The first chapter of Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote follows our hero’s adventures from 1936 through 1948, a particularly heady period of his life. Capote leaves Alabama for New York City, joins the staff of The New Yorker, sells his first stories (for which he wins several national awards), becomes a popular fixture in the New York literary scene and in the salons of Paris, meets the love of his life and signs a major book deal with Random House for his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. By the time the chapter ends, Capote is a bestselling and critically lauded novelist, and even a national celebrity. He has just turned 24, though with his slight, 5’3″ frame, skirling falsetto voice and golden bangs, he looked not a day older than 12. “For God’s sake!” shouted New Yorker editor Harold Ross, upon seeing Capote for the first time in his office. “What’s that?”
On the first page of this opening chapter, which editor Gerald Clarke understatedly titles “The Exuberant Years,” there is a photograph that captures perfectly Capote’s spirit at the time. Taken in Tangiers by Cecil Beaton, the photograph shows a singing Capote mid-leap, spread-eagled and arms outstretched like a bounding Lindy Hopper. The ground is not even in the frame–for all we know he is thirty feet in the air. Although Capote would go on to even greater literary success and celebrity with the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1966), he was never more full of hope and excitement than in these early years. Each piece of correspondence reads like a love letter, breathless and exclamatory. He was always very affectionate toward his friends, often effusively so, but in these letters, written before he had made his first enemies or alienated those closest to him, he seems in love with everything and everyone–with New York, his editors, his friends, his lovers and, most of all, his work. Here is the beginning of a letter written to Mary Louise Aswell, his editor at Harper’s Bazaar:
Marylou, divinely beloved,
This must be love! For you are the only one I ever write: yes, it is love…
A letter to Leo Lerman, a writer friend who held weekly parties attended by prominent New York writers and film stars:
Dearest baby, have I ever told you that I loved You? I do, you know, very, very much.
To his Random House editor, Robert Linscott:
I am working on the book and it is really my love and today I wrote two pages and oh Bob I do want it to be a beautiful book because it seems important to me that people try to write beautifully, now more than ever because the world is so crazy and only art is sane…
The fiction Capote wrote at this time tells a very different, less happy, story than the letters. On the eightieth anniversary of Capote’s birth, Random House has published, in addition to the volume of selected letters, his complete short fiction and a new Modern Library edition of Other Voices, Other Rooms. Although it’s often tempting to peruse an author’s private letters in search of some kind of secret biographical key to his fiction, in Capote’s case it is the fiction that reveals much that lies hidden in the letters. Reading Capote’s fiction (and to a lesser extent, his nonfiction), one is overwhelmed by the preponderance of characters burdened not with an abundance of love but with its absence.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is the story of Joel Knox, a young boy who, after his mother’s death, is sent to live with a father he has never met. Joel arrives at a crumbling old mansion where he meets Miss Amy, his father’s second wife, the amiable, eccentric Cousin Randolph and Zoo, their maid. His father, however, is nowhere to be found. Nor will anyone tell Joel where he is, despite his desperate questioning. The only evidence that there is anyone else in the house is a red tennis ball that bounces slowly down the stairway from time to time, causing the adults of the household to rush upstairs. Joel waits below, confused and daydreaming images of his mysterious, longed-for father.