A chilly tale, the first section of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” was first published in The New Yorker, in Autumn, 1965. And so, in honour of autumn-season, this year, we bring you a re-issue of Pasquale Casullo’s essay examining Mr. Capote’s down-fall.
by Pasquale G. Casullo
TORONTO – At 1:19 a.m., on April 14, 1965, just as Perry Smith’s still-twitching, just-hanged body hung under the trap door of the gallows, in the Kansas State Penitentiary’s yard, Truman Capote’s psyche took a turn around and upside-down. Now, at that minute, with Mr. Smith as well as Richard Hickock, the two men behind the Clutter-family killings, executed, Mr. Capote was able to commence writing the conclusion to “In Cold Blood.” A magnum opus, Mr. Capote’s non-fiction novel – a genre the writer was dead-set on laying claim to conception, notwithstanding the other non-fiction novelists already at play – is about a grisly massacre in a tiny town.
After a painful, lengthy, six-years spent researching, writing, and waiting, and waiting, “In Cold Blood” was published in early-1966 – with it first appearing in four-part serial format, in The New Yorker, in late-1965 – to acclaim, success, and talk, talk, talk. Mr. Capote’s experiment in a new form of fiction was complete, and, more important, he proved his theory correct: “You can produce a work of art out of factual material – it has the same impact that the most imaginative literature does … factual writing can reach the altitudes of poetry that poetry does, that, at the same time, has this extraordinary dimension of being true.” A light was lit in his Champagne-blond hair-topped head: a new literary direction as true to life as possible was, indeed, possible. And, which was something Mr. Capote had, for his entire writing career, been aiming at, anyway; his fiction was already playing with this true-life-into-fiction conceit. But, with great powers come great responsibilities, a truism Mr. Capote didn’t keep written in the back-pages in his mind.
Mr. Capote was first, and foremost, an artist, always seeking truth throughout his life, reflecting his world around him, using it to create an oeuvre of funny, sharp, hard-hitting novels, novellas, short-stories, a play, a musical, and essays: “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” “A Christmas Memory,” “The Grass Harp,” “House Of Flowers,” “The Muses Are Heard,” and many, many more in various writing forms. And while the writer produced greatness – so much art, so much heart – Mr. Capote was done-in when he stepped too many times on too many toes, destroying his social life, setting in a great depression, and suffering a debilitating, sad decline, dying at a relatively young age, fifty-nine.
Yes, some lines between fantasy and reality blurred and blended in Mr. Capote’s life, but after a stressful period that was writing “In Cold Blood,” everything turned dark, and twisted and tangled even more. It is said that the writer’s deep empathising with Mr. Smith’s plight through life sent him diving into bluest water, psychologically, that he was damaged beyond repair, that the true-Truman departed. But, if anything, the true-Truman was finally free, completely free, to be himself: an artist at a creative peak with no fear.
Mr. Capote did since a teenager aspire for a life filled with glamourous gold, gilt, status, as well as marvelous people, places, things. And through a rather lucky set of circumstances, by sauntering into the ‘right’ steps, he found himself in New York City, in the 1940s, among the society-set, the who’s who, editors, writers, everyone who was anyone. He was tittle-tattle-ing, writing, and working away at a bigger goal, finding himself as an artist. Mr. Capote was a precocious boy, quick to jump into New York times, and spent days and nights entrancing the city’s shiniest people with his savage wit, his story-telling, his sometimes-warm heart, and, of course, gossip – he had dirt on everyone. “He was so damn seductive,” said grand dame C. Z. Guest. “I mean, my God, he could draw anything from anybody, because he’d sit, right near that person, and they’d be absolutely mesmerised.
Mr. Capote, an un-born, natural bon-vivant, without fail, razzle-dazzled a room. Where there was his charming, high-pitch baby-babble (as Gore Vidal once described it: “I can only say: imagine what a brussel sprout would sound like, if a brussel sprout could talk.”), a bon-mot passing though his lips, there was bubbling laughter, including his own husky chuckle. He was several bottles of Dom Perignon, always sipped to their last drops, always intoxicating a crowd: a crowd comprising his society “Swans” Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Pamela Harriman; magazine editors Diana Vreeland, Carmel Snow, and George Plimpton; artists Sir Cecil Beaton, Andy Warhol, and Richard Avedon; from actors, actresses, fellow writers, to everyone else who fell under that Capote-spell. And while becoming one with his subjects, Mr. Capote was revelling in this life, his preferred life. He came. He saw. He conquered. In 1966, he threw a Black & White Ball, a now-famous, grand fete that was the social event that year, that decade – showing he was now big, powerful, and an ‘it’-person, himself. But it is dangerous for a writer, any writer, to become so near and dear with subjects, especially in a scene with the high, the mighty. They, the society-set, fed him deep dish gossip, and he gave them an eager ear, as well as doggone-funny entertainment, telling silly stories. They were wary that what Mr. Capote was hearing would appear in a story, someday, yet continued spilling their beans, anyhow; they loved having his interest, they loved having around a treasure with cachet, and he loved being in their world, he loved being adored. But, with bigger steaks come bigger knives and forks.
Along came idea, one day, for a big, tell-all novel, “Answered Prayers”: Mr. Capote’s Proustian-inspired epic, and an apogee of his non-fiction novel form. However, unlike Marcel Proust, Mr. Capote’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” was never fully realised, but for four chapters which were published as stand-alone short-stories in Esquire magazine. The “In Cold Blood”-induced psychological pain, the drinking, the drugging, hit a highest height; productively, he was no longer the writer he once was. The novel was said by Mr. Capote to be complete, but at this time in his life, every second word he said was a lie. And sharing these vile excerpts from the supposedly-finished book via Esquire was simply too much, too soon. “He took society and he told stories he shouldn’t have told,’ Mr. Plimpton once said. The impact struck the society-set hard.
Appearing in Esquire in November, 1975, “La Côte Basque 1965” was Mr. Capote’s self-administered death-blow. Dipping through table-side conversations in the then-N.Y.C. hot-spot restaurant, the short story is a searing portrait of ladies-who-lunch, revealing the city-elite’s secrets, upon secrets, upon secrets, through gossip, as told in between sips of Cristal: Gloria Vanderbilt’s bumping into, but failing to recognise, her first husband; that time Cole Porter put the moves on an Italian waiter; that time Joe Kennedy slipped into bed with his daughter’s teenaged-aged school-friend; a woman (crystal clearly Ann Woodward) who murdered her soon-to-be ex-husband here; a man (a tissue-thinly disguised Bill Paley) who had an affair, there, with every exacting, embarrassing aspect, right down to his scrubbing bloodied sheets in a bath-tub with scalding water and a bar of Guerlian’s Fleur des Alpes, etc. “There he was, the powerful Mr. Dillon, down on his knees and flogging away like a Spanish peasant at the side of a stream.” Mr. Capote didn’t expect the backlash from high society’s denizens that this story caused. Mrs. Paley, Mr. Capote’s sweetest, dearest, truest love never spoke with him, ever again.
The Swans swam away, disgusted that he betrayed their trust, fearing what more the “tiny terror” could, would expose about their personal lives in print – again. “Who did they think I was? I’m a writer! I’ve made great literature, this!” was Mr. Capote’s response. By then, rather quickly, many, many people in society who once adored the writer were running away from their friendship. Mr. Capote’s drinking, drugging, and psychological shape worsened. And, he never did get to writing the rest of “Answered Prayers” – nor, anything else of lasting, memorable quality.
Many say Mr. Capote did it because he was damaged, he was deluded. Arrogant. Angry. Lost. And he did try defending himself: “Everybody knew I was doing this book. Everybody knew what kind of book it was. There was no mystery. I was not pretending or camouflaging.” However it did no good. He had hoped critics would deem his work art, but they saw no literary value in it. He became a pariah in his social life – his raison d’etre – eventually being shut-off from it all, his creative output slowed-down, and a great bloat took over everything. He turned into a drunkard, a Studio 54 fiend, and, being incapable of writing much, a television talk-show fixture, babbling on about nothing at all – mostly while intoxicated, a state Mr. Capote was in nearly every waking minute.
At long last, death came for Mr. Capote, in 1984, after a long, tiring, ruinous period: his liver, too, gave up on him.
But, he did it – or, in the very least, he tried – in the end, he stayed true to the art, the writing, himself.