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Books: The Troubles of the Tiny Terror CAPOTE: A BIOGRAPHY

7 minute read
John Skow

It was hard to see why the late Jacqueline Susann, author of the no-qual best seller Valley of the Dolls, got so upset. All Truman Capote had done was to mention to Johnny Carson, on the Tonight show, that Susann looked “like a truck driver in drag.” No offense there. “Bitchy, yes; malicious, no,” Capote explained in a letter to Susann’s attorney, Louis Nizer, after she filed suit. Capote went on to praise Nizer’s own letter to him as well written: “If only your client . . . had your sense of style!” Susann took this badly and caricatured Capote in her novel Dolores as Horatio Capon, a gossipy painter who resembled a “blondish pig.”

Heavens! Is Gerald Clarke’s biography of the Tiny Terror, as the 5-ft. 3-in. novelist and journalist was accurately known, a recounting of such scurrilities? The answer is a joyous and admirably unedifying yes. Capote, who died in 1984 “of everything . . . of living,” as Bandleader Artie Shaw said at his funeral, was always his own best character. He lived an outrageous life, mostly against society’s grain, and invented gaudy lies to pad out the occasional dull spots (an early dust-jacket blurb had him dancing on a Mississippi riverboat). Author Clarke, a TIME contributor, sorts out the nonsense, the brilliance and the bitchiness of Capote’s life in what is the liveliest and rowdiest literary biography in recent memory.

Scandal was the sea in which Capote swam. Clarke quotes Capote’s story, for instance, of his not-very-electric sexual fling with Errol Flynn, and of a tender interlude with John Garfield (“one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. My mother saw him just once and tried to get him into bed with her”). Capote used such shockers to draw corresponding admissions from subjects he interviewed. Clarke’s breezy and sympathetic account inevitably teems with them and is sure to keep tongues wagging busily through the summer.

Capote’s father, Clarke relates, was a charming con man named Arch Persons, a bad-check artist who worked, when he worked, as a promoter for a carnival performer called the Great Pasha, whose specialty was being buried alive. His mother was a small-town Alabama beauty named Lillie Mae Faulk, who eventually chucked the shiftless Arch, headed for New York City and changed her name to Nina because it sounded more sophisticated. Little Truman was parked for much of his childhood in a Southern-gothic household of eccentric cousins in Monroeville, Ala. But Clarke stresses that his most agonizing early memory was of being locked in a hotel room by his mother when she went out on the town. “That’s when my claustrophobia and fear of abandonment began,” Capote said. “She locked me in and I still can’t get out.” Much of his character — he played the endearing, clever child till late in life and spoke in a high, childish voice — can be read as a vain attempt to please his mother so much that she would not leave him again, in the hotel room or with his cousins.

He was a precocious and pretty 17-year-old when he arrived on the New York literary scene in the early ’40s. (He came by way of Greenwich, Conn.; his mother had married a prosperous New York businessman named Joe Capote, who turned out to be a kindly stepfather.) Capote wangled a job at The New Yorker, and at night wrote and overwrote fevered, delicate, swamp-baroque stories that were skewed images of Monroeville. On the strength of one story in Mademoiselle, Random House signed the new phenom to a book contract.

The slim novel Capote produced at 23 was Other Voices, Other Rooms, which told of the painful growing up of a sensitive Southern child named Joel Knox, widely assumed to be a stand-in for the author. It was well written and convincingly atmospheric, with no word out of place. But what made Other Voices a sensation was an extravagantly campy photo of Capote on the dust jacket, reclining on a couch, wearing bangs and a look of degenerate satiation. His sexual orientation could not have been clearer if he had held a rose between his teeth.

In 1948 such brashness was shocking. It was also courageous. Toward the end of his life, when Capote had become a talk-show Scheherazade, his high voice and bizarre costumes were no more than comic effects that served to keep Middle America awake till the next commercial. But at the beginning of his career, it took nerve to fly his unpopular flag.

The same formidable nerve sustained a major talent for self-publicizing. Capote talked endlessly about “the difference between very good writing and true art” and left no doubt which he was serving up. To a considerable extent he was taken at his own estimation, though a large part of his writing (his 1957 New Yorker portrait of Marlon Brando is an overpraised example) was nothing more than good, smooth journalism. His pretense that the powerful and meticulously written In Cold Blood was something to be called a nonfiction novel demeaned both forms but got a lot of ink.

His habit of chattering on the Tonight show and of lunching with the glossy wives of moneyed men diminished his serious reputation as it increased his notoriety. He began to take on the appearance of a piffler, a court jester to such rich beauties as Babe Paley, wife of longtime CBS Chairman William Paley, and Slim Keith, wife of British Financier Lord Keith. Clarke comments that Capote looked upon the stylish rich “the way the Greeks looked upon their gods, with mingled awe and envy.” To amuse these friends, he invented a game called International Daisy Chain, in which the point — “SO educational,” he insisted — was to connect improbable people through a linkage of sexual affairs. Henry James to Ida Lupino, for instance, went “Henry James to Hugh Walpole to Harold Nicolson to the Hon. David Herbert to John C. Wilson to Noel Coward to Louis Hayward to Ida Lupino.” Or so Capote said.

The trouble was, he would say anything. “He delighted in turbulence,” writes Clarke. “When none existed, he would stir it up.” Clarke quotes Slim Keith’s recollection that “he would invent something out of whole cloth, an absolute fabrication, and say, ‘Did you know that X is having a walk-out with Y?’ I would say, ‘Oh, Truman, for God’s sake! That’s ridiculous!’ Then I began to think about it more and wondered: is it that ridiculous? And something usually did come of his invention . . . he could cause a lot of trouble.”

Eventually, the trouble came down on his own head, and Clarke’s chapters on his downfall are touching. For years Capote had been working, and pretending to work, on a big novel to be called Answered Prayers, which would establish him as the American Proust. He agonized over the book, announcing portentously, “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” He actually wrote a few chapters, between episodes of the alcoholism that was dragging him down. Some appeared in Esquire, and one, called La Cote Basque, after a fashionable Manhattan restaurant, was a raunchy retailing of some fairly gamy stories about his rich friends, caricatured in recognizable detail.

The Paleys and the rest cut him dead, permanently. Capote was astonished, desolated, alone at lunch. He drank more heavily, abandoned his novel, became less choosy about sexual companions. A month before his 60th birthday, his heart began to beat arrhythmically, and he died.

But not, as Clarke’s spicy history makes clear, before he had lived. Of all the bright anecdotes, one told by Tennessee Williams sticks in the mind — of crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary with Capote when he was young, and of prankishly mixing up shoes set outside staterooms for shining. And of an Episcopal bishop following Capote about the ship “with an irreligious gleam in his eye,” and of Capote saying slyly, “I’ve always wanted to have a bishop’s ring . . . “

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