History of Literature

Truman Capote



Truman Capote

Truman Capote, 1959


Truman Capote

(1924-1984) - original name Truman Streckfus Persons

American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Capote gained international fame with his "nonfiction novel" IN COLD BLOOD (1966), an account of a real life crime in which an entire family was murdered by two sociopaths. The Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama area provided the setting for much of Capote's fiction.

"Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans - in fact, few Kansans - had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there." (from In Cold Blood)
Truman Capote was born in New Orleans, as the son of a salesman and a 16-year-old beauty queen, Lillie Mae Faulk. His father, Archulus "Arch" Persons, worked as a clerk for a steamboat company. Persons never stuck at any job for long, and was always leaving home in search for new opportunities. The unhappy marriage gradually disintegrated. When Capote was four, his parents eventually divorced.

The young Truman was brought up in Monroeville, Alabama. He lived some years with his relatives, one of whom became the model for the loving, elderly spinster of the author's novels, stories, and plays. "Her face is remarkable - not unlike Lincoln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind," described Capote in A CHRISTMAS MEMORY (1966) his distant relative Sook, Nanny Rumbley Faulk. Sook was sixty-something, "small and sprightly, like a bantam hen..." Capote's mother, Lillie Mae, wrote letters and telephoned to her son, often crying that she had no money and no husband.

In his childhood Capote made friends with Harper Lee, who portrayed him as Dill in her world famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird. "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."

Truman Capote, 1924

After Capote's mother married again, this time a well-to-do businessman, Capote moved to New York, and adopted his stepfather's surname. He attended the Trinity School and St. John's Academy in New York, and the public schools of Greenwich, Connecticut. At the age of seventeen, Capote ended his formal schooling. He found work at the New Yorker, where he attracted attention with his eccentric style of dress. "... I recall him sweeping through the corridors of the magazine in a black opera cape, his long golden hair falling to his shoulders: an apparition that put one in mind of Oscar Wilde in Nevada, in his velvets and lilies." (Brendan Gill in Here at The New Yorker, 1975)

Capote's early stories were published in quality magazines and in 1946 he won the O.Henry award. His first novel, OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS (1948), depicted a boy, Joel Knox, growing up in the Deep South. Joel is "too pretty, too delicate and fair skinned". He seeks his father but falls into a relationship with a decadent transvestite. The book gained a wide success and created controversy because of its treatment of homosexuality. During this time Capote had already established his fame among the cultural circles as the thin voiced, promising young writer, who could brighten up parties with his sharp and clever remarks.

Next year Capote went to Europe, where he wrote fiction and non-fiction. 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 HEARD. These European years marked the beginning of Capote's work for the theatre and films. In 1949 appeared A TREE OF NIGHT, which gathered together short stories published in Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and other magazines. When the 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 by Truman Capote)

In the 1950s Capote wrote THE HOUSE OF FLOWERS, a musical set in a West Indies bordello. Capote's lyrical style and melancholy marked his novel THE GRASS HARP (1951). In the story an orphaned boy and two old ladies observe life from a china tree. Eventually they come down from their temporary retreat, unlike Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò in Italo Calvino's novel The Baron in the Trees (1957). The book was adapted into screen in 1996, starring Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, and Walter Matthau. Capote's first important film work was collaboration with John Huston on Beat the Devil (1954).


Following return to the United States, Copote wrote BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (1958). Its central character, Holly Golightly, is a young woman, who comes to New York seeking for happiness. She has a nameless cat and a brother named Fred. The narrator, an aspiring writer who has the same birthday as Capote (September 30), follows Holly's life, 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..." The novel is constructed as a memory of events, that happened about 15 years earlier. Holly has left the country before the end of the war, and the narrator has not seen her since. Breakfast at Tiffany's was made into a successful film, directed by Blake Edwards and starring Audrey Hepburn. George Axelrod updated the story to the 1960s and later told: "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."

Increasing preoccupation with journalism formed the basis for the bestseller In Cold Blood, a pioneering work of documentary novel or "nonfiction novel". The work started from an article in The New York Times. It dealt with the murder of a wealthy family in Holcomb, Kansas. Sponsored by the magazine, Capote interviewed with Harper Lee local people to recreate the lives of both the murderers and their victims. During the process he became emotionally attached to both killers. However, this did not prevent him from telling the story with utmost objectivity.

The research work and writing took six years to finish. Capote used neither a tape recorder nor note pad, but emptied his interviews and impressions in notebooks at the end of the day. He also recorded last days of the death-obsessed criminals. (See Norman Mailer's journalistic works The Armies of the Nigh, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of Fire on the Moon.) Richard Brooks' screen adaptation of the book, with its black-and-white photography, avoided all sensationalism. The trial scene was re-enacted at the Finney County Court House in the Garden City, where the actual trial had taken place. Brooks also used the real jury who had convicted Perry Smith and Dick Hicock.


Among Capote's other works from the 1960s is the classic A Christmas Memory, a story about a seven-year-old boy, Buddy, his cousin, an eccentric old lady, and a tough little orange and white rat terrier called Queenie. Buddy and his cousin are each other's best friends, whose special relationship is symbolized by baking of fruitcakes, a kind of a Proustian Madeleine remembrance. The story gained a huge success as a television play. After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote planned to write a Proustian novel to be called "Answered Prayers". This plan never materialized. Problems with drink and drugs, and disputes with other writers, such as Gore Vidal, exhausted Capote's creative energies.

In interviews, Capote negative anecdotes about the people he knew distanced him from his friends. "I had a big discussion with Saul Bellow about Richard Wright," Capote said in 1974. "I said, Richard Wright was a good friend of mine and do you know what Saul Bellow said? He said, "Huh! Well, Wright just became a victim of these heavyweight intellectuals. I used to see him carting around books on Wittgenstein. He was convinced he was an intellectual." I thought that was very sad and pathetic." (The Critical Response to Truman Capote by Joseph J. Waldmeir, 1999)

Answered Prayers remained unfinished, but three stories from the novel appeared in Esquire in the 1970s. The surviving portions were republished in 1986. Capote's autobiographical book presented such real-life as Colette, the Duchess of Windsor, Montgomery Clift, and Tallulah Bankhead, but its depiction of the smart set was characterized in The New York Times as "a socio-pornographic ''Ragtime'' rife with the low cackle of camp." MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS (1981) was a collection of short pieces, stories, interviews, and conversations published in various magazines. Truman Capote died in Los Angeles, California, on August 26, 1984, of liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication. His life and work inspired Bennett Miller's film Capote (2005), based on the Gerald Clarke biography from 1988, and Have You Heard? (2006), based on George Plimpton's interviews.


Music for Chameleons,
the last work of Capote published during his lifetime.
Capote is pictured with actress Marilyn Monroe



Breakfast at Tiffany's

Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany's is a charmingly naughty fable, capturing in crystal a glorious moment of New York during the last gasp of American innocence. The story is the reminiscence of a writer in New York during the Second World War. With Holly Golightly, Capote has given us one of the most indelible heroines in fiction. Pushing the boundaries and paving the way for the revolution to come, Holly is a gamine—sexually free, hedonistic, a prostitute. She lives for the moment, damns the consequences, and makes up her morality as she goes along. Like her cat without a name, she is unfettered, untameable. The novel's unnamed narrator meets Holly when she climbs through the writer's window, to escape an overzealous and unmuzzled John. They become fast friends, and the narrator is swept up in Holly's thrill-seeking subsistence living. At the core they want "happiness" and connection, dreams that seem like fate to those young enough to hope. But hints of darkness cloud their lives. The novel was a turning point for Capote. Gone is the lyrical Southern gothic of his early writing. Here he takes his place among New York's glitterati. Daring in its day—promiscuity and homosexuality are discussed openly—it may have lost its ability to shock, but its charm does not diminish. A fresh breeze off the East River—from a time when such a thing was still possible.




Audrey Hepburn

Capote and Marilyn Monroe



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