Truman Capote's 1970s flameout was so spectacular that it obscured his earlier, brighter years.
“Capote Reconsidered” by Brooke Allen, in The New Criterion (Nov. 2004), 900 Broadway, Ste. 602, New York, N.Y. 10003.
The trouble with being a bad boy is that people don’t remember you were once very, very good. In author Truman Capote’s last years, his cringingly public displays of drunkenness and drug use caused old friends to wring their hands over his squandered talent. By his death in 1984, the shambles of his personal life had dwarfed his literary reputation. But it’s time to resurrect him in memory as a literary giant, argues Allen, author of Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior (2004).
Capote’s rise was all the more dramatic for his humble roots. He was born in 1924 to a small-town con man and an itchy-footed girl from Monroeville, Alabama. They soon parted, and Capote spent much of his childhood feeling abandoned by both his absent father and his wayward mother, who left him for a long spell in the care of Alabama relatives.
He cut his literary teeth as a short-story writer for Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar, which were then homes for innovative fiction (The New Yorker, where he was a copy boy, refused to publish his stories because they were “romantic in a way this magazine is not”). His charm—issuing, seemingly, from a “puppyish desire for love”—quickly became legendary, adding to his persona.
With the publication of his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948, he was hailed as “dangerously gifted,” though his prose was nearly upstaged by the jacket photo, in which he lolled like a “male Lolita.” For the next decade, he used his gifts well for the most part, publishing The Grass Harp in 1951 and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958. After noticing a news item in November 1959 about the murders of a Kansas farm family, Capote spent the next six years researching In Cold Blood, perhaps the first nonfiction novel of the nascent “new journalism” movement. With the book’s publication in 1966, to a rapt national audience, his star seemingly could shine no brighter.
But the clouds were already gathering—some apparently summoned by the destabilizing experience of writing the book itself, which had immersed him in the grisly crime and drawn him to identify with one of the killers. “His crackup was as public and spectacular as any in recent history,” says Allen. He drank “heroic” amounts of alcohol and kept pill pushers in business. Largely deserting his longtime emotional anchor, Jack Dunphy, Capote took up with a series of “inappropriate” lovers. In 1975, nine years after throwing his black-and-white ball, dubbed the party of the century, at the Plaza Hotel in New York, he committed social hari-kari: Esquire published excerpts from his work in progress, Answered Prayers, in which he skewered—in thinly disguised fiction—his rich and beautiful society pals.
In reading the early Capote, however, the grotesque that he later became is nowhere in evidence, says Allen, whose praise is occasioned by the publication of new editions of Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Complete Stories of Truman Capote. “It is a stunning experience to reread this fiction—mostly written when he was in his early twenties—and to realize how very golden this golden boy was,” she effuses. “The image of the unhappy middle-aged clown dissolves. . . . Norman Mailer’s judgment that Capote was the most perfect writer of their generation—‘he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm’—seems true and just.” Capote deserves enduring fame, says Allen, of the kind that will “outlive the mere notoriety of his final years.”