Wednesday, September 15, 2021. Mainly sunny day yesterday in New York with temps in the high 70s to the low 70s in the evening.
There’s a new documentary out about Truman Capote aptly called The Capote Tapes by Ebs Burrough getting high praise from the media critics (I haven’t spoken to anyone who has actually seen it). One of the reviews I read included a variety of descriptions — all negative — including “candied tarantula, seductive freak, naughty little kid, and sleazy wicked bit of work.”
I didn’t know Mr. Capote although I had one memorable professional experience with him at the end of his life. None of the above descriptions would fit my experience of him although by that time (the early 80s) he was, it turned out, on his last legs and well aware of it.
He had a very memorable presence. He had made a big impression, as he did with millions, with his writing talent — and later, in learning of his childhood background in which he was abandoned very early by both parents — his late state of being described a child’s great loss very very sadly, and it remains with me to this day.
Truman Capote died 37 years ago last month. 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.
I discovered it accidentally, thumbing through a new (for that week) issue of the magazine and seeing Capote’s byline at the end of the piece. (In those days, the New Yorker had no table of contents, and bylines were always at the end of a story or article). Because of my fond memories of Breakfast… I began to read and soon found I could not stop. For the next three weeks, I lived with religious anticipation from week to week for the following Wednesday (when the New Yorker came out on the stands), when I could devour the next segment.
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 in that voice, 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 than he deserved to be on certain matters.
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:
“Waaaaal, all right, if you really want to know about Jackie,” and her name rolled quietly off his tongue. Then he’d let out a few pearls of dish. Although not really all that pearly. He was never a man of bon mots, or seemingly a man of letters. He was a gadfly; a freak gadfly who could write up a storm. And whatever he had been before, this time in his life he now resembled, on screen, another television character of the 1960, comedian Jonathan Winters’ character, Maude Frickert, a cantankerously funny old drag queen.
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 readers/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 also quite an accomplishment for the times. 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 because the writer’s output had dwindled to a 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 she concocted the prowler story as an alibi.
The original news story placed the husband in the hallway between the couple’s bedrooms. Capote’s story placed him in the shower where her gunshots shattered the shower door. According to Capote’s story, the dead man’s social dowager mother (Elsie Woodward) stepped in and used her money and influence to prevent the matter from going to trial – all to save her two grandsons from losing both parents.
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 his 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 recounts a thinly disguised William Paley — well known to be a womanizer — having a fling with a thinly disguised Marie Harriman (first wife of Averell Harriman) in his hotel apartment bedroom where after she leaves, he discovers she’d 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.
That same year, 1980, I was living in Los Angeles, where I’d moved to from New York to change my life and become a “professional writer.” I got a job with Lester Persky, as his “West Coast assistant.” Lester and his producing partner Dick Bright had arranged financing on several successful films including the now classic “Shampoo,” and he had bought a house in Bel Air in order to have a bi-coastal presence in the movie colony.
Lester was a short, mustachioed, dynamic, often oft-putting, sometimes charming (within my earshot but never to me), somewhat loud (when he wanted to be), a 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 with me, 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.
“You mean they will always come for a drink in my pool?” Lester asked in exasperation.
“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. 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,. 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. His 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 wear 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.
As we rolled down the freeway to Beverly Hills, I drove and Truman talked. It was all unsolicited, stream of consciousness of the little man seated next to me looking out the window. He gossiped a little in what seemed like an effort to impress me with his inside knowledge. The story he told (which I had heard him tell before on television) about Barbara Hutton’s scandalous cousin Jimmy Donahue, I knew to be false. He moved from that to Dick Cavett whom Capote felt had baited and then goaded him on his show about Capote’s well known sex life. He recounted the on-camera put-downs which he responded with. The thought provoked more guffaws and giddiness in that alternating baritone. None of it was really for my benefit. He was on automatic pilot.
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 cousin, 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).
We were met on arriving at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel by the assistant manager waiting like a chief of protocol at the entrance. The valet took my car and he led us to the elevator to the floor where Truman would be staying. The rooms on this particular floor each had the name of a California vineyard on the door, and as we passed, following the assistant manager to Truman’s room, he cracked, “Waaal, we’re obviously on the alcoholics floor ….”
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 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. He had 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?” Continued silence.
“Don’t you realize you have this great talent and that you have to finish Answered Prayers? You have money, you have friends, you have houses, apartments; you’re world famous!” Lester tried to reason with his silent exhausted friend. Finally, after more admonishments, more light reproaching, like the words of a wiser, older brother, the patient was taken upstairs to rest.
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 so preposterous, yet was it? He knew Truman 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: what 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 Cedar 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.
In mid-August of that year, he made plans to return to California on the 23rd, the day after his friend Jack Dunphy’s birthday. Truman, who visited Los Angeles two or three times a year — and had once owned a house in Palm Springs — always stayed with Mrs. Carson for about a month each time. She had set aside a bedroom and sitting room which were “his.” He kept clothes, belongings and objets there; it was his home in California.
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 that day, 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.
He was reminded of Flaubert’s St. Julian, the boy who had loved all living things until his father taught him to kill when his bloodlust became so great people feared his presence. Then one day, Julian accidentally kills his parents. He spends the rest of his life an outcast penitent, wandering the world in ragged despair, until one night waiting for a boat to take him across a river, he encounters a leper. Unbeknownst to Julian, the hideous looking creature is God. Julian shares his blanket when the leper tells him he’s cold. He embraces the leper when he’s asked to. Then, when the leper requests that Julian kiss His rotting diseased lips, Julian does.
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.