Who's Truman Capote?

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday August 23, 2006
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Author Truman Capote
Author Truman Capote

August 25, 1984 (22 years ago this week): Author Truman Capote dies in Los Angeles.

Author Truman Capote, who popularized the genre of creative nonfiction, was as well-known for his open homosexuality and his extravagant social life as he was for his writing.

Truman Streckfus Persons was born September 30, 1924, in New Orleans. As a young boy, he was sent to live with his mother's relatives in rural Monroeville, Alabama, while his parents divorced. He moved to New York City at about age 10 to live with his mother and her new husband, Cuban businessman Joseph Capote.

Though highly intelligent, Capote despised school and dropped out at age 17 to take a job as a copy boy at the New Yorker . He never attended college, believing that "either one was or wasn't a writer, and no combination of professors could influence the outcome."

Capote's first major published work, the short story "Miriam," which appeared in Mademoiselle in 1945, won an O. Henry Award and led to a book contract with Random House. By this time, he had already adopted a flamboyant style – New Yorker colleague Brendan Gill recalled him "sweeping through the corridors of the magazine in a black opera cape, his long golden hair falling to his shoulders" – and a penchant for social climbing.

Capote's first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), was a semi-autobiographical novel about his childhood in Alabama. Though controversial for its depictions of rape, transvestism, and homosexuality, the book was a smash hit. Equally sensational was the photograph on the book jacket, which showed the handsome young author reclining in a languorous pose with a come-hither expression.

Capote's work reflected a mix of Southern whimsy and New York City sophistication, creating what literary critic Thomas Dukes characterized as "the quintessential homosexual writing style of the 1950s and 1960s." Many people were taken with Capote's boyish charm, including several high-society matrons who acted as benefactors. "In those days Truman was about the best companion you could want," recalled fellow author Tennessee Williams. "He had not turned maliciously bitchy."

Capote had one of his first serious relationships with Newton Arvin, a professor of literature at Smith College. In 1948, Capote met Jack Dunphy, a working-class writer. The two men shared a nonexclusive partnership for nearly 40 years, living together in Sicily in the 1950s, and later residing in two separate houses on the same property in the Hamptons on Long Island.

After returning from Europe, Capote published one of his best-known works, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), which related the adventures of free-spirited Holly Golightly. He was not happy with the 1961 film adaptation, starring Audrey Hepburn, which toned down the language and made the male lead heterosexual.

In 1959, Capote began work on In Cold Blood , a story about the murder of a rural Kansas farm family, which he researched with the help of his childhood friend, author Harper Lee. Though the work – serialized in the New Yorker in 1965 and published as a book the following year – was hugely popular, some critics charged that Capote became too emotionally involved with the alleged killers, yet failed to adequately aid their defense because he required their execution as a dramatic denouement to his tale. In Cold Blood brought Capote even more fame and considerable fortune. To celebrate, he hosted a Black and White Ball at New York's Plaza Hotel in November 1966, which many considered to be the social event of the era.

Despite his success, Capote began drinking heavily and using drugs in the late 1960s. A fixture on the television talk-show circuit, he established himself as a catty queen spreading scandalous gossip about old friends and benefactors. During these years, he began work on what he hoped would be his Proustian magnum opus, Answered Prayers . The book was never completed, but a few installments appeared in Esquire in the mid-1970s. His mean-spirited portrayals of the rich and famous earned him the nickname "the Tiny Terror," and he was shunned by his former high-society friends.

With the waning of his youthful good looks, Capote became a caricature of his former self. During a falling out with Dunphy in the 1970s, he began frequenting New York City bathhouses, picking up working-class men many years his junior. Toward the end of the decade, however, he entered drug and alcohol rehabilitation and reconciled with Dunphy. Adopted into Andy Warhol's circle, Capote became a habitue at Studio 54 and revived his career by writing for Warhol's Interview magazine. His last collection of short stories, Music for Chameleons (1980), was again a bestseller.

In his final years, Capote became increasingly jealous and paranoid, accusing fellow authors of appropriating his style and complaining bitterly about what he viewed as inadequate recognition of his work. He continued to drink and use drugs, his health deteriorated, and he grew increasingly reclusive. He died of liver disease and drug intoxication on August 25, 1984.

Despite his downfall, Capote largely fulfilled his early dreams. "I was not meant to work in an office," he said in a 1978 interview. "I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to be rich and famous."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected].

For further reading

Clarke, Gerald. 1988. Capote: A Biography (Ballantine).

Davis, Deborah. 2006. Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black-and-White Ball (Wiley).

Plimpton, George. 1997. Truman Capote, In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (Doubleday).