Truman Capote Biography

Truman Capote’s greatest success and biggest downfall was In Cold Blood. When the book was published in 1966, the never-modest Capote hailed it as a new genre, “the nonfiction novel.” The book was well-received, commercially successful, and spawned a film adaptation the following year. Despite this, Capote was dogged by rumors that he exaggerated, twisted, or fabricated large portions of the work. Capote naturally denied these rumors, and though his own penchant for hyperbole and self-promotion have led some critics to continue to doubt the truthfulness of In Cold Blood, it remains a towering literary achievement and a staple of true-crime literary studies. Although his later years were marked by scandal and substance abuse, Capote’s body of work ensured his reputation as a literary and cultural icon.

Facts and Trivia

  • Summer Crossing, an unpublished romance that was Capote’s first novel, was rediscovered and received its first printing in 2005.
  • Despite his reputation as a brilliant intellectual with blistering wit, Capote never attended college. He also believed that writing could not be taught.
  • The character of Dill in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is based on Capote.
  • Capote, in a bit of ironic casting, appeared in Neil Simon’s mystery spoof Murder by Death as a millionaire trying to outwit the world’s most famous mystery characters.
  • Capote’s research for In Cold Blood was the subject of two concurrently produced films, 2005’s much-lauded Capote (featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and 2006’s Infamous.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1799

Article abstract: Recognized as one of the leading American authors of the second half of the twentieth century, Capote regarded himself as a stylist, a writer whose mastery of the craft was so absolute that he could adapt his writing style to any media.

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Early Life

Originally named Truman Streckfus Persons, Truman Capote was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 30, 1924, to Joseph “Arch” Persons and Lillie Mae Faulk Persons. The marriage between what someone described as a “promoter” always looking for the big deal and a seventeen-year-old southern belle seeking to escape her provincial surroundings was doomed from the start, and they soon separated. After several years of nomadic wandering, the precocious Truman was deposited with three elderly maiden cousins and a bachelor uncle in Monroeville, Alabama. The oldest of the sisters was, at age sixty, mentally close to the child’s age and became his best friend.

The terrors of Truman’s early childhood, during which he was often neglected, and the culture of the deep south, with its traditions of superstition, eccentricity, African American culture, poverty, and memories of the Civil War, were powerful factors in shaping both his personality and his writing skills. By his own admission, from the age of eight Truman knew he wanted to be a writer and relentlessly pursued his objective, writing his first short story at the age of ten. Like his mother, he longed to escape his confining surroundings. His chance came at the age of twelve when his mother, who had divorced his father and married Joseph Garcia Capote, a prosperous Cuban businessman, brought her son to live with them in New York City. Formally adopted by his step-father, the boy changed his name to Capote. His mother had changed her name to Nina.

Capote attended a preparatory school and a military academy in New York and then, after his family moved, a high school in Connecticut, but he neglected his studies in favor of writing. An English teacher at the high school recognized the boy’s talent and encouraged his ambitions. Subsequent employment as a copy boy at The New Yorker exposed Capote to some of the best writing and best authors of the time. It was, according to Capote, the best college education a writer could have. Although The New Yorker rejected his stories, Capote’s first published short story, “Miriam” (for which he won an O. Henry Award), appeared in another magazine in 1945. A year at the Yaddo writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, further broadened his experience and literary connections. By the time he left Yaddo, most of his first novel, for which he had already signed a contract, was complete.

Life’s Work

Published in 1948, Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was about the coming of age of an adolescent boy in a rundown southern mansion. Intuitively recognizing the value of publicity, Capote had himself photographed in what could best be described as a “decadent” pose. The photograph was emblazoned on the dust jacket and did as much, if not more, to promote the book as its contents. The following year, Capote published a collection of short stories titled A Tree of Night, and Other Stories.

Capote’s next major literary achievement, which again drew on his southern origins and featured his favorite of the three maiden cousins who reared him, was a fantasy called The Grass Harp (1951). In this work, whose improbable locale was a tree house, Capote displayed his full powers for creating memorable characters. It was later revised for the stage. Fascinated with the theater, Capote wrote the book and lyrics for the Harold Arlen musical comedy House of Flowers, which opened in 1954. The locale was a Haitian brothel whose inhabitants were named for flowers. It ran for a respectable 165 performances. That same year, Beat the Devil, a film for which Capote wrote the script, was also released. Screen writing gave Capote the opportunity to demonstrate his mastery at dialogue, and the film achieved a cult status. In 1956, Capote completed what he considered his best travel article, The Muses Are Heard, a whimsical account of his trip with an American theatrical troop that was touring the Soviet Union. In 1958, Capote created his most memorable character, Holly Golightly, in his sparkling novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 1960, he completed a film script for The Innocents, a rewrite of Henry James’s 1898 novel A Turn of the Screw.

Successful as he was, Capote longed to complete a major work that would make him a recognized rather than a popular writer. In 1959, he noted an article in The New York Times of the cold-blooded murder of four members of a prosperous Kansas farm family by two drifters. Capote was determined to give this disagreeable subject added dimension through the power of his writing. Capote spent the next six years working on his book. He went to Kansas, did the research, interviewed dozens of people, examined hundreds of documents, and befriended the killers. On April 14, 1965, Capote stood at the foot of the gallows and watched the killers hang. That same year, In Cold Blood (1966), his “nonfiction” novel—a book that reads like a novel although every word is true—was published in three installments by The New Yorker. The book’s success was phenomenal. It sold several million copies and, along with the subsequent film version, made Capote a rich man. However, writing the book had taken a terrible toll, and Capote’s professional and personal lives began to disintegrate. He continued to write as if compelled but was increasingly sustained by drugs and alcohol.

Recognizing the power and influence of television, Capote encouraged the production of two short stories based on childhood experiences as television dramas. In 1972, he collaborated on the writing of the television prison drama The Glass House. A collection of early nonfiction essays, The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places, was published in 1973.

Capote, meanwhile, was consumed with the idea of writing another major work, a gossipy semifictional account of the famous people he knew and had known. No one was better positioned to write such a novel. He loved women, and, although he was not physically attracted to them, he counted among his friends some of the most glamorous, wealthy, and powerfully connected women of the international jet set. With his unerring choice for words, he had already chosen the title Answered Prayers—taken from a comment attributed to Saint Teresa of Ávila that answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered. Using disguised names, Capote revealed some of the most intimate secrets of his friends. The disguises, however, were too transparent. When the first chapters of Answered Prayers appeared in Esquire magazine in 1975, the result was mounting outrage from those he had lampooned. Capote thought they would not recognize themselves, but they did. One of his characters committed suicide, and others ostracized him. Capote was dubbed “The Tiny Terror.” A prominent magazine showed him on its cover with the body of bulldog and with sharp, pointed teeth biting the hand of a bejeweled socialite. Capote maintained that such books should be expected from writers. Another famous writer observed that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a writer and a gentleman. Nevertheless, Answered Prayers contained some of the finest writing that Capote ever produced. Aside from the three chapters that were published as part of an “unfinished novel,” no other chapters were ever found.

After the Answered Prayers disaster, Capote rounded out his career by acting in the Neil Simon film Murder by Death (1976). In 1980, he published his last major work, Music for Chameleons—a collection that included a novella and thirteen short stories. However, his use of alcohol and drugs accelerated. The traumas of Capote’s early childhood, likened to the “mean reds” of Holly Golightly, kept reoccurring to the extent that he felt he had two personalities that were constantly battling each other. Frantic participation in New York’s underground nightlife gave no relief. Capote died during the early morning of August 25, 1984.

Summary

When Truman Capote decided to be a writer early in his life, he was determined to be more than a hack or a “typist,” a category in which he placed many well-known writers. He saw himself as an artist who used words the same way a painter used colors or a musician used notes, chords, and harmonies. To do so required constant application. Capote believed that sentences, paragraphs, and chapters should be so constructed that not a single word or punctuation mark was out of place. Style rather than subject matter became the deciding factor. Although he preferred fiction, especially the short story, he could write in all media.

Capote’s work was influenced by such literary masters as Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. Flaubert’s social novel Madame Bovary (1857; translated 1886) may have served as a prototype for In Cold Blood. In Answered Prayers, Capote attempted the same clinical psychological analysis of fashionable contemporary society that Proust had accomplished in À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). Answered Prayers was to be the second leg on which Capote’s literary reputation would stand. It remained uncompleted.

Bibliography

Brinnin, John Malcolm. Truman Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1986. A writer and a scholar, Brinnin knew Capote during the pivotal year at Yaddo, traveled with him, and kept up the friendship until Capote’s death. The book is a personal as well as a professional appraisal.

Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986. The definitive biography, written while Capote was alive and with his approval. Clarke was formerly a senior writer for Time and writes with the clarity of a journalist. Profusely illustrated.

Grobel, Lawrence. Conversations with Capote. New York: The New American Library, 1985. A readable and interesting work on conversations between Grobel and Capote. Capote reveals himself as the acidic but engaging, if somewhat disillusioned, person he had become by the time of the interview.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. A collection of magazine and newspaper articles dealing with Capote, many by well-known writers or commentators.

Plimpton, George. Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Called an “oral biography,” this work by Plimpton has thirty-seven chapters in which people ranging from the unknown to the well known recall the famous author. Chapter 35, which deals with the reaction to the controversial Esquire articles, has the makings of a Greek tragedy.

Windham, Donald. A Memoir of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Others. New York: William Morrow, 1987. A fellow southern writer, Windham recalls his turbulent relationship with Capote. He compares Capote’s relationship and work to that of Tennessee Williams, an equally talented writer.

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