million dollars. (Laughs.) (Capote was even less kind to a more “serious” author, Joyce Carol Oates: “I’ve seen her, and to see her is to loathe her. To read her is to absolutely vomit”).

Such mean-spirited cattiness was exactly what middle America expected from a stereotyped homosexual, and Capote faithfully delivered what the public wanted, and made himself a “personality” known to millions, most of whom never read a word he wrote.

“I don’t know anybody who gets as much publicity as I do for doing nothing,” he said. Of course, he did do things. It’s just that those things rarely seemed to include writing. He feuded publicly with fellow writers, hung out with Andy Warhol at Studio 54 during the sexually, liberated late ‘70s before the arrival of AIDS on the scene, hung out with the Beautiful People and eventually betrayed them, and was all over the tabloids – a gossip columnist’s dream. He earned his initial fame as a writer. In the end, however, he was famous for being famous. It was certainly easier to be a “personality” than an artist.

“He was not his old creative self,” Peter Beard, a photographer who accompanied the Rolling Stones on tour in 1972 when Capote tagged along to write about the world’s greatest rock and roll band for Rolling Stone, an article that never materialized. “He was an ‘in’ person with whom to talk. He’d had a lot of very successful Johnny Carson shows, and he realized that the audience responded to him because it was the Johnny Carson show, not because of his writing. I think all of that put together helped him go round the bend. He realized that writing is so much work – it’s lonely, isolated work, and that it wasn’t worth it. When he could go on the Johnny Carson show and have millions of people respond to him, that ratio of input to result was more satisfying to him.”

Capote the TV star had a long run, but even before his death in 1984, his appearances were becoming rare. A former neighbor of Johhny Carson when The Tonight Show was based in New York, their friendship apparently ended when Carson divorced Joanne, his third wife at whose Los Angeles home Capote died.

“I knew Johnny pretty well, but nobody knows Johnny. He has no friends. . . The only time he comes alive, you know, is on camera. The moment the camera goes, so does he.”

No longer invited to appear on Carson’s show, and with Cavett exiled from ABC to PBS and finally to oblivion, Capote made few TV appearances once the ‘80s arrived. His body of work, small as it is, would finally have to speak for him.

“I think everybody who’s been to school in the last twenty years and has taken an English course has to have read at least one story of mine because they’re used in almost all English courses,” he said. “So many books that are done for schools print that story of mine, A Christmas Memory. And anybody in any kind of journalist course has read In Cold Blood. . . At least fifteen million people in this country have read In Cold Blood because I’ve sold almost that many copies of the book.”

Capote’s most famous and acclaimed book sold another million or two copies in 2005, the year that the film, Capote, with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar winning performance, reached theaters. Thanks to that film, and the similar Infamous, released a year later, Capote, the personality and the writer, enjoyed a joint comeback.

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks


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