(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

If, as Truman Capote (originally Truman Streckfus Persons) alleged, he invented the nonfiction novel, Gerald Clarke’s enormous, meticulously researched Capote: A Biography exemplifies the genre, the actual origins of which some literary scholars dispute. Clarke’s book, clearly a documented nonfiction account, reads like a novel, perhaps because Capote’s life unfolds like an intricately contrived fiction. Even its duller periods, for which Capote manufactured events and stories to gloss over the banalities, sparkle with the sheer invention of Capote’s gnomish mind at work.

Capote’s formative years were tailor-made to produce the complex personality who gained instant public recognition when a photograph of him in a houndstooth waistcoat reclining on an Empire divan dominated the back dust jacket of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). Wispy blond bangs fell over his forehead, beguiling eyes stared from the book jacket at a mystified, titillated book-buying public, and provocative, pouting lips suggested the homosexuality with which Capote quickly became identified.

The drama of the picture eclipsed the controlled artistry of this first novel by an unknown writer not yet twenty-four. The book fast became a cult item, as much for the photograph as for the finely crafted prose and sharp imagery that lay between its covers. For whatever reasons—most likely because of the early instinct for self-promotion that made him adamant about which picture of him would grace the book—Truman Capote had been noticed, and, through continued self-promotion, he would alternately enjoy and painfully endure celebrity until his death.

Marrying an amiable con man, Arch Persons, had provided Capote’s mother, Lillie Mae Faulk (later Nina Capote), with an instant perspicacity: Within days of the wedding, Lillie Mae knew that she had made a dreadful mistake. Within days of that discovery, she made an additional discovery: She was about to become a mother. She did what she could to arrange an immediate abortion, a more daunting task in the 1920’s than in later years. Arch, with whom Lillie Mae never really lived in any conventional connubial situation before Truman was born, glowed at the prospect of his approaching fatherhood. He sweet-talked Lillie Mae into going with him on a vacation to Colorado, after which her pregnancy was too far along for her to risk an abortion.

Lillie Mae returned to her comfortably fixed family in Monroeville, Alabama, to begin her countdown. As the day of reckoning approached, however, her guardian, hard-nosed Cousin Jennie Faulk, shipped Lillie Mae off to her husband in New Orleans, where the reluctant mother-to-be waited out the rest of her confinement in a commodious suite at the Monteleone Hotel.

On September 30, 1924, the unwelcomed event occurred. Lillie Mae was taken to Touro Infirmary, where, at three o’clock in the afternoon, she was delivered of a boy whose father named him Truman after an old school chum and Streckfus after the family for whom he then worked.

Although their ill-starred union lasted officially for seven years, Lillie Mae took a procession of lovers—by Arch’s perhaps conservative count, at least twenty-nine, including prizefighter Jack Dempsey. Arch had grandiose schemes that usually failed and that occasionally landed him in jail. Truman, from his earliest recollection, had cause to fear what psychologists think children fear most: abandonment by one or both parents. Lillie Mae often left him in the care of relatives. When she looked after him herself, she saw no need to shield him from knowledge of her recurring sexual intimacies with various lovers.

As Lillie Mae found it increasingly difficult to be a full-time mother, she entrusted Truman more or less permanently to relatives. The boy spent much of his first seven years in Monroeville with two maiden aunts and a bachelor uncle. His only real friend was a next-door neighbor a couple of years younger than he, Nelle Harper Lee (later author of To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960), who remained a lifelong friend. Because Truman was perceived locally as a sissy, most parents forbade their children to play with him.

Lillie Mae, divorced from Arch in 1931, soon was married to a successful Cuban businessman, Joe Capote, and lived comfortably with him in New York. Aspiring to a new social elegance, she changed the Southern-sounding “Lillie Mae” to the more sophisticated “Nina.” When Truman came to live with his mother...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXIV, April 15, 1988, p. 1369.

The Economist. CCCVIII, August 27, 1988, p. 78.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, April 1, 1988, p. 508.

Library Journal. CXIII, June 15, 1988, p. 60.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 12, 1988, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, June 12, 1988, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXI, May 30, 1988, p. 62.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, May 13, 1988, p. 258.

Time. CXXXI, May 30, 1988, p. 60.

Vogue. CLXXVIII, June, 1988, p. 86.

The Wall Street Journal. June 2, 1988, p. 20.