In His Pink Negligée

Colm Tóibín

  • 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 He recommended the young and unpublished Patricia Highsmith to Yaddo in 1948.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:

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