"A first-class piece of journalism..." -- David Margolick, Vanity Fair*

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Summer of Love

In Book Review, Writers on June 29, 2011 at 11:21 pm

The Hour Between by Sebastian Stuart (Alyson Books 2009)

In the academic year preceding the Summer of Love, a young man named Arthur who struggles with his sexuality, is thrown out of Collegiate, a private school in Manhattan. His distant parents deport him to a boarding school in Connecticut in the hope that he will make friends and do some work.

He is a skinny, thoughtful kid who’d just as soon leave the frantic pace of the city, if only to take a breath.

In 1973, I too, was all but ousted from a private school in Manhattan and sent off to a boarding school in Connecticut by a distant parent.  I  also was a skinny, overly sensitive kid who worried about being gay, the state of the world, and many other things that got in the way of a good time.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, I needed to take a breath from the city, too.

Once at the boarding school, Arthur meets Katrina, a fascinating but troubled daughter of a movie star who seems to know him better than he knows himself.

Katrina is a kind of 16 year-old Judy Garland — small, fragile, but also larger than life. Her eyes are huge and almost too expressive.  Her hair is short, jet-black and she pushes it back whenever she is nervous.  She is spookily intuitive and broadly knowledgable but she rarely reads and never studies.

All in all, Katrina is the kind of miraculous person you can meet when you’re a teenager because you still believe such a person exists.

In keeping with the ever-present upheaval of the time, the boarding school itself is undergoing turmoil as the faculty has split into two camps: the lenient, pro-creativity side vs. the traditional, bed-check side.

Was it David Olgilvy, the late, loquacious adman, who laid down the challenge that he could devise an ad that anyone in the world would stop and read? (If you find it was someone else, please write.)  When asked how he could do this, Olgilvy said something like, “If I put your name in the ad, you’ll stop to look at it.”

Well, yes, but you’d have to make almost 7 billion ads, one for every person on earth. But of course, that’s too literal.  I assume Olilvy’s point was to create an ad that could speak to you in such a personal way that you’d have to stop and read it.

For me, The Hour Between  is that kind of book.  It had my name on it.  Is its appeal universal enough for a larger audience?  I think so.  It is a coming of age book, full of interesting characters who illuminate a time when everything was changing.

Even when Sebastian Stuart’s characters are at their snottiest, elitist worst, their vulnerability saves them.  You care about what will happen to them and you mourn the ones you suspect won’t survive the cynicism and drugs that formed the dark side of the Age of Aquarius.

Reading

In Reading on June 27, 2011 at 12:03 am

Boston Athenaeum

Whatever the afterlife holds, I hope reading is included.

I am not sure when reading became an essential part of my life.  It’s like a wonderful part-time job — something I have to do — but also want very much to do.

A therapist once told me that I didn’t need to meditate because reading performed that function.

My reading habit had a slow start, but through the years, it gradually grew, as did my curiosity.

There was some fiction in college but not much.  I had read some novels on my own – mostly Waugh, E.L. Doctorow, Salinger, Baldwin, and Capote. I’ve always liked the theater and read lots of plays.  My graduate school reading was in political science and public policy and I’ve taken a few graduate courses in history but no fiction courses.

When I turned 40, I realized I hadn’t read a lot of the books I had planned to.  So, I decided to read Crime and Punishment.  It remains the most psychologically and politically complex novel I’ve experienced and I loved it.

In the past year, I’ve read Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Madame Bovary, Cousin Bette (Balzac), and The Merchant of Venice, among others.  I am about a third of the way through Ulysses and have just begun Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  I mention these titles to show what I had failed to read before now. My reading list could be a high school syllabus.

Reading is unlike other endeavors.  Take distance running; you feel pretty good after a marathon because among other things, you know how few humans can do it.  It’s a punctuation point.  You’ve done it and most people are not ready to do it again any time soon.  But when you read, all you feel is how much more there is to read and how you’ve just begun.  Reading does not respect time — there’s no beginning or end – just more reading.  Sounds like heaven.

Bulger’s Boston is Gone Baby Gone

In Boston Individualists, Criminals on June 24, 2011 at 11:53 am

South Boston High School. Bulger attended but did not graduate.

It’s impossible to avoid the news that local gangster, Whitey Bulger, was arrested in Santa Monica yesterday.  I was listening to the radio at 5 a.m. when the BBC reported it. I came downstairs and one of the people I am staying with was already up.  The third person, who grew up in South Boston, was still asleep.  I wrote “Bulger caught in L.A.” on a piece of paper and passed it under his door.  In a few minutes, he came out holding the paper, saying “I got an alert on my phone last night.”  So, he already knew.

We three sat around the TV watching images of his cozy, rent-controlled, hideaway a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.

Bostonians interviewed on TV said they would not have recognized the aging Bulger if they saw him on the street.  But I don’t think Bulger would have recognized Boston either.  The city he terrorized is gone.  Gone baby, gone.

In the past few years, the seamy side of Boston has provided fodder for a string of movies.  It is not a side I am that familiar with.  I do know that the city is no longer the atavistic, inward, suspicious place it was when I moved there in 1975. Through the movies, the city is becoming famous for being a place it no longer is.

Sometime around 1995, Boston opened.  It could finally make eye contact with the outside world.  Race relations were better as first Mayor Raymond Flynn and then Mayor Tom Menino, provided the healing leadership missing in years past. Economics played a big roll, too.  Gentrification pushed working class rivals out of the city while those who remained, were the ones less parochial, less fearful.

Busing had inflamed racism in some but not all of Southie’s residents.  It was never the racist place it seemed.  Politicians and gangsters like Bulger, played on fears that were more economic than anything else.  The irony was that the drugs, suicide, crime, and unemployment that was eating away at Southie were doing the same to the  predominantly black neighborhoods of Roxbury and Mattapan.

In 2008, I was in a car driving down Broadway, the main street in South Boston, and saw a giant poster on a building, “Obama-Biden 2008.”  I did a double tack.  A poster for a black candidate, even the Democratic nominee, was unthinkable in that spot just a decade before.  Times had indeed changed.

When Mayor Menino was asked his reaction to Bulger’s arrest, he congratulated the FBI and other agencies and said, “He’s arrested.  Let’s move on.”

Friendships Lost; Windham’s Legacy

In Uncategorized, Writers on June 22, 2011 at 10:01 pm

In 1939, a Greyhound bus pulled into New York City, dusty from its trip north from Atlanta.  On board was Donald Windham, a young man of 19, full of literary ambition and gifted with the ability to befriend important people with astonishing speed.

Within two years of his arrival in New York, Windham was hired as an assistant by the brilliant Lincoln Kirstein for his magazine, The Dance Index,  and was collaborating with Tennessee Williams on a play, You Touched Me.

Windham seemed to know “everyone” in literary circles from Gore Vidal to Truman Capote, E.M. Forster, and Alice B. Toklas, among many others.

As a writer, he worked hard during his first 15 years in New York, yet got little published.

In 1962, Windham’s short story collection, The Warm Country, was published.  Three years later, a novel, Two People, was published to poor reviews, perhaps due to its gay theme.  It was not until he began publishing his memoirs, mining adventures with famous friends, that he received warm notices.  But not all of his friends were happy.  When Windham published Tennessee Williams’ Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965 in 1977, the great playwright cut all ties.  (Information mostly from Windham’s New York Times obituary by William Grimes.)

Windham died in 2010.  He and his partner, Sandy Campbell, who died in 1988,  left a substantial gift to Yale University to fund literature prizes.  Campbell and Windham were together since 1943.

The Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes will be funded by the estate of American writer and memoirist Donald Windham, who died in May of 2010 at the age of 89. Seven to nine grants will be awarded each year starting in late 2012 or early 2013, and each grant will be worth $150,000, making the prizes some of the largest in English literature.

The program will award seven to nine $150,000 prizes annually to recognize both established and promising writers in fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Poetry may be added as a fourth category at a later time. Windham did not attend college, and therefore his will stated a particular interest in ensuring that writers who are not connected to an academic institution are included for consideration.

According to his will, Windham also wished to ensure that the prizes would be substantial enough to enable each recipient to spend a full year writing, unencumbered by financial concerns. —Yale Daily News

Ellie Castillo “Live Your Dream”

In Provincetown Individualists on June 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Ellie. Photo: Brad Fowler. Song of Myself Photography

Ellie was mourned in Provincetown this afternoon.  The perpetually tanned singer who serenaded countless strollers as a street performer in front of Town Hall for almost a decade died at 79.  The cause was pancreatic cancer.  Ellie left three former wives and five children.

Formerly, Eliot Stanton Castillo, Ellie may not have been famous outside of the colorful seaside town, but her life rivaled most anyone’s for its originality.  Ellie presented as a man until she moved to Provincetown at the age of 72 to pursue her dream of living life as a “show girl.”  If her repertoire of Sinatra songs delivered in a satiny baritone seemed at odds with her mini skirted style, Ellie won over even the most skeptical listeners with a saintly dignity.

Her careers included: minister at several churches, TV evangelist, advertising executive, and member of the late Ted Kennedy’s boat building crew.

Although she performed in Provincetown for just seven years, Ellie became an institution who embodied an ethic of acceptance and personal courage.  Her motto was “live your dream.”

Ellie’s one-page biography, printed on single sheets of paper, were available to her listeners, thus incorporating her improbable life story into her performance.  Though she was easily better than most street performers, her story was at least as important as the music.

A gathering of about 100 people waited behind Town Hall for Ellie’s son and daughter to roll her trademark wagon carrying a microphone and karaoke machine down Commercial Street.  When it arrived, the crowd fell in behind it forming a New Orleans style procession that paused in front of Town Hall, her performance space.  The procession then continued to the Crown & Anchor nightclub complex, where local singers performed and a silent auction was held to raise money for the McCarthy Care Center in East Sandwich, where Ellie spent her last 56 days.

Cold Case

In Hidden History, History on June 17, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Samian ware pot. Roman Museum in Butchery Lane, Canterbury, Kent .

In 2009, archaeologists working on a Roman settlement in Kent, (England) found the body of a young woman who’d been bludgeoned to death at the time of the Roman settlement, about 50 A.D.  They speculate that she was put to work while the Romans were in residence but when they moved, her use to them ended. The Romans had a habit of burying their trash. Sadly, this is where they dumped the body of the young woman.  The Kent Archaeological Field School was in charge of the excavation.  I’ve checked their website and cannot find more information on this tragedy.  See the entire story here.

The closest I’ve come to a Roman settlement is London. In 1990, I spent two weeks in London with my late mother.  The plane touched down about 8:30 a.m. London time and by 10:00 a.m. we were seated in a double decker sightseeing bus, groggy but thrilled.  I recall the bus slowing as it approached a section of the London Wall near The Tower of London.  Built by the Romans around 200 A.D., the London Wall formed a perimeter around the original City of London, which only encompasses the financial district today. What I recall most were the bullet holes in the London Wall left by German aircraft in World War II, as pointed out by the driver.

In human artifacts, aggression is recorded, even if specific crimes remain unsolved.

“Do We Have Another Reagan?”

In Politics on June 14, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Ronald Reagan in New York Harbor, Labor Day, 1980

Labor Day, 1980.  Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan stands in front of the Statue of Liberty in wind-swept New York Harbor delivering a memorable indictment of the Carter years.  Although considerably older than his Democratic opponent, the open-shirted Reagan looks refreshed, energized, and clearly happy in his starring role. The appearance is a turning point in his campaign.

Reagan knew before most that votes were won through the eyes, not the brains.  The eyes go to the heart while the brain is susceptible to detours.   He looked like the kind of guy you might want in charge and that was enough for many.

Despite this,  Reagan believed what he said.  Yes, pictures were important but words, too.  After he died, some of his writing was published and it turned out he was able to skillfully translate himself into words.  His sentences were airy, simple, and well-chosen.  They also conveyed an impersonal warmth that successful politicians can muster.

Reagan was not stupid, as some liberals had hoped.  He had a knack for bending his argument ever so slightly in the direction of his listener’s sympathies.  According to Edmund Morris, one of his biographers, the former actor was emotionally hollow and intellectually incurious, yet was righteous in his convictions.  Exactly where those convictions came from is a mystery.  Intellectually arrived at?  No.  From religion? Probably not, since he was not that religious, despite his public stance as a Christian conservative.

Is it too easy to say that they came from the movies?  Certainly he spoke in cinematic terms:  his speeches were a series of movie scenes — unsmiling Evil Empire dictators and flashy welfare queens ripping off tax payers vs. the man from California in the white hat.

For me, Reagan is the model of a modern American president and candidate.  Smiling, untroubled by doubt, decisive, and lethal.  He wielded incredible power yet bore it lightly,  embodying the notion that it was better to act than to understand. 

Reagan was also incorruptible because he was in total agreement with the wealthy who owned him (you cannot purchase what is given to you).  If their campaign contributions had strings attached, Reagan was happy to have them.  Of course, what they really wanted was the country.  And he gave it to them.

The 2012 presidential campaign unofficially began last night in New Hampshire where the announced Republican candidates debated.  Reagan’s ghost stalked the candidates as they stood behind podiums, remembering to smile the way he did.

Every  fours years, the GOP asks hopefully:  “do we have another Reagan?”

Where He Learned To Read

In Uncategorized, Writers on June 12, 2011 at 3:24 pm

The End by Salvatore Scibona

If like me, you had a series of mind-numbing jobs in your teens and twenties, you might like Salvatore Scibona’s piece in the current New Yorker (June 13 & 20 2011).

Before I was 22, I had been a bus boy, waiter, bartender, doorman, janitor, Christmas tree salesman, delivery boy, movie theatre usher, bellman, messenger, dishwasher, elevator man, and cashier.  Like Scibona, I had no clear career path but I daydreamed about a lot of careers:  actor, politician, radio personality, writer, singer, baseball player.  I’d fantasize about hitting a grand slam out of Yankee Stadium, as Mickey Mantle, near retirement,  stood at home plate waiting to congratulate me.  Other times, I pictured myself striding toward the podium at the Americana Hotel in midtown Manhattan to declare victory in my race for mayor.  I’d graciously thank my opponent who I said, had fought a “spirited campaign.”  Leaving the ballroom, I’d wave, enjoying the grudging respect of hardened street reporters and the adoration of volunteers.  Finally, I’d turn and kiss my….that’s where the daydream ended.  I didn’t have a wife and the chances were not good that I’d ever have one.    All of this danced in my mind as I scraped crust off dishes or wrapped prickly Douglas Firs for delivery on Christmas Eve.

Scibona writes of his journey from KFC worker to student of the Great Books at St. John’s University, but his story is not so much that he was saved from menial jobs.  Education, especially a classical one,  offered him a chance at a romantic life, lived for ideas, not for a wage.   Intellectual curiosity and menial jobs are more compatible than some people think.  While you are allowing muscle memory to pay the rent, your thoughts are as free as summer mustangs.

Salvatore Scibona’s New Yorker story


The Sin of Pride

In Uncategorized on June 11, 2011 at 12:44 pm

From today’s Boston Globe:

“The wording and placement of a bulletin notice announcing that the St. Cecilia Rainbow Ministry will be joining the parish at a Mass on June 19 may have given the unintended impression that the Mass is in support of Gay Pride Week; it is not,’’ said Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. 

Over the past ten years, attendance at Catholic masses has plumeted in Boston.  The Church recently responded with TV commercials aired during the winter showing formerly alienated Catholics happily reunited with their church.

However, in the midst of this outreach, the Church continues to drive certain members out.  St. Cecilia’s Church in the Back Bay section of the city has attracted a gay following.  This week it announced a mass to celebrate its gay members but was ordered to clarify the intent of the mass by the archdiocese.

When asked about the clarification, one church member applauded it saying, the church could not support gay pride because “pride is a sin.”

That  statement is the product of a particularly unsubtle mind.  Pride in the case of gay people is not boastful arrogance but a refusal to accept shame.

At best, when dealing with something on the level of God, “we see through a mirror darkly…”

To do otherwise, is prideful in the biblical sense, of which the Church leadership is frequently guilty.

What Paul Revere Did That Night

In History, Politics on June 10, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Revere's Account. Mass Historical Society

While in New Hampshire on an early tryout for the presidency or a TV show, Sarah Palin recently spoke of Paul Revere’s ride.  With unwarranted self-confidence, she mentioned at least twice that Revere rang a bell (he did not).

While in New Hampshire, is it possible that she had just seen one of those 1950s motel lobby murals of Revere on a horse, holding a bell?   Perhaps she decided on the spot to fill her void with that visual impression. There is freedom in open spaces, as she reminds us often.

Sensing a talking point opportunity, she also said Revere was riding to stop the British from “taking away our guns” (he wasn’t). Most curious was her assertion that Revere was “warning the British,” which is an odd thing for a colonial patriot to do.

Here is what Revere said he was up to that night.  Longfellow’s poem obscures how dangerous the mission was.

 I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, & very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, & got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree.

When I got near them, I discovered they were British officer.
One tryed to git a head of Me, & the other to take me. I turned
my Horse very quick, & Galloped towards Charlestown neck,
and then pushed for the Medford Road. The one who chased
me, endeavoring to Cut me off, got into a Clay pond, near
where the new Tavern is now built. I got clear of him, 


and went thro Medford, over the Bridge, & up to Menotomy.
In Medford, I awaked the Captain of the Minute men; & after
that, I alarmed almost every House, till I got to Lexington.
I found Mrs. Messrs. Hancock & Adams at the Rev. Mr. Clark’s; I told
them my errand, and inquired for Mr. Daws; they said he had
not been there; I related the story of the two officers, &
supposed that He must have been stopped, as he ought to
have been there before me. After I had been there about half
an Hour, Mr. Daws came; after we refreshid our selves, we and set off
for Concord, to secure the Stores, &c. there. We were overtaken by a young Docter Prescot,
whom we found to be a high Son of Liberty. I told them
of the ten officers that Mr. Devens mett, and that it was pro-
bable we might be stoped before we got to Concord; for
I supposed that after Night, they divided them selves, and that
two of them had fixed themselves in such passages as were
most likely to stop any intelegence going to Concord.
I likewise mentioned, that we had better allarm all the In-
habitents till we got to Concord; the young Doctor much ap-
proved of it, and said, he would stop with either of us, for the
people between that & Concord knew him, & would give the
more credit to what we said.

–From Mass Historical Society website

Lord Byron, Anorexic

In Writers on June 9, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Well…maybe.  According to Andrew Crisp, an emiritus professor of psychiatry at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London, the poet Lord Byron suffered from severe anorexia nervosa.  In an article in The Independent, Crisp says Byron’s weight varied wildly, from a high of 204 pounds to a low of 136.

“Don’t you think I get thinner?” Byron said to one correspondent. “I am as thin as a skeleton – thinner than you saw me at my first arrival in Venice and thinner than yourself.”

Byron asked for just “hard biscuits and soda water” when dining out. When these were not available he ate potatoes drenched in vinegar. By 1821 he said he could not eat more than once a day, took quantities of vinegar to lessen his appetite and dosed himself with Epsom salts, magnesia and strong laxatives.

The Weirdest Moments of the Vidal-Mailer Feud

In Literary Feuds, New York Individualists, Writers on June 8, 2011 at 12:44 am

Reconciled: Mailer, Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut photographed in May 2003 for Vanity Fair

Before the 1971 Cavett show taping, Vidal and Mailer met in the green room as they waited to go on. According to Mailer’s memoir The Time of Our Time (Random House, 1998), he admits to head-butting Vidal. Mailer had read somewhere that a head butt robbed one of the ability to form clear thoughts for 20 minutes. As the footage posted yesterday shows, it did not work.

In 1977, Mailer threw a drink at Vidal and punched him.  On the ground, Vidal famously remarked, “As usual, words fail him.”

Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show

In New York Individualists, Writers on June 6, 2011 at 1:45 am


Dick Cavett Show, 1971

I am not a believer in the “good the old days” but there are things I miss. One is TV talk shows with interesting guests who are given the time to speak. Charlie Rose is the only one now but his show is more classroom than saloon.  This clip will show you what I mean. The third participant, the very stately New Yorker columnist (“A Letter From Paris”) Janet Flanner, is the perfect foil for the egos around her (including her own). Read Dick Cavett’s take on this memorable night.

Book Review: Book Shrinks Large Personality

In New York Individualists, Writers on June 5, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Capote With His Swans. Open Source Image.

Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers
(Book review by Mark Krone published in The Gay & Lesbian ReviewMay/June 2008.)
For a time, Truman Capote was fading from collective memory.
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 CapoteInfamous 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.

U.S. States With Most Catholics Lean Liberal

In Hidden History, Politics on June 5, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Speaking of Catholics…Catholicism is a hierarchical, orthodox faith, meaning it is run from the top and its beliefs are generally static and not open to debate.  American Catholics are historically an unruly bunch and on some issues lean liberal politically, occasionally to the dismay of their cardinals and The Vatican.

Top 5 U.S. States With Highest Proportion of
Catholics Voted for Obama in 2008 by Wide Margins

State Perc Catholic 2008 Obama Vote
Rhode Island 63% 63%
Massachusetts 49% 62%
Connecticut 42% 61%
New Jersey 41% 57%
New York 41% 63%
 

Sources: Catholic Almanac; CNN Election Central