In His Pink Negligée
- The Complete Stories by Truman Capote
Random House, 400 pp, US $24.95, September 2004, ISBN 0 679 64310 9
- Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote edited by Gerald Clarke
Random House, 487 pp, US $27.95, September 2004, ISBN 0 375 50133 9
He was world-weary from the beginning. Nowhere was safe. Before he was 25 he declared New York to be a ‘giant snake pit’, Los Angeles to be ‘quel hole’. Naples was ‘crooked’, London ‘a dreary place’. Even Paris, ‘a divine city’, could be ‘colder than a nun’s cunt’. Once he had passed the quarter century he hit on Rome: ‘a beautiful city, really – though inhabited by a quarrelsome and cynical race’. From Taormina in Sicily, where he was renting the house in which D.H. Lawrence had lived, he wrote to a friend: ‘Italians are just niggers at heart.’ Portofino, where he spent the summer of 1953 with his boyfriend, Jack Dunphy, was no better:
Everything became too social – and I do mean social – the Windsors (morons), the Luces (morons plus), Garbo (looking like death with a suntan), the Oliviers (they let her out), Daisy Fellowes (her face lifted for the fourth time – the Doctors say no more), then Cecil [Beaton] and John Gielgud came to stay with us, and we went to Venice on Arturo Lopez’s yacht … Oh yes, I forgot Noel Coward – he fell in love with Jack. Jack hated it All.
Later, in his thirties, he would tire also of the Greeks: ‘The children are so horrid: have learned only five Greek words, in order to say: “Shut up, fat girl” and “Shut up, fat boy.”’ He also took against the Corsicans, who combined ‘the worst qualities of the Italians and the French’. Later, when he was nearly forty and owned a house in Verbier, he delivered his opinion on the Swiss, or, as he put it, ‘the goddam Swiss’: they were, he wrote, ‘the ugliest race alive’.
Truman Capote, in his letters, made many judgments. He recommended the young and unpublished Patricia Highsmith to Yaddo in 1948. In 1949 he recommended Angus Wilson’s first book to Cecil Beaton. That same year, however, when Arthur Miller won the Pulitzer for Death of a Salesman, he thought the news ‘quite tiresome’. Later in 1949, he described the arrival of Auden on Ischia as having ‘thrown something of a gloom’ over the island (‘Such a tiresome old Aunty’). Before the month was out he and Auden became friends again: ‘He really is very nice.’ In January 1951, he read ‘the collected stories of Farmer Faulkner, which weren’t worth collecting if you ask me’. In February he read Budd Schulberg’s novel The Disenchanted and ‘felt the burn of embarrassment’. In March he read From Here to Eternity: ‘Scribners sent me that From Here to Eternity shit; and shit though it is, the young man who wrote it looks extraordinarily constipated.’ Nor did Tennessee Williams’s novel that season please him: ‘Also finally finished Mr Williams’s dame-and-dago drivel about Mrs Stone. It is, well, pathetic.’ A month later, he was not pleased by Stephen Spender’s World within World: ‘What a spurious book – him and his homosexual affairs that were only “undertaken in a spirit of opportunism”. I’ll say. Seriously though, it makes me hopping mad.’ Two years later he saw The Confidential Clerk in London: ‘Confidential Jerk is a better title for a very dreary item indeed.’ In 1961, he wrote to Beaton about La Dolce Vita: ‘Honestly, my sweet, how could you have liked it? So pretentious, fake arty and BORING!’ Nor did he like Beyond the Fringe, thinking it ‘rather dreary’. The following year, when Another Country appeared, he made his position on James Baldwin clear: ‘I loathe Jimmy’s fiction: it is crudely written and of a balls-aching boredom.’ In 1960 he found something he did like. He announced to David Selznick that ‘a delightful book’ called To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was ‘going to be a great success’. He himself, he wrote, was the model for the character Dill, being a childhood friend of the author’s.
The first letter in Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote sets the tone. The date is not clear. Capote, however, is probably 12 years old. The letter is to his father, Arch Persons, although he does not address him directly. The letter is short. ‘As you know my name was changed from Persons to Capote, and I would appreciate it if in the future you would address me as Truman Capote, as everyone knows me by that name.’ The second letter is also a great help in establishing who Capote was. It was written sometime between 1939 and 1941 – Capote was born in 1924 – to his schoolmate Thomas Flanagan. Flanagan kept it all his life. It read: ‘I do hereby solemnly affirm that any statements I may have made about Thomas Flanagan, or said that he had made, were calumnies and lies on my part. Truman Capote.’
The first letter suggests the mangled and gnarled background which Capote was so hurt by, and also so strangely proud of. The second makes clear how precocious he was. He seemed to have learned most of the tricks which transform calumnies and lies into novels and stories when he was very young indeed. He was, first of all, a Southerner. His parents’ marriage had already ended by the time he was born. He was brought up by the same cousins, three spinsters and a bachelor, who had raised his orphan mother. When he was eight, his mother, known as Lillie Mae in the South and Nina in the North, took him to New York, where she had married a reasonably rich Cuban, Joe Capote, who legally adopted him in 1935. Nina would later become a hopeless alcoholic and Joe would go broke. Having left school, Capote became a copyboy at the New Yorker. His first stories were published in the fashionable and innovative women’s magazines (Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle); in his early twenties he became a hot property. He liked being a hot property and tried to arrange to stay one for the rest of his life. Sometimes it would take a phone call, a letter, a lunch; other times it would take years of dedicated work. Until he was in his early forties he was the best in the business at knowing the difference.
On 16 November 1959, Capote read an account in the New York Times of the murder of a family in Kansas, which began: ‘A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged.’ He immediately set out to investigate in the company of Harper Lee, taking provisions with him. ‘He was afraid that there would not be anything to eat out there,’ Lee said. Kansas, however, was to provide him with more than food. It offered him, the strangest fellow ever to set foot there, a home, a comfortable emotional shelter of the sort he had spent his life in search of, and also a way of rescuing his career.
The problem with reading Capote’s letters and his Complete Stories is that the letters are far superior to the stories; they are better written, crisper, funnier, their world is more nuanced and realised. Of the 20 stories, 17 were written before Capote saw the news of the killings in the New York Times. He had by that time also published a good deal of journalism, plays and screenplays, and three short novels: Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Grass Harp (1951) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958).
Even at 21, he took self-conscious care of his sentences. ‘In the falling quiet,’ he could write, ‘there was no earth or sky, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city.’ At 22, in a story called ‘The Headless Hawk’, he could begin describing complex emotional states:
He shook his head and wondered why it was that eccentricity always excited in him such curious admiration. It was the feeling he’d had as a child towards carnival freaks. And it was true that about those whom he’d loved there was always a little something wrong, broken. Strange, though, that this quality, having stimulated an attraction, should, in his case, regularly end it by destroying it.
Soon, he was working his own brand of Southern Gothic: ‘Now there are a great many dogs in this town, rat terriers, bird dogs, bloodhounds; they trail along the forlorn noon-hot streets in sleepy herds of six to a dozen, all waiting only for dark and the moon, when straight through the lonesome hours you can hear them howling: someone is dying, someone is dead.’
Many of the stories dealt with the inconsequential antics of various Southern characters and rich New York matrons. They made clear that Capote had real talent but no real terrain. He lacked Flannery O’Connor’s steely wit or Eudora Welty’s sharp knowledge of her neighbours. It is interesting that the name Flannery O’Connor never once appears in his letters; she would have put the fear of God into Capote. Capote’s short fiction has all the whimsicality of late Faulkner. The best two stories, from 1944 and 1950, deal with a rich lady buying a fur coat from a poor lady. It must have been clear to him around the time he read the New York Times on 16 November 1959 that, despite his gifts and his early start and his many friends, his literary legacy was likely to be very thin indeed. He must have realised that his novellas were not substantial enough to compete with the work of his contemporaries. Had he not written In Cold Blood, it is possible that he would now be famous merely for his New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando, ‘The Duke in His Domain’, which is a masterpiece, and maybe the movie of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The letters, on the other hand, are superb. He is funny about his fame. He is only 22 when he writes: ‘There is a morbid photograph of me in the new Feb. 1 Vogue; I’m so weary of all those dopefiend pictures, which are interesting, I suppose, but which, after all, don’t really look like me. Or do they?’ At 25 he writes to an old teacher: ‘I’m as famous as a movie star, which is sort of fun.’ He has a ball mistaking the great and the good. At dinner in Hollywood, he sat beside ‘a little man who kept staring at me as though he were planning something unspeakably diabolic; he turned out to be Leon Feuchtwanger, only I thought he was Franz Werfel.’ In Venice in Harry’s Bar in 1950 he meets a man whom he introduces to all as Henry Green:
He asked me to lunch the next day. I was surprised to find him accompanied at lunch by an obvious piece of Limehouse trade: I’d not thought H. Green ‘so’. I started to talk about books etc, but Mr Green didn’t seem to have heard of anyone I mentioned. Terribly strange. Then finally of course it turned out he wasn’t H. Green at all. His name was Peter Wilson. I was quite put out.
In 1960, when he sends the Kennedys a congratulatory telegram, he gets a reply from Jackie, ‘who said that at first they thought it was from Harry Truman until they realised a) Harry wasn’t in Switzerland and b) wouldn’t have signed it “love and hugs”. Ha!’
On his journeys through Europe, where he spent most of the time between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, he saw the rich and the famous. In Paris in 1949 he saw Wiliam Saroyan ‘in a gambling joint where he was drunk and losing thousands. He has a brain the size of a b.b. bullet. Said he was washed up avec Carol. The only intelligent thing he said.’ The following year he found Gide living in Taormina: ‘He goes to the barbershop in town and sits there all afternoon having his face lathered by little boys of 10 and 12.’ Gide’s daughter, he writes, is as ‘ugly as a wood-stove’. He introduced Gide to another ‘eminent Frenchman’, Christian Dior. In 1953 he saw the pope. ‘It was supposed to last 15 minutes, but I stayed more than half an hour – an extraordinary man, so really charming and beautiful.’ Within a month he was in Ravello: ‘The last few weeks here have been filled with peculiar adventures, all involving John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, who’ve nearly killed me with their dissipations … half-drunk all day and dead drunk all night, and once, believe it or not, I came to around six in the morning to find King Farouk doing the hula-hula in the middle of Bogart’s bedroom.’
Back in New York in 1952 he regretted the fact that he did not attend a dinner for Dylan Thomas at the home of one Mrs Crane. But his absence did not prevent him giving an account of it. ‘It seems that Mrs Thomas, in a rage of some sort, suddenly picked up Mrs Crane’s two Ming vases, crashed them to the floor with flowers and water spilling over everything.’ Thomas then kicked his wife, loosening four of her teeth, until she passed out.
Whereupon Lolly H. and Louise [Crane], with great cries of distress and sympathy, tried to bring Mrs Thomas to. At this point Mr Thomas said to Louise, who was bending over the prostrated Mrs Thomas: ‘What the hell are you crying over her for? You need just what she got. What you need is a kick in the butt.’ Whereupon he kicked Louise and sent her sprawling across the floor.
Capote relished the information that Thomas, having left with his wife, returned to borrow two dollars for a taxi fare. ‘All of this,’ he noted, ‘happened in front of Edmund Wilson and his wife, Virgil [Thomson], Mrs Otto Kahn and poor Lady Ribblesdale.’
What happened to Capote, as he began to visualise In Cold Blood in Kansas in 1959 and 1960, is immensely complex. The story of how he manipulated his sources is a godsend both to moralists and to those interested in the more recondite aspects of psychic darkness and emotional need. Capote, from early on, had developed a charm which comes naturally to those from broken marriages and broken homes. He needed to be loved; he lived, like a predator, on that need; oddly enough (or perhaps naturally enough), he and his prey usually had a marvellous time as a result. In George Plimpton’s 1998 book about Capote, subtitled ‘In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career’, John Richardson says: ‘It was very important for Truman to feel that people preferred him to their husbands, wives or children. And quite often they did.’ ‘He was waiting like a falcon,’ Marella Agnelli noted. ‘He created a very deep sort of intimacy. Very deep, very tender intimacy.’ Slim Keith, like Agnelli one of his so-called ‘swans’, his rich lady friends, remembered him saying: ‘I’m a freak. People don’t love me. People are fascinated by me, but people don’t love me.’ She assured him that she did, in fact, love him. It was simply that she did not trust him.
Thus he arrived in Garden City, Kansas, with Lee in tow. Early during the investigation, four members of the Kansas police were invited up to his hotel room. ‘And here he is,’ one of them told Plimpton, ‘in a kind of new pink negligée, silk with lace, and he’s strutting across the floor with his hands on his hips telling us all about how he’s going to write this book … I did not get a very good impression of that little son of a bitch.’ In the eyes of the locals, according to Lee, ‘he was like someone coming off the moon.’ As Christmas approached, the natives entertained one another by doing imitations of his squeaky voice. His famous charm was having no effect. According to Lee, he considered giving up. ‘I cannot get any rapport with these people,’ he told her. She told him to wait, according to Gerald Clarke in his 1988 biography of Capote. She knew it could be done.
On Christmas Day, Clifford Hope, a local lawyer, and his wife, Dolores, invited Capote and Lee to dinner. Mrs Hope had set a trend:
Once you got over the high-pitched voice, why, you didn’t really think about it, really. It was not your everyday Garden City talk. The things he said were from another world, and they were fascinating for us. It was a right pleasant day. People started calling me. Had I really had him to dinner? I said yes, and then things kind of started for him. Entertaining him became the in-thing to do. He was an attraction and people didn’t want to be left out.
It would be easy to describe the relationship between Capote and the people who helped him with his book as cynical and staged, but it was more interesting than that. His charm did not only work outwards. He grew to love those whom he charmed. He could not help it. The situation became more complex when he saw the killers in court because he felt an immediate bond with one of them. It was not just that he fancied Perry Smith, although he certainly did; when Lee saw Perry Smith, she thought: ‘Oh, oh! This is the beginning of a great love affair.’ Capote saw in Smith a powerful version of himself. Since he was narcissistic to the bone, this might have helped, but there was something darker and stranger and more tender involved which he was to tease out over the next few years as he and Smith corresponded and he visited him in jail. His own losses as a child, which remained so profoundly unresolved, were mirrored in Smith. Clarke writes: ‘Their shortness was only one of the many unsettling similarities. They both had suffered from alcoholic mothers, absent fathers and foster homes. At the orphanages he had been sent to, Perry had been a target of scorn because he was half-Indian and wet the bed. Truman had been ridiculed because he was effeminate.’ Marie Dewey, the wife of the detective in charge of the case, who became a close friend of Capote, noted that ‘he became very fond of Perry.’ He didn’t apparently like the other murderer, Hickock. Alvin Dewey, too, noted the connection between the two men: ‘Truman saw himself in Perry Smith, not in being deadly, of course, but in their childhood. Their childhood was more or less the same; they were more or less the same height, the same build.’
Once Capote had done his basic research in Kansas, he returned to Switzerland, to his lover Jack Dunphy, who was a novelist – his novel John Fury, about the Irish poor in Philadelphia, had already been published when Capote met him in 1948 – and a figure of great stable energy. Capote began to correspond with Alvin and Marie Dewey and they kept his letters. While this correspondence is fascinating, it is important to note that there are hardly any letters to Perry Smith to balance it. Alvin Dewey’s job was to find the murderers and convict them, not to have a range of complex feelings about them. Capote clearly measured his tone when he wrote to the Deweys.
He knew how to impress them. In February 1962, when Jackie Kennedy made her television tour of the White House, Capote wrote to the Deweys:
Yes, I knew Jackie was doing the TV tour, and am delighted to hear it was such a success: it was very thoughtful of you to write to her, Marie. She knows all about the Dewey family – we’ve discussed you at length. She really is a very sweet girl, and is doing a good job – considering that originally she hated the whole idea. I think she loves it now.
The Deweys must have got the feeling they were not in Kansas any more as letters came describing yacht trips with Jack and Drue Heinz (‘that’s right,’ Capote added, ‘57 varieties’), and Nelson Rockefeller’s love life (‘it’s supposed to be a great secret, but I will tell you because I must tell somebody: it’s so fantastic’). In December 1962, Capote wrote to the Deweys about his lunch with the queen mother: ‘There were six guests and I sat next to the queen mother, who is short and plump and pretty and very charming. Among other things we talked about The Book and you and Garden City.’ (When he wrote to his grandmother about this event, he told her he had, in fact, had lunch with the queen.) The following year – after Jackie Kennedy’s newborn son, Patrick, had died – Capote wrote to her and received a very personal and sweet reply which he sent to the Deweys ‘in confidence’.
He entertained them, and made his friends do the same. When they came to Hollywood, Capote made sure that David Selznick was on hand to dinner them and show them the studios. ‘They are very nice and I am terribly indebted to them,’ he wrote to Selznick. ‘If you should meet them, please don’t say anything caustic about me.’ Later, in February 1964, he flew them to San Francisco and dined them with many members of high society. He had sent them a schedule in advance, with High Society and Very High Society written after the names of those who would be their hosts. The following year he made Katherine Graham entertain them in Washington DC and wrote to her afterwards: ‘Our Kansas friends were bedazzled and thrilled – and so was I.’ He was taking no risks with the Deweys, but the letters also show that he was becoming increasingly involved with them.
In return, among many other things, he wanted information. On 10 October 1960 he wrote asking who had ‘found Nancy’s wristwatch in her shoe: Beverly or Eveanna?’ These were the two surviving daughters of the Clutter family, four of whom were murdered. ‘Which of the two was with Mrs Helm when they realised Kenyon’s radio was missing?’ (Mrs Helm was the housekeeper; Kenyon one of the murdered Clutters.) A month later, once more from Switzerland, he wanted more information. ‘What is the first name of Myrt Clare’s mother, Mrs Truitt? Is it Sadie? (Myrt Clare was the postmistress.) And when did Homer Clare die?’ Soon afterwards, he needed to know the name of the secretary in the sheriff’s office. On 26 March 1961 he wrote again: ‘In Reno, when the policeman spotted the car, and recognised the licence number, how did he know it was the car?’ On 16 August 1961 he wrote:
Marie, do you remember telling me the first time you ever heard of Hickock and Smith was when Alvin came home one night and showed you their ‘mug-shots’, the ones with the vital statistics on the back? Well, I want to do this as a ‘scene’ between you and Alvin. Can you remember anything more about it (not that I mind inventing details, as you will see!)? Also, can Alvin send me the statistics that were on the back of the photograph. Bless you both.
He also wanted his hand held, especially when his book was written, waiting only for an ending. The ending would not come easily, as appeal followed appeal, with many delays. It did not matter much whether the two boys were executed or sentenced to life imprisonment (although execution by hanging did seem inevitable): it mattered enormously to Capote that the result should be swift. Successful publication would bring what we now call ‘closure’. He had been working tirelessly on his book. Both his editors at Random House and Mr Shawn of the New Yorker were ready to roll. He could not disguise his impatience.
In November 1960 he asked the Deweys what they thought was the probable date for ‘the final drama’. ‘I hope you will be going, Alvin; I shall certainly require your description.’ In September 1961, he was planning to attend the executions himself. He wrote to the Deweys: ‘I shall write Cliff’ – the lawyer for the murdered family – ‘a letter about arranging for me to attend, to use Marie’s excellent phrase “the final scene”. I do hope Alvin is right, and we will reach that date sooner than later.’ Three months later he wrote: ‘If there is a possibility of a new trial … I will be forced to abandon the project. It is an appalling decision, after all the tremendous work and time and money spent.’ In August 1962, he wrote to the Deweys: ‘My God! Will it never end!?!? Just when I thought things were moving along.’ The following month he wrote: ‘Of course, please bear in mind that I cannot really finish the book until the case has reached its legal termination, either with the execution of Perry and Dick (the probable ending) or a commutation of sentence (highly unlikely).’ In November, he wrote to a friend: ‘I almost went to Kansas last week – to visit my friends before the hangman did. But at the last moment they got a stay of execution. To appeal the case in the Federal courts. All so incredible.’ In January 1963 he was still trying to arrange his presence at the ‘H&S farewell’. In July, as the two prisoners attempted any legal redress available, their lawyer asked Capote if he would testify that Perry and Dick had received an unfair trial in Garden City. ‘Well, you can imagine what I told him,’ he wrote to the Deweys.
By January 1964, Capote was at the end of his tether. ‘I really have been feeling very low – almost bitter,’ he wrote to the Deweys. ‘Why don’t they just turn them loose and be done with it?’ When, a year later, a lawyer suggested to Capote that the boys might go free, he wrote to the Deweys:
And I thought: yes, and I hope you’re the first one they bump off, you sonofabitch. But what I actually said was: ‘Is that really your idea of justice? – that after killing four people, they ought to be let out on the streets? Doesn’t that notion rather disturb you?’ He had the grace to admit it did. Lawyers! What hypocrites! Well, enough of that. Nothing now will happen until March. If then.
During these years the prisoners wrote to Capote twice a week. He sent them books and magazines. He wrote to them both – separately – twice a week as well. ‘I wrote them about what I was doing, and where I was living, describing everything in the most careful detail. Perry was interested in my dog, and I would always write about him, and send along pictures. I often wrote them about their legal problems.’ One presumes that he did not tell them what a hurry he was in to end what he called his ‘totally absurd and unnecessary torture’ as he waited to publish his book. In December 1964, he was worried that the prisoners might have seen a Newsweek report of his reading from the manuscript of In Cold Blood at the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center in New York. ‘I don’t think Dick will take kindly to being called a “pragmatic monster” – Ho! Ho!’ he wrote to the Deweys. Two weeks later: ‘Had long letters from H&S, all very friendly, so I guess they hadn’t seen the article. As usual, they are full of legal plottings … I have a hunch that by the time you receive this letter the Supreme Court will have made a decision on their writ.’ The decision soon came. In one of the very few letters to Perry Smith included in Too Brief a Treat, he wrote: ‘I’ve only just heard about the court’s denial. I’m very sorry about it.’ He also, at the same time, wrote to a friend: ‘The Supreme Court denied the appeals … so maybe something will happen one way or another. I’ve been disappointed so many times I hardly dare hope. But keep your fingers crossed.’
He was in luck. The execution date was set for 14 April 1965. He came to Kansas with his editor Joe Fox, having managed to get permission to witness the hangings. On the day of the execution the prisoners asked to see him. His editor’s job was to field the telephone calls. ‘I never spoke to them directly,’ he told George Plimpton. ‘It was always the assistant warden at the prison who got on the line: “I have Perry and Dick in my office. They want to talk to Truman.” Truman said: “I just can’t do it.” He was in tears a lot of the time. He never slept. He never left the room.’ Later that evening he relented and saw them briefly before witnessing their execution. The next day he travelled back to New York with Joe Fox. ‘He held my hand and cried most of the way,’ Fox said.
Capote, at 42, had his masterpiece, a bestseller everywhere. He was delighted. From Paris he wrote to Jack Dunphy: ‘Everything here incredibly hectic, but I guess it’s worth it. Reception at airport was like Lindbergh: even television crews.’ He knew how much the book had taken out of him. ‘It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones,’ he said. Between its publication in 1966 and his death in 1984 he went to many parties and caused a great fuss wherever he went. He wrote almost nothing. The years of disciplined work had taken their toll. But more than that, the amount of emotional duplicity, some of it cold and calculating, some of it instinctive and an essential aspect of his talent, which he had used between 1959 and 1965 on the people who helped him in Kansas and on the two doomed prisoners, who put some trust in him, left him maimed and exhausted.
In subsequent years, Capote displayed the same mix of innocence and ruthlessness as Perry Smith. Smith had been worried that Mr Clutter, his victim, might be uncomfortable as he held him prisoner. ‘I thought he was a very nice gentleman,’ he said. ‘Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.’ So too Capote loved all his swans, the socialites he spent so much time with and energy on. In 1975, he loved them so much that he wrote a vicious piece for Esquire, part of a work in progress, in which they were easy to recognise. ‘It seemed to me,’ William Styron wrote, ‘an act of willed destruction.’ Even Norman Mailer thought it was ‘not even bold, but rash’. They never had anything to do with him again. He had cut their throats, so to speak.
In his correspondence with people in Kansas, the most touching letters are to Alvin Dewey III, the son of the detective, who wanted to become a writer and sent pieces of fiction to Capote, who replied with advice. ‘I often use “real” people in my work,’ he wrote, ‘and then create a story around them … My story “A Christmas Memory” is entirely autobiographical.’ Of all his writing, this short piece from 1956 is the strangest and most sorrowful. He is in a kitchen with a woman: ‘I am seven; she is sixty-something, and we have lived together – well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend.’ The story will, of course, outline the loss of his best friend, whose end will be told in a message that ‘confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string.’ This was the story by him that everyone loved; it was soft and elegiac and awash with self-pity. He was lucky to be rescued by the forces within him which were ruthless and determined, full of strength and energy and great ambition.