Good Fibs

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Truman Capote: In which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career by George Plimpton
    Picador, 498 pp, £20.00, February 1998, ISBN 0 330 36871 0

Never give a writer a key to your apartment. Or your office. Never let him talk to your children. If he says he wants to take a bath tell him the plumbing’s knackered. If he makes for the fridge say everybody just died of food poisoning. Don’t encourage him in any way. Never give him your mother’s phone number. Keep him back from anything sharp. Tell him nothing you wouldn’t tell your worst enemy. Hide from him in the supermarket. Avoid eye contact. Never go out to war with one; never share his drugs. And never, never kiss a writer. Never kiss one no matter what. At the hard core of American writing this century, these would appear to be the big lessons. And they all crumble down to one thing in the end: never trust a genius who even thinks he might be American.

The great Yankee book editors made themselves great by ignoring this advice. The best of them – Maxwell Perkins, Robert Giroux, Joe Fox, Bennett Cerf – allowed many brilliant young things to roll about on their front lawns, and some days they even took a drink in the company of these writers, or let their dogs loose to lick their fidgety, callused hands. A sad business, this little kindness, but now and then it proved a wise investment of faith or pity. Mr Cerf, of Random House, was especially good in this way, and was known to give sets of office keys to his ‘special writers’, just so as they’d have somewhere to spread their elbows in New York. William Faulkner was never out of there. Always at night. Always drunk. But one morning even Cerf got fed up with the brewery toxins in the office hum. He took back the key. Another of Cerf’s specials, Truman Capote, a young goldfish new-swimming into the scene, remembered Faulkner coming over to his place for a party. The elder Southern gentleman had hoped for a bath. Capote said fine. After fifty minutes he started to worry. What was Faulkner up to? He went into the bathroom and found Faulkner crying in the cold water. Capote said nothing. He just sat on the loo and looked at the older man crying away to himself. And that is one of the other lessons of American literature: Capote and Faulkner in the bathroom.

Truman Capote was too young then, and too successful too quickly, to be expected to give a toss for Life’s Big Lessons. Besides, he knew quite a bit about life already. Without as much as a full alphabet in his head, nothing of spelling, nothing of maths, he had made his own way out of Monroeville, Alabama. He had the blondest hair and a nice red scarf. His ear was pitch-perfect. And out of all the grand mess of things – his sad, flying-away mother Lillie Mae, his broken-winged father Arch Persons, his blousy maiden aunts, Sookie and Callie and Jennie, who brought him up as a nearly-girl – he raced for the glorylands. Capote’s young life is a small, operatic cliché, a story of abandonment in a slow-burning Southern hollow, all the world held at a distance, all of a boy’s wonder clouded with local fevers. And out of those tossings and turnings a strange and clear prosody was born.

George Plimpton has tripped on a handy way of telling the story of a life, so long as that life happens to be one like Truman Capote’s. In place of an account shaped by Plimpton’s sentences, what we have is a birth-to-death narrative made up of the voices of those who knew the subject. It is a fine and busy book, a small marvel of editing and selection, each bit of spoken evidence sitting good and lively in its place. It is a method Plimpton (along with his sometime collaborator Jean Stein) used much less beguilingly in a book about Robert Kennedy, but which they deployed to quite stunning effect in Edie, the story of Warhol starlet Edie Sedgewick. ‘The form is particularly appealing for a number of reasons,’ Plimpton writes,

not least of which is that the reader is treated to information delivered first-hand, as if one had happened in on a large gathering, perhaps a cocktail party, in this cave of Truman Capote’s acquaintances. With a glass in hand (probably a vodka) our reader moves from group to group and listens in on personal reminiscences, opinions, vitriol and anecdote.

The analogy, I suspect, suits the world of Plimpton as much as it does the world of Capote. And that is one of the book’s strengths: Plimpton, like James Boswell, is an enthusiast for the world he is conjuring; he knows it well, knows all the figures in the carpet; the people are for the most part his acquaintances too, and his way of arranging their words is bent by his own understanding of how it all was. Though filled with the noise of coffee-houses, and café society, The Life of Johnson is an oral biography of a quite different sort – and Boswell a sharper prism than any other biographer – but there is nevertheless something pleasingly Boswellian in Plimpton’s arrangements. He, too, has a subject who suits the gossipy method, and whose adult life and achievements give themselves to an endless parade of anecdotalists, filled with all the loquacious wonder of the day. But the party analogy shows a fault, too. People at parties like to talk about other people at parties. The areas of Capote’s life which are served well by this compendium of chatterers are all the public parts – his debut, his celebrity, his big party, his success, his open betrayals, his decline – while the more private occasions are mere whispers in the corner of the room. So Plimpton fills 31 pages with talk of the night of Truman’s Black and White Ball, but only 24 pages with his entire childhood. (This is a less happy Boswellian trait.) The party method favours the party-goers, and you’d be better off in the company of Gerald Clarke’s biography, published ten years ago, if you wanted to know about Capote’s more private world, or were curious about who he was sleeping with. What we have here is Plimpton’s people speaking for themselves, some for the first time, and very few of them seem shy of the opportunity, or of Plimpton’s probable vodkas. They give us the talked-about Truman Capote. Perhaps the only Capote Capote would have cared for.

In 1944 he started to work as a runner at the New Yorker. He arrived on his first Monday in ballet pumps and a little black cape. ‘What is that?’ asked Harold Ross. The runner’s pencil-sharpening colleagues left the great editor none the wiser. ‘He was an absolutely gorgeous apparition,’ said Brendan Gill:

fluttering, flitting up and down the corridors of the magazine. He was indeed tiny. He and Miss Terry, our office manager, were an extraordinary couple. They were both the same size and they got on wonderfully well. He always adored elderly women and he adored Miss Terry, who was quite vicious, and was a bigot about almost everything, which also suited Truman. But he was an office boy.

His office-boyishness did not win every time. Those were the days, or so we imagine, when barefaced cheek was not always guaranteed to bring instant promotion: Capote was sacked for insulting Robert Frost. Nobody at the New Yorker had spotted him for a writer. A petulant miss, yes. A homosexual villain, maybe. But not a writer. Or not the sort of writer easily carved into nullity by the gentle-minded fiction editors of the time. The proper home for a talent like his – gilt-edged, romantic, dark and stylishly frail – was a fashion magazine like Harper’s Bazaar. This was a world away from Harold Ross’s manly fine-tuning: a place, rather, for womanly fine-tuning, and for subtle new writing by people such as Jean Stafford and Eudora Welty; and beyond that it was one of the robust new advertising venues, like Mademoiselle, one of the postwar places devoted to a new sort of self-making. Capote did not reflect a generation, as Fitzgerald had done, or seek to scrub the world new with carbolic silences, like Ernest Hemingway, or to turn things upside down, like James Baldwin. His political triumphs would be in the manner of his small personal displays – seasonal disturbances on the ground where fashion and writing and crime and movies met and clashed by night. And out of all this he would emerge a celebrity, a world-class speaker-up for men and women who thought it modern to have more than one self attached to oneself. In this sense he was a progenitor of the world that Vanity Fair now takes for granted.

Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, even today reads like something wondrously perverse. It is an unbelievably precocious book, with the bones of the Old South gleaming in its sentences; it’s a vivid world of creaky houses that are hot all day, imperfect cousins, crooked trees, and the licketysplit smack of children’s feet on the decaying floorboards. Old women grow beards in the months before they die; two-headed babies are shown in jars by the men of the travelling fair. The 13-year-old boy Joel is called back to an old house – where his dying, bedridden father throws red tennis balls down the stairs to attract attention – and becomes involved with his cousin, Randolph, a wasted aesthete of no fixed accent and fathomless disappointments. It is not an original setting, in fact rather standard, if one thinks of Faulkner and Carson McCullers and others of the Southern Gothic, with their yellow-eyed mamas and idiot boys. But there is a patience in Capote’s novel, a surprising charity, a seamlessly variegated emotion, that would have made it quite remarkable in a very good writer double his age, which was 24.

People tend to blame early success for all the horrors that follow. But that can only be partly true for Truman Capote. Success only made him more himself, more himselves, and without it there would have been no real life to speak of. Capote knew what he was doing, and rightly feared it. He pulled the voices of the past down among the present. He made a tender mosaic of previous wrongs. And when he was done, he looked at it, and saw his own face, and his own salvation, his own sexual nature. And that may be the problem. He saw himself too clearly, settled too many scores with that first book. Too much was fixed in there. Plimpton quotes something he said later on:

Do you remember the young boy who goes to a crumbling mansion in search of his father and finds an old man who is crippled and can’t speak and can communicate only by bouncing red tennis balls down the stairs? … the fact that the old man is crippled and mute was my way of transferring my own inability to communicate with my father, I was not only the boy in the story but also the old man.

It seems that Capote’s first real moment of clarity about the past, and the dimensions of his personality, was also the moment of an overwhelming international success. Boy and old man were bound together. He would spend the rest of his life, his writing life, trying to lose the knowledge that had brought him to himself, and fixed him at that point. That was his horror: too early he lost sight of his own unwisdom.

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s he tried to show a world where the love of money was both the grandest and the simplest of all loves. Holly Golightly is a delightful creation, camp and light, gruesome and vulnerable, a woman who will fill her life at whatever cost, even if that means emptying her life. Capote’s writing became plainer. He honed his verbal sensualities until they became epigrams. Mag Wildwood ‘was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty, if only because it contains paradox’.

DORIS LILLY: There was a lot of wondering about who the original Holly Golightly was. Pamela Drake and I were living in this brownstone walk-up on East 78th Street, exactly the one in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Exactly. Truman used to come over all the time and watch me put make-up on before I went out … There’s an awful lot of me in Holly Golightly. There is much more of me than there is of Carol Marcus and a girl called Bee Dabney, a painter. More of me than either of these two ladies. I know.

You wouldn’t especially want to argue with what Doris Lilly knows; she once wrote a book called How to Marry a Millionaire. But her words show how keen many people were to be associated with Capote’s creations. He was fashionable in a new way for a writer. People felt that he summoned a world of sophistication and superior irony. He had all the social details so prettily laid on the page. But you’d be a fool to miss the shadows that mark these technicoloured pictures of America.

If Capote could be thought to have chosen friends who were idealisations of himself – stunning, long-necked women, in the main, who knew how to surf over other people’s smallness – the characters in his books were less ideal, and more hurt, and more afraid. Holly Golightly’s dreams only mask her basic despairs (her ‘mean reds’). She longs for the simple side of herself, the side that ‘belongs’, and calls itself Lulamae Barnes, but something unknown drives her towards a glorious nowhere, a New York, where she might call herself by any name she chooses. That is her small, engaging tragedy. Capote obviously knew girls like that (Carol Marcus, Slim Keith, Marilyn Monroe) but none of them was as much like that as his own mother. It was she who ran away to New York and married a rich Cuban. She who kept the appearance of wealth when all had gone down the Swanee. And she who eventually killed herself in the unbearable glare of a New York afternoon. And perhaps even more than his mother, Holly was merely Truman. Everything he wanted came to him, and yet something refused him, something small, unknowable, something maybe long gone. Holly was not just a cute cupcake with a sassy line who got a bit muddled. She was someone who had grown remote from herself, and who hadn’t the peace of mind required to give her cat a name. Capote once asked himself a question. ‘If you had to live in just one place – without ever leaving – where would it be?’ His answer is memorable, and not least because of the hollow sound of it, what you might call the Golightly ring. ‘Oh, dear,’ he said. ‘What a devastating notion. To be grounded in just one place.’

Capote’s life was a deep fiction. He almost admitted as much himself. There was something in it which was entirely made up, and that was fine, for as long as it was fine. It was his fiction-writing that told the truth. And it was agony to him. A family man once asked him what it was like finishing a novel. ‘It’s like taking your first-born child out onto the lawn and shooting it through the head,’ he said.

Truman Capote may have taken to writing non-fiction because he was more comfortable with facts than he was with the truth. A good novelist, one who wrote in the Capote manner, could not avoid himself in writing a novel. His method would render that impossible. But he could bring his creative abilities to bear on some facts. Even a whole world of facts. He could let his style roam across the matter of other people’s hearts. He could write non-fiction. And decorating those true subjects would be second nature. Non-fiction has changed greatly since then – become interchangeable with the voices in a novel – and in some part that change is due to the seriousness with which writers like Capote turned to it in the Sixties. But the non-fiction he wrote was the opposite of personal. If he used the skill of a novelist in writing In Cold Blood, it was a kind of novelistic skill that he did not use in the writing of his own novels. He was simply being a very good storyteller in his non-fiction, and telling a kind of story that seemed to have a lot to do with the truth, with being factually accurate, but which really cared far less for truth than it did for narrative drive and surprise. In at least one important sense In Cold Blood is Capote’s least truthful book.

But it is a very good one, and it may be the high point of the thing Tom Wolfe called the New Journalism. Capote did not invent it. There were already a fair number of good writers, sound listeners, who were into that sort of concentrated, high-style reportage. Anyhow, the best claim of responsibility for its American trademark is that of Lillian Ross, who in 1952 wrote Picture, an arresting, intimate account of the making of John Huston’s movie of The Red Badge of Courage.[*] But Joseph Mitchell was doing a similar thing; John Hersey used something of the method in writing Hiroshima, as did James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Since we’re presently interested in truth, I have to say, in all truth, that each of these writers, as non-fictionists, was more taken up with questions of factual accuracy than Capote ever was. Capote had found a way of writing well about real-life events – and that was an essential discovery for him – but he was never one to throw away a trick. After all, he’d left behind the truth when he stopped writing his novels. He was now free to make a few things up. Not that he ever admitted as much. He spoke piously in interviews about the wholesome truth of every comma; he made large claims for his all-seeing witnesses.

In Cold Blood is a narrative account of the killing of the Clutters, a conservative, agricultural family who were killed at their home outside the town of Holcomb, among the cornfields of Kansas, at the end of the Fifties. The Clutter house, the Holcomb community, was not so unlike Capote’s own deserted home in Alabama, and he took his childhood friend, Harper Lee, out to Kansas to help with the murder story. Though Capote did not set out to make a novel of the episode, he did both more than that, and less. He did more in the sense that he pounded most of the details out of the ground – his research was pretty stunning – and he brought the case alive with the quality of his observations of true things. And he also did more in the sense that he shaped those terrible events, on the page, in such a way as to show the heartlessness not only of the killers, but of the killers’ upbringings; he showed pity where the system could not, and the cold blood referred to in his title is not only that of the killers, it is that of the executioners. Capote’s own novels depend on truths out of order, on deep wells of uncertainty, and amoral sweats. But he was detached enough from the world of In Cold Blood to place order on it. He could invent a completion for it. The book may not be a record of absolute truth, but it is a moral artefact, and more than anything a work of beautiful invention.

The trouble – at least the trouble for some – is that Capote took liberties. He took liberties for the purpose of moral clarity; something he never did in his fiction. Plimpton’s people are good on this. Harold Nye:

what he had in the galleys was incorrect. It was a fiction thing, and being a young officer, I took offence at the fact that he didn’t tell the truth. So I refused to approve them. Truman and I got into a little bit of a verbal battle and he wound up calling me a tyrant. What he did was to take this lady who ran the little apartment house in Las Vegas where Perry Smith [one of the killers] had been, and fictionalise her way out of character. Accuracy was not his point … It was probably an insignificant thing, except I was under the impression the book was going to be factual, and it was not; it was a fiction book.

Though not, as I said before, the sort of fiction book normally written by Truman Capote. The sort written by Dickens maybe, or Hardy. Anyway, the point is that Capote made things up, and that was something he could do, and had to do, in order to have the true-to-life book he wanted to publish. He swore it was all accurate, but it is clear now he invented whole sections: the business of the lady in Las Vegas, the idea that Detective Alvin Dewey closed his eyes as the executions took place, the ending, where Dewey meets a young friend of Nancy, one of the slain, in a cemetery overlooking the town. None of it happened as Capote wished it had.

Kenneth Tynan pinned a wriggling Capote to the wall on this delicate point of ethics and In Cold Blood. ‘We are talking,’ Tynan wrote, ‘about responsibility. For the first time an influential writer in the front rank has been placed in a privileged intimacy with criminals about to die and, in my view, done less than he might have to save them … No piece of prose, however deathless, is worth a human life.’ And Tynan is joined at Plimpton’s party by the composer Ned Rorem, fluttering a letter he once wrote to the Saturday Review of Literature: ‘Capote got two million and his heroes got the rope. That book … was completed before the deaths of Smith and Hickock: yet, had they not died, there would have been no book.’ Rorem was not alone in thinking Capote had garlanded his sad story with a multitude of well-turned falsities.

Capote had, by this point in his life, made himself an emperor of good fibs. He told the most excellent lies, and knew they didn’t matter that much, so long as they improved his stories, and made people laugh or squirm that extra bit. The pianist and writer Robert Fitzdale remembers Capote regaling a dinner table with the news that he had slept with Garbo. He told another group that all her Picassos were upside down. ‘I notice something about Truman,’ says the composer Arthur Gold, ‘whenever he begins to fantasise or tell lies, he looks up. His eyes go heavenward and he doesn’t look at you. Just watch, whenever his eyes go up, whatever he is telling you is not the truth. A sort of 17th-century Madonna look.’

ROBERT FITZDALE: His lies were better than other people’s truths. Much more interesting.

GORE VIDAL: There are different sorts of liars … Capote’s lies had a double purpose: one was to attract attention to himself and to distract attention from what he looked and sounded like. Second, ultimately they were calculated to destroy other people – these lies were usually sexual anecdotes about famous people that he would improvise as he went along. You could not mention anyone famous to him – ‘Oh, I know him so well’ – and he’d start in … Joyce Susskind once said he was responsible for more New York divorces than the most busy of correspondents.

As you would expect in a book of this sort, there is a good deal of bitchiness, much of it pluming from the curled lips of Gore Vidal. But that might be fair enough: Capote himself was a bitch and a snob, elegant virtues he learned at the knee of the master, Cecil Beaton. But at least with Truman Capote it came from a good place. He was sensitive and he wanted to be liked. During his boyhood, as a formidable sissy in small-town Alabama, he would do a nice thing on those many occasions he was confronted by bullies. He would cartwheel around them. Just spin and spin and spin until the frightening ones laughed out loud and slapped his back.

The adult Capote did cartwheels for the rich. He loved those women, his swans – a Paley, an Agnelli, a Guinness, a Radziwill – and he allowed himself a long season as their jester, their girlfriend, their ornament, their pet. It is not easy to understand his fascination with those translucent air-heads. He liked the small vegetables they served up, he liked their helicopters to the snow, their yachts to the clear blue yonder. They were his perfect audience, I suppose: beautiful, self-made, with too much time on their hands. He gave them a party they would never forget. But they forgot that his lies were only for living. He kept the truth for his fiction, and when he wrote up their lives in Answered Prayers, a half-finished novel serialised in Esquire, they dropped him, and left him to break apart, and to drink himself away.

At the close of things Capote could not live without the love of those he idealised. He’d even lost all self-love, which left him as badly off as his mother, and worse off than Holly Golightly – a character, like him, who had everything and nothing. His last novel took its title from a lament of St Theresa’s. ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’

[*] Picture by Lillian Ross, with an introduction by Angelica Huston (Faber, 386 pp., £8.99, reissued 16 March, 0 571 19192 4). This new edition includes a letter written by the author to Harold Ross, worrying about the new form her story was taking.