|Truman Capote died on August 25, 1984, a month and six days from his sixtieth birthday. At the time of his death, the man whom Norman Mailer said “wrote the best sentences of any one of (his) generation,” had been on a long decline of notoriety, alcoholism and drug use. The Beautiful People, the Society dowagers and the jet set who sought him out and coddled him for decades; who had vied for his company and an invitation to his Party of the Century – the famous Black and White Ball, had long turned away from and ostracized him. Even worse, his talent which had taken him to all the great heights he could have dreamed of (without actually becoming a movie star) – magazine covers, talk show guesting, movie cameos and financial riches, had finally eluded and maybe even escaped him. He had had a good ride, it was true, even a great one, but his ending obscured his glory and indeed, decimated, albeit briefly, his great and unusual popularity.
I was first aware of Capote as a teenager when a friend of mine, a very smart girl who had a natural attraction to romantic notions of the tragic and the bittersweet, was reading his Other Voices, Other Rooms. Then came Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My friend imagined herself another Holly Golightly, the novel’s main character. Then came the movie with Audrey Hepburn which spoke to a whole generation of even non-readers idealizing grown up life in the big city.
Then, in the mid-1960s came In Cold Blood, which was first serialized in four parts in the New Yorker. The first sentence: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” A terrible murder of an upstanding, plain and simple, milk-fed family by two aimless, screwed up thugs from the underside of the same America.
In Cold Blood was the most exciting, most horrifying, most compelling read of the moment and the intense public interest that it created lifted Truman Capote’s image into the stratosphere. He became one of those public characters who seemed to be blessed with wit, wisdom, glamour and more than a touch of the offbeat.
I saw him interviewed for the first time on the David Susskind Show, a local Sunday night talk show here in New York. The persona that later became a kind of mid-20th century Palm Springs version of Oscar Wilde was a fairly goodlooking, youthful, professorial-looking, maybe advertising executive-ish man in a grey flannel suit, Brooks Brothers buttondown shirt and tie. He had blonde hair, a large head with a high smooth brow and a very blondish face. And there was a bit of the sashay as he sauntered onto the set and took his seat.
Despite the conventional style of dress, there was already something quite far-out (although not quite in-your-face) about him, at least for those pre-Liberation times. And then, of course, there was the voice, which on first hearing, came as a shock.
It was an almost-whiny squeak, a drawling, dentalized ootsie-fruitsie, lips-pursed, tongue slipping sibilance. Like some hipped up Baby Huey. No one in public life talked like that. Or sounded like that. Or would have wanted to. No one would have dared, it was so outrageously effeminate. So Out There. And with all the markings of a serious put-on.
That night there were four of us watching Susskind – two young women, another man and myself. He was, it seemed, frou-frou, intelligent, slightly acerbic, but not really, and definitely the Fun Guest. However, listening to Capote’s utterings on Susskind this night, the women started to laugh. And as he continued answering Susskind’s questions, their laughter turned into uncontrollable hysterics. Despite the distracting timbre and mannered-ness of the man’s voice that seemed almost something of a joke, he was listened to very carefully, and taken very seriously; far more seriously even, in retrospect, on certain matters than he deserved to be.
The host would ask him about Jackie Kennedy (still yet to marry to Onassis). Taking a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling, then languidly looking around himself, as if to see who was listening, finally, he might say:
Soon thereafter, he was one of the most talked about men in America, lionized and worshipped by the press and the television interviewers who took his every word (mainly gossip) as gospel; and was, as well, adored by his reader/fans while envied by many of his peers for his brilliant success. He was also a genius, it was often said and written, at publicizing himself.
Although it was never discussed (as far as I know) in his interviews, he was also one of the first openly gay celebrities. This was quite an accomplishment for the times also. Although they were “a-changin’.” There were others whose sexuality came into question (Liberace, for example, who always denied it right up to his dying day). Capote matter-factly let it be known to anyone who wanted to know, that his longtime companion was a man named Jack Dunphy – a man who had been married when Capote met him, and who had left his wife for him, and remained his partner for the rest of his life.
Then in 1966 came the Party, The Black and White Ball. Ostensibly for Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, although no one paid much attention to that fact. Exercising his “genius” for PR, Capote titillated the public and his legions of friends and acquaintances with so much advance notice that by the night of the event, practically the whole country knew what was going on at the Plaza. The following morning, the New York Times published the guest list; and the celebrity magazines oohed and ahhed over it for months. Now he glorified by and glorying in it all.
Of course, after the incredible success of In Cold Blood, and the ballyhoo of the Black and White Ball, the insatiable maw of the star-making machinery wanted to know what was next. How was he going to top himself? What would the book be? And who would star in the movie?
In 1975, he published two short stories in Esquire magazine: “Mojave” and “La Cote Basque 1965.” By now he was known more as a social gadfly than anything else because the writer’s output had dwindled to beautiful memory and not much more. “La Cote Basque,” however, was reported to be a “chapter” in his upcoming novel Answered Prayers which chronicled the conversations at various tables in the once socially fashionable restaurant, caused a sensation, and the subsequent suicide of a socialite.
Ann Woodward, a long-time-ago showgirl who married the blueblood heir to a banking fortune had shot her husband to death in their house in Locust Valley, Long Island twenty years before in 1955. At the time of the death, it was reported that Mrs. Woodward mistook her husband for a prowler who had broken into the house, and she accidentally shot him.
Capote’s version of the death, as fictionalized in “La Cote Basque 1965” (named after a famous society restaurant of the day), had the wife knowingly shooting her husband because he had been having an affair and planned to leave her, and then concocting her prowler story as an alibi.
Whether or not Capote’s version of the story was true, Ann Woodward did indeed kill herself with an overdose after having read the galleys to the story. (One of her sons killed himself prior to her death and her surviving son killed himself several years ago, jumping from a window in his Upper East Side apartment.)
So Capote now, in the opinion of some people had blood on his hands. In another incident in the “La Cote Basque” which featured a restaurant full of well known women such as Jackie Onassis, Lee Radziwill, Slim Keith, Gloria Vanderbilt and Carol Marcus Matthau gossiping about each other, the storyteller recounted a thinly disguised William Paley, well known to be a womanizer, having a fling with a thinly disguised Marie Harriman (second wife of Averell Harriman) in his hotel apartment bedroom where after she leaves he discovers she’s bloodied the sheets with her menstrual cycle. Mortified with embarrassment, the media tycoon clumsily tries to clean them himself to avoid anyone knowing about her presence, including his wife, a thinly-disguised Babe Paley. The Paleys were, up to that moment, Truman Capote’s most famously referred to Best Friends.
The knife of betrayal cut both ways. Capote’s sensational story ended his relationship not only with the Paleys but many of their famous social friends. He was a pariah overnight, although his celebrity social life became more famous through his “friendships” with Andy Warhol, Halston, Liza Minnelli and the whole “Studio 54” crowd. His drug-taking and his drinking became more prominent as well.
By 1980, he published “Music for Chameleons,” a collection of short stories and writings including the “Mojave” chapter which was originally said to be part of the still anticipated novel “Answered Prayers.” One of the stories in the new collection, “Handcarved Coffins,” was a grisly murder case, purported to have actually occurred in some unnamed western state. Lester Persky the film producer had brought the rights for $500,000.
By this time, it was said that Truman Capote was something of a broken man, even in the eyes of the feasting celebrity media. There were incidents of drunkenness during his television appearances including one where he was so incoherent he had to be removed from the show. There was continued self-promotion about this novel-in-progress “Answered Prayers” although no hard evidence of it.
Lester was a short, mustachioed, dynamic, often off-putting, sometimes charming (within my earshot but never to me), somewhat loud (when he wanted to be) man who cultivated friendships with authors and artists and socialites. CZ Guest, her daughter Cornelia Guest, “Bubbles,” the Vicountess Rothermere, and Truman Capote (as well as the whole Studio 54 gang) were among his frequent acquaintances. Off-stage, away from the socializing, Lester exercised no charm and as an employer, no social friendship. He was not quite a screamer, in a world full of them, although he was barely courteous, usually gruff and abrupt, at times condescending and supercilious and because there was very little to do, working for him was a drag. A much needed salary and a drag.
However, in the course of what turned out to be my brief encounter as Lester’s employee, one morning in September, he informed me that “Mr. Truman Capote” would be coming to LA for a few days and that I was to pick up the author Friday afternoon at LAX and take him to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where he would be staying.
Life in this movie producer’s office where everything was either “in development” or “in turnaround,” and not in production was deadly dull, so the prospect of meeting Capote was very exciting even if only to satisfy curiosity: What was he really like?
Friday morning a light drizzle covered the sweeping view of the city that could usually be seen from the terrace of Lester’s house. I couldn’t help wondering if the writer were still coming.
The poolman was knocking at the back door. He needed to see Mr. Persky to show him something.
“ In this weather?” Lester whined over the intercom from his bedroom.
A few moments later, Lester, wrapped in a Burberry, leather slippers flapping against his milkwhite stocking-less heels, scurried out to the poolside. “This better be interesting,” he warned the poolman.
The poolman lifted the lid off the filter, exposing a bloated, floating carcass of a drowned rat – muddy brown and about eight inches in length, excluding the tail.
Lester grimaced and recoiled. “Is this someone’s idea of a joke?”
"He musta come for a drink, fall in, and drown,” the poolman said.
"But what was he doing here for a drink in the first place, in the middle of Bel Air, California?”
"Probly because it’s the closest water…”
"You mean they live around here?!” Lester was incensed by the idea.
"Oh sure, these hills are full of ‘em. You can even see them in the trees sometimes,” the poolman laughed at the thought.
"Unless you ‘sterminate.”
"Exterminate what? West Los Angeles?” Lester was furious. “Well you better get it out of here,” he ordered sharply and turned and trundled back into the warm dry house. “I’ve got Truman Capote coming this weekend and I don’t want any rats in my pool. I hope this isn’t some kind of omen,” he said to nobody in particular, with almost a lighthearted irony in his voice.
That afternoon before leaving for lunch, Lester gave me my final instruction for the airport: “Keep an eye on him. You never know what shape he’s going to be in,” he warned. “And for God sakes, don’t let him drink!”
More than fourteen years had passed since I had seen the “Tiny Terror” as Aileen Mehle writing as “Suzy” had nicknamed him in his palmier days. Now as I was watching the arriving passengers at LAX move through the long airport corridor, I had to strain to spot the little man.
It seemed as if the arrivals had all streamed through and I was wondering if he’d missed his flight when I saw the top of his head covered by a casual narrow brimmed hat, drifting slowly along at the tail end of the crowd. He seemed to be almost clinging to the wall, moving with a slight tentativeness, like a brave, but lost child traveling without chaperone in a strange city. Most of the crowd had swept by him, leaving him behind, like dust in the road.
I approached him and introduced myself as Lester's assistant. He paused, looking blankly up at me for a moment, as if in the midst of a trance, and then said: “oh ... Lester,” with a wan smile of reverie, and then we continued on to the baggage claim.
“You’ll have to ex-cuse me ...” He said, very slowly dragging out each syllable, “but I’ve been up for sheh-ven-dee-too-ahh-whirrs ....” His usual tinny tenor was weaker from sniffling and wheezing, but he painstakingly repeated himself: he had been up for 72 hours in New Orleans shooting a photo session for People Magazine “with two dozen of theee moss-bee-yu-ti-ful-hmmm-drag-queens-you-have-everseeeeeen.”
He repeated his story; from the baggage claim to the parking lot, to the car. He breath reeked of booze but he seemed rather dazed than drunk.
In the car, on our way, he recalled the drag queens again. “And my d-d-deah, they didn’t work one stt-itch, compared to me,” and then he suddenly guffawed, a remarkable, rolling, guttural laughter a couple of octaves below his famous speaking voice, with an energy in sharp contrast to his dazed comportment.
Until he started talking about his family. His father, whom he had rarely seen in his life, and who was then still alive, had had, he said, six wives. “All much younger and all much richer.” (This fact, I later learned, was not true.) He was “a real charmer; a real charmer,” he reiterated and laughed again in that same disarmingly macho resonance. “Yes he was; fooled my mother one hundred and fifteen percent.”
“Someday, if I ever finish “Answered Prayers,” he continued, dreamily gazing out at the Santa Monica Mountains up ahead, “I’m going to tell the story of my father.”
It was clear that for Truman, then in his mid-fifties, his father, also still alive and in his late eighties, remained, as if eternally, the image of a young, handsome, vital man, just as the son, the teller of the story, remained a small child, a delicate, even frail boy possessed by his reminiscence.
From his father he moved on to his maiden aunts in Alabama, with whom he was left by his mother after his parents divorced when he was four. One of them, Cousin Sook, a spinster in her sixties, became his parent, playmate and spiritual guardian. Another, whom he described as one of the two or three richest people in southern Alabama, “during the Depression,” had a whip.
“And when one of her tenant farmers was late with his rent, even if by so little as a day, she would call him to the house. And out there on the lawn in front of everybody standing there, watching she would take that whip and give him six lashes….” And then he laughed himself giddy.
“Actually whipped him?” I couldn’t help asking, not at all certain of the veracity of his story.
“Yup,” he replied with the confidential assuredness of a teller of tales, and then convulsing once again at the thought of her (or my gullibility).
Once in the room, Truman said to the assistant manager, “Where’s the Stolichnaya?”
Oh, on its way.
“Waaal, you better hurry up!” he said as he went into the bathroom, not closing the door, as the assistant manager and I stood side by side on the edge of the room.
There was silence for a moment from the bathroom, and then a loud: “ssshhhhhhhmmmmmffffff ....” The sound of cocaine being inhaled. And then again. And then again. Each louder than the last. The assistant manager and I continued standing there like two deaf mutes, obviously well aware of the circumstances.
Moments later, we were released from service and gone from the man’s room.
Saturday morning, I later learned, Truman met with Lester and then returned to his room at the Beverly Wilshire. Two days later, a Monday, when he didn’t respond to his phone calls, he was found unshaven and half-conscious, aswirl in sheets soiled by incontinence and surrounded by empty Stolichnaya bottles. The night before, after a visitor had left him, Truman got into his odyssey of coke, booze and pills and never left the mattress until he was discovered by Lester and a friend the following afternoon. The little man/boy all by himself.
Lester, now the caretaking friend, with the help of a friend, cleaned Truman up and removed him and his belongings to the house in Bel Air.
Up at the house, the listless man sat in the living room while his bed was being made up upstairs.
“Downs? Why downs?” Lester was demanding to know like an impatient and confounded father.
Silence from Truman.
“Don’t you know you can’t write when you’re stoned because it gets you all riled up and you can’t write when you’re riled up?”
Just before the end of the day, Lester came into the office. “We’ve got to do something to help Truman. We ought to try and find someone for him,” looking at me with a directness and a silence that indicated that I was the “someone” he had in mind.
“ It would have to be a man who was younger,” he added, making things clearer; “Irish maybe….glasses, like a professor, or teacher; that type. Someone who could live with him.
“He wouldn’t have to have sex that much.” Oh? “He doesn’t need a lot of sex. You know that guy would have a great life. Truman has a fabulous life, so the guy would never be bored.”
“A fabulous life,” so I could see.
The whole idea seemed preposterous, yet was it? He knew Truman quite needed --desperately even -- to be looked after and cared for. But who would that someone be? No one I knew, and certainly not the man Lester was addressing all this to.
The next day, the tired Terror was recovering. With someone supporting each arm, he was walked out to the poolside. Looking like a wrinkled, oversized embryo, his little pink balloon-like belly holding up his black swimtrunks, his feet barely touching the ground as if his flesh were too tender for a hard surface. He was set down on the chaise with care and trepidation, his small bony limbs straining. Ensconced he lay back, weary and battle-worn where he rested in the cloudy afternoon sun, until he was helped back up to his bed an hour later.
On the fourth day of his convalescence, he was looking and feeling better. He had been anxious to return to New York, and that afternoon, accompanied by Lester, he was leaving. Watching their limousine roll down the driveway onto Bel Air Road, I was left with the nagging paternal questions which Truman probably elicited many times in others: would would happen when he got home? Would there be someone there? Or would he be alone and unable to cope with his addictions?
I later learned that he did attempt to help himself. Signing himself into hospitals. He fought on. There were periods of temperance, but all too brief, and punctuated by relapses.
In January 1984, he was in Los Angeles again, staying with his friend Joanne Carson (the second wife of Johnny, not to be confused with the third wife, Joanna). He checked into Cedars Sinai in West Hollywood, diagnosed with phlebitis, which had also caused a clot on his lung. Treated and released, he returned to New York feeling for the first time in his life that he had a health problem over which he had no control. The doctors had made it clear that all those years of hard living, drugs and booze, stress and pain, had caught up. He was not terminally ill, but he was a dying man.
A few days before his arrival, he called saying that he wished to come earlier, two days before Jack’s birthday. When he asked Mrs. Carson to make his plane reservation for him, she asked what date she should give the airline for his return to New York. “Oh, never mind,” he said; “just get a one-way.” Then when he learned that Mrs. Carson would be taping part of her cable TV healthy and nutrition program at home, he changed back to his original date of arrival.
He looked frail and tired when Joanne Carson picked him up at the airport. Back at her house, he had a swim, an early dinner and went to bed.
He was up early the next morning, had his swim and breakfast and began his day with his hostess. They had been friends for more than twenty years. When he stayed with her he neither drank nor drugged, except for his prescriptions. On this particular morning they were planning birthdays – his which he planned on celebrating early while in LA and hers at the end of October. When she asked, in passing, how long he intended to stay on this visit, he replied, “oh, I don’t know. This time I may stay forever.”
He spent that afternoon working on a piece which was to be his birthday gift to his friend. It was a story about Willa Cather whom he had befriended long ago in New York, back before he was a published writer.
Late that afternoon, Joanne Carson prepared a simple dinner of his favorites: cottage cheese, scrambled eggs and homemade bread pudding. He took a second helping of the pudding, pronouncing it as good as Cousin Sook’s. After dinner, the two spent the evening, typically, talking late into the night until Truman dozed off on Mrs. Carson’s bed.
Saturday morning she found him struggling to get his swim trunks on. He’d suddenly felt very fatigued, so she suggested he nap until she’d prepared his breakfast. When she went in with his tray a half hour later, he was sound asleep. So she let him rest, checking every half hour or so. At noontime, when she entered his bedroom, she felt an “alarming stillness.” She called to him quietly, moving to his side, but there was no response. He lay perfectly still. She could see: he had slipped away.
In “Music For Chameleons” he admitted that the spiritual beliefs which he had learned from Cousin Sook as a child, had fallen away as he grew older. But in the latter years, he had begun to think about such things again. Although he wasn’t the worst person he’d ever known, he conceded to “some pretty serious sins – deliberate cruelty among them.” Furthermore, it never bothered him until “the rain started to fall. A hard black rain,” that didn’t stop.
Suddenly both are transformed into a radiant light and ascend to heaven.
In the hard rain falling, Truman Capote found himself praying once again, praying that he “would have the luck to hold a leper in my arms.”
He died, according to the coroner’s report of “liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication,.” There was no alcohol found in his system and the drug levels, “although contributory, were not lethal and indicated regular usage with his past medical history.”
His writing, he always said, came before anything else. He regarded his talent as “gift from God;” one that came with a whip with which to flagellate oneself. Everything he ever wrote was, for him, about real life. Much of it on the edge of sadness, like so much of his own real life. The whip had remained with him, as had the gift.