Truman Capote

Truman Capote World-renowned author and popular-culture icon Truman Capote (1924-1984) was born in New Orleans and raised in the northeast, but his true sense of identity and the literature he produced were rooted more in Alabama than anywhere else. Both of his parents were Alabamians, and his extended visits with Monroeville relatives and close friendship with Harper Lee greatly influenced his writing and his world view. Capote’s flamboyant public persona and battles with substance abuse brought him as much attention as his literary output and made him a symbol of the artistic excesses that characterized New York’s literati in the minds of the public during the 1960s and 1970s.

Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 30, 1924. His father, Arch Persons, was a well-educated ne’er-do-well from a prominent Alabama family, and his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, was a pretty and ambitious young woman so anxious to escape the confines of small-town Alabama that she married Arch in her late teens. Capote’s early childhood with Arch and Lillie Mae was marked by neglect and painful insecurity that left him with a lifelong fear of abandonment. His life gained some stability in 1930 when, at age six, he was put in the care of four elderly, unmarried cousins in Monroeville, Monroe County. He lived there full-time for three years and made extended visits throughout the decade. Capote was most influenced by his cousin Sook, who adored him and whom he celebrated in his writings. He also forged what would become a lifelong friendship with next-door neighbor Nelle Harper Lee, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote appears in the novel as the character Dill.

The Move to New York

In 1931, Lillie Mae left her husband and moved to New York, never again to live in the South. She changed her name to Nina, divorced Arch, and in 1932 married a wealthy Cuban immigrant named Joe Capote. The following year, Truman moved in with them, and in 1935, Capote officially adopted him. Truman Streckfus Persons was now Truman Capote.

Joe and Nina lived extravagantly, both in Manhattan and for three years in fashionable Greenwich, Connecticut. The family returned to New York City in 1942 and took an apartment on New York’s upper-class Park Avenue. At this time, Nina began her descent into alcoholism, often flying into violent rages at her teen-aged son because of his homosexuality. As a result, Truman and his mother went through many periods of estrangement.

The lavish lifestyle of the Capotes came to an abrupt end in 1952 when Joe Capote was discovered to have been embezzling money from his company and was fired. Unable to face the changes brought on by Joe’s situation, Nina died by suicide in 1954. In 1955, Joe pleaded guilty to embezzlement and served a year in New York State’s Ossining Prison, known more popularly as Sing Sing.

Beginning in Writing

Capote Portrait with Puppets As a child, Capote showed a great interest in writing. In Monroeville, he was permitted to use the household typewriter and did so enthusiastically. At Greenwich High School, in Connecticut, he developed a clear sense of his vocation, nurtured by English teacher Catherine Wood. While attending the Franklin School, an elite private school on New York’s Upper West Side, Capote was hired as a copy boy at the New Yorker magazine. There he developed and refined some of the personality traits that would later become his trademarks: eccentric and flamboyant behavior and dress, a high-pitched lisping voice, and extreme outward self-confidence. He also cultivated friendships with influential people, especially women. Unlike several other famous gay people of the time, Capote was very open and public about his sexual orientation.

Fired by the New Yorker for offending poet Robert Frost by walking out on one of his readings, Capote began to work on his writing in earnest. During his early twenties, he published several stories in Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle, and in 1948, at 24, he published a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, with Random House. The book received great praise for the excellence of its prose and earned national attention because of a provocative photograph of the author posing seductively on a couch. Henceforth, Capote, like his literary contemporaries Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, was known as much for his public persona as for his writing. It was also at this time that Capote began his long-term relationship with Jack Dunphy, an author, playwright, and former professional dancer some 10 years Capote’s senior.

With the success of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote began his lifelong habit of seeking out inspiring places, mainly in Europe, to write and socialize. During the 1950s, he and Dunphy lived in France, Sicily, Switzerland, Greece, and many other places. The couple owned adjoining houses in Sagaponack, New York, and Capote owned a place in Verbier, France. He also owned an apartment at the upscale United Nations Plaza. But he never stayed anywhere long.

Mixing with the Upper Crust

Truman Capote and Katharine Graham Capote loved to surround himself with the rich and famous, and he became a friend and confidant to numerous well-known people, including designer and photographer Cecil Beaton, playwright Noel Coward, and movie stars Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, as well as Pres. John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and her sister, Princess Lee Radziwill. He was the darling of a group of very rich women—he called them his “swans”—who entertained him aboard their yachts and at luxurious resorts throughout the world. He also gained even greater fame across the country as a frequent guest on television talk shows such as the Johnny Carson Show and the Dick Cavett Show.

Despite his heavy socializing, Capote maintained a rigorous writing schedule for most of his life. He published A Tree of Night, a collection of stories, in 1949, followed in 1950 by Local Color, a collection of travel essays. The Muses Are Heard, his comic satire of his travels in Russia with the cast of the George Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess, came out in 1956, and in 1958 he published one of his best-known works, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a short novel set in New York. Three years later, Paramount Pictures released a highly acclaimed film version starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard.

Two of Capote’s works were produced for the stage on Broadway. Although no expense was spared in their production, The Grass Harp, based on life in the Monroeville house where he stayed as a boy, was only moderately successful, and The House of Flowers, a musical about two rival brothels in Haiti, was generally considered a disaster. Capote also wrote for the screen: in 1953 he co-authored the United Artists comedy Beat the Devil with director John Huston, and in 1960 he adapted the Henry James’ short story “The Turn of the Screw” into a script for the successful 20th Century Fox movie The Innocents.

Turn Toward Nonfiction

In Cold Blood In November 1959, Capote’s career took a major turn. He opened the New York Times one morning and read an article about the murders of the Clutter family in Holcombe, Kansas. He immediately decided to begin work on what he termed a “nonfiction novel” about the murders and the subsequent trial of the killers. Accompanied by Harper Lee, he travelled to Kansas to begin what would become an exhaustive, six-year project. He spent many hours with the killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, forming a strong emotional attachment with Smith. The men were found guilty and sentenced to hang in March 1960, but appeals delayed their executions until April 14, 1965. During this time, Capote waited to finish the book and remained in periodic contact with the men. His conflicting feelings of sympathy for the killers and desire for a conclusion caused him much anguish. Capote travelled to Kansas to witness the executions and was shattered by the experience.

In 1965, Capote presented his story of the Clutter murders to the public as a serial in the New Yorker. The following year, he published the work as a novel entitled In Cold Blood. Capote was lionized by critics everywhere, and the book was a sensation, earning Capote huge amounts of money. With the completion of the exhausting project, Capote decided to treat himself by hosting what many called the party of the decade. On November 28, 1966, he gave a masquerade black-and-white ball at the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in New York City for a group of friends who were so illustrious that the guest list was published in the New York Times. The following year, In Cold Blood earned Capote even more press when Columbia Pictures released a film version.

Although Capote was on top of the world in many ways, his personal life was beginning to spiral out of control. He began to consume large amounts of alcohol and drugs, made liaisons with abusive men, and found it more and more difficult to write. He suffered a number of mental breakdowns in the 1970s and 1980s, but he managed to work intermittently on a book called Answered Prayers, based on his intimate knowledge of the international jet set. He predicted, incorrectly, that it would be his masterpiece. During this time, two of Capote’s autobiographical stories with Alabama settings—”A Christmas Memory” and “The Thanksgiving Visitor”—were adapted as television dramas to great acclaim.

Falling Out of Favor

In 1975, Capote decided to publish chapters of the still unfinished Answered Prayers as magazine pieces. When the second chapter, “La Cote Basque, 1965,” appeared in Esquire, many of Capote’s society friends were enraged by the author’s unflattering depictions of them. Most of them severed all ties with him, including his favorite, socialite Babe Paley, wife of CBS chairman William Paley.

Ruins of Capote Childhood Home Cut off from most of the friendships that had sustained him over the years, Capote became increasingly depressed and unstable. Although he maintained a relationship with Jack Dunphy, they were apart most of the time. He drank and used cocaine excessively. As a result, he was unable to write very much, but he did publish one more book, Music for Chameleons (1980), a collection of stories and essays previously published in Esquire, Interview, McCall’s, New York Magazine, and The New Yorker. As his addictions worsened, he sought treatment at various hospitals and sanatoriums, but with little success. During the 1980s, his mental and physical condition deteriorating, he appeared to lose any desire to live. In August 1984, he bought a one-way ticket to California and showed up at the home of his friend Joanne Carson (ex-wife of Johnny Carson), telling her he thought he was dying. He was right—he died on August 25, 1984.

During his life, Truman Capote often complained that he was not properly appreciated or respected as an author. He was especially troubled that he never received a major literary award. Despite his concerns, scholarly and popular interest in the man and his work has never truly waned. In 1990, Jay Presson Allen’s biographical play, Tru, had a very successful run on Broadway, and some 20 years after his death, Hollywood released two biographical films about him, Capote (Sony Pictures, 2005) and Infamous (Warner Independent Pictures, 2006). In 2005, Random House published his early novel Summer Crossing. In 2014, two European researchers discovered 21 unknown stories in a collection at the New York Public Library that were written by Capote during his teen years; they were published in a German newspaper and in a collection by Random House in 2015. Truman Capote’s place in literary and cultural history seems secure.

Works by Truman Capote

Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)

A Tree of Night (1949)

Local Color (1950)

The Grass Harp (1951)

The Muses Are Heard (1956)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)

Observations (with Richard Avedon) (1959)

Selected Writings (1963)

In Cold Blood (1966)

A Christmas Memory (1966)

House of Flowers (1968)

The Thanksgiving Visitor (1968)

The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (1973)

Music for Chameleons (1980)

Three by Truman Capote (1985)

Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel (1987)

A Capote Reader (1987)

Summer Crossing (2005)

Further Reading

  • Clarke, Gerald. Truman Capote: A Biography. 1988. Reprint, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005.
  • ———. Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote. 2004. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 2005.
  • Moates, Marianne M. A Bridge of Childhood: Truman Capote’s Southern Years. 1989. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
  • Plimpton, George. Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1997.
  • Rudisill, Marie, and James S. Simmons. Truman Capote: The Story of His Bizarre and Exotic Boyhood by an Aunt Who Helped Raise Him. New York: Morrow, 1983.

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Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Capote in the Clutter Home