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Truman Capote (1924-1984) - original name Truman Streckfus Persons

 

American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Capote gained international fame with his "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood  (1966), an account of a real life crime in which an entire family was murdered by two sociopaths. The Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama area provided the setting for much of Capote's fiction.

"Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans – in fact, few Kansans – had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there." (from In Cold Blood)

Truman Capote was born in New Orleans, the son of a salesman and a 16-year-old beauty queen, Lillie Mae Faulk. When she was pregnant, she tried to abort him. Capote's father, Archulus "Arch" Persons, worked as a clerk for a steamboat company. Persons never stuck at any job for long, and was always leaving home in search for new opportunities. The unhappy marriage gradually disintegrated. After his parents divorced, five-year-old Truman was brought up in Monroeville, Alabama.

While Capote's mother pursued happiness in her own way in New York City, he lived with his relatives, one of whom became the model for the loving, elderly spinster of the author's novels, stories, and plays. "Her face is remarkable – not unlike Lincoln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind," described Capote in A Christmas Memory (1966) his distant relative Sook, Nanny Rumbley Faulk. Sook was sixty-something, "small and sprightly, like a bantam hen..." Capote's mother, Lillie Mae, wrote letters and telephoned to her son, often crying that she had no money and no husband.

In his childhood Capote made friends with Harper Lee, who portrayed him as Dill in her world famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird. "Dill was a curiosity. He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duckfluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him. As he told us the old tale his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead."

After Capote's mother married again, this time a well-to-do businessman, Capote moved to New York, and adopted his stepfather's surname. He attended the Trinity School and St. John's Academy in New York, and the public schools of Greenwich, Connecticut. At the age of seventeen, Capote ended his formal schooling. He found work at the New Yorker, where he attracted attention with his eccentric style of dress. "... I recall him sweeping through the corridors of the magazine in a black opera cape, his long golden hair falling to his shoulders: an apparition that put one in mind of Oscar Wilde in Nevada, in his velvets and lilies." (Brendan Gill in Here at The New Yorker, 1975)

Capote's early stories were published in quality magazines and in 1946 he won the O.Henry award. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, (1948), depicted a boy, Joel Knox, growing up in the Deep South. Joel is "too pretty, too delicate and fair skinned." He seeks his father but falls into a relationship with a decadent transvestite. The book gained a wide success and created controversy because of its treatment of homosexuality. During this time Capote had already established his fame among the cultural circles as the thin voiced, promising young writer, who could brighten up parties with his sharp and clever remarks.

Next year Capote went to Europe, where he wrote fiction and non-fiction. Jean Cocteau introduced him to Colette, the grande dame of French literature, who gave him a paperweight with a white rose in its center. Capote's travels accompanying a tour of Porgy and Bess in the Soviet Union produced The Muses Are Heard. These European years marked the beginning of Capote's work for the theatre and films.

Before getting to know Andy Warhol personally, Capote had received fan letters and drawings from him. "They certainly weren't like his later things," Capote recalled. "They were rather literal illustrations from stories of mine . . . at least, that's what they were supposed to be." Warhol seemed to him the loneliest, most friedless person he had ever met. Once Capote got a glimpse of Warhol's big collection of pornography, which included an album of famous people, ". . . it's rather amusing because they're mostly taken of people who didn't know they were being photographed . . . like in locker rooms."

A Tree of Night, (1949) gathered together short stories published in Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and other magazines. When the director John Huston was making The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Capote met Marilyn Monroe, who acted in the film. "With her tresses invisible, and her complexion cleared of all cosmetics, she looked twelve years old, a pubescent virgin who had just been admitted to an orphanage and is grieving her plight." (from Marilyn Monroe: Photographs 1945-1962 by Truman Capote) 

While in Kyoto, Capote met Marlon Brando, and wrote for The New Yorker a profile of the actor. The House of Flowers, a musical set in a West Indies bordello, originated from a trip to Haiti in the winter of 1948, where he spent many of his evenings sitting on the porches of the whorehouses along the Bizonton Road. Capote's lyrical style and melancholy marked his novel The Grass Harp (1951). In the story an orphaned boy and two old ladies observe life from a china tree. Eventually they come down from their temporary retreat, unlike Cosimo Piovasco di Rondō in Italo Calvino's novel The Baron in the Trees (1957). The book was adapted into screen in 1996, starring Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, and Walter Matthau. Capote's first important film work was collaboration with John Huston on Beat the Devil (1954), based on Claud Cockburn's bestseller about a band of international crooks. For the David O. Selznick production of Indiscreation of an American Wife (1953), directed by Vittorio De Sica and starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift, Capote had written dialogue. Nearly penniless Capote lived in Rome in an expensive penthouse on the Via Margutta. Huston offered him a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a week. Capote, who wrote the scenes only two or three days ahead of the shooting schedule, changed the whole concept of the film. For Peter Lorre he gave some of the best lines: "Time, time, what is time? The Swiss manufacture it. The French hoard it. The Italians squander it. The Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. You know what I say? I say time is a crook."

Following return to the United States, Copote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's  (1958). Its central character, Holly Golightly, was an amalgam of several people: her dreams came from Capote's mother, her rootlessness from Capote himself, and her personality from the glamorous, beautiful young women of Manhattan, of whom especially Babe Paley fascinated the author. "She was one of the two or three great obsessions of my life," he once said. Holly comes to New York seeking for happiness. "What I've found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there..." She has a nameless cat and a brother named Fred. The narrator, whom she calls Fred after her own brother, is an aspiring writer who has the same birthday as Capote (September 30). Though it is never explicitly stated, he is a homosexual. The novel is constructed as a memory of events, that happened about 15 years earlier. Holly has left the country before the end of the war, and the narrator has not seen her since. After Harper's Bazaar turned down the manuscript, it was serialized in Esquire and published by Random House. Norman Mailer praised the work: "I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's, which will become a small classic."

Breakfast at Tiffany's was made into a successful film, directed by Blake Edwards and starring Audrey Hepburn. George Axelrod updated the story to the 1960s and later told: "Nothing really happened in the book. All we had was this glorious girl – a perfect part for Audrie Hepburn. What we had to do was devise a story, get a central romantic relationship, and make the hero a red-blooded heterosexual." Most of the film was shot in California, not in New York City. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to Henry Mancini's 'Moon River': "We're after the same / Rainbow's end, / Waitin' 'round the bend, / My Huckleberry friend, / Moon river and me." The music is first heard in the opening title sequence: Audrey Hepburn as Holly stands in front of Tiffany's wearing a black evening gown and dark sunglasses and eating breakfast from a paper bag. 

Increasing preoccupation with journalism formed the basis for the bestseller In Cold Blood, a pioneering work of documentary novel or "nonfiction novel". The work started from an article in The New York Times. It dealt with the murder of a wealthy family in Holcomb, Kansas. Sponsored by the magazine, Capote interviewed with Harper Lee local people to recreate the lives of both the murderers and their victims. During the process he became emotionally attached to both killers. However, this did not prevent him from telling the story with utmost objectivity.

The research work and writing took six years to finish. Capote used neither a tape recorder nor note pad, but emptied his interviews and impressions in notebooks at the end of the day. He also recorded last days of the death-obsessed criminals. (See Norman Mailer's journalistic works The Armies of the Nigh, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of Fire on the Moon.) Richard Brooks' screen adaptation of the book, with its black-and-white photography, avoided all sensationalism. The trial scene was re-enacted at the Finney County Court House in the Garden City, where the actual trial had taken place. Brooks also used the real jury who had convicted Perry Smith and Dick Hicock.

Among Capote's other works from the 1960s is the classic A Christmas Memory, a story about a seven-year-old boy, Buddy, his cousin, an eccentric old lady, and a tough little orange and white rat terrier called Queenie. Buddy and his cousin are each other's best friends, whose special relationship is symbolized by baking of fruitcakes, a kind of a Proustian Madeleine remembrance. The story gained a huge success as a television play. After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote planned to write a Proustian novel to be called "Answered Prayers". This plan never materialized. Problems with drink and drugs, and disputes with other writers, such as Gore Vidal, exhausted Capote's creative energies. "Well, how does it feel to be an enfant terrible?" he had asked Vidal when they were introduced in 1945.  Much later Capote claimed in Playgirl that Vidal had been thrown out from a party at the Kennedy White House. Vidal filed a suit in a New York State court, charging that Capote had libelled him.

In interviews, Capote negative anecdotes about the people he knew distanced him from his friends. "I had a big discussion with Saul Bellow about Richard Wright," Capote said in 1974. "I said, Richard Wright was a good friend of mine and do you know what Saul Bellow said? He said, "Huh! Well, Wright just became a victim of these heavyweight intellectuals. I used to see him carting around books on Wittgenstein. He was convinced he was an intellectual." I thought that was very sad and pathetic." (The Critical Response to Truman Capote by Joseph J. Waldmeir, 1999)

Answered Prayers remained unfinished, but three stories from the novel appeared in Esquire in the 1970s. The surviving portions were republished in 1986. Capote's autobiographical book presented such real-life as Colette, the Duchess of Windsor, Montgomery Clift, and Tallulah Bankhead, but its depiction of the smart set was characterized in The New York Times as "a socio-pornographic ''Ragtime'' rife with the low cackle of camp." Music for Chamelons (1981) was a collection of short pieces, stories, interviews, and conversations published in various magazines. Truman Capote died in Los Angeles, California, on August 26, 1984, of liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication. His life and work inspired Bennett Miller's film Capote (2005), based on the Gerald Clarke biography from 1988, and Have You Heard? (2006), based on George Plimpton's interviews.

For further reading: Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood": A Critical Handbook, ed. by Irving Malin (1968); The Worlds of Truman Capote by William L. Nance (1970); Sextet: T.S. Eliot and Truman Capote and Others by J. M. Brinnin (1982); Truman Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke (1988); Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction by H. Garson (1992); Truman Capote's Southern Years by Marianne M. Moates & Jennings Faulk Carter (1996); Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career by George Plimpton (1997); Critical Essays on Truman Capote, ed. by Joseph J. Waldmeir (1999); The Critical Response to Truman Capote ed. by Joseph J. Waldmeir (1999); The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote by Marie Rudisill, James C. Simmons (2000); Capote: A Biography  by Gerald Clarke (2001); Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson (2010) -  See also: Harper Lee (Capote's childhood friend); Carson McCullers

Selected works:

  • Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1948
    - film 1995, prod. Golden Eye Films, dir. David Rocksavage, screenplay Sara Flanigan and David Rocksavage, starring Lothaire Bluteau, Anna Levine, David Speck, April Turner 
  • A Tree of Night and Other Stories, 1949
    - film: Das Glück sucht seine Kinder, 1958, prod. Südwestfunk (SWF), based on Jug of Silver, dir. Heinz Schimmelpfennig
  • Local Color, 1950
  • The Grass Harp, 1951
    - Ruohojen harppu (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1952)
    - films: De grasharp, TV film 1959, dir. Kees Van Iersel, starring Manfred de Graaf, Elly Van Stekelenburg and Carla de Raet; TV drama 1959, in Play of the Week, dir. Word Baker, starring Georgia Burke, Russell Collins and Lillian Gish; Ruohojen harppu, TV film 1965, prod. Suomen Televisio, dir. Sirppa Sivori-Asp, starring Emma Väänänen, Kari Franck and Irma Seikkula; 1996, dir. Charles Matthau, screenplay Stirling Silliphant and Kirk Ellis, starring Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau, Edward Furlong, Jack Lemmon, Nell Carter
  • The Grass Harp, 1952 (play)
  • Stazione Termini, 1953 (dialogue)
    - film prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, Produzioni De Sica, dir. Vittorio De Sica, starring Jennifer Jones, Montgomery Clift and Gino Cervi
  • Beat the Devil, 1954 (screenplay, with John Huston)
    - film prod. Rizzoli-Haggiag, Romulus Films, Santana Pictures Corporation, dir. John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley
  • The House of Flowers, 1954 (play, with Harold Arlen)
  • The Muses Have Heard, 1956
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1958
    - Aamiainen Tiffanylla (suom. Inkeri Hämäläinen ja Kristiina Kivivuori, 1967)
    - film 1961, prod. prod. Jurow-Shepherd, dir. Blake Edwards, screenplay George Axelrod, starring Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen
  • The Innocents, 1961 (screenplay, with William Archibald and John Mortimer, based on the story by Henry James)
    - film prod. Achilles, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkis
  • Observations, 1959 (with R. Avedon)
  • Selected Writings, 1963 (with an introduction by Mark Schorer)
  • In Cold Blood, 1966
    - Kylmäverisesti: totuudenmukainen kuvaus eräästä joukkomurhasta ja sen seurauksista (suom. Tauno Tainio, 1966)
    - film 1967, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, Pax Enterprises, written and directed by Richard Brooks, starring Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart; TV mini-series 1996, dir. Jonathan Kaplan, starring Anthony Edwards, Eric Roberts, Sam Neill
  • A Christmas Memory, 1966
    - 'Joulumuisto', teoksessa Aamiainen Tiffanylla (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1967)
  • A Christmas Memory, 1966 (television play)
    - films: episode in ABC Stage 67, dir. Frank Perry, starring Geraldine Page, Donnie Melvin and Lavinia Cassels TV film 1997, dir. Glenn Jordan, starring Patty Duke, Piper Laurie and Jeffrey DeMunn
  • The Thanksgiving Visitor, 1967
  • Among the Paths to Eden, 1967 (television play)
  • Laura, 1968 (television play)
    - TV film 1968, prod. American Broadcasting Company (ABC), Rediffusion Television, dir. John Llewellyn Moxey, screenplay Truman Capote and Thomas Phipps, starring Arlene Francis, Farley Granger, Lee Radziwill, George Sanders 
  • House of Flowers, 1968
  • The Thanksgiving Visitor, 1968 (television play)
    - film dir. Frank Perry, starring Geraldine Page, Truman Capote and Neil Fitzgerald, Michael Kearney, Joy Nicholson, Hansford Rowe III, Georgia Simmons 
  • Trilogy, 1969 (screenplay, with Eleanor Perry)
  • Trilogy; Experiment in Multimedia, 1969 (with Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry; introd. by John M. Culkin)
  • Behind Prison Walls, 1972 (television play)
  • The Glass House, 1972 (television play, with Tracy Keenan Wynn and Wyatt Cooper)
  • The Dogs Bark, 1973
  • Crimewatch, 1973 (television play)
  • Then It All Came Down, 1976
  • Music for Chameleons: New Writing, 1980
  • One Christmas, 1982
  • Conversations with Capote, 1985 (by Lawrence Grobel, with a foreword by James A. Michener)
  • Answered Prayers, 1986 (unfinished)
  • A Capote Reader, 1987
  • Marilyn Monroe: Photographs 1945-1962, 1994
  • Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, 2004 (edited by Gerald Clarke)
  • The Complete Stories of Truman Capote, 2004 (introduction by Reynolds Price)
  • Summer's Crossing, 2005 (afterword by Alan U. Schwartz)
    - Kesän taittuessa (suom. Kaijamari Sivill, 2007)
  • Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote, 2007


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