Today is the birthday of the writer Truman Capote, best known for the short novel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the groundbreaking work “In Cold Blood,” with which he single-handedly created a new literary genre — the nonfiction novel. Capote was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1924, his parents divorced when he was four, and he was sent to live a mostly lonely and solitary existence with some elderly aunts in Alabama. In his mid-teens, he went to live with his mother and her new husband in New York City but didn’t adjust well to city life and ended up dropping out of school when he was 17 to take a job with The New Yorker. This was effectively the start of his professional writing life, and within a few years Capote was writing for a number of publications.
Capote and his Monroeville neighbor, Harper Lee, remained lifelong friends. He based the character of Idabel in “Other Voices, Other Rooms” on her, and was in turn the inspiration for the character Dill Harris in Lee’s 1960 bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Capote once acknowledged this: “Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Harper Lee’s mother and father, lived very near. Harper Lee was my best friend. Did you ever read her book, “To Kill a Mockingbird?” I’m a character in that book, which takes place in the same small town in Alabama where we lived. Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children. We went to the trials instead of going to the movies.” Later, Lee was his crucial research partner for “In Cold Blood.”
With his literary success came social celebrity, and the young writer’s talents were often overshadowed by his now-famous flamboyance and eccentricities. Capote’s artistic genius was well matched by his penchant for glittering high society, which lionized him in return, and he was seen at all the best parties, restaurants, clubs, and social circles.
While Capote was a society darling before the publication of In “Cold Blood,” it was really that book that cemented his place among society’s elite. “In Cold Blood” was an instant success, selling out immediately, becoming one of the most talked-about books of its time and bringing its author millions of dollars and a level of fame rarely experienced by a literary author. In Capote’s own words, “In Cold Blood” was “a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.”
Capote had apparently attempted something similar as a child. In a 1957 interview with the Paris Review, he discussed his first foray into nonfiction, when he had been a member of the Mobile Press Register‘s Sunshine Club, originally lured in by the free Nehi and Coca-Cola and also by the short-story writing contest with the prize of a pony or a dog. As he said, “I had been noticing the activities of some neighbors who were up to no good, so I wrote a kind of roman à clef called ‘Old Mr. Busybody’ and entered it into the contest. The first installment appeared one Sunday, under my real name of Truman Streckfus Persons. Only somebody suddenly realized that I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second installment never appeared. Naturally, I didn’t win a thing.”
When Capote was around 12, the principal at his school announced to his family that the boy was “subnormal,” and that it would be only humane to send him to a special school “equipped to handle backward brats.” Understandably, Capote’s family took umbrage at this, and in an effort to prove the principal unequivocally wrong, they “pronto packed me off to a psychiatric study clinic at a university in the East where I had my IQ inspected. I enjoyed it thoroughly and — guess what? — came home a genius, so proclaimed by science. I don’t know who was more appalled: my former teachers, who refused to believe it, or my family, who didn’t want to believe it — they’d just hoped to be told I was a nice normal boy. Ha ha!” For his part, his genius scientifically proven, Capote took to staring in mirrors, sucking in his cheeks and naming himself Proust, or Chekhov, or Wolfe — whoever was his idol of the moment. It was around this time that the boy started writing in earnest. His mind “zoomed all night every night,” and he felt it must have been several years before he slept properly again.
Genius or no, Capote understood the only way to improve was to do the work and keep doing it, again and again, because “Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”
Capote died in Los Angeles on August 25, 1984, aged 59 from liver cancer. According to the coroner’s report the cause of death was “liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication”. He died at the home of his old friend Joanne Carson, ex-wife of late-night TV host Johnny Carson, on whose program Capote had been a frequent guest. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, leaving behind his longtime companion, author Jack Dunphy. Dunphy died in 1992, and in 1994 both his and Capote’s ashes were scattered at Crooked Pond, between Bridgehampton, New York and Sag Harbor, New York on Long Island, close to where the two had maintained a property with individual houses for many years. Capote also maintained the property in Palm Springs, a condominium in Switzerland that was mostly occupied by Dunphy seasonally, and a primary residence at the United Nations Plaza in New York City. Capote’s will provided that after Dunphy’s death a literary trust would be established, sustained by revenues from Capote’s works, to fund various literary prizes and grants including the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin, commemorating not only Capote but also his friend Newton Arvin, the Smith College professor and critic, who lost his job after his homosexuality was exposed.
After his death, fellow writer and perpetual nemesis Gore Vidal described Capote’s demise as “a good career move”.