Wednesday, September 30, 2015

This Much is Tru

Things fall apart.  That may be a title devised by Chinua Achebe, but it's as good a description of the life of Truman Capote as I know.

He had an awful childhood - always a rich source for a writer, I suppose, if at a cost - but by 19 he was working for The New Yorker, and within two years he was first a published author and, in short order, a sensation.

His early glory makes the end all the sadder, even more atrocious.  By the time he drifted onto my horizons, he was a regular on '70s talk shows, a sodden, swollen, vicious little mess, in love with the whining sound of his own voice and - the greatest of all sins in the merciless court of popular culture - only intermittently entertaining.  By 1984 he was dead.

But once...once: he was the elfin prince of Manhattan, a literary wonder, a charmer of the first order who knew everyone, went everywhere, and took good notes.  He had it all, just like Bogart and Bacall (both of whom adored him, by the bye, for a while).  He wrote daring, ruthless, gorgeous prose that astonished critics and his books sold as if they were potboilers (later on, that's what he wrote, of a sort, and if they sold, they astonish a good deal less).  He invented a genre - the nonfiction novel - or so it seemed at the time, and he climbed the Everest of High Society, throwing arguably the Last Great Party, the Black and White Ball of 1966.  Over the years, I've known a half-dozen or so of the guests that night, and while they were more measured in discussing it than the usual Vanity Fair hagiographer, they all knew it was a night of nights.

But things fall apart.  Drink, drug, inner devils... Truman, child of a hysteric suicide and a ne'er do well, followed in the family footsteps.

Leo Lerman, the great editor, bon vivant, survivor, called Capote's life "a déchéance" - a downfall. Lerman was there at the beginning, when it all seemed so magical, and in the wake of the sordid death (in a Hollywood guest room, courtesy of Johnny Carson's ex-wife) thirty or so years later, he recalled the days "where Little T wanted to be emperor-empress, and was, for a very little time."  He blamed the tragedy that was Truman on In Cold Blood, on the obsessiveness that consumed him in writing the book and on his hopeless fixation on one of the two murderers.  In the end, though, he knows there are no excuses: "Little T was his own victim. Even if he died a natural death, he killed himself."

Now, a quarter century after his ignominious going out, Capote, while still a name, seems to me a diminished one.  The two films, a few years back, about his life returned him, for a while, to headlines, but more as a tabloid baby than an artist, and they left few ripples in their wake.  He would be surprised, I think, to see how little read he mostly is, and possibly even more taken aback - and rather waspishly, I suspect - by the way in which his childhood chum Harper Lee is now a generally accepted American treasure in whose shadow he maintains a gnomic presence.

Ah, but once upon a time... long mornings in wintry Venice, summer days on the yacht with the Agnellis or making the dour Bill Paley laugh (as Babe, perfection, gazed admiringly); writing, writing, writing; even, later on, the tinpot glamour of disco nights with Warhol and Bianca... All of that.  As those images fade, the very best of his writing will live, and each December, when I read A Christmas Memory, I'm reminded that in the course of his long déchéance, so often shabby and dispiriting, he paused long enough to create some things that will endure long after the memory of the pretentious little ogre on Merv has faded, at last, to black.

Today he would have been 91.


  1. Strange when a personality overshadows ones own work. My most vivid memory is his turn in Murder by Death where he embodies everything stated in your post. Almost winking at the camera.

    1. I saw MbD not all that long ago, and while on the whole it was better than I remembered (I didn't get all the jokes when I saw it when it first came out), and of course the cast is astonishing - Truman is little more than a lump on screen and a palpable energy drain every time he appears. I've read that he genuinely believed, somehow, that the part would turn him into a movie star.

    2. Maybe I see it through different eyes, but I think Murder By Death is a supreme achievement in the genre we call "camp". One of my favourite films, in fact... Jx

  2. A Christmas Memory is the work that will always remain in my memory, as long as I have some brain cells left. A shorter work that packs a huge emotional punch.

    He left a relatively small body of work, preferring to spend his time with the Beautiful People. What a sin.

  3. I am of the school that believes his fortunes began their downward skid after In Cold Blood was published. He was too close to the killers, and had too much invested in their redemption. If we are to believe the movie of those events, just as he couldn't save his mother, he couldn't save the reputation of Perry Smith. They were further sped up in his cat fight with Gore Vidal, and frankly, that feud is what killed any forward momentum. While two bitchy queens going for the jugular can be fun to watch, they get tiresome, and frankly, they are off putting.