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whereas Stafford, who wrote very little fiction during the last twenty years of her life, disappeared from public view, superseded by a younger generation of writers, Capote kept himself in the limelight until his death in 1984, long after his creative output had dwindled drastically.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.

This early success can’t, however, compare with the extravagant triumph of In Cold Blood and the consequent deluge of publicity. As Clarke puts it, ‘when the book ... was published in January 1966, the modern media machine – magazines, newspapers, television and radio – became a giant band that played only one tune: Truman Capote.’ As if delighted with its own prescience, Life devoted 18 pages to Capote’s book – more extensive coverage than it had ever given to a professional writer – and then advertised the feature in neon, flashing IN COLD BLOOD over Times Square. Clarke provides an impressive description of this unprecedented media hype: he might have added that In Cold Blood, which remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 37 weeks, has sold nearly five million copies to date in the United States alone.

Capote’s book, the documentary study of a brutal, motiveless killing, drew ecstatic reviews. Some critics raved about the depth and detail of his reporting, others pointed to the masterful structure, key to the terrifying suspense he created; some, like Rebecca West, who called it a ‘grave and reverent book’, applauded Capote’s compassion. In Cold Blood deserves all the praise it received two decades ago; its power has not diminished. Clarke tells the extraordinary, improbable story of how the book came into being – in all, a five-and-a-half-year ordeal. This account of Capote’s meticulous research, of his complex emotional involvement with the condemned murderers, and of his equally complex reaction to their execution, adds a new dimension to one’s appreciation: Capote, one discovers, wrote not only with compassion but also with heroic restraint. In most respects an irrepressible egoist, he managed to produce a magnificently impersonal work – journalism raised to the power of art.

Clarke is confronted, at the beginning of his book, with the difficult problem of how to convey some sense of Capote’s magnetic charm. For the most part, he relies on the testimony of those who found the precocious, strange-looking young writer fascinating and delightful. One admirer, who met Capote in 1946 at Yaddo, the writers’ colony, wrote in his journal: ‘He’s responsible for turning the summer into a dance of bees.’ Apparently Capote remained capable of inspiring similar responses until the very end. But his dependence on drink and pills (which developed in the mid-Sixties and became obvious and embarrassing by the early Seventies) necessarily fouled his judgment and behaviour. Scenes of Capote drunk and debased punctuate the final chapters of Clarke’s book.

The most peculiar of the many sad stories Clarke tells involves Capote’s three last love affairs Strangers to Capote’s social circle, these lovers were, as one friend put it, ‘men without faces’: bland in appearance, more or less uneducated, devoid of talent. Their interest in Capote was largely mercenary: they wanted money, or hoped that his influence might further their careers. And they were all three heterosexual. If the compulsion that drove him to these men seems perverse, his reaction when – inevitably – they left him or betrayed him can only be described as insane: seeking revenge, he sabotaged cars, subverted careers and marriages.

In 1975, with the publication in Esquire of a chapter from his uncompleted last novel, Answered Prayers, Capote succeeded in alienating the majority of the grand friends he had made in the Fifties and Sixties. ‘La Côte Basque, 1965’, forty pages of malicious gossip thinly disguised as fiction, prompted one suicide and general outrage. Unbelievable as it may seem, Capote failed to foresee that ‘La Côte Basque’ – named after a Manhattan restaurant – would rouse such enmity. Answered Prayers was to be his most ambitious work, an exposé of the very rich. Absurdly, he insisted on comparing his work in progress with Remembrance of Things Past, saying: ‘If Proust were an American living now in New York, this is what he would be doing.’ To those he had offended he protested in vain: ‘Oh honey! It’s Proust! It’s Beautiful!’ He began gathering material for Answered Prayers as early as 1958, but a decade passed before he started writing; during the next 16 years he produced only bits and pieces of his projected masterwork.

Capote is not a critical biography: nor is it a psychobiography. Clarke is not particularly interested in the social history, the background, of Capote’s tragedy – the cast is large and impressive, but the stage is bare of scenery. His focus is narrow and sharp: he is interested in an intimate account of how Truman Capote lived his life – from beginning to end. Compelled by the grim logic of his narrative, he provides a complete chronicle of the squalid and pathetic last years. But because his subject’s life was extraordinary even when it was pathetic and sordid, and because he is meticulous, sympathetic and intelligent, Clarke’s biography is excellent.

Jean Stafford was a writer of considerable talent; she married a famous poet and knew many important literary figures; she was unusually unhappy and unhealthy. But the events of her life are not so fascinating that her biographer can afford to rely exclusively on an intimate narrative of her days, and David Roberts offers little more: his discussion of her novels and stories is limited to summaries and the occasional biographical footnote. He makes no attempt to define the various cultural and intellectual milieux in which she lived: merely to say that early in life she was married to Robert Lowell and was friends with Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Delmore Schwartz, and that later she married A.J. Liebling and was friends with Louis Auchincloss, Wilfrid Sheed and Howard Moss, does not suffice. Roberts hopes to add spice to his book by playing detective with Stafford’s medical record – this also does not suffice.

Stafford escaped from an unhappy Colorado home by applying herself at university with intelligence and perseverance: she was rewarded with two degrees and a scholarship for study at the University of Heidelberg. When she returned from an uneventful stay in Germany she fell seriously ill. The mysterious nature of this illness sparks Roberts’s fascination with Stafford’s health.

At Colorado University in the mid-Thirties Stafford had associated with a reckless and promiscuous bohemian crowd; she proved her own lack of inhibition (and shocked her peers) by posing nude for life-drawing classes. At Heidelberg, according to Roberts’s theory, she took a lover (or lovers) who ‘infected her with both gonorrhoea and syphilis’. Roberts’s case rests on circumstantial evidence and hearsay. He relies on Stafford’s descriptions of her symptoms and treatment, a friend’s recollection of a confession made in 1940, and a confusing incident which took place in 1938: the college at which she was teaching threatened not to renew her contract unless she agreed to submit to a Wassermann test. Roberts admits that his accumulated evidence does not amount to proof: ‘That Stafford ever had syphilis remains, of course, a conjecture.’ And yet this conjecture gradually assumes the guise of fact.

‘The whole business,’ says Roberts, ‘is of an interest that transcends mere gossip.’ Nonetheless, when gossip crops up, so does the subject of venereal disease. There is, for example, the question of her sexual relations with Lowell – a hitherto unexplored aspect of a generally disastrous marriage, the necessary details of which are recorded in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell. The young poet was courting Stafford (with some success) when, a few days before Christmas 1938, a car accident interrupted their romance. Lowell, who was driving, was uninjured; Stafford spent weeks in the hospital and had to have five operations to repair her nose and fractured cheek. Despite this inauspicious beginning, she and Lowell were married in April 1940. In October he broke her nose again, this time with his fist. In the spring of 1941 he converted to Catholicism, insisted that they be remarried within the church, and imposed a rigorously pious domestic schedule. After their divorce, Stafford claimed that from the time of their remarriage they never slept together. Later still she claimed that she and Lowell had never had sex, either before or after his conversion. Roberts takes this second claim seriously, and suggests the possibility that ‘if the syphilis was still not cured in 1940, then contriving a way – any way – to avoid sleeping with her husband was nothing less than a moral responsibility.’ The crucial ‘if’ must serve to remind us that the whole business, as Roberts would say, is conjecture.

By 1940, the year she married Lowell, Stafford had written five novels, none of which was accepted for publication. Her sixth attempt, Boston Adventure, a long, fairly conventional novel about Boston society, was published in 1944 and became a best-seller; The Mountain Lion, a finely crafted short novel about the intense relationship between a young girl and her brother, appeared three years later – although it did not sell well, it was greeted with high praise. Stafford had no opportunity to enjoy her success, for in 1946, when her marriage crumbled, she entered a hospital and spent almost an entire year taking ‘a psycho-alcoholic cure’; she had by then developed a drinking habit she would never manage to give up. According to Roberts’s theory, it was during this stay in the hospital that the syphilis was finally cured. But her health did not improve. Roberts calculates that over the course of her life she was hospitalised 34 times with a litany of complaints. Heavy drinking and heavy smoking surely contributed their share. And she was a hypochondriac.

Drunk or ill, she could be very funny: letters she sent from the hospital are full of grim cheer. In the early Fifties she produced her last novel, The Catherine Wheel, and many of her exquisite short stories, most of them published in the New Yorker. After a brief second marriage (she once claimed that it lasted twenty minutes) she found a husband with whom she could live happily: in 1959 she married a fellow New Yorker writer, the ebullient A.J. Liebling. He died four years later. While married to Liebling, she all but stopped writing fiction. During the last twenty years of her life she published only seven stories.