When discussed at all, he was quickly and safely caricatured into a long scarf and a spoiled child’s voice much in the way that Elvis became little more than his peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. True originals confound easy categorization and cannot be miniaturized to fit the needs of our media culture, itself sustained by that unsettling combination of adoration and jealous contempt of the star class. Occasionally, even genuine fans unwittingly contribute to their hero’s obliteration by flattening them with sentimentalism and stereotype.
Unfortunately, just such a disservice has been rendered to Truman Capote and his life-long friend, Harper Lee by Kim Powers in his recent book Capote in Kansas, a fictionalized account of their relationship including the time they spent together in Kansas investigating the Clutter murders, the subject of Capote’s most famous book, In Cold Blood.Born in New Orleans in 1924, Truman Capote inherited his father’s hard drinking and his mother’s social ambitions, traits that would later prove lethal to Capote’s career and health. His mother’s departure from the small southern town where they lived for Park Avenue and a second husband might have worked out for young Truman whose theatrical demeanor was more suited for New York where even children are socially ambitious, but she left him behind, a rejection that was not lost on the child who responded by escaping deeper into literary fantasy and a fragile grandiosity that never left him.
Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms made him famous at 24. His literary talent was all the more unusual for his relative lack of a formal education. An indifferent student, he completed high school but never attended college and was never known to read much (Gore Vidal remarked in his memoir Palimpsest that Capote was intellectually incurious.) At around this time, Capote formed a close relationship with literary scholar Newton Arvin. Their friendship was an intellectual revelation to Capote. Arvin introduced him to a wide range of ideas and filled in large gaps in knowledge through the best means for the loquacious Capote – conversations — that often lasted well into the dark Westchester nights at Yaddo, where they were both on writing fellowships.
A Tree of Night and Other Stories, a collection of short stories was published to warm reviews in 1949 securing Capote’s position as a major new stylist who evoked the rich night world of hard rains and Spanish moss where the yawning gulf between children and adults produced a solitary silence that rang throughout all of his later work.
Indeed this gulf of silence and longing, first hollowed out by the wake his mother left that stretched from Monroeville, Alabama, where he sat in trees promising his friend Harper Lee that his mother was coming for him (and never did) to New York society, proved so deafening that all the money, fame and booze he could muster against it later in life, were never enough until it presaged the silence of the afterlife itself.
Despite its tragic overtones, Capote’s life was also triumphant and this should not be forgotten. He was brave and candid if not always truthful. He probed the darkest hearts behind the phony Pepsodent smiles of the 1950s and early 1960s. His era was not a time for candor, to put it mildly, yet Capote’s very existence was a rebuke to the suffocating sexual mores which smothered the nation yet had astonishingly little effect on him.
Tightlipped and archly polite during the work week, how many gay gentlemen and ladies returned home to root for Capote as he slugged it out on Johnny Carson’s sofa with the over-heated, macho stars of the era, defiantly lisping insults in any direction he chose. Gossip columnists thought Capote’s targets were important but they were just straw men standing in for the repressive expectations of society; it was the defiance that mattered. Capote was effeminate all right, but so were all the bravest men who could not take cover behind a Marlboro’s man persona and decided to live with the consequences rather than in the shadows. This must be why Norman Mailer once called Capote “a ballsy little guy,” no small compliment from the late literary prizefighter, who like Hemingway, valued physical courage above good writing but preferred to possess both.
Eras and most of the writers they produce come and go, especially now that most of what is written (and presumably read) never makes it onto paper but stays afloat in the wispy warehouse of words and images called cyberspace. By the 1990s, Capote’s reputation was fading. Then came the movies: Capote in 2005 followed by Infamousin 2006. With them, Capote had finally achieved in death what had eluded him during the last 20 years of his life, a comeback.
Directed by Bennett Miller and based on a portion of Gerald Clarke’s authoritative biography of the same name, Capote, was somewhat overshadowed by the dead-on Oscar-winning portrayal of the author by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Infamous was then released by Warner Independent Films, directed by Douglas McGrath and based on George Plympton’s Conversations with Capote. Although it suffered by opening after Capote, Infamous provided a fascinating psychological examination of what lead to Capote’s inability to produce another novel after In Cold Blood. It also includes much of the background of Capote’s unsuccessful struggle to complete Answered Prayers, his thinly disguised account of New York society that lost him friends and dinner invitations from Fifth Avenue to River House.
It is difficult to imagine that even a successful TV writer like Kim Powers could have sold a fictionalized account of Capote and Harper Lee researching In Cold Blood without the increased interest in Capote the movies generated.
A writer for Good Morning America, Powers first book, The History of Swimming, was a memoir centering on the trials of twin brothers growing up gay in a dysfunctional family. In Capote In Kansas, Powers’ turns his attention to two writers who influenced and fascinated him and one suspects that this is a book he had to write but unfortunately, it not one that must be read.
The danger in fictionalizing people who have led outsized lives more strange than fiction is that they will be diminished in the hands of all but the most skillful writers. Powers is not able to harness Capote’s manic conversational brilliance. There is no evidence of the well-timed remark or the intriguing anecdotal story involving other famous people (Capote knew them all). Why not take advantage of this singularly captivating storyteller to dress up the book and keep the reader’s attention? Powers’ Capote is a frightened, weepy bore.
If Capote lacks sparkle, the rest of the characters are even less engaging. Myrtle, Capote’s long-suffering salt-of-the-earth housekeeper has all the complexity of a 1930s MGM maid as she repeats to herself constantly “only God knows what’s in the minds of white people.” She refers to Capote as “Mr. Truman” and when they are both outside crouching next to a car (don’t ask why), Powers describes them thusly, “There they were Ebony and Ivory, propped up against the metal backrest of a rusted-out car, the dark sky and palm trees high around them.” Ebony and Ivory?
At one point, Capote and Lee are leaving a bar in Kansas, Powers writes of Capote’s exuberant bar hopping, “Oh, this night was young, and cold; and there were places to see and miles to go before they slept.” This limp allusion to Frost begs for the saving deletion of an editor’s pen.
Harper Lee referred to as Nelle, the name her friends called her, is portrayed as a southern spinster who lives with her prickly, suspicious sister, also a spinster. She has written To Kill a Mockingbird, which wins the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. but nothing since. Unfortunately, Powers raises the issue that at the time of the release of the book, rumors circulated that Capote and not Lee, had written it. This runs counter to everything we know (good and bad) about Capote. Sharing credit was not his thing. If something of his had won the Pulitzer, he would have claimed it. It seems odd to raise this long forgotten rumor about an author (Lee) that Powers professes to admire.
Capote in Kansas centers on ghostly visitations to Capote from the Clutter family whose murder by two men who broke into their home ostensibly to steal cash but after finding none, murdered Mr. and Mrs. Clutter and their children on a wind swept Kansas prairie formed the basis for In Cold Blood. The ghostly daughter Nancy, who angrily demands an apology from him for exploiting their tragic murders for his book, especially unnerves Capote. Even this seems to hit a wrong note. Capote’s essential conflict had more to do with his relationship to the killers then with the family. He befriended them to win their trust for the sake of the book but was also appalled by their crime and portrayed it in all its gruesomeness in the book. The deeper he probed into the minds of the killers, the more he saw that they were not as unlike him and the rest of humanity as he wanted to believe.
There are few writers who are also public personalities these days mostly because there is no longer a public forum for them. Talk show hosts will not book them for fear that they will use a large word or say something complex. It is difficult to imagine feuds between writers mattering as when Vidal battled with Mailer or Capote or all three battled each other. It was a rather long time ago now. From photos, Capote’s apartment looks like Oscar Wilde could have lived there. The Pottery Barn generation of gay men would have seemed foreign to him and would have amused him (“why do they all want to live like Donna Reed?” he might have asked). And he would not have crossed the threshold of a gym for all the vodka in the Russian Tea Room.
For all the book’s faults, Powers must be thanked. It’s been a long time since we last heard from Truman Capote. Like the recent movies, it brought him back to us. We had not realized how much we missed him.