“Part of a reader’s job is to explore why some writers endure.” Francine Prose
Truman Capote was a writer of exquisite style and subtlety. After reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Norman Mailer said Capote was “the most perfect writer of my generation” adding that he “would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's.”
Breakfast at Tiffany's was critically acclaimed, but Truman Capote achieved fame, money, and international acclaim upon publication of his seventh book, In cold blood in 1965. The inspiration for writing the book was unusual.
On a moonlit night in November 1959, a wealthy farmer and three of his family were murdered by unknown assailants in a remote farmhouse in rural Kansas. Two men, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were arrested in December at Las Vegas and by January 1960, the case was solved. The accused were sentenced to death swiftly by a local court.
During the next four years Truman Capote stayed in Kansas on and off and talked extensively with the local FBI agent, Alvin Dewy, the killers, and everyone even remotely connected to the victims or their killers. He went to extraordinary lengths to gather “material”, including bribing jail wardens to meet Smith and Hickock. His childhood friend, Harper Lee, author of To kill a mockingbird, assisted him in the research.
The result of all this was In cold blood, a 343-page book that describes the crime, the lives of the victims and the killers, and the social milieu around them. The work, which Capote claimed to be the first of a new genre – the nonfiction novel, apparently combined the authenticity of reportage with the lucidity of fiction.
Some minor details of the book have been disputed. But the eminent readability of the book is beyond dispute. It is a whodunit where the readers know who did it, right from the first page. Yet, it is difficult to lay the book down. That shows Truman Capote’s mastery over story-telling.
Capote had developed a kind of emotional relationship with one of the accused, Perry Smith. Capote and Smith had similar childhood experiences: fathers without steady occupations and alcoholic, unloving mothers. Capote was brought up by cousins and Smith suffered the horrors of charitable homes. They were both men from the margins of the American society who tried to overcome their odds, albeit in very dissimilar ways.
The research leading to the book and the “friendship” between the two men was the subject of the 2005 film Capote (based on a biography by Gerald Clarke). Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Academy Award for his brilliant portrayal of the title role in the film.
The film narrates how a gritty Capote spent four years of his life on the investigation, although for quite some time, he was unsure if the facts would coalesce into a cohesive story good enough for his purpose. He helped the accused to find better lawyers and partly because of his efforts, their execution was stayed five times.
As the trial dragged on, Capote met Perry Smith again and again to hear from him “what exactly happened that night”. Capote was committed to unravel the tangled threads of the story. He also knew that his work would remain incomplete without Perry’s final confession. He cheated Perry, didn’t reveal his personal interest in prolonging the trial. In fact, he lied through his teeth to tell Perry that he hadn’t even decided about the book’s title whereas, in reality, he had read excerpts from its first three chapters to a packed auditorium in New York!
For a long time, Perry refused to reveal the details. But ultimately, he gave in. And Capote immediately withdrew his hand of friendship.
But Truman Capote did not play the dangerous game without paying a price. The film shows him going into depression, almost on the verge of destruction. He recovered, thanks largely to the ministration of Harper Lee, and was present at the time of hanging of Perry and Dick, to honour their last wish.
In the end, the film notes that Truman Capote did not complete another full length book after In cold blood, and in the epigraph of his last, incomplete work, he quoted Mother Teresa: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
As one goes to bed after a late night viewing of the film, one feels that Truman Capote was as much punished as Perry Smith was. But do facts bear testimony to the feeling?
Although the case against Perry, who pulled the trigger at all the victims, was watertight, there were serious question marks on the sentence to hang him. Perry’s sanity was questioned through the initial trial and subsequent appeals, as Capote himself noted in his book. A British art critic Kenneth Tynan even implied that Capote wanted the accused to be hanged so that the book would have an effective ending.
Truman Capote, a five feet three inches (160 cm), openly homosexual man from humble origins, was a relentless – and possibly unabashed – social climber. He befriended the rich and the powerful, including business tycoons and Hollywood celebrities.
He was prone to self-publicizing (how many successful men aren’t?) and would bend truth to achieve his purpose. He claimed to intimately know people he had in fact never met, such as Greta Garbo. He accused the people, who questioned his intellectual honesty, of jealousy.
In the years following In Cold Blood, he wrote little and continued living an extravagant life among the glitterati. But he also continued to work on what was expected to be his next major novel: Answered prayers, on the private lives of the jet set.
Publication of the second chapter of the novel in a magazine in 1975 outraged many, because it was a thinly veiled story of the dysfunctional personal lives of a couple, who were his intimate friends. The rich and famous feared more such exposes of their glamorous but often sick lifestyle and they did what Perry and Dick couldn’t. They shut the doors on Capote’s face.
That was a setback from which Capote never quite recovered. Answered prayers remained incomplete and he died in 1984 – before reaching sixty – with a malfunctioning liver and other conditions related to substance abuse.
Returning to the epigraph of this article, Truman Capote has endured for over half a century. I believe he is going to be around for “a few more weeks” not only because of his flair for prose, but also because when he tells a story, he takes his reader deep into the minds of his characters. The reader becomes fictionalized, they become the characters they are reading about.
Kolkata, September 08, 2009