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Read a Stunningly Frank 1948 TIME Letter On Truman Capote and Sexuality

Truman Capote With His Dog
Truman Capote with his dog in 1950 Mondadori / Getty Images

The author was unafraid of being frank about his homosexuality, but it made TIME uncomfortable

When Breakfast at Tiffany’s author Truman Capote died in 1984, TIME’s obituary remarked that he was famous “for his lyrical, funny and gothic” writing, and for being “as much a member of the glitterati as the literati.” When his posthumously published Answered Prayers came out in 1987, the magazine wrote that he had been “on his way to a spectacular best seller, an irresistible piece of malicious mischief.”

But this magazine wasn’t always so kind to Capote, who would have celebrated his 90th birthday this Sept. 30.

When Other Voices Other Rooms, the novel that made his name, was published in 1948, the review was skeptical of the publishing-world brouhaha that had surrounded its release, and somewhat harsh to its author. He was probably “safe from smothering in laurels,” wrote TIME’s critic, because the book was merely “a literary contrivance of unusual polish.” And the critic didn’t stop at that. The following letter, which shines a light on the magazine’s practices of the era, appeared in the Feb. 16, 1948, issue in response to that review:

Sir:

You seem to advocate tolerance for the customary things discriminated against: race, color, creed, religion, etc. However, I do not believe you have ever made a reference to homosexuality (a perfectly legitimate psychological condition) without going specially out of your way to make a vicious insinuation, caustic remark, or “dirty dig.”

Your review of Truman Capote‘s Other Voices Other Rooms (TIME, Jan. 26) concludes . . . : “For all his novel’s gifted invention and imagery, the distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss.”

I have seen a great deal of Spanish moss in a lot of places . . . and I must confess that some of it is quite beautiful. . . .

R. E. BERG

San Francisco, Calif.

The editor’s response? “It gives TIME the creeps. — ED.”

The tone of that snarky retort, and of the review itself, has faded into history, as has that attitude toward homosexuality. TIME’s Letters section is now generally snark-free, the magazine’s review of a 1988 biography of Capote called Other Voices Other Rooms “well written and convincingly atmospheric, with no word out of place” — and recent TIME covers have featured prominent LGBTQ activists and issues.

Truman Capote is still noted as having been ahead of his time in his openness about his own sexuality. R.E. Berg, in his or her willingness to speak up for that openness, remains noteworthy too.

Read TIME’s original review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s here, in the archives: Bad Little Good Girl

TIME remembrance

Watch: Maya Angelou’s Most Powerful Quotes in 2 Minutes

A collection of the poet and author's most memorable speeches, poems and interviews

Maya Angelou, a woman of many professions, was known primarily as a wordsmith: in poems, books, and speeches.

Angelou became an author at the age of 41 when she wrote her memoir I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, which was followed by various works, ranging from autobiographies to children’s books and song lyrics for a musical. “I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time,” Angelou told TIME in 2013.

Angelou became the first black and first female inaugural poet in 1993 for President Clinton and left behind a strong legacy as a teacher and civil rights activist.

Watch above for some of Angelou’s most memorable quotes.

TIME viral

Watch an Animated Version Of George Saunders’ Amazing Commencement Speech

Just a reminder to be kind

Be kind.

That’s the gist of the speech that author George Saunders delivered to the graduating class of Syracuse University last year. In his commencement speech, the author urged the students to be kind to each other. “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” Saunders said in the speech. “To the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.”

The sentiment echoes both Kurt Vonnegut’s line from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind”) and, of course, George Carlin’s sage saying in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (“Be excellent to each other”). It’s advice that resonated with the graduates and the world at large thanks to a reprinting in the New York Times that helped the speech go viral.

Now, the heartwarming speech has been animated in new video by Above Average and may spread across the internet again, which is just fine, when it comes to reminding people to be kind (especially in internet comments).

MORE: Be Kind: George Saunders’ Advice to Graduates Goes Viral

MORE: George Saunders Wins Folio Prize for Literature

 

TIME 10 Questions

10 Questions With Maya Angelou

“I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time,” Angelou told TIME in 2013

Mom & Me & Mom is your seventh autobiography. How many more will you write?

I’ll be celebrating my 85th birthday [on April 4]. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time.”

Your mother sent you away when you were 3 and — except for a brief period with her when you were 7 and her boyfriend raped you — you didn’t see her again until you were 13. Yet this book is full of love for her. How did that happen?

I didn’t know her. I didn’t trust her. But I began to like her because she was kind. I said, “I’d like to call you Lady.” She told everybody, “Call me Lady from now on.” Amazing. And she was kind to people, all sorts of people — white ones and black ones and Spanish-speaking ones. If they needed something, my mother was the one.

You endured some really horrible things, mostly at the hands of men. Have gender relations progressed?

No, I think men are as crazy as they were and women as crazy as they were. I think it’s wise when women say what they like and don’t like and will and won’t take. Men ought to do the same. I’ve never had a dislike for men. I’ve been badly treated by some. But I’ve been loved greatly by some. I married a lot of them.

At 15 you were the first African-American conductor on a cable car in San Francisco. Why that job?

The women wore beautiful uniforms, and they had this change belt — click, click, click, click. I went to apply. No one would even give me an application. My mother said, “Take one of your big Russian books and sit there. I did, for two weeks — I hated it. But I didn’t want to go home and tell my mother I wasn’t woman enough. Finally, a man asked me, “Why do you want this?” I said, “I like the uniforms. I like people.” I got the job.

You’re friends with Nichelle Nichols, who most people know as Lieutenant Uhura. Did you watch Star Trek?

I loved Star Trek. I spoke to her. I spoke right to the television. “Hi, Nichelle!”

Did you inherit your mother’s fondness for guns?

I like to have guns around. I don’t like to carry them.

Have you ever fired your weapon?

I was in my house in North Carolina. It was fall. I heard someone walking on the leaves. And somebody actually turned the knob. So I said, “Stand four feet back because I’m going to shoot now!” Boom! Boom! The police came by and said, “Ms. Angelou, the shots came from inside the house.” I said, “Well, I don’t know how that happened.”

Are you optimistic about the future of poetry?

Oh, yes. All I have to do is listen to hip-hop or some of the rappers. I listen to country-western music. I write some country music. There’s a song called “I Hope You Dance.” Incredible. I was going to write that poem; somebody beat me to it.

Your mother asked you to talk to her last husband, who wasn’t keeping up in the boudoir. How did that go?

Oh, it was terrible. It was so embarrassing. But my mother asked me to do it. She said, “He won’t take care of business. He’s afraid he’s gonna have a heart attack.” So [after she went out], I call. I said, “Papa, you say that Mom’s appetites are good.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Now, Papa, please excuse me. But all her appetites are good. And there’s one that only you can handle.” Oh, gosh. So many white people don’t know that black people blush.

Do you have any unfinished business?

I’ve still not written as well as I want to. I want to write so that the reader in Des Moines, Iowa, in Kowloon, China, in Cape Town, South Africa, can say, “You know, that’s the truth. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a six-foot black girl, but that’s the truth.”

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