Sad Stories

Adam Begley

  • Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke
    Hamish Hamilton, 632 pp, £16.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 241 12549 9
  • Jean Stafford: A Biography by David Roberts
    Chatto, 494 pp, £16.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3010 5

The June 1947 issue of Life Magazine contains an article called ‘Young US Writers’, a round-up of 11 promising post-war authors. Of the 11, three are well-known today; of this famous trio, one is still alive, the other two subjects of recently published biographies. The first page of the feature is dominated by a large photograph of a superbly arrogant Truman Capote – 22 years old, tiny, but potent. On the next page is a photograph (somewhat smaller) of Jean Stafford – 31 years old, severe, distant, possibly beautiful. On the very last page is a small shot of Gore Vidal, who at the preposterous age of 21 is the author of two novels. Vidal looks directly into the camera, sullen and contentious. John Chamberlain, who wrote the text, declares Stafford the ‘most brilliant’ of the lot. By this time she had published two novels; her career as a short-story writer was just getting under way. Unlike Capote and Vidal, Stafford never became a celebrity, and her reputation as a brilliant writer faded with the years; sadly, she is now remembered as much for having been Robert Lowell’s first wife as for her novels and short stories. It is testimony to Capote’s uncanny knack for self-promotion that at the time of the Life feature, he had produced only a handful of short stories: his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, would not appear for another six months. And whereas Stafford, who wrote very little fiction during the last twenty years of her life, disappeared from public view, superseded by a younger generation of writers, Capote kept himself in the limelight until his death in 1984, long after his creative output had dwindled drastically.

Gerald Clarke’s biography brings Truman Capote back to life, rehearses in copious and very spicy detail the trajectory of his extraordinary career. The story began in Monroeville, Alabama when Capote was still Truman Streckfus Persons, a lonely child virtually abandoned by his mismatched parents. When Truman’s mother divorced his father and married Joe Capote, a prosperous Wall Street executive who adopted his new wife’s ten-year-old child, the scene changed to New York City, and Truman had a home at last. Nonetheless, Nina Capote (who also changed her name – she had been Lillie Mae) continued to ignore her son. Clarke believes that Nina’s indifference, which later – under the pressure of alcoholism – degenerated into wildly fluctuating ambivalence, caused many of the psychological difficulties which were to plague Capote in his unhappy middle age. Irked by the effeminate behaviour of her son, she tried to bully him into becoming an ‘ordinary, masculine boy’. Capote himself saw no reason for concern: ‘I always had a marked homosexual preference ... and I never had any guilt about it at all. As time goes on, you finally settle down on one side or another, homosexual or heterosexual. And I was a homosexual.’ He was equally confident about his future profession: from the age of ten he knew he would become a writer – a famous writer.

Capote’s success was from the first as much social as literary. By all accounts he was possessed of a remarkable and original charm. His freakish appearance drew attention, his conversation (dispensed in a ‘baby voice’) held it. He was assisted by a genius for attaching himself to people who could smooth the path to greater glory.

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