Capote was an American author, born in New Orleans in 1924. His parents divorced four years later and he spent the latter part of his childhood being raised by his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. In one of those weird coincidences that are so common in history, in Monroeville Capote befriended the future novelist Harper Lee. If you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ll recognise young Truman in Dill, a small, small boy who lives with his aunt and befriends Jem and Scout.
Confession time: I’m not a big fan of American literature. They don’t teach that much of it in English schools (or didn’t when I attended), and I later chose to narrow my field of study down to English literature, and Victorian whenever possible. Yet I adore Capote.
The first book of his that I read was Other Voices, Other Rooms. It was also his debut novel. In many ways it defies categorisation: part coming-of-age tale, part autobiography, part horror, dripping with Southern Gothic. There’s an old joke about writers romanticising the south with tales of sultry heat and wisteria blooms, but in Other Voices, you can smell the rancid swamp and choke on cloying air.
It also has a character named Jesus Fever. It was about the point he was introduced that I knew I’d like Capote.
Capote’s mother remarried when he was eight, and shortly thereafter he joined the family in their Park Avenue home. His time in the upper echelons didn’t last—his stepfather was convicted of embezzlement and they were forced to leave Park Avenue–but Capote had his first taste for the city high life, and he liked it.
I think I’ve had two careers. One was the career of precocity, the young person who published a series of books that were really quite remarkable. I can even read them now and evaluate them favorably, as though they were the work of a stranger … My second career began, I guess it really began with Breakfast at Tiffany’s.Truman Capote
From talented boy (Other Voices was published when he was 24) to daring young man, Capote reinvented himself with a scandal caused, in part, by Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Breakfast is the story of a young lady, Holly Golightly, a country girl making her way in the Big Apple by keeping wealthy older men company.
Capote insisted she wasn’t a prostitute, but rather an “American geisha.” Whatever she was, she was too daring for Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine had originally purchased the short story for $2000, but refused to print it. Instead, Capote resold Breakfast to Esquire for $3000. Not bad money for 1958.
Honestly, to me the most interesting thing about Breakfast is the story of the title’s origin. A friend of Capote’s picked up a young sailor for a night of entertainment. The sailor was a country boy, thrilled to be in New York City. The next morning, Capote’s friend offered to take him for breakfast anywhere he wanted. He replied that he wanted to have breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Part cruel joke, part commentary on the naivety of newcomers to the big city, part, no doubt, a reflection of Capote’s own misapprehensions when he moved from Monroeville to New York. Breakfast marked Capote’s growing up, it became his cause célèbre. He was no longer that lost little southern boy from Other Voices, he was a man of the city.
Capote’s voice, and image, changed again in 1965. The spark for In Cold Blood was a headline in the New York Times that read:
Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain; H. W. Clutter, Wife and 2 Children Are Found Shot in Kansas HomeRead the original article here
The mass killings in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, sent shockwaves through the Midwest and reached all the way to New York City. From a single brief article, Capote envisioned a whole new form of storytelling. He spent most of the next four years travelling to Kansas, first following the investigation into the murders, and then talking to the killers as they awaited execution for their crimes. What he produced was one of the earliest, if not the original non-fiction novel. It remains the second-bestselling true crime book ever published, coming second only to Vincent Bugliosi’s Charles Manson book, Helter Skelter.
In Cold Blood is probably my personal favourite of all Capote’s writing. It’s also the subject of two relatively recent biographical films: Capote (2005), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who gives an absolute powerhouse performance, and Infamous (2006), in which Toby Jones does the unthinkable and gives PSH’s Oscar-winning performance a run for its money.
Capote never finished another book, instead spiralling into a destructive cycle of alcoholism and drug addiction that killed him a month before his sixtieth birthday. It was a sad end to a life that started so impoverished and was, for the majority of Capote’s teens and adulthood, incredibly charmed. It’s a life it isn’t really possible to live in America—or anywhere in the developed world—anymore. The deep south of Alabama, and even the plains of Kansas, aren’t so far removed from the bustle of New York City in a day and age when everyone’s online.
For me, Capote’s life and works encapsulate both the glamour and the tragedy of the America of a century ago. The shifting of the old world into the new. And few writers have encapsulated the changing of that world in quite the way Capote did.
That’s why the last book I recommend is Gerald Clarke’s biography of Capote. Published just four years after Capote’s death, and based on hundreds of hours interviewing Capote and those around him, it’s the most definitive (and readable) biography I’ve found on the man.
As an author, I’m wary of ascribing too much autobiography to fiction, but when it comes to Capote I can’t help but wonder. All I know is I love his books, and I find his life to be as fascinating as any work of fiction. Maybe you will too.